January 1998: Star Wars as Genre Entertainment

One of the many things science fiction and fantasy fans (not to mention folks who like one and not the other) like to argue about is what science fiction and fantasy actually are. And one of the reasons that the argument keeps coming up again and again is because as science fiction comes of age, ideas that were once innovative and showed compelling vision of the future become obsolete or, worse yet, laughable. Books like Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, which almost could have been written today, are few and far between.

Travel across great distances at what is effectively faster than light is one well-worn example of science catching up with science fiction. At one time, explaining this feat wasn't even necessary for a science fiction story to be believable; it was simply assumed that we would manage it one day. Then, as doubt crept in, science fiction writers had to come up with some way of explaining how a ship could get from point A to point B in a short enough time to prevent the plot from falling apart. These days, whether we'll ever break the light barrier is doubtful; even those who say that it may be theoretically possible, such as theoretical physicist Michio Kaku does in his book Hyperspace, admit that it will be a long, long time before we manage it. If ever.

But hope springs eternal, and no one has relegated C.J. Cherryh's Merchanter novels or even Star Trek to the realm of fantasy. Star Wars inhabits more of a gray area, simply because so much of what happens in those films defies reality: sound in space, docking bays apparently open to space where unprotected life forms nonetheless do not die of exposure to vacuum, laser bolts, planets exploding in a single blast, atmospheric-style dogfighting.

The gray area arises from some significant changes in the realm of science fiction over the past twenty years, changes that have affected how science fiction is defined by its creators and its most devout fans. For the general public, anything from Gattaca or 2001 to Starship Troopers or Close Encounters of the Third Kind qualifies as science fiction, because these films have all the trappings: cool tech, space ships, people tossing incomprehensible terms around, and situations that just don't occur in everyday life that are, in the context of these films, treated as commonplace.

Science fiction fans, some of whom are also Star Wars fans (and there are Star Wars fans who aren't science fiction fans, which is one reason this point is debated so extensively), are rather more demanding. For science fiction to truly be science fiction, it must be grounded in science. This means that the ideas and technology set forth must either be already clearly understood, or if they are speculative, there must be some reasoning behind them that explains why they are at least possible. Some handwaving, as it's sometimes called, might be allowed in order to make a better story--science fiction that reads like a technical manual is no fun. But there are quite a few people who argue that Star Wars is not science fiction, because the tech we see--space ships that behave like souped-up cars, laser pistols, lightsabers and the like--does not lie in the realm of what we understand as possible, and no explanation is provided as to how these things can exist.

On the other hand, there's really no reason to explain them. It's important to understand what George Lucas was setting out to do in the first place in creating Star Wars, after all, because what he's said time and time again is that he sought to create a mythology for an audience that didn't have one of their own. It's very likely that Lucas also understood that "fantasy" films--with a medieval setting and a brawny swordsman as the hero--tend not to do well outside of a very small core audience. Even movies such as the Conan films, of which the first was quite good, tend to earn more derision than appreciation. As another example, look how well Willow did, despite the fact that it explores the same themes as Star Wars does.

Star Wars uses the trappings of a science fiction setting--i.e., a technologically advanced society--and this adds to the entertainment value of the film. No one who has ever worked on a car, or even dealt with a recalcitrant starter on a cold morning, can fail to appreciate the trials and tribulations suffered by the owner and passengers of the Millenium Falcon. No one who has grown up on the legends of King Arthur will fail to be attracted by the romance of the vanished Jedi Knights; no one who has heard the tales of Robin Hood will fail to sympathize with the Rebellion, with its idealism and carpe diem outlook, and the setup of the little guy against the evil monster is also reminiscent of the Biblical David and Goliath. And the conflict between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the father-son conflict that becomes the focus point of the trilogy in The Empire Strikes Back, has been a theme in storytelling ever since our ancestors first hunkered down around the fire. (The tale of Oedipus is only the most well-known of these, which is mostly Freud's fault.) The obvious comparisons between Star Wars and such classic epics as Beowulf and its children, notably Richard Wagner's Ring cycle and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, are left as an exercise for the reader.

In fact, it's much easier to compare Star Wars to examples of myth, legend and fantasy than it is to make a case for Star Wars as science fiction. The examples cited above were mostly pulled from memory, and a little research turns up dozens more.

Is Star Wars fantasy, then? If we strip away the trappings, what lies at the core is a lot closer to fantasy than to science fiction, for fantastic literature has always claimed the realms of myth, magic and mysticism as its own. The medieval setting that is so common in fantasy is largely due to the fact that for a fantasy world to work, its characters must have the appropriate mindset to believe that it does; a mindset that accepts magic as real. Most classical fantastic literature that can be understood by westerners dates from medieval Europe, or from medieval reconstruction of earlier tales; go further back, and cultural differences are far more difficult to ignore. The medieval mindset was far more open to superstition and irrationality than the modern mind, which meant that it was far more ready to believe in unseen forces and supernatural powers. (There are plenty of people around who still believe in these things today, but those who do so on a conscious level are not a majority of the population and do admit that their own magic wands do not produce results nearly as spectacular as Gandalf's.)

Star Wars has the Force, something that Lucas came up with in order to give his myth a context that just about everyone could be comfortable with. (I have seen a few opinions that the whole idea of the Force is the spawn of Satan, but it's really hard to give such opinions credence.) The Force allowed Lucas to create a story where magic is possible, and the resemblance of the Force itself to concepts common to several Earth religions gave it the comfort of the familiar. It is unusual, though by no means unheard of, to come across such a mystical concept in science fiction, where if there is anything to be marveled at, it usually lies firmly in the realm of science.

The tale of the hero's quest has been well documented, notably by Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero with a Thousand Faces is still widely read by students of mythology. Though Campbell has been criticized, usually because of his tendency to overgeneralize, it is very easy to map the elements of the hero's tale from his book onto Star Wars, and onto almost every other classic of fantastic fiction that has stood the test of time. Clearly, what we have here is something that appeals to a great number of people on a deep enough level that they return to this story, in whatever form it takes, again and again.

The hero's tale by itself is not enough to qualify a work as fantasy. But, as I noted before, fantasy has long claimed the realms of myth and magic as its own, and it is these things that Star Wars uses to convey its theme of self-determination and redemption.

In the realm of speculative fiction, the lines between science fiction and fantasy are often blurred. One example is C.J. Cherryh's Morgaine series, where a protagonist from a medieval society must deal with the remnants of a technologically advanced civilization (he agonizes a lot, certain that he's going to hell for messing with "magic"). Another is Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, which uses the familiar first-contact story to venture some commentary about faith and the nature of God, topics that have traditionally been the province of fantasy fiction. Likewise, Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead and Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus include some religious elements, although these never play more than a supporting role.

Star Wars is one of those works that sits somewhere in between, especially since in film, the science fiction classification isn't as strict. Science fiction fans debate the plausibility of the creatures in the Alien films, but your average filmgoer is looking for entertainment and probably doesn't care one way or the other. Several science fiction fans disliked Starship Troopers, not only because it didn't stay true to Heinlein's classic novel, but because so much of the technology--not to mention the military strategy--didn't make sense. (Even I, whose requirements are probably less stringent than most, and who actually rather enjoyed the film, was led to wonder where the hell the impact crater caused by the asteroid that destroyed Buenos Aires was.)

Likewise, most of these folks don't care when watching Star Wars that asteroid fields aren't that closely clustered, that explosions in space aren't nearly that spectacular, and that no one has yet figured out how a lightsaber could possibly work, let alone how to build one. Star Wars, like the sci-fi films its immense popularity has spawned in the past 20 years, is primarily entertainment. What sets Star Wars apart is its internal resonance, the mythology that appeals to us on a subconscious level. While some folks have given thought to how the tech of Star Wars might be possible (visit http://WWW.Physics.USyd.Edu.AU/~saxton/starwars/ for one online example), there is one rule from the current definition of science fiction that Star Wars does not obey.

That rule is that in order for science fiction to be science fiction, science must play an integral role in the outcome of the story. By that criterion, Gattaca is science fiction (the main character of the story must find a way around laws dictating that a person's place in life is determined by genetics), and Star Wars is not--the Millenium Falcon could just as easily be the four white horses from The Princess Bride, lightsabers could just as easily be swords, and the central father-son conflict, as indicated before, is the staple of myth and legend--which are in turn the staple of fantasy.

This is not to say that myth and legend cannot be part of science fiction as well. But in science fiction these days, such romantic notions tend to be replaced by science and technology, which must be integral to the story or else remain so much window dressing. It is my opinion that Star Wars' window dressing was integral to its success; films that explored similar themes in the traditional medieval/magical setting (Willow, Labyrinth), while enjoyable and maybe even good, have not had nearly so much commercial success.

It is likely that Star Wars will continue to be classified as science fiction for quite some time--until the impossibility of its technology passes into the popular mind; until its special effects, which have held up pretty well over the past 20 years, truly become thoroughly antiquated; until another generation's entertainment produces a seminal work of popular culture (believe it or not, Wagner's Ring was once popular entertainment). And even then, it is almost certain that Star Wars, like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Planet of the Apes, will never lose its status as a classic.

That's all folks! Tune in next month as I discuss the music of John Williams, and why it may have been integral to Star Wars' success.