The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Star Wars as science fiction?

Posted on: March 19, 2008

(Yes, I know, countless geeks online have had this discussion ad finitum.)

Astonishingly, I think I may become one of those SF readers who hold to the view that one can’t simply plop a space ship into your novel and automatically ascend into the ranks. Take Star Wars, for instance. I know that genre fans place it in the SF romance pile but as Robert C. Wilson has led me to a new fascination I can’t afford, the Lucas films look nothing so much as a mishmash of Lord of the Rings and Camelot. It occurs in space and they get to fly around in beat up space ships and zing around fancy swords but does the technology impact their understanding of themselves, their philosophies, anything? Do we even have to know how any of it works beyond plot utility? The asthmatic whats-his-face’s Deathstar may as well be the ring of doom, except with less flexibility because a gun is a gun is a gun.

This is unfair to Star Wars because the sequels aspired to be nothing more than great B movie shlock but films are what make up the bulk of my SF experience so far. I also blame SF fans who have hollered long and hard for the genre’s distinct identity separate from (and superior to) fantasy. If I read a SF work and don’t find my mind operating in a notably different way I tend to lose interest; while I hold an innate interest in elves, gods and sea monsters, well-lit flying saucers and oogy green men don’t hold a similar basic appeal.

By the by have you read any Georges Simenon? He wrote some weird little thinkers (or roman durs as he preferred to call them). Norman Rush, in the introduction to Tropic Moon, rightfully brought up Graham Greene’s work and his attitude towards it, but after I finished the very short novel (133 pages) my thoughts fell on Joseph Conrad. If I can allow Simenon the legitimate investigation in colonization’s effects on the colonizer with less focus on the colonized why can’t I do the same for Conrad? Maybe if his book had a better title; I’m so over the “Dark Continent” bullshit.

Which reminds me of a little rant I’m brewing about the Virginia Quarterly Review and the angle they choose to pursue when covering different peoples. I must get over my ire about the cover choices first and, you know, read the content before I can make any substantial complaints. But perhaps you can see the difficulty. I don’t need to tell you which ones are the African issues. We all know (sub-Saharan, because who needs those random countries up top there…somewhere? Are we even considering them a part of the continent anymore?) Africa = misery. As if it has any art and culture to put on the cover. (Or to put within its pages judging by the need to get Art Spiegelman, as an example, for certain issues and not for others.)

Sure, we've got problems, but there's more to us than that -- who knew?

Oi! We're dying! Let's have a lot of foreigners telling us what's wrong! We don't have enough artists to help fill a whole issue! If only we were somehow physically linked to *North* America...


17 Responses to "Star Wars as science fiction?"

I crawl out of my cave to say simply, “Amen.”

We’ve only failed to cover the art and culture of Africa if one ignores all of the articles that we’ve written about the art and culture of Africa. So yeah, reading it would be a good start. 🙂 About once every six months, somebody gets all fired up about how we pigeonhole ethnic groups and entire continents, sending a bunch of white Americans to [insert far-flung country here] and saying how pathetic they are. Usually I have to gently suggest that they note the author’s name and country of origin, and perhaps read a few lines of the article in question. With 100% effectiveness, that’s the end of things, generally punctuated by a sheepish apology.

(i.e., Africa = great literature, Africa = good people with epic poetry, or Africa = a continent with lots of countries where lots of things happen.)

Incidentally, it’s tough to write about saharan Africa. Primarily because, y’know, the Sahara is there, so the population is pretty low, and thus there’s not a whole lot to write about for a publication that’s primarily interested in people. Journalists are arrested in the Sudan, so that’s not going to happen. Libya is scarcely friendlier, and Egypt is often covered. On the whole, though, we’ve written about north Africa dozens of times, most recently in 2006.

Read a few articles. The entire South America issue is available online for free. (For which, incidentally, we were today nominated for a National Magazine Award. Apparently it’s shocking and unusual to have South American writers describe what’s going well in South America.) I speculate you’ll find yourself feeling a bit less sour after you delve in.

editor: Very sorry! I just rescued your comment from spam oblivion and it was just by chance that I even browsed through since I usually delete it automatically. Next time if you’re going to include more than two links in your comment, please let me know because the spam filter will immediately brand it as spam. 03/29/2008

Check out our Autumn 1982 article about Star Wars. It’s nothing terribly special on its own, but reading about the planned nine episodes from the perspective of 26 years ago is pretty interesting.


Re: the first bit: tread lightly, for you’re on the verge of tossing about seven tons of glorious old “Analog” pulps out the window, with a helluva lot of Asimov (eg, The Foundation Trilogy) and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” as well. Sci Fi, as we know it, was birthed from the loamy loins of just such corny dweeb cheese, and to ask if the “…technology impact[s] their understanding of themselves, their philosophies, anything…” is to put a fair bit (though not all) of Bradbury at risk, too.

(Also, to be fair, one might apply your litmus to post-microchip Europe… here, now… with the same inconclusive results; kids using cellphones and laptops rarely reflect on their lives with these devices in order to compare the experience to pre-laptop cave-life: just like Darth and his light sabres, they take the stuff for granted)

When I was a dorky little thing in knee pants, the distinction we drew was between “Hard” Sci Fi and the other stuff. But the “other stuff” can be very good, too; as hard-edged as his writing can be, for example, is Harlan Ellison anywhere *near* as Hard Sci Fi as the late great Arthur C. Clarke?

Re: the last half of your post: But isn’t all this African misery the source of that delightful “soulfulness” we always hear so much about?

(Unless a person of African descent should live, improbably, to any age greater than 50, in which case the word “dignified” is the only really pertinent adjective).

Ian always nice to see you around, agreeing with me.

Walton thanks for the link. 🙂

Steven oh, I acknowledge that what I posted could only be represented as a personal idiosyncrasy. In any case I only used the word “technology” because I was posting about Star Wars and it just has a bunch of gadgets. What I meant to stress is the “science” part of genre rather than limit it to post-computer age, in a continuation from my first post on the subject.

Wilson’s book is particularly science-y because of the neat incorporation of astrophysics in such a manner that one has to understand the processes behind the events in order to piece together the plot. The characters who “take it for granted” are the ones out-of-the-loop.

Even then I understand why other kinds of SF should be included. I just like to be dismissive of things that don’t rise to my expectations; and admit that those have been shaped by often coming in contact with a certain kind of SF fan.

Never having seen Star Wars, I can’t comment on that particular issue, but it sort of reminds me of the way I feel about Dune—it’s one of (if not the) most famous and popular SF novels of all time, but to me it reads more like fantasy set in the future.

Ditto Stargate SG-1, which is supposedly a sci-fi show but which actually combines fantasy and SF (to form what is IMO a fairly mediocre product, but which I have become addicted to because I have an unreasonable love for Claudia Black’s characters. [/tangent])

Hey, Imani,

Ted Genoways here—editor at VQR. I see where you’re headed with the rant you’re brewing, and I encourage you to air it. It’s a valuable conversation starter. But once you do let us have, let’s be sure to have that conversation—here, publicly, is fine with me—about what goes into the decisions we make for covers and all of our content.

I do just want to point out, as something to consider, that the South America cover is by Peruvian artist Ana de Orbegoso (from an issue co-edited by Peruvian-born writer Daniel Alarcón) and the AIDS in Africa cover is by South African photographer Gideon Mendel (from a portfolio that Nigerian writer Helon Habila consulted on). That’s not to say that the issues are beyond reproach, only that we don’t make our decisions in a vacuum or without conversation with people who know these places intimately.

For now, thank you for reading the issues before passing judgment. That’s much appreciated. And I’m sure you’ll also want to take a look at a piece by Kwame Dawes on HIV/AIDS in Jamaica that will appear in our Spring issue. Kwame is Jamaican by upbringing, but that doesn’t get us off the hook if our representation is exploitative or (worse) inaccurate. But I prefer it to the alternative—not tackling difficult or controversial subjects.

Again, thanks for reading.

Poodle “Dune” is a SF series? For some reason I thought it was a fantasy — doesn’t it have dwarfs and stuff? (Not that dwarfs can’t be in SF….) Ha, shows you how much I know about the genre.

I find most SF films/series to fall to not be particularly science-y (I have to find a better word) which may be because of the medium. It’s just a setting for cool and/or horror adventures or an opportunity for writers to comment on current events.

Mr. Genoway welcome! I didn’t want to bring much attention to my post since I have no real argument to present yet…

I’ve read the South American issue and that does colour my (limited) perspective on the African ones even though, from the editor’s column, the two were approached with different ideas in mind. It’s just that I enjoyed the former so much, against initial expectations, the immersion in the different national, political and artistic milieus. It’s the only lit mag with a Bolano excerpt that I actually read because all the media coverage gave me Bolano fatigue before I’d read a word.

So I trumped to the library eager to rifle through your backlist, brightened when I noted there were African issues, only to be deflated. I’m hoping that they provide as complex and multidimensional experience of the continent’s inhabitants as I got from Summer 2007’s South America.

It’s not that I suspect the issues are exploitive or that you would be. (I wouldn’t put it that way, in any case.) It’s what Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche referred to in a speech she did at Harvard. She said that if she had been a Westerner whose knowledge of Africa was based solely on what she got from the media she would think they were a stupid people who could do nothing for themselves and had to depend on (white) UN staff and experts to get anywhere. I have no doubt that the VQR articles will be thorough, provocative, the kind of investigative reports that print journalism has mostly abandoned. I worry that all of those resources was used to beat that same “Save Africa!” drum complete with the requisite images of the man with the covered face, the burnt skin, the woeful gaze. The South American issue had its fair share of investigative reports into the corrupt governments, the violence, the Amazon problems but, well, it didn’t get a cover of a poor indigenous person in a ripped Nike shirt maybe, gazing sternly at the soy fields, you know?

Edit: I see that the “exploitive” remarks were in reference to the Jamaican article, but I’ll leave the above paragraph alone because it’s a point I wanted to make.

Sigh. I’m totally gonna read them though! It’s why I blogged about it since I’ve been avoiding the task since last year. Might use my libraries online subscription and print each piece, though. :p

Thanks for commenting.

Combining the two topics of your post – slightly, not comprehensively – I’m curious if you’ve ever read Octavia Butler and what you think of her.

I haven’t yet, verbi, but I do mean to! Eventually. 😀 I have Ursula K Le Guin (sp?) on my list too, The Left Hand of Darkness. I tried the first in her fantasy series (Wizard of Earthsea I think it’s called) but could not finish the first book. Hope to fare better with the rest.

No, no dwarves in Dune. It’s set in the future, on a particular planet in a galaxy-spanning empire. It definitely qualifies as sci-fi (also because of a bunch of biological/environmental stuff in it.) It just also has a kind of supernatural aspect, and an epic/mythic scope to it that feels more like fantasy to me.

Oh, and Left Hand of Darkness is very, very different from Earthsea in a lot of ways. I enjoyed reading and thinking about the former, and was terminally bored by the latter. Maybe you’ll feel the same.

I am very ignorant of science fiction, I’ve never read a book of science fiction. But, I have seen the Star Wars movies way, way, back in the day.
Always glad to visit your site friend!

“It’s just that I enjoyed the former so much, against initial expectations, the immersion in the different national, political and artistic milieus.”

A handful of bloggers griped — all independently — about our South America issue when it came out, decrying it as yet another product of ignorant Americans presenting a parade of stereotypes about the continent as a homogenous third world morass. Not a one of them had read it, of course, and I learned to delight in pointing out the obvious things about the issue, all of which you’re aware of, leaving each of them squirming and then conceding that they’d jumped to conclusions without having actually read a word of the issue.

I’ve come to regard it as sport. 🙂

poodle I must have been thinking of another crappy SciFi channel adaptation…. Good to hear that LHoD isn’t anything like the fantasy — that was a real impediment to my starting it even though every SF fan I’ve ever spoken with recommends it.

MissDaisy! Nice to see you’re back around and visiting. I only the three complete Star Wars sequels a few years ago, although all the time before then I felt as though I’d seen them already because they’re so big in pop culture.

I don’t know much about SciFi myself but I’m learning.

Waldo oh, that wasn’t particularly bright of them was it. (I was careful to note that I hadn’t read the Africa issues so that readers could place my comments in their proper light.) I thought the South American issue was just excellent and would love if VQR managed to do something similar with other regions.

I have read quite a bit of science fiction over the years (“hard” and otherwise) — in fact, I am in the middle of drafting a post on this topic, which is probably why yours caught my eye — and I have to agree with you that Star Wars is not sci-fi, at least not in the classic sense. Sci-fi requires a thought experiment of some kind, a “what if,” that the author takes to its logical conclusion. What if, say, a planet with the characteristics of Dune existed? The novel, then, is an answer to that question. Star Wars is just another good guys versus bad guys story, with spaceships and aliens thrown in. In my opinion, it could just as easily have been a Western.

Ahh, that “What if?” criteria is a good way to partly describe what I was getting at. Thanks for commenting, Julie!

[…] in his underpants ? Is the overall effect a bit Believer-ish? Is this a welcome change from sub-Saharan despair? I like the cover — I just have […]

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