Thursday, April 30, 2009

Star Wars Deserves A High Place In Science Fiction

Keith Olexa, whose LinkedIn profile says he’s a Managing Editor and Contributing Writer at Starlog. He started a discussion on the Science Fiction readers, writers, and collectors Group. The below is my long winded answer to what he called “a saucy send up.”

A saucy send up: STAR WARS is the farthest thing from Science Fiction...

... and IMHO, has been the most damaging influence on the genre... agree? disagree? Discuss.

And here is my answer:

Star Wars Deserves A High Place In Science Fiction
by Lon S. Cohen

Seems that the bigger a franchise becomes the harder or less reluctant fans and writers are to bring it into our little ghetto of a genre. We Science Fiction fans are a fickle bunch. We bristle at any perceived criticism of our beloved worlds. We try to make geekism an exclusive club only open to those who truly get it. If there is anything that we fans have in common with religion it’s that we’re fanatical in our beliefs sometimes to the point of extremism. The masses don’t truly understand that Science Fiction is not just about laser swords and ray guns and flying rockets. It’s about possibilities and the human condition. What will or might be.

But you have to admit, it’s really cool if it also has an evil sentient computer thrown into the mix, right?

So where does Star Wars fit in? Both vilified and glorified, this little film that almost didn’t get made starts a lot of fights around fandom. In my opinion, Star Wars is Space Opera. It spans an entire galaxy, bringing us to worlds chock full of furry, scaly creatures with any number of eyes, limbs and skin tints. There’s good versus evil. We have all the elements of the classic tales from Sword and Sorcery to Westerns. The characters are archetypical and the themes are grandiose. It has become a behemoth franchise at the box office. Coming on the heels of Jaws it didn’t invent the summer blockbuster so much as put a definition to it. It has become the model for almost every whiz-bang popcorn flick since the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred seventy-seven. It has invaded the culture, the language and even the politics of everyday life. For this reason people tend to want to tamp down its importance, pushing it out of the Science Fiction realm.

Here’s why: Star Wars is dumb.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a true Star Wars geek. I have all the figures stashed away. I can probably recite every line from both the original trilogy as well as the much-maligned prequels. Like every other fanboy, I expected the second coming when Episode I came out and when I didn’t get it I made up excuses why it was going to one day be justified as a true work of genius. Yes. I know I’m wrong. And I don’t care.

Because the reason we fans love Star Wars is not because it’s smart. Not because it says something about mankind and our place in the universe. It doesn’t even pretend to be speculative. We love Star Wars because it’s cool. The themes are simplistic, easy to grasp and uplifting. The story is trite and pedestrian but it’s wrapped in a really rich universe. The characters are sexy, familiar and dangerous. The designs are complex and exciting yet functional. The sounds are bold, exotic and inspiring. The milieu of Star Wars appeals to a wide swath of the public. But in the end, it is not overtly intelligent.

Have you ever sat down to learn the origin myths of some foreign culture and been utterly floored by their simplicity and seeming lack of originality? The world is held on the back of a turtle and was germinated by a woman who fell from the sky in the religion of natives from the northeastern portion of the Americas. God got mad at people so he instructed Noah to build an ark to save two of every animal. This is not high literature worthy of the Nebula, the Pulitzer or even the Mann Booker. These are not stories that strike us as particularly deep or telling of man’s nature. Yet they endured through the centuries, even the millennia. Why? Because they tell a simple story, one that many people can imagine and take something away from without investing too much mental capacity. They are direct and to the point. Does this make them good? Not necessarily. Are they important? Absolutely. Why? Because the people have held onto these stories for a reason. They are simple and they speak to a simple childlike part of our soul.

This is something of what Joseph Campbell was getting at when he wrote his book on comparative mythology, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” A simply told tale that speaks to the deepest part of our psyche will always grab the attention of the masses and has throughout time if you look at the myths developed in cultures around the world. It also explains why Star Wars is an important and worthy contribution to Science Fiction.

That is what storytelling is all about. It occurs in every genre. Star Wars has not damaged Science Fiction. Some will always see Star Wars as a screen that hides the true nature and richness of Science Fiction. Because this is what people who don’t like Science Fiction hold up as an example of the generic Science Fiction story. Star Wars has been accused of perpetrating the stereotype of the outsider’s view of SciFi. It has all the elements after all: Lasers, robots, aliens and space travel. But what some people don’t understand is the inclusiveness of the broader genre.

Some people love classic Science Fiction but hate the hard stuff. Others like a good near future tale while others want a story set as far away from planet earth as the universe will allow. What Star Wars does well is resurrect the classic elements of SciFi from days gone by. It is, dare I say, homage to the golden years when pulps and movie reels featured the space explorer du jour for the young ones. (The oft-told tale is that George Lucas wanted to remake the story of Flash Gordon for the screen but stymied by the copyright sought to make his own version. A few years later we ended up with a version featuring a Queen soundtrack—though that’s a story for another day.) Many of those young ones become inspired by these broadly painted themes. With an education in basic plotting, character development and wonder, they are free to take their own Science Fiction story making to the next level.

So the answer to the question of whether Star Wars has been the most damaging influence on Science Fiction is no, it is not. I make my case that it is more likely the inspiration for a whole generation of Science Fiction stories of high quality. Star Wars is also firmly in the realm of the Science Fiction genre.

And anyone who says different is probably a Trekkie. IMHO. ;)

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