Can't wait for Rogue One to finally arrive next month? Then you should know Catalyst by James Lucerno, a prequel novel that sets the stage for the events of Rogue One, came out this week. If you've ever had a hankering to know all about how the Death Star was built, this is the book for you. But here's all the info that matters to the movie that's in the book.
Catalyst is mostly the story of scientist Galen Erso (played by Mads Mikkelsen in the movie) and Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn in the movie) and their relationship to the building of the Death Star. To be honest, if it weren't a Star Wars book, Catalyst wouldn't be worth reading. It's really the depth it gives to the characters we've only glimpsed in trailers that makes the book interesting. Although again, if you're dying to know how the Empire and Director Krennic got the Death Star built, this book will give you all of those details. So many details.
Other than the last entry in this list, nothing here should actually spoil the story (such as it is). That said, if you don't want to know anything about the book:
All other images: Lucasfilm/Disney
A lot of this book is dedicated to exploring the parents of Rogue One's main character, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). Her dad is Galen and he is a genius scientist, whose entire personality is roughly "socially awkward man who cannot stop sciencing". His specialty is in generating power through the use of certain crystals, and he is so famous among scientists that everyone recognises his work immediately.
Galen Erso was born in a poor neighbourhood on the planet Grange. He was recognised as a prodigy early on in his schooling, and he ended up in the Futures Program on Brentaal, which sponsored brilliant children in their study. Galen did so well there he made it to the Institute of Applied Science on Coruscant, the capital of the Republic.
Galen isn't a fan of getting involved in politics and refuses to do any weapons research, so during the Clone Wars he leaves Coruscant and takes a job working for a neutral, boring company on the planet Vallt, where he focuses on building a source of clean, cheap energy for the universe. But it's very easy to get Galen so caught up in his work he doesn't notice things, and his planet joins the Separatists.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Galen's wife, Lyra Erso. Where he's a scientist obsessed with theory, she's much more down to earth. When they met, her job was assessing the impact of proposed plans on a planet's environment, and she's been to a lot of planets as a surveyor. Lyra's also one of those people who worships the Force without being a Jedi. She believes in it and in the power of nature and living things. Her whole deal is roughly... rough and tumble space hippie.
Now, the timeline of this book is a little confusing, but it seems like Jyn is born a few years before Revenge of the Sith and the annihilation of the Jedi. She's mostly a background character in the book, a rambunctious child running around. Catalyst heavily implies that the necklace we saw her mum give her in the Rogue One trailer is simply one her mother bought on Coruscant and not one of the many kyber crystals her father was studying (kyber crystals being used to power lightsabers and the Death Star's superlaser). I have my doubts, though.
We know that Orson Krennic is called "Director Krennic" in Rogue One, and that might have something to do with the fact that his military rank isn't nearly as impressive. And he has ambitions to a much grander title -- throughout the book, Krennic dreams of success with the Death Star netting him the rank of Rear Admiral. It doesn't quite go down that way, and lieutenant commander is where his rank stays for most of the book. There is something very ironic in how he makes a joke out of Wilhuff Tarkin's many titles in Catalyst when, by Rogue One, he won't be going by his military rank but by "Director of Advanced Weapons Research".
An engineer and a designer, Krennic was also in the Futures Program, where he somehow came in contact with Galen Erso. Galen thinks Krennic is great. Galen is wrong. This is how he has the idea to bring in Galen Erso to help them with the station's weapon. (This is also in keeping with director Gareth Edwards thinking that this character wasn't upper-class but "much more working-class" and got ahead "through sheer force of personality and ideas".)
Krennic rescues Galen and his family from Vallt and brings them to Coruscant, at which point he reveals just how manipulative he is. He makes sure that Galen's job offers are beneath him before giving him his dream job: Being in charge of a facility investigating the clean energy potential of kyber crystals. He of course gives Galen's research to others to convert his work into weapons research. He spies on the Erso family. And when Lyra and Galen (mostly Lyra) finally starts to realise something's up, Krennic starts making threats.
Additionally, Krennic came up with a way to strip "legacy" worlds of their protections against being hollowed out for resources. He has a smuggler deliver weapons, he has the weapons found, the planet has to be investigated, meanwhile the mining company implicated in the weapons deal is forced to work for the Empire, and all the materials go to the Death Star project. Unfortunately for Krennic, in his zeal, he constantly oversteps his authority.
Which brings us to the other, really important thing about Krennic: He and Moff Tarkin (not a Grand Moff yet) loathe each other. Krennic thinks he should be higher on the totem pole and Tarkin just doesn't think the upstart has what it takes. They both keep trying to manoeuvre the other one into trouble, with Tarkin trying to make sure Krennic doesn't end up commanding the Death Star. We've seen A New Hope, and Grand Moff Tarkin is everywhere and Krennic is nowhere to be seen so we know how this ends up, but Krennic definitely puts up a good fight. I'm betting the events of Rogue One kill his career. Also, very possibly, they literally kill him.
The Building of the Death Star
Rather presumptuously, the Death Star was in the process of being built long before they had any planet-destroying laser to put in it. We know from the prequels and Clone Wars that the idea and plans for a giant space station were initially conceived by the Separatists, led by Count Dooku. The plans those two received were "passed on" to then-Chancellor Palpatine, who put Krennic in charge of completing its construction -- and all of this took place before the events of Revenge of the Sith. That's how long the Death Star took to build: Its construction started during the Clone Wars.
Once Krennic brings Galen to Coruscant to help create the Death Star's laser (again, not that he knows what he's helping with), Krennic gives him piles of kyber crystals to work on. Based on the size and shape of them, Lyra realises they were all taken from the lightsabers of fallen Jedi, which bothers her.
A giant kyber, which the Jedi seized and hid from the Separatists during the Clone Wars, is used by Galen in his research. Kyber crystals take energy and magnify it, but refract that amplified energy in all directions, which causes death and destruction. Galen's hypothesis is that he can use science to direct the energy in the same way Jedi use the Force to do the same with the crystals in their lightsabers. He figures out a way to cut the kyber to focus the energy into a beam. But when others try to use Galen's research, they basically reenact Chernobyl, only on a much larger, deadlier scale.
Galen eventually realises what's going on, and his family escapes Coruscant. But as we've seen from the trailers, Krennic captures Galen after his escape, and Catalyst reveals that this is because a) Krennic takes it very personally when Galen stops working and leaves, and b) they're still having a lot of trouble deciphering his work and adapting it to the superlaser. Krennic's staked everything on the Death Star and he's convinced he needs Galen to complete it.
Oh, remember how I mentioned there was one part of Catalyst that actually a giant spoiler? Well, consider this your second warning.
Saw Gerrera (played by Forest Whitaker in Rogue One) shows up at the end of Catalyst. First, he lends his expertise in fighting against forces trying to take over a planet in the Salient star system, which was being set up by the Empire in the "plant weapons and then march in and declare them traitors" plan. There, he fights Tarkin and meets a smuggler who knows Lyra Erso.
While the Empire eventually manages to beat Salient into submission, the smuggler and Gerrera make it to Coruscant. Gerrera transports the whole Erso family off the planet and into hiding on a planet called Lah'mu. Saw also promises to visit and gives Lyra a card that will allow her to call him if she needs help. So expect Jyn and Saw to be very familiar with each other in Rogue One -- to the point where I almost think she'll call for help from him when things go south, rather than them just meeting him accidentally.