May 21, 2012

So you think Star Wars is Science Fiction, do you?

classic Star Wars A New Hope poster art

Could Star Wars Really be Fantasy?

If it looks like science fiction, is that the end of the story? Is the entire genre of sci-fi really only defined by the presence of props like spaceships, robots and laser-gun technology? By intergalactic travel and alien life forms?

The genre of sci-fi is a bit more complicated than you might think and is commonly misinterpreted, even by authors such as Margaret Atwood, who said one of her novels is not science fiction because “It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." I would like to argue that the elements Atwood is talking about are central to aesthetic, not genre. But why would I call Star Wars fantasy? Here are some good reasons:

1. The definition

Sci-fi and fantasy are so similar that they go under one umbrella genre called Speculative Fiction. (Sadly they can also go under the category of formula fiction, but I digress). Science fiction is future-oriented and presents a world that is speculated to be possible, and is presented as within the realm of scientific possibility, where fantasy presents the purely impossible.

Star Wars takes place “A long, long time ago.” It takes place in the past. You could argue that it’s still the past in our universe, just in a galaxy “far, far away,” but there’s one problem. The Force is not in any way possible in our universe’s past or future.

2. What is The Force?

Magic gets called a lot of things in the world of Fantasy. In The Wheel of Time, it’s the One Power, the source, saidin or saidar (it’s called a lot of things in The Wheel of Time). I’m sure if you look at some of your favourite fantasy tomes, some of them will use the term magic, and others won’t. It’s ‘power’ or ‘energy’ or um ... 'the Force'.

The Force doesn’t even look like technology. The only counter-argument to this that I could think of is that the Force could be considered physics with different rules, which would make it somewhat scientific... but then isn’t that what magic is? Only certain people can use it, some people don’t even believe in it, and it’s a way of manipulating the world around you according to certain rules. And if Star Wars takes place “in a galaxy far, far away...” then it’s supposed to be in our Universe, so how would there be different rules of physics? (and how would there be magic that doesn’t exist in our world... oh shit.)

3. Conventions:

Star Wars, unlike most science fiction, isn’t about the effects of a new technology on a given society.

Star Wars is a story with a hero on a personal quest, facing a personal battle. It’s about said hero's struggles, relationships and accomplishments. The war here is basically good vs. evil. How is this so different from Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings?

I can tell you what it’s not similar to. It’s not similar to sci-fi staples such as The Matrix, TerminatorDonnie Darko, or Bladerunner. Is the evil a person or an entity? That’s a pretty good hint as to what genre it belongs to. In Minority Report the antagonist is the software that tries to predict whether someone is going to commit murder. In Terminator, like in A.I. or I Robot, it’s artificial life. Same with Battlestar Galactica. Click the "sci fi" label at the bottom of this post for more examples (including new flicks like In Time, Timer and Limitless). On the other hand, I've heard the same argument I'm making about Star Wars used against Dune by Frank Herbert.

The enemies in Star Wars include the Empire (an organisation of people), Darth Vader, and Emperor Palpatine. Harry Potter has Lord Voldemort and Lord of the Rings has Sauron. Tolkien was very anti-industrial revolution (late as he was to the game), and rampant deforestation was one of the evils Sauron threatened, but it wasn’t the development of chainsaws that Frodo journeyed to Mount Doom to counter. It was a person. Kind of like Darth Vader.

Fantasy conventions also tend to include, sadly, archetypes. Obi Wan Kenobi is Luke’s Dumbledore/Gandalf. Name a Fantasy that doesn’t have the magical guide. Now name a sci-fi that does. On my comment board. Go!

Star Wars A New Hope movie poster High Quality HQ


  1. You're right about all fantasy elements in 'Star Wars.' I still think the dichotomy is a little off, though. Descriptively, it's high-tech, fantasy space opera. It could be called 'sci-fi' in the perjorative: i.e., mass market genre-based pulp fiction that does 'science fiction' very poorly ... or even fails. And 'science fiction' fans who like more science in their fiction and less/no fantasy elements (Just kept SF narratives extrapolative etc., thank you!) would be loath to call it anything with 'science' or 'sci' in it.

    Could we call 'Star Wars' SF, though? This question is probably even worse, lol! SF is supposedly a more highbrow way to avoid the affliction of being 'sci-fi,' at least in some ways. Many elitist SF fans would find it affronting to categorise it as such as well. Some obviously wouldn't care. But, just to take the point seriously for a moment longer... Is 'Star Wars' subversive? And does it have any narrative content of value of a higher order than what we would expect in trashy pulp fiction? Well, yeah. It has loads of it, and it's interwoven into the story in such a way that it gets into the minds of the common viiewer without their knowing. That's subversive, right? I mean, whether you like mythology etc., or not. But, is it enough to elevate from sci-fi to SF or should we just relegate it to fantasy and be done with it? You probably have a positive place for fantasy, but for many 'science fiction' fans, there could be nothing worse ... nothing more derogatory.

    Marginal or liminal narratives have a difficult time in some ways because of boundary politicking, which often occurs at the margins. 'Star Wars' is an interesting case. It's not rubbish just because it's for children, is it, lol? It cold still be serious even though it's not serious SF for highbrow adults. Anyway ...

    The Death Star as a piece of technology had a big impact on more than one society.

    1. My concern isn't really what would offend sci-fi fans or SF fans, but what Star Wars is actually doing with the technology it presents and the magic it makes use of.

      In my opinion, these genres aren't marginalized because people are nit-picky about where the boundaries lie, but because they don't try to break out of the box. Take Lost for example. Most people probably wouldn't call Lost a sci-fi; they would call it action/adventure or drama. Lost managed to break out of the box and not get marginalized because, although it had sci-fi/Fantasy elements, it didn't have space ships OR wizards. If you think about it, Star Wars has both.

      I'm not trying to relegate it to Fantasy (or as Tolkien said in "On Fairy Stories", to the nursery), but I'm saying that most people just assume it's sci-fi and don't really think about it. And then there are the people you're talking about who get all offended when you use the word "science" in relation to Star Wars at all. It's probably something of a mix of both and definitely worth exploring, not in terms of what people assume it is without really thinking about it, and not in terms of what offends the die-hards of the genre, but in terms of the elements we actually find within the film.

      And you're very right about the Death Star. Scary technology, but was it the enemy? That said, Star Wars does work better as Space Opera than sci-fi. Luke's out to stop the Empire because of the kinds of things it gets up to, blowing up Alderaan and such, but it's not the same as creating Cylons to do your chores and then finding out they have the free will to throw you out an airlock. It's not a technology he's against, but a person, and that works for Space Opera.

  2. Star Wars is a cleverly written story. We live in an age where our myths have never really kept up with the pace of life. There are a lot of opinions on why this is but we certainly live in age filled with old religious dogma that takes up a great deal of room. Star Wars takes up on age old stories that have been all but lost today - but that is why it has so much mystique and means so much to generations who are left floundering around without the guidance of myths.

    Joseph Campbell wrote quite a bit about it before his death in 1987- he was the master of old myths and had a great deal of respect for the concepts behind Star Wars. Check it out though: the Empire has parallels with modern life, as does the rebellion, the force is undoubtedly a metaphor for karmic forces or the Tao or the holy spirit or the force of love- whichever floats your boat- it's just another way of transmitting the myth. Other motifs include Luke's search for his father, which appears in a ton of old myths, Homeric, Oriental, Hindu - it's all there.

    Star Wars is an inspiring piece of work - I hope it inspires you to investigate the stories behind it even further- they are just as fascinating. They say science fiction is the new mythology- only we look to the future now rather than the past- Star Wars may well be one of it's Bibles.

  3. Hey, thanks for the comment! I'll be sure to check out Campbell's writings. A blog post about Star Wars within the literary tradition with a look at myths would be right up my alley!