Why I Hate ‘Star Wars’

Formulaic franchises have sucked the life and creativity from science fiction.

By Crawford Kilian 22 Dec 2017 |

Contributing editor Crawford Kilian is the author of 11 science fiction and fantasy novels.

We are now 40 years into the Star Wars phenomenon, which itself is an endless rehash of pulp science fiction of the 1930s and 40s. While I’m happy for the shareholders of Disney who profit from ever more Star Wars movies and merchandise, I’m sorry for the fans of Stars Wars and other movie franchises. They have no idea what they’ve been robbed of.

Science fiction was once a serious genre with a vast following. H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and others introduced not just new scientific ideas, but a useful way to satirize the triumphant West of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The War of the Worlds, for example, is British imperialism seen from the other end of the cannon.

As these ideas filtered down to the masses, they were sensationalized; by the 1920s, “scientifiction” became both a popular genre and a market. Cheap magazines with lurid covers offered journeys to Mars and combat with bug-eyed monsters threatening nubile girls in skintight space suits. The geeky teenage boys reading this stuff yearned to write it as well, and many did.

Some of those boys were smart and talented, and delighted to see their stuff published at a penny a word. They seemed to be in a competition to see who could exploit the latest scientific finding with the wildest extrapolation. Most of their stuff was corny and forgettable, but young guys like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke inspired other young guys to write even better — or to go into science and make science fiction come true. That was the Golden Age.

Almost a respectable genre again

By the 1950s, though, the pulp sci-fi era was coming to an end, done in by TV and movies. Science fiction itself was maturing with its audience and its authors, and debating countless new ideas: the population explosion, nuclear war, the very definition of a human being. Kurt Vonnegut’s novels made science fiction a respectable literary form of satire again.

Star Wars killed all that.

George Lucas was himself a very well-educated young man, and he’d clearly loved the pulps when he was a boy. The original Star Wars, and its immediate sequels, were homages to pulps like Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories — the magazines I’d gorged on from the age of eight or nine. Some images in those films could have been lifted from one of Alex Schomburg’s exhilarating covers.

I enjoyed the first Star Wars movie, if only as a vindication of my pre-adolescent literary taste. But as the years and sequels ground on, I realized that the wild ecosystem of ideas in pulp science fiction was being smothered by an invasive species. An audience with no knowledge of the original genre was now gobsmacked by the seeming originality of Stars Wars — like early Elvis Presley fans who’d ignored the black musicians before him.

It wasn’t just Star Wars; Star Trek was another franchise. The Trekkie parties at science fiction conventions were one reason why I stopped going to conventions. (In Vulcan, Alberta, then hosting a Trekkie event, a hotel clerk once told me she hated Star Trek.)

The Lord of the Rings transformed folk tale, myth and epic into a whole new fantasy genre — instantly turned into an industrial commodity with endless ripoffs and endless sequels. I saw too many promising young writers creating similar ripoffs, complete with elves and orcs.

Many such writers became “sharecroppers” — poorly paid hacks banging out novels set in the Star Wars or Star Trek universes, all to satisfy an audience not yet past the toddler stage of wanting the same bedtime story read again and again. Their books crowded whole shelves of the sci-fi sections of the dwindling number of bookstores.

In a way, I don’t even blame them. The great stories of Western literature themselves come out of “franchises.” The Iliad and The Odyssey inspired any number of stories about the Trojan War. Taken together, those stories formed a genre called “the matter of Troy.” Tales of King Arthur and his knights became “the matter of Britain.” Stories of chivalric Christian warriors, “the matter of France,” were so common in Renaissance Europe that it took Cervantes’ Don Quixote to laugh them out of existence.

Those chivalric heroes, like zombies, have come back to ghastly life in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And over the last 40 years, the mass entertainment market has turned a literature of new ideas into a literature of new special effects.

I wouldn’t mind if the franchises at least tried to explore the worlds they portray. What’s the economic and political basis of the Empire, and why should Darth Vader serve it? What taxpayers covered the overruns on the building of the Death Star, and what did they think of its destruction? In the latest iteration, how come Luke, Leia, et al. failed to build a new society that wouldn’t succumb to a Vader clone in a generation?

Fighting the Klingons in your pajamas

Similarly, the Star Trek universe is free of human conflict beyond minor personal squabbles; so how come the USS Enterprise is run like a Second World War battleship, with a white guy giving formal orders from the bridge? Couldn’t Captain Kirk fight the Klingons from his bunk, in his pajamas, with a VR mask strapped on?

When a genre gets big and formulaic enough, it germinates the seeds of its own destruction, as Cervantes showed. Old stories get an ironic twist; in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare blew up the matter of Troy with Achilles as a thug, the lovers as lechers, and unpopular Thersites as the bitter commentator on their folly.

That may happen to the current science fiction franchises (the superheroes already laugh at themselves), but the true new hope lies in a new generation of younger writers clinging to their own visions. Some have built audiences of loyal, idea-hungry readers. Others are fighting to acquire comparable readerships.

Notably, many of the most promising new writers are women from varied backgrounds: Finland’s Emmi Itäranta, Nigeria’s Nnedi Okoraphor, France's Aliette De Bodard and Vancouver’s own Mexican-born Silvia Moreno-García among them. Significantly, they are hard to classify as “genre” writers when their stories defy classification: science, fantasy, mystery, and folktale merge into something new and constantly shifting.

The secret of franchising is to give people the same thing over and over, with just a surprise or two. Hence the dread of “spoilers,” which threaten to expose the sameness of the whole experience. The new writers are virtually immune to franchising because every story is a surprise. Such stories can be demanding, but they can also be dazzling, offering new ways of seeing and responding to the world.

They actually look like a new Golden Age in the making.  [Tyee]

Read more: Media, Film

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