(Author’s Note: I wrote this essay in late November; I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening night, December 17. Now I’m excited to write a second essay, but everything I wrote here still stands.)
I was in high school when Star Wars: Episode I hit theaters.
And I was psyched.
At this point only one magic word would convince me to lay down my dish pit money, and that word was “lightsabers.” I owned every Star Wars comic Dark Horse ever published. I can still give you a beat–for–beat account of the Tragedy of Ulic Qel–Droma. I thought Nomi Sunrider was a fantastic character name. (I still kind of do.) There’s a dude in those comics who is a tree, and a Jedi who is a rhinoceros, and they’re fantastic. I owned all the EU books. I played the tabletop RPG. I watched fanvids obsessively; I still would basically melt if I ever met Kevin Rubio face to face.
So I argued long and hard until my folks let me join two older kids and drive down to Tullahoma’s dingy three–screen cinema to wait in line eight hours for the midnight showing. And when we rattled up into the parking lot…
We were early, but the line grew behind us. By seven, it wasn’t so much a line as a village. Vader–caped dads and girls in opening crawl T–shirts sprawled across the parking lot. Folk set up lawn chairs and grilled. Someone returned from the Wal–Mart across the field with a trunk full of toy lightsabers—including the way cool Darth Maul two–bladed one. A melee developed. I abandoned my Taco Bell Collectible Yoda Cup, asked if I could join, and spent what I remember as an hour engaged in an enormous free–for–all saber brawl in an empty corner of the lot. Everyone was there. Everyone was ready.
Now, Middle Tennessee wasn’t generally a great home for this particular young Northern transplant nerdling. By 1999 the sickening grind of grade school eased into a less violent, but also debilitating, loneliness. I assumed no one around me liked the things I did, and I hadn’t yet figured out how to talk about things I liked with people who didn’t know much about them, but were game for a good conversation.
Yet here I stood, in Tullahoma of all places, dueling with lightsabers and talking Sith in a village of people who had turned up on a weeknight because they cared about this story I loved.
Sabers! 64–ounce cokes! Movies incoming! T–shirts and Vader masks and faces painted like Darth Maul! I didn’t question where this mass of Star Wars fans came from, which is, I think, a sign of the weirdness of the moment. No explanation seemed possible, so why grope for one?
It didn’t occur to me until much, much later that the story I loved was much, much bigger than I’d ever imagined.
Many books and films add vocabulary to geekdom, but Star Wars changed the conversation. Was Star Wars particularly inventive, from a character and setting perspective? No. Lensmen + Dune – (Incest + Eugenics) + Wookies, and you’re close enough for government work. Innocent farmboy, galactic rogue, talky robots, elder swordsman, evil Emperor, princess with moxie, these tropes thrived for generations before Lucas gave them silver screen life. Lucas’ pure Campbellian monomyth dazzles, but it’s not fresh.
If you want to talk innovation, Star Wars’ luxurious production, crisp editing, fantastic puppetry, and groundbreaking special effects changed filmmaking, and of course the Star Wars marketing and merchandising juggernaut changed the way films are bought and sold. This Death Star–sized gravity of money warped the universe to geekdom’s benefit (we like to think), but these are second–order effects. New technologies and Boba Fett lunchboxes changed the market of science fiction and fantasy, but they didn’t change the conditions under which writers and readers of the genres write and read.
Star Wars’ sheer popularity, however, did. Star Wars: A New Hope sold 162 million tickets. Star Trek had been a prominent subculture, but Star Wars became core culture. (The difference: there’s a term for a fan of Star Trek, and every Trekkie or Trekker has an opinion as to what that proper term is. There’s never been a term, so far as I know, for fans of Star Wars—people feel more of a need to defend themselves for not liking, or never having seen, the films.) This runaway success changed the way science fiction and fantasy are created and conceived, by radically expanding the number of people familiar with the basic tropes and language of space opera in specific, and SF and fantasy in general.
After Star Wars, core tropes, tools, and markers of SF were available to millions of people who lacked any investment in the genre community’s arguments about what SF was, what it should be, and what it could do. Most Star Wars viewers had never heard of Hugo Gernsback or John W. Campbell, and still haven’t. Most Star Wars viewers had no stake in the New Wave vs. Old Trough debate. Most Star Wars readers lacked nostalgia, authentic or acquired, for the “Golden Age of SF,” whatever and whenever that might have been. Most Star Wars viewers hadn’t read Foundation, or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Which is to say: most Star Wars viewers weren’t part of the genre discourse arising from 1950s US pulp publishing. Star Wars made the barrier to entry for SF storytelling so low as to be nonexistent.
This is cool, and this is dangerous.
It’s cool, because it means that basically everyone who grew up after 1977 is a genre native whether they realize it or not. Writers write SF for a number of reasons: some to prognosticate, some to experiment with form and style beyond the limits of contemporary “mainstream” literature, some to write solvin’–problems–with–slide–rule stories, some to pay tribute to works they’ve loved by following in their formal footsteps, some to argue with the futures presented in SF they read, or to build visions of themselves in those worlds and futures. But before Star Wars, most readers and writers learned SF like converts learn a religion, and like any converts were susceptible to misinformation and bad dogma. After Star Wars, new writers had grown up in hyperspace; they knew SF simply by exposure to the Western media sphere—and as a result the notion that science fiction might be for anyone, that science fiction existed to do anything in particular, lost coherence. Old masters no longer owned the genre’s tools, nor could they dictate the conditions of their use. And we can see this, I think, in the rising storytellers born after ’77—reaching for common linguistic and cultural tools, which happen to be science fictional tools, to tell stories that matter to us, for our own reasons. If those stories fit into a pre–existing genre conversation, well, that’s nice, but hardly essential. We came to genre storytelling as to the manner born, and looking around, we see some customs better honored in the breach than the observance.
(Of course, Star Wars isn’t the only text that functions this way. Star Trek liberated too, and Tolkien, and Rowling for a later generation of fantasists. Tabletop roleplaying encouraged the repossession of old tropes and terms in a campfire—or around–the–dinner–table—model. The Final Fantasy video games sold millions of copies and contributed a lot more to the aesthetics of modern fantasy and SF than histories that focus on texts tend to credit. And myths from the Mahabharata to the Anansi stories provide an enormous range of discourse. But Star Wars helped.)
All that said—Star Wars is also dangerous. Star Wars is in many ways a Golden Age space opera text, and the tools it offers are Golden Age tools. While most Star Wars viewers weren’t core SF readers, they also weren’t readers of LeGuin, Delany, Russ, or Butler, of the whole range of writers who held the genre’s tools and tropes up to the light, inverted and refined them. Storytellers who don’t know the genre beyond its mass media projections may reach for familiar tools, only to find those tools have unexpected edges that gouge the wielder as much as the work. (Yes, it’s a mistake to attribute linear development to literature—but look, I’m not going to go into a full analysis of literature in this essay, okay?) Star Wars has few women (though Leia is awesome); Star Wars has very few people of color (though Lando, ditto); Star Wars features an evil empire dedicated to fear, hatred, and the advancement of upper–class white (British) men, but if you’re not watching for the Nazi uniforms and the causal criminalization of non–humans, women, and droids, it’s easy to miss the point. Star Wars made the genre tent bigger than it had ever been before, but folks who enter the tent knowing nothing but Star Wars might find themselves fighting battles that have been won, or lost, for decades.
Of course, these days Star Wars is hardly the only science fictional mass media property. The world is full of mass media languages that Western genre readers class as SF or fantasy (some of which, like Japanese comics and wuxia films, have little to do with the Western genre tradition). Comic book tropes dominate screens; SF classics old and new are being adapted by the armful. Young Adult literature is full of a certain kind of SF, and it’s hard to find a video game that lacks a SFnal element. So, allowing that Star Wars changed the game—does it still matter?
I think so. Star Wars is foundational. The saga’s enormous cultural momentum and international appeal make it a juggernaut in any medium, and Disney’s enormous investment in new Star Wars movies, a Star Wars theme park, and more Star Wars television, signals that the Mouse thinks he’s bought a winning horse. Disney wants to do this right; every promotional beat and still for The Force Awakens dog whistles “We get it; we won’t screw this up” to an audience burned by the prequel trilogy, while offering hooks and eye–kicks aplenty for new viewers. Disney is spending a lot of money on these films, and expects to make that money back. The Force Awakens and its sequels will not be the main voice in SF for a generation of writers and readers, but they will be powerful members of the chorus, shaping a generation’s SF.
So the work done in The Force Awakens, even in its trailers, matters. It matters that John Boyega looks to be our young Jedi point–of–view character this time around, an especially inspired bit of casting considering Boyega’s previous high–profile role as Moses in Attack the Block, in which he played a young man ultimately arrested for saving the world—a final kicker of social commentary in a film that wasted no opportunity to tweak genre conventions around people of color. I’m overjoyed to see Moses bust free of that London jail as a Jedi out to save the whole fucking universe. It matters that our other POV seems to be Daisy Ridley’s Rey, spelunking into crashed Star Destroyers like a boss. It matters that Han and Leia and Luke are around, and Han at least seems overjoyed to pass his heroic mantle down to a new generation of heroes—down to this particular new generation of heroes, without even a beat’s concern that this generation looks a bit different than the last. (Learn from Han.) And it matters that the new Expanded Universe embraces this mission, with gay relationships prominently featured in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath. It matters because, if Star Wars helped make genre storytelling the native idiom of a generation, these choices redefine what’s normal for that native idiom. Stories are holy rites, and those who pass those rites on to the next generation have a duty to refine those rites, or reform them.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens will adjust our cultural impressions of space opera and science fiction for good or ill. I hope it will be for good. I don’t have any special knowledge. I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers. Abrams might have gotten it wrong. The film might suck. Time certainly hasn’t been kind to the film I saw in that dingy three–screen Tullahoma theater.
But I have tickets. Come opening day I’ll be shivering in line outside a Boston movie theater.
And despite prequels, despite everything, I will be psyched.
© 2016 by Max Gladstone