Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Star Wars is Science Fiction

Bruce Bethke weighs in yet again on a very old argument: this nutso idea that Star Wars isn’t science fiction:

“Sure, it looks like science fiction. It sounds like science fiction. And based on that guy in the wookiee costume who was ahead of us in the concession line, it even smells like science fiction, or at least like the third day of a furry fandom convention. But Star Wars is not science fiction. It’s a long-winded heroic magical fantasy saga that happens to take place in a world cluttered up with lots of sci-fi props and set dressings. If considered as science fiction, there is not one thing in the entire Star Wars universe that bears close scrutiny, because if you think about it at all seriously, the seams split and all the nonsense comes pouring out.”

The nonsense just comes pouring out, eh? Well hey, hate Star Wars all you like. (I was done the moment I was stunned by just how godawful the theatrical re-release of “A New Hope” was.) I will say this, though: this particular light saber cuts both ways. Talk about throwing stones in glass houses!

Let’s look again at all that “real” science fiction from around 1940 to about 1980. I mean really look at it:

  • How much of it was predicated on the idea that only a united One World Earth Government could reach the stars?
  • How much of it assumed that the future government of humanity would necessarily be some sort of socialism or communism?
  • How much of it was a glorified bully pulpit used to beat down and mock the concept of religion in general?
  • How much of it included free love and explicit sex or presented the idea that modesty, fidelity, and marriage were all outmoded, uncool, and unfuturistic– to the point of taking on any and every imaginable taboo up to and including incest and pedophilia?
  • Similarly, how much of it went out of the way to present cowardly loser protagonists that are both unheroic and unsuccessful with the opposite sex– in order to be more “realistic”?

I’m one of those people that became a science fiction fan because of Star Wars, and gosh… it really was a chore to find anything to read in that genre when that franchise was first exploding into the wider collective consciousness. For decades, I was convinced that to read anything for fun I would just have to hold my nose and read around all the tacky stuff just to enjoy my favorite genre. But face it, by the late seventies, the science fiction brand was weighed down by a great deal of nonsense. And it had gone on for so long that most people couldn’t imagine it being any other way.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. Just as the Poindexters of today are out in force poo pooing classic Star Wars, so too were the letter columns of classic science fiction magazines filled to the brim with the sneering and heckling of weirdos that were convinced that the genre of science fiction could only work well if it were turned into some sort of freakish tool for smashing the natural forms of economic and social life.

The roots of Star Wars predate all of that, of course. The old works are superior in many ways, but the resonance of the early film franchise with Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom stories, C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith, and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman stories in undeniable. (The first accounts for the definitive space princess, the second a clear antecedent for the Han Solo scoundrel type, and the last provides a template for the “guardians of peace and justice” archetype that the Jedi knights fulfilled.)

Maybe those stories aren’t your cup of tea. Maybe you think Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke are superior in every way and deserved to erase the foundations of the field in order to bring us astonishing tales of alien threesomes, men traveling back in time to have sex with their mothers, and the “real” story behind what happened when the star of Bethlehem lit up the sky. More power to you if “dangerous visions” of the sixties and seventies are what floats your boat!

But like it or not, the original Star Wars movies were science fiction– science fiction of a type that was wildly popular when guys like Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke were still in diapers. If science fiction in the same vein as Star Wars isn’t science fiction, then the generation that laid the foundations of the field never existed. And the people who also inspired all of the best known science fiction grandmasters to pursue careers writing classic tales are erased from history as well.

That’s crazy.

Get the real story on the history of fantasy and science fiction: Check out my book Appendix N! And lemme tell ya, the hard back looks so slick, it makes a perfect Christmas gift. Don’t miss it!


8 responses to “Star Wars is Science Fiction

  1. pcbushi December 19, 2017 at 9:35 am

    It’s science fantasy, but when you break them down so are a lot of “scifi” stories. Seems to me that SFF was a lot better when it wasn’t so “well-defined” and compartmentalized. A lot of awesome stories out there combine elements from different genres. As I’ve read further back, the forced distinction between scifi and fantasy has begun to bother me more and more.

  2. Cambias December 19, 2017 at 10:14 pm

    We’ll take as a given that Star Wars is as much science fiction as the Barsoom stories by Burroughs. Fair enough?
    Now: is there any evidence that Burroughs thought of the Barsoom stories as science fiction?

    • morganwestridge December 22, 2017 at 2:00 am

      It would seem unlikely that Burroughs thought of Barsoom as science fiction, as both the terms “scientificition” and its successor “science fiction” postdates A Princess of Mars (1912) by a few years.

      Star Wars has long been targeted by the “it’s not science fiction” brigade. Bruce’s argument basically seems to be a “No True Scotsman” argument.

      I would happily agree that Star Wars is space opera, borrows a lot from fantasy and mythic tropes or world war II and samurai movies, and is not hard sf. But is it any softer SF then, say, Dune, with its psychic powers and mystics and warring great houses of nobles and force field belt-enabled swordplay and similar mythic-religious overtones borrowed from middle eastern history? Or any of a hundred other canonical examples? But wait, Dune had… Ecology! Yeah, it made real hard-sfish statements about ecology! What did Star Wars add? Well, what you add or don’t add to the canon isn’t really relevant, but let’s look at a few things that Star Wars actually did that made it stand out in 1977:

      – Robots. Key elements of the Star Wars series. We see robots being treated as functional machines that are an ordinary part of society. And they work! They don’t go insane or try to take to take over the universe or have melt downs over their emotions like in Star Trek or 2001 or worrying about whether they’re human or whatever, or malfunctioning to create odd logical puzzles as in Asimov stories. They aren’t rare and unique single items like the androids in Star Trek (where they apparently didn’t even have robot vacuum cleaners) or Lost in Space. They’re integrated into society doing jobs, being bought and sold, and old and beaten up or new and shiny, doing agricultural and mechanical and translation and other kinds of work. Arguably, Star Wars made a real science fiction breakthrough in its realistic treatment of robots (“droids”).

      That’s another thing about Star Wars. In most science fiction on tv up to that time everything was shiny new or battleship gray or 60s technicolor or whatever. In Star Wars origninal trilogy we saw tech that was actually being used, tech that was old (rebel y-wings, the various junk on Tantoine, millenium falcon), tech that was new, etc. The universe looked “lived in.” The technology was part of people’s lives, being used, not just gadgets for the story.

      When I saw Star Wars in 1977 these were the two things that stood out for me “as science fiction.” A world that looked like people lived in it, and technology that seemed to be an integrated part of society rather than – as in Star Trek – something designed either for the convenience of the story plot of the week (like the Transporter) or the morality play of the week (as in the treatment of robots and most other types of technology).

      Oh yeah, and Star Destroyers and X-Wings and so on were very cool looking. Definitely wanted one of them. Started trying to make a model in shop class… It’s not surprising that Traveller immediately borrowed the look of the Star Wars wedge-shaped ships for many of its ship designs. Sure, the ships maneuvered like airplanes, but that’s cinematic convention, and no odder than having them maneuver like ocean going ships…

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  4. Jonathan Scott Griffin January 3, 2018 at 10:43 pm

    Star Wars is amazing. I am absolutely in love with it. But I can’t see it as science fiction just because it takes place in outer space, has aliens, and has spaceships. The whole thing is set up like an outer space fantasy. In fact, it’s become even more fantasy like as time has gone on. Clone Wars introduced us to the Nightwitches and there magic, and there is so much mysticism and magical powers in Last Jedi alone. Even George Lucas said “Star Wars isn’t a science-fiction film, it’s a fantasy film and a space opera.” That doesn’t mean Star Wars can’t be appreciated as a great work of art, because it is. But generally speaking, science fiction is about what could possibly happen and it offers scientific explanations.

    • jeffro January 3, 2018 at 11:37 pm

      It’s not an accident that both genres are shelved as “fantasy / science fiction”. Science fiction as even you define it there is merely a subset of fantasy.

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