Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron is the first in an upcoming trilogy of books showing the troubled lives of a group of pilots in the early days of the New Republic. In the spirit of Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston’s X-Wing series of novels but with a grimmer, morally ambiguous tone to fit the new canon, Alphabet Squadron follows Yrica Quell, a former Imperial pilot with a mysterious past, and her ragtag squad. Each pilot flies a different type of starfighter, with Quell in the lead in an X-wing—thus the name “Alphabet.”
Den of Geek sat down with author Alexander Freed at Star Wars Celebration Chicago to find out more about the book. Freed is known for bringing a grim sensibility to the Rogue One novelization and the video game tie-in Battlefront: Twilight Company, which also featured a cast of primarily original characters.
Here’s what we learned:
This is a book about why people join the Rebellion.
“Alphabet Squadron deals a lot with the question of when folks join the Rebellion, there are a lot of reasons to want to fight the Empire and that only gets you so far once you actually start winning, right?” Freed said. “Like once the Empire goes down, once the Emperor dies, what do you actually want the galaxy to look like?”
He pointed out that a character like Han Solo might appreciate the loose structure of the Rebellion, but find the New Republic jarring.
“It’s going to be very different there than someone who left the Empire and defected to the Rebellion because they believe in the government, but they just didn’t believe in the sort of atrocities that the Empire was perpetrating. Dealing with all those questions of, ‘Okay, what does the galaxy look like now and what do we want it to look like now? Are we emotionally prepared for that?'”
That emotional preparation is one of the novel’s main concerns.
What does it mean to be the good guys?
The book establishes and questions the difference between the Empire and the Rebellion. This isn’t a novel where all of the Rebels are noble and all of the Imperials are mustache-twirling. “I think the important balance to strike in writing any of that is the Empire is evil, right?” Freed said.
“The Empire as an organization is a force of destruction and a force of oppression and just irredeemable in many important ways. But that doesn’t mean that the individuals who are part of that organization all carry that same moral weight on them. You can argue that there’s a level of complicity in all of them, but in the real world we all live under countries that have done some questionable things. We’re all complicit to a certain extent. There’s a spectrum of that and there’s a spectrum of how involved you are in that. Dealing with that issue is exciting to me and I’ve seen nothing but sort of warmth from Lucasfilm about dealing with that sort of gray area.”
Quell changed sides.
The vehicle for that conversation is primarily Yrica Quell. She defected after the Emperor’s death — and that timing is important. “After learning some of the war crimes that the Empire was about to jump into [she] decided, ‘No, I’m not going to go do some horrible, horrible things when we’ve already lost the war,’” Freed said.
Those war crimes are a reference to Operation Cinder, the Empire’s plan to orbitally bombard strategic targets across the galaxy. We first saw this play out in Marvel’s Shattered Empire miniseries before the release of The Force Awakens in 2015.
“You know, she had it in her to fight for an Empire that did a lot of awful things. But at a certain point, you say, no more. We introduced the book with the idea that post-Endor there’s this flood of Imperial deserters, Imperial defectors who are in a very similar position. She is part of that and someone trying to find what her purposes in this post-Emperor universe is.”
Freed drew from Star Wars classics…selectively.
Like most Star Wars authors, Freed worked with the Lucasfilm Story Group, read existing material, and understood the “broad strokes” of the story. But he didn’t want to read the X-Wing books, the beloved series that focused on Rogue Squadron, the famous group of pilots led by Wedge Antilles during and after the Galactic Civil War in the Legends timeline.
“You know, I intentionally avoided sort of going back and really going deep into [X-Wing] because ultimately no one is going to do Stackpole and Allston better than Stackpole and Allston did,” he said. “Trying to imitate that was going to be a mistake. That would just be a pale shadow of the stuff that people used to love. I did some cautious examination just to make sure that I didn’t replicate the plot of an entire book. Then I also sort of went in there and looked a little bit at sort of how they handled the feel of starfighter combat.”
On the other hand, he was grateful for other authors who have established a wider look at the post-Endor galaxy. “It’s less pressure and more sort of opportunity… The Aftermath [series by Chuck Wendig] really sort of laid the groundwork for what that year between Endor and Jakku looks like. So I don’t have to deal with figuring out the very, very big broad strokes. I get to go, ‘Okay, so here’s what happened. What is fascinating about that?’ Like where are the opportunities here to really dig in and explore that for the first time? So the pressure has been dealt with by other people and now I get to develop stories in this time period.”
Bringing cinematic starships to the page
Part of that development has been writing starfighter battles—essential in a novel about a fighter squadron. In Twilight Company, he wrote mostly infantry. In that case, he said, being able to understand the logistics of the scene and describe characters’ faces made it different from scenes set in space.
“When you’re dealing with starfighters in space without a whole lot of visible landmarks, it’s easy, well maybe not easy, but you can do really, really compelling stuff in a film. It’s hard to capture that same feeling in prose and figuring out like, ‘Okay, so what is interesting about this?’” Freed said.
“I leaned a lot into physically what it’s like for the pilots. What are the g forces there? What is it like to try to be juggling all those instruments on the console and everything sort of going around and trying to see and trying to watch the scanners and getting feedback from your droid and sort of being in that visceral place … A film goes by so fast you can’t examine … where was the critical tactical decision in this X-wing versus TIE fighter battle that resulted in victory?”
General Syndulla returns.
Hera Syndulla makes an appearance as an illustration of how the Rebellion has changed. Once leading a single ship, Hera graduated to running a fleet and now serving the New Republic as a general. Rebels fans may have a lot of questions about her, but the one the book answers is how is she handling victory?
“This is a Hera that is in a place we haven’t seen before,” Freed said. “We’ve never really explored much of General Syndulla, right? It’s sort of running entire fleets and dealing with all of that. We’ve never seen Hera winning, right? This is post-Endor. Suddenly things have changed and she has been with the Rebellion since it was this scrappy group of individual cells and all she had to worry about was the team immediately around her. So yeah, it was fun to sort of see how she could deal with this sort of change. A change that is largely for the better, but it’s not what she’s used to.”
Freed isn’t leaving the Star Wars universe any time soon—two other books are slated to follow Alphabet Squadron. He also fondly recalls writing Mon Mothma in Rogue One and From a Certain Point of View, and said he’d like to write more of her.
“I’d love to write Luke at some point. He’s such a fascinating character with so many different elements to him. The farm boy and the Jedi and the warrior and the mentor, and yeah, there’s so much depth in that character and I feel like you can get a lot of material out of him.”