On Star Wars
On Not Flying Solo in Hyperspace
We all knows the scene. The Millennium Falcon fleeing pursuit jumps into hyperspace. For a moment the stars become lines and the audience cheers. At least that’s what happened the far too many times I saw the original Star Wars at the age of fifteen (this was before it was A New Hope). I’m putting in the biographical information because it should be held against me in making this strangely slanted defense. I was at the right age to have my head blown off by the visuals of Star Wars.
Don’t get me wrong, this was not by any stretch of the imagination my first exposure to SF. I was a science fiction fan long before I saw the movie. I had read my way through most of the major writers of the time and several from before that time, and had watched Star Trek and 2001 and all the other required viewing for a fan of that era. Everything that showed up on the screen in that initial viewing of Star Wars I had already read from one author or another: hyperspace from Niven, robots from Asimov, an order of psychic good guys from E. E. “Doc” Smith. Even at the overly impressionable age I then was, I knew that I was watching fun sci-fi, not original science fiction.
At the time I had no ambitions to be a science fiction writer, nor were my friends proto-writers. We did not discuss the movie in terms of its place in the canon of science fiction; we just sat back and enjoyed the view, the dialogue (particularly Leia’s dialogue) and the events as they unfolded before our eyes. We had no concerns about the movie’s relation to the broader context of science fiction.
Now, far too many years later, I am called to look back upon it from the seat of the writer and ask whether or not the source of the experience I had as a fifteen-year-old has created a general perception of SF that is good for the field overall.
In two critical respects the Star Wars movies have been good for SF, although the ways they have been good are backhanded.
I do not defend the movies as good SF; they are not. However, I do maintain that they did a great favor for all of us who write SF and those who read that writing, because they took away the need for post-Star Wars SF writers to waste space explaining certain things. I also maintain that in the long run the Star Wars movies will have done us a very strange favor by drawing the audience for cinematic writing to the cinema. These two favors are not strictly connected, so I won’t bother to try. I will start with the case that is easier to make.
Star Wars Has Given Us Useful Shorthand
One of the most common problems facing a writer, particularly an SF/F writer, is having to explain what his or her characters are undergoing and what they are seeing and what the implications of those experiences are without losing the audience’s interest. In some genres this is not a real problem. Romance writers and their edgier counterparts can spend page after page going on about the minutiae of certain commonplace events without worrying about boring their readers. But in SF/F the writer has to explain the less racy aspects of the world the characters are in and sometimes has to clarify such oddities as doors, windows, foods, means of transportation, religions, architectural styles, etc., etc., etc. All books, classes and workshops on writing SF help student writers deal with these problems using a variety of strategies and tricks which I won’t detail here. But behind all the sophisticated methods lies the simplest trick, a writing tool that is employed every day by everybody: familiarity.
This tool is based on the principle that it is easy to write what is familiar to the audience. An example: for just about the last century a writer could pen the following sentence without risk of confusing the reader:
Norma answered the ringing phone.
However, if an author in 1850 had tried to write a story with telephones in it, that author could not have written the above, because no one would know what a telephone was, why it rang or what it meant to answer it. This hypothetical author would have had to explain how a telephone worked or how people used them in their daily lives. Depending on the author’s skill this would have taken anywhere from a paragraph to several pages. As a real instance of this, L. Frank Baum in the book Tik-Tok of Oz (1914) has a magical wireless telephone. He needs a paragraph to explain it to an audience used to wired telephones. Nowadays one could use the phrase “magic cell phone” and need nothing more.
A basic truth of writing is that what is familiar is easy to write and easy to communicate. Speechwriters for politicians use easy short phrases (such as “I love my country,” “Support our troops,” “Enemies Bad!”) that are familiar to their hearers and will quickly connect to their audiences’ thoughts. A person trying to write something subtle, unfamiliar or nuanced to counter one of these slogans has to take a lot of time, effort and well-chosen words to create as strong a mental connection as familiar phrases can bring across in just a few words.
The point is that the single sentence above about the telephone communicates the same information as a multipage explanation of the prevalence and usage of the telephone in our society.
Herein lies the help Star Wars has given us. It has placed a number of science fiction concepts into the realm of the familiar for the broad mainstream audience. In so doing it allows present-day writers to say things like:
The ship jumped into hyperspace.
The hologram showed their battle tactics.
The evil overlord killed his third subordinate of the morning.
Star Wars was by no means the first popular sci-fi to do this favor for the field in general. It is thanks to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon that we can casually use ray-guns in stories, and thanks to Star Trek that people can teleport all over the place (as long as you call it beaming). Post-Star Wars movies like Back to the Future have done the same thing with time travel, drawing it down into a commonplace.
So what’s the benefit to writers?
We are relieved of the need to explain those concepts Star Wars placed in front of the audience. This gives us more space in our writing to talk about other things we want to talk about. Everything that need not be explained is a savings to writers, giving us more room to work. This is also of benefit to readers, who don’t have to slog through explanations to get to the meat of the story and are not forced to waste mindspace taking in basic ideas when the author would rather explore beyond those ideas.
One can think of Star Wars and other popular sci-fi as labor-saving devices like electric mixers or power drills. They reduce the work of some tasks, leaving us time, space and energy to concentrate on our stories, characters and those aspects of our worlds that are interesting and unique.
It might be argued that the above only works if we make our worlds like the worlds of sci-fi, but even if our worlds are radically different, we can take advantage of the familiarity they have created.
Consider the following possible line from a piece of hard SF:
“No, we can’t get around the speed of light. Listen to me! There is no hyperspace, no warp drive, none of those damn cheats. Einstein found the limit and we’re stuck with it. Now shut up and drive; it’s a long haul to Alpha Centauri.”
The above example uses our readers’ awareness of these sci-fi tropes to say they don’t exist in the story being written. We don’t have to explain the speed of light limit or talk about the ways it can’t be broken; we only have to reference the canonical cheats and say they don’t work.
This is by no means the limit of the ways to use the familiar. We can draw upon these tropes to put in twisted variations:
“You want to fly in hyperspace, girl, you try it. It ain’t like the vids have it. Hyperspace isn’t some flat safe place. It’s like a river. It’s got currents and eddies and falls and it’s got, well, let’s call them fish for want of a better word.”
This paragraph creates a kind of hyperspace wholly unlike the Star Wars concept, but it still exploits the conception portrayed in the movies. Since the idea of space travel through an alternate space is already in the reader’s mind, we can change it.
Consider the panoply of things presented by the six Star Wars movies, good, bad and indifferent: space battles, robots, aliens of many shapes, clones, tepid systems of spirituality and magic powers, cyborgs and so on. None of these are original, but that’s not important. They have become familiar, and that is all we need to exploit them for our own ends.
Uh, and the interests and amusements of our readers. Yeah.
Star Wars Spells Doom for Cinematic Books
Having been canonical, I’m now going to become all heretical and stuff (insert obvious dark side joke here). Star Wars was and is astoundingly visual. The first movie was, if not the marker point, certainly one of the points at which special effects came of age and emerged as a strong, vital part of moviemaking.
Many writers’ reaction to Star Wars–in particular the reaction of the generation of writers who grew up on it–was to create strongly cinematic writing, books and stories that were heavily visual because the strongest impressions made on the authors were visual. This tendency has grown even stronger in recent years with the increase in quality of movie, TV and video game special effects. It is becoming canon in the teaching of writing, particularly SF/F writing, that one must be visual and concrete.
I would like to venture the opinion that this is fighting a losing battle. Visually, books cannot compete with movies anymore. The special effects have become good enough that, in terms of pure, in-your-eyes imagery, imagination fails in comparison to the best work that comes out of Henson’s Creature Shop, the various animation studios and the specialty CGI workshops. Furthermore, since these effects are continually improving, I think that the movie creators have not only edged out the book authors on this one point, but that the gap is only growing to grow. In the field of visuals, we who write books will be left behind.
Writers therefore have three courses of action: try to outdo the movies in SFX (this is no longer possible), treat books as farm teams for movie scripts (that is, write books for the purpose of having them adapted as movies), or (and this is the one I favor) concentrate on the non-cinematic strengths of writing. In other words, write not for the superficial sensory imagination but to the deeper aspects of imagination.
I favor the third option for several reasons. First, it’s the kind of writing I like to do and to read (which is why you should distrust everything I say on this point). Second, it plays to the strengths of writing as an art form. Third, in the long run I think it’s the only thing that will help writing to survive as an independent art form (as opposed to being an adjunct to moviemaking). And fourth, writing was never the best visual art; it never succeeded well when it directly competed with painting, dance and sculpture–let alone with movies and TV.
What are the strengths of writing that I’m talking about?
That this question can even be asked shows how far we in the field have become dominated by the visual. If you consider what writing does best, you can quickly see that it is the art that has the easiest time dealing with and playing with the meaning of things. Words are the strongest conveyers of meaning; they are weak at conveying image, appearance and even sound. Meanings are what words were created to convey, and words are our raw materials as paint is for painters and stone for sculptors. Wordsmith is a synonym for writer, and we work words the way a blacksmith works iron.
Writing is also the best medium for conveying the processes of thinking. In every other art form, giving the audience the thoughts of the beings involved is hideously hard. It is considered a great tribute to a painter if you can look at an image in one of his or her works and figure out what is supposed to be on the mind of the person depicted. The same difficulty applies to acting; it is the epitome of an actor’s art to let the viewer into the character’s mind.
But in writing, this is so easy that we don’t even notice that we’re doing it:
Fred hated Wilma. The fire truck’s sirens brought back the air raid fears of Charlie’s youth during the Blitz. Agnes wished Walter wouldn’t talk to their children in that squeaky voice; it was creepy, not funny.
Writing is strongest at getting inside of things, of seeing below the surface into the depths, into the associations of things and thoughts, because that’s how words work. Words are themselves associative, drawing out memories and ideas in multiple ways.
Consider these two words combined to create another word:
The thought that is elicited by the third word is not the combination of the thoughts from the first two; it is a distinct remembrance. The same of course applies to Millennium and Falcon.
Even if one is not playing around with names, one can see how association changes meaning.
Red means a particular color.
Red light means stop.
Red light district means a place you shouldn’t go but are tempted to.
The absolute best writing uses these connections and associations, as well as burrows into the minds of characters to create a scene that exists mostly below the visible surface. But so does mediocre, adequate and bad writing. There is no need to be a genius writer in order to write about the connections of people’s thoughts, the associations, the emotions, the feelings, the ways people think, the paths they follow that lead to their salvation, damnation and day-to-day living. To bring these out does not require great writing as it does great acting, great painting or great dancing.
This is a good test for what is easiest in a particular art: is genius required to do it?
Let us return to Star Wars and consider the character of Anakin Skywalker. The most recent three movies have been about Anakin’s fall into darkness and his taking of the Jedi with him. I do not propose to do more than hint subliminally, using the subtle arts of writing, as to how well I think this was portrayed (badly). The portrayal of such a fall on the screen would take a combination of great actor, director and screenwriter. But in a purely written story, it’s not much work. The conflicts and confusions of such a character could be easily put down on paper. I don’t think there’s a need to give examples since the number of literary characters who fall believably into darkness is enormous (particularly in Russian literature).
It may sound like I am advocating the removal of all visual elements from writing, which I am not. Rather, I think that writing has never been strongest at the purely visual. I think we are better off putting our efforts into those parts of writing that writing does best and that are hard for other arts.
Here’s another such strength: movies take great effort to create a mood from their visual environments, using lighting and atmosphere to make things feel a certain way to their audiences. But a writer can do so in a single line.
Bone-bit, coat-soaked, Harry ducked into the archway to shiver away from the winter’s-coming-and-you-can’t-stop-it rainfall.
Slipping down and rolling over together in the no-longer-mist, May and Oliver reveled in the spring rainfall.
Not great prose, of course, but it doesn’t have to be; that’s the point. Mood is easy for writing, hard for movies.
What does all this have to do with the effect of Star Wars on the consciousness of our audience? Here we enter the realm of prediction . . . and I must confess that my track record on predictions is not a good one, so take everything to follow with a decent-sized ocean’s worth of salt.
It seems to me that Star Wars and the movies and TV shows that were created because of its success have molded an audience that will soon no longer find special effects special. They will come to expect impressive effects as a matter of course. Indications are that they probably already do. The special effects-heavy moviemakers have been handling this rising expectation by targeting their movies at a particular demographic, mostly teenaged boys. This gives us a growing audience beyond this age that will be slaked on visual effects.
Several different desires are likely to rise up in the minds of such an audience. Some will want to get a new fix of SFX, but they are bound to disappointment as the next dose will seem duller than the last. Others will find themselves dissatisfied with the simple presence of SFX and want something more in their entertainment. Those are the ones that writers should go after.
This segment of the audience will be amenable to books that will feed the parts of their minds that the movies have neglected. The moviemakers will not notice this audience since they have set their sights on a demographic, not a group of individuals. They are catering only to an age group, not asking what those same people will be doing for entertainment when they are beyond that age group. I think that written science fiction and fantasy can bring them in if it does not try to be second-rate moviemaking. If the books this audience is given are too cinematic, they will only disappoint, whereas if the books show what the movies cannot and do not, they can bring in, hold and nurture the orphans of Star Wars who will grow up as SF readers.
Closing Arguments for the Defense
Star Wars has placed a set of tropes and visual expectations into the minds of a vast audience and has disseminated those tropes and expectations into the ambient culture.
This has given SF/F writers a base of materials from which to more easily work and which we can more easily transcend if we choose to do so.
Thus it can be argued that although Star Wars creates an overly uniform view of SF, we can use that uniformity in order to spring forth into a greater diversity of science fiction. In this way the influence of Star Wars on public consciousness has been a good one.
The Defense rests without any obligatory Using the Force, Fandom Menace or New Hope jokes. Thank you.