I already had two of the other Star Wars “handbooks” when I picked this one up: the Jedi Code and the Book of the Sith, both in their funky deluxe containers with lights and mechanics that open like you’re uncovering the esoteric wisdom of the light and dark sides of the cosmos. Both were well worth it, and are among my favorite Star Wars collectibles.
For some reason, I passed on the deluxe presentation of the Imperial Handbook, though I had high hopes for the book. I’ve been messing around with an idea for Stormtrooper fanfic for years, and thought that I might be able to get some insight into “authentic” Imperial operations in this book, purportedly written before the destruction of the first Death Star, and annotated by many of our favorite Rebels after the destruction of the second Death Star. It covers the essential period I was looking for.
Even after the first chapter, however, I could tell this book was non-essential. I could suggest an alternate title, though: “Let’s Be Bad Guys!”
What appeals to me about the stormtrooper’s story is that it can contain some subtlety, some moral growth. Sure, as viewers of movies with stories that took place long ago in a galaxy far, far away, we can pretty quickly identify that the Empire is bad. There may be some room for ambiguity at the start: we first encounter them trying to recover stolen plans, a legitimate military security mission. That Vader dude seems a little over the top, but beyond that, just a bunch of guys trying to maintain order. But once they blow up Alderaan, just to make a point, you’ve clearly identified the villain of the story.
Still, despite their faceless conformity, there’s something very human about the Stormtrooper face of the Empire. You see it in the two Stormtroopers chatting, who are misdirected by Obi-Wan Kenobi as he shuts down the tractor beam in the Death Star. I see it in the way the scout troopers and the regular Stormtroopers are confused and overpowered by a small band of rebels and a local population of Ewoks on Endor. I imagine people all across the galaxy who see the reports of the Rebellion creating chaos, attacking the only order they know, who prefer the security the Empire offers. I imagine that just in our country today, there are plenty of youth who go into the Imperial military because it’s a steady job, guaranteed pay, a chance to acquire skills and a trade they’ll use the rest of their lives, a chance to get off whatever rock they feel stuck on and see the galaxy.
C’mon: Hate the war, but support the troops.
Imperial Handbook lacks any of that desired subtlety, and suffers for it. The thing that allows dictatorships to rise, and for them to maintain some level of support among the populations they oppress, is that their rhetoric has some universal appeal – at least as long as you don’t look into the reality underlying it. Generally, if you look at the official doctrines of totalitarian regimes, the ideals are peace and prosperity for all (though, as Orwell would have put it, some might be more equal than others). As long as you can manipulate the media to separate the doctrine from the gritty reality, you can keep the population pacified, even gain some support.
Imperial Handbook doesn’t go that route. Among the purposes of the Imperial Navy: “Bombarding planets – annihilating infrastructure with pinpoint precision from orbit.” Gee, don’t think that will show up in any Rebel recruiting lit. But it’s not enough to show that the Imperials are evil; the Handbook presents two kinds of bad guys: buffoonish bad guys, and the pure evil bad guys. With his widows peak and hawkish nose, it was never hard to imagine Grand Moff Tarkin sitting in his office chair, fingers pressed together as he considered his next nefarious deed; his writings on “The Imperial Doctrine” simply add the “bwaa-hah-hah.” An aside by then-Captain Ozzel about “Innovations in Imperial Naval Tactics” shows the comical side, punctuated by an annotation from Han Solo: “I can’t make fun of this. It’s just too easy.”
And Han’s commentary on Ozzel’s insights is perhaps the biggest problem with the whole book. We see the familiar names, on both sides: Tarkin, Ozzel, Piett, Mothma, Leia, Han, Luke, Wedge. The Handbook does almost nothing to expand the Star Wars universe; instead, it promotes the view that the only things that are of consequence in the Star Wars universe are those shown in the (Disney-owned) canon. Even before the Battle of Yavin and the destruction of the first Death Star, Red Squadron is identified as the elite Rebel Starfighter unit, and Wedge Antilles as one of the prime Imperial targets; perhaps Palpatine and Vader meditated on the future and provided these tidbits to the Handbook’s authors – or perhaps the book’s real author just took the easy route, and put together something that looks nice but lacks any substance.
The Imperial structure is potentially fascinating, and if you’re looking for an alternative to the Imperial Handbook, I’d strongly recommend getting your hands on the Imperial Sourcebook (2d ed.), published by West End Games for their Star Wars roleplaying game. Like the Imperial Handbook, the Sourcebook is presented as Rebel intelligence about the workings and equipment of the Galactic Empire, much of it presented as material obtained directly from Imperial sources. It’s not just that the material is better organized, though – it doesn’t pander to the reader, and it treats both its subject and its audience with greater respect. And even if the Galactic Empire is rotten at its core, it was strong – and cunning – enough to take control of the Core systems, and expand its hold. This requires more cold calculation than the evil will and dumb luck the Imperial Handbook would suggest.
I bought the Imperial Handbook hoping for the kind of well thought out “artifact” of the Galactic Empire that I had come to expect from my Jedi Code and Book of the Sith. Sure, I expected it to look like propaganda, but with the number of Stormtrooper cosplayers and video games, I expected a little more “Glory of the Empire” stuff, more than the, “It’s funny and sad because that arrogant buffoon will be force-choked later!”
With that thought, maybe it’s propaganda after all. The best explanation for the Imperial Handbook is that it’s a forged document created by lazy Rebel propagandists in an attempt to discredit the Galactic Empire. One starts to suspect that Disney must be a hive of Rebel scum. That’s a better explanation than that they disrespect their fanbase so much that they expect us to throw our money at anything labelled “Star Wars.”