Star Wars on Trial: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time
Edited by David Brin & Matthew Woodring Stover
BenBella Books, 2006
So what's the deal with this whole Star Wars thing? The first time I realized there was something different about these movies was back in the mid-'80s when I discovered that my boss's son—a preschooler—settled in every single day for a screening of what then was simply known as Star Wars. It occurred to me that a movie that's able to hold a toddler's attention for several hours and to keep him coming back day after day must be something out of the ordinary.
As for me, I never really got Star Wars. Which isn't to say that I didn't find it right smart entertaining when, at the tender age of fifteen, I caught it on its first run through theaters. But just as I was able to enjoy Star Trek without succumbing to the desire to wear pointy ears, so was I able to enjoy Star Wars without gallivanting around smacking people over the head with third-rate lightsaber knockoffs or engaging in any of the other foolishness that comes with extreme fannishness. In other words, neither of the aforementioned cultural phenomena ever really got their hooks in me.
In fact, I'll even come clean and confess that I've never gotten around to seeing more than three of the six Star Wars episodes (I, II, and IV, if you're scoring at home). With that in mind, perhaps I should have recused myself from this review. But, as you can see, I'm forging blindly on ahead.
My thoughts on Star Wars are pretty much in line with those of the team assembled by Star Wars on Trial co-editor David Brin. He was lured from his post as a science fiction writer to prosecute George Lucas's fabulously influential—and lucrative—series on the following eight counts:
- The politics of Star Wars are anti-democratic and elitist.
- While claiming mythic significance, Star Wars portrays no admirable religious or ethical beliefs.
- Star Wars novels are poor substitutes for real science fiction and are driving real SF off the shelves.
- Science fiction filmmaking has been reduced by Star Wars to poorly written special effects extravaganzas.
- Star Wars has dumbed down the perception of science fiction in the popular imagination.
- Star Wars pretends to be science fiction, but is really fantasy.
- Women in Star Wars are portrayed as fundamentally weak.
- The plot holes and logical gaps in Star Wars make it ill-suited for an intelligent viewer.
If you know Matthew Woodring Stover from his work as an actual bona fide novelist who's written three of the more than one hundred Star Wars novels, among other things, it should come as no surprise that he heads the team assembled to defend Star Wars against these charges.
Much of what is put forth in this book is a matter for debate, but there are a few statements Brin and Stover throw out early on that no reasonable individual could refute. For example, as Brin notes in his introductory remarks, Star Wars is "the biggest, most lavish, most popular and by far the most lucrative sci-fi drama ever." No sniping from the peanut gallery on that one.
Brin goes on to say that the first issue that needed to be resolved was whether "the Star Wars saga is worth arguing about." Of course, the existence of this review and the book that spawned it are sufficient evidence to let you know how that argument worked out.
One point that can be argued (and he says so himself) is Stover's assertion, in his half of the introduction, that Star Wars is "arguably the most powerful mythic cycle of the twentieth century." Yes, let's argue that one, if you don't mind, or at least try to sort out whether "powerful" and "popular" are one and the same.
In his opening statement, prosecutor Brin says, "Nobody, on either side of the coming argument, contends that the fate of Western civilization will hang upon a literary analysis of the epical and epochal Star Wars series!" Well said, say I. Brin then summarizes the charges and elaborates a bit. He finally wraps it all up about 30 pages later, which seems a bit much.
Brin does admit, as his lengthy opener winds down, that for all his carping, "The world would have been a much poorer place without Star Wars." He calls it "a mainline feed of fantastic imagery and almost-pure joy." Of course, Brin can't resist pointing out, several times over the course of the book, that Lucas has spoiled this joyous experience "with endless prattling lecturey, smarmy, contradictory preachifying."
To summarize the "testimony" and "rebuttals" regarding these charges levied against Lucas and company would be overkill, so let's just hit some high points.
For Charge 1 (the politics of Star Wars are anti-democratic and elitist), only the defense calls a witness. Keith R.A. DeCandido says "the ultimate message of Star Wars is not that the elites deserve to be in power and that the light side of the Force is the ultimate arbiter of what is good and noble, because all the important stuff is accomplished by folks not burdened with the Force."
Discussing Charge 2 (while claiming mythic significance, Star Wars portrays no admirable religious or ethical beliefs), John C. Wright essentially puts forth the argument that Star Wars is pulp fiction on the order of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, or a classic "Boy's Adventure" tale and that the Force exists for the most part to create atmosphere.
Scott Lynch, speaking for the defense, counters that the Star Wars films and the first installment of The Matrix possess "opt-in philosophical depth" and thus can be enjoyed on a superficial rock-em sock-em plane or on a deeper, more thoughtful level, depending on how the viewer chooses to approach them.
As for Charge 3 (Star Wars novels are driving "real" SF off the shelves), Lou Anders speaks for the defense. He quotes Harry Turtledove and James Gunn, who have both opined that print and cinematic SF are two vastly different animals (no news flash there). Anders also asserts that Star Wars is fantasy, thank you very much, and vents his spleen at Star Wars novelizations.
The defense team counters this testimony with not one, but three, witnesses. Among them, Laura Resnick, who puts forth the opinion that the media tie-ins taking up so much shelf space are there for the simple reason that people want to read them. She speculates that those very same readers of tie-ins might actually stumble across a work of "real" SF as they make their way to that groaning Star Wars bookshelf.
Karen Traviss writes of the joys—many fiscal in nature—of writing books set in the Star Wars universe, but doesn't really address the charge. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who has nearly 30 media tie-in novels to her credit, says that the pompous windbag that was print SF was due to have a pin stuck in it and that Star Wars and its offshoots helped do the job.
John G. Henry's thoughts on Charge 4 (science fiction filmmaking has been reduced by Star Wars to poorly written special effects extravaganzas) are spelled out over the course of nine pages, but are just as nicely summarized by the title of his contribution—"Millions for Special Effects, Not One Cent for Writers."
Bruce Bethke counters with, among other things, the notion that Lucas "singlehandedly revitalized science fiction, led it out of the tawdry drive-in wilderness, and made it the loved, respected and highly profitable member of the family of creative arts it is today." Bethke also lauds Lucas for reintroducing the hero, following a period in the cinema of the Sixties and Seventies when antiheroes seemed to rule the roost.
Tanya Huff takes up the prosecution's case for Charge 5 (Star Wars has dumbed down science fiction in the popular imagination), claiming that Star Wars has "wiped out any literary merit science fiction had gained in the minds of the general public" and reminds us that there are now "adults, with children of their own, who have never lived in [a] world where science fiction wasn't reeling under the weight of Star Wars."
In response, Richard Garfinkle puts forth the dubious proposition—if I may again abandon any flimsy pretense of objectivity—that Star Wars has given us a useful shorthand with which to approach science fiction. In other words, ever since Star Wars made its mark on the galaxy it has introduced, or reinforced, various science fictional notions. As a result, SF authors no longer have to explain these.
The prosecution and the defense each call two witnesses to bicker about Charge 6 (Star Wars pretends to be science fiction, but is really fantasy), though it would seem that this one is fairly cut and dried. Even Lucas has pretty much come right out and admitted that the cycle is a fantasy.
But perhaps film critic Roger Ebert summed up this one as well as anyone else. In his 1977 review of the film—his first of three—Ebert said that "Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend" and summarizes its pulp predecessors, "the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers."
As for Charge 7 (women in Star Wars are portrayed as fundamentally weak), this one pretty much degenerates to "Princess Leia is a strong character" vs. "Princess Leia is not a strong character," with a liberal dash of "Princess Leia is a strong character in the first episode, but not in subsequent episodes" thrown in for good measure.
Then there's Charge 8 (the plot holes and logical gaps in Star Wars make it ill-suited for an intelligent viewer). Speaking for the prosecution, Nick Mamatas comes out swinging, with the bold—and for some, blasphemous—assertion that "standing alone, Episode IV is a fairly mediocre movie."
Mamatas theorizes that by ushering in the age of the senseless blockbuster, "Star Wars ruined American cinema. He then proceeds to savage genre cinema as a whole ("science fiction and fantasy films are unbearably stupid"), though he makes exceptions for works such as Dark City, Donnie Darko, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Don DeBrandt responds that we should just suspend disbelief and see past the plot holes and that the power of imagination should trump such niggling concerns as that occasional gaping plot hole. In his closing statement, Stover takes this notion one notch further, suggesting that "the plot holes are essential" and the Star Wars experience is about recapturing one's innocence and all that touchy-feely type stuff. Which, come to think of it, may have something to do with my ex-employer's son's intense fascination with Star Wars.
Of course, Brin isn't having any of this. Perhaps the best and most succinct summary of his arguments comes in his closing statement, "What I do ask of you jurors is not so much to convict Star Wars of any particular fault, but rather, to come away from all of this determined to ask more from the next set of myths that you are offered."
And there it ends. In addition to the testimony from the prosecution and defense, there are also ersatz courtroom interludes with a "Droid judge" (groan) presiding. While this lends a faintly whimsical tone to the proceedings, it tends to drag on in places and the attempted humor is rather strained.
The whole exercise is certainly not without merit and is entertaining enough to read. But, as you might have guessed, the cast of thousands (okay, about two dozen, actually) never quite work their way around to coming up with a verdict. This sort of thing is to be expected, I suppose, and publisher BenBella has set up a Web site for those who wish to hash things out further.
Which, of course, will prove absolutely nothing, but there are probably worse things that we could be arguing about. Ultimately, it seems that when it comes right down to it, the opposing camps on this issue could probably be categorized by the dominant hemisphere of their brain. Us left brainers, the ones who wouldn't think of walking past a crooked picture frame and who cringe at those continuity lapses, are probably not constitutionally set up to truly enjoy Star Wars. At least not to the degree that those free-spirited, devil-may-care right brainers can.
Perhaps the best explanation for the success of the Star Wars juggernaut hearkens back to that old saw—"the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve".