‘Star Wars’ flashback: ‘Republic Commando: Hard Contact’ (2004) (Book review)

Watching the clone troopers arrive with Yoda on Geonosis in “Attack of the Clones” in 2002, it was easy to think of them as organic robots. “Star Wars” fans now see clones as human beings in every meaningful way, and the EU began to shape that sentiment even before George Lucas addressed the issue in “The Clone Wars.” Although “The Cestus Deception” had a clone supporting character in June 2004, the first novel to feature clones as the main characters was Karen Traviss’ “Republic Commando: Hard Contact” (November 2004).

Traviss’ “Republic/Imperial Commando” series (ostensibly based on a video game, but you need not know anything about the game) would eventually span five novels, and it ranks neck-and-neck with the “X-wing” books in acclaim among EU sagas about non-movie characters.

But it takes a while to become a grand saga. On this re-read, “Hard Contact” reminded me of “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.” It’s set on one backwater world — the oppressed farming planet Qiilura, where the Trade Federation soaks up the profits of a delicacy called barq (I imagine it goes into making Barq’s root beer) — that doesn’t factor into other stories. It’s a small mission – destroying the Separatists’ scientific outpost where a clone-killing virus is being developed – that could impact the whole war. It has a quirky but crucial local helper, a shapeshifter named Jinart.

“Hard Contact” is a prime example of a small novel that richly adds to the collective bigness of the Expanded Universe. I like how novice Jedi commander Etain never mentions Obi-Wan, Anakin, Yoda or Mace. Her sphere of experience extends to her own master, who is killed before we join the action, and the Jedi generals working in the sector, including the wonderfully named and brutally by-the-book Arligan Zey.

As a Jedi who has a low midichlorian count and doesn’t feel confident in her abilities, Etain is the audience surrogate in the both the way she navigates this mission and the way she reacts to the four clones of Omega Squad.

Among those four, Darman feels like the main character, as he’s the first one Etain encounters. Traviss does a nice job illustrating the nature of a clone’s psyche. Etain senses a 10-year-old and is baffled when she sees a 20-something soldier (clones’ aging is accelerated). The novel illustrates the innocence of Darman and his brothers while also showing that all they know is warfare – therefore, they are very good at it, and violence is ingrained into their way of life. Although they kill within the parameters of war, the normalcy with which they view killing is effectively disconcerting.

I had forgotten that Qiilura marks the first mission of Omega Squad. It is made up of four soldiers who were the lone survivors of their previous squads. Traviss successfully threads a fine line: Darman, Niner, Fi and Atin are meeting each other for the first time, but they are also brothers, so they have little trouble working together. Also, they are similar – all being clones of Jango Fett – yet distinct enough: Darman is a bit of an innocent, Niner is the leader, Fi is the comic relief and Atin is the brooder (he was the last survivor of TWO previous squads). Since they are genetically identical (“nature”), it’s their specific war experiences (“nurture”) that have given them distinct personalities.

Part of why I enjoy the “Republic Commando” books a bit more than “The Clone Wars’ ” portrayal of clones is that I don’t have to be thrown off by seeing identical humans, or have to look for unique helmet markings to distinguish them. This foursome looks the same, but Etain – and therefore, the reader — can tell them apart by their personalities. In a non-visual medium, that’s enough, although as I continue my re-read of this series I’d like to learn more about how they acquired their individualized traits.

The embryonic romance between Darman and Etain is a fascinating hook, even though it is subtle in this book – and indeed, it’s impossible, as such a relationship is forbidden by both the Jedi Order and the Republic army. Of course, that’s what will make it such a great yarn as the series moves forward.

Traviss tiptoes into Mandalorian culture here by peppering in some Mando terms used by the clones. Obviously she had this idea from the beginning. But something that might be more organic is the idea of Kal Skirata’s extended family. The Kamino-based Mandalorian trainer taught Darman, Fi and Niner, and the commandos occasionally flash back to their lessons in “Hard Contact”; they are his sons who have become adults and left home. But Skirata’s extended family isn’t the central concept of the saga just yet – the teacher doesn’t actually appear in this book, nor do his younger students.

As “Hard Contact” is one of Traviss’ earliest books, I found it to be somewhat of a choppy read with a lot of the focus on military tech and strategies (before she became a novelist, Traviss was a journalist covering the British military). The way she humanizes the clones, Jedi and other characters is admirable, although at times I sense the deliberate effort to do so. In general, though, not being overly familiar with “Star Wars” or what Lucas intended for the clones serves her well as the first author to seriously explore this culture. She effectively carves out her corner of the “Star Wars” EU (and an essential corner at that), and I have no trouble believing that this mission is part of the larger Clone Wars.