The other day, the wife and I were having one of our walks, and I said to her how much I wished that I could feel a part of the whole Star Wars phenomenon, that I was glad all my friends were so excited about this new movie coming out, and that I was somewhat jealous of their enthusiasm. “It’s like being Jewish at Christmas,” she said. “All the people you know are really geared up for something special that is completely alien to your culture.”
Oh, you must be one of those people who doesn’t like science fiction, you might say to me, accusingly, but the exact opposite is the case—I cannot enjoy Star Wars precisely because it is not science fiction. Sure, it has space ships and lasers and robots, but these are only the trappings of science fiction. The defining aspect of science fiction is, in my eyes, that first word—“science”—which denotes a critical attitude toward our shared world, one which demands hard evidence to back up any assertions made.
A while back, I quipped to some friends that the difference between science fiction and horror is that the latter is actually very conservative. Listen to that crazy old man, don’t go into these woods on a full moon, don’t transgress these boundaries, don’t engage in premarital sex on isolated country roads, do take your daughter to a religious specialist rather than a hospital because that’s surely a demon possessing her, rather than some other condition. There are things that you do not understand, that you cannot understand, and you will be punished if you try.
Science, by contrast, is the ongoing quest to understand reality, often in the face of tremendous obstacles, and the heroes of science fiction are those people who try to comprehend, those who push the boundaries raised up in front of them. Think Golan Trevize in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth, who journeys the galaxy in order to understand the truth behind the supposed success of the Seldon Plan. Think Kris Kelvin and the others aboard Solaris Station in Stanislaw Lem’s unparalleled classic, struggling to understand an ostensibly sentient planet. Think most every protagonist from a Philip K. Dick story who must confront the question of what constitutes actual reality. In fact, this is why science fiction proves the perfect genre for those who seek to critique culture, from 1984 to Fahrenheit 451, for the scientific stance is the one that threatens established authority, as it deals with issues of truth—even Truth, we might say.
And this is why, even though it’s arguably a very silly movie, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier ranks as a very viable piece of science fiction. Very short synopsis: Vulcan renegade (and half-brother to Spock) Sybok (played by Arkansas native Laurence Luckinbill) leads a gang of outlaws that carjacks the starship Enterprise in order to take it to the center of the galaxy, where there supposedly resides Sha-Ka-Ree, or God. Sybok manages to sway members of the crew to his cause through a kind of emotional manipulation in which he reveals to them the source of their utmost pain and then “removes” that pain. For McCoy, to give an example, it was assisting in the death of his father, who was suffering an incurable condition, shortly before a cure was found. Very basic cult stuff, isn’t it? Kirk, however, refuses to undergo this, insisting that his pain is what keeps him going forward. They arrive at galactic central, Sybok and the others go down to the planet of Sha-Ka-Ree, and there they find God. God is pleased with their journey and expresses a desire to use their starship in order to spread his word throughout the cosmos. And here, Kirk asks the question that my good friend Jarod never gets tired of quoting: “What does God need with a starship?” Well, it turns out that this isn’t God but rather some powerful alien who had long ago been imprisoned on this planet. Said alien is defeated, and the crew goes on with their mission.
And this is what I mean about science fiction embodying the scientific stance toward reality. “What does God need with a starship?” It’s a question that demands answers. Even in the ostensible presence of the divine, the question must be asked, the truth must be known. It’s a story that recalls innumerable episodes of Doctor Who, wherein the good Doctor is confronted by some so-called deity but ends up, by episodes end, revealing it to be some alien in disguise taking advantage of Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is like magic. And then said alien is defeated—or, as Nietzsche would say, “God is dead… again.” And despite the fact that Doctor Who is, in my ways, fantasy (as Sir Terry Pratchett pointed out), it still embodies the scientific stance, the effort to understand, the continual questioning of revered authorities.
Star Wars looks like science fiction, on the surface level, but it’s more King Arthur than Start Trek. The set-up doesn’t even let you question the facts as received. The Empire is evil—no question. They blow up planets, dress terribly, and have implausible trash compactors on their bases. Hell, most oppressive regimes at least adopt the posture of doing good for their people, but not this damned Empire. It embodies only evil. By contrast, the Rebel forces are pure good. There may be some shady characters among them, but that just helps to illustrate how far evil the evil guys are. Han (“Shoot First”) Solo may be a criminal, but at least he’s not one of those embodiments of the banality of evil on the Death Star.
Moreover, our hero’s journey consists of going around and listening to conservative old people and slowly being initiated into some vague religion. This reliance upon traditional mysticism (“use the Force, Luke”) allows him to save the day in the first movie. In the prequels, Anakin’s chief flaw is apparently impatience, is his refusal to listen to the leaders of said religious cult and take his time with the initiation. Tradition is the path toward salvation, apparently. Questioning authorities (admittedly for petty purposes, in his case) leads to the Dark Side. Religious leaders are allowed to make vague pronouncements about reality (citing often a “disturbance in the Force”) but are never required to back this up with any sort of evidence. Heroes are allowed some modicum of leeway, but only in so far as they don’t question the system at hand—they can leave their training early, like Luke does, but they can’t reject the system outright. No wonder robots such as the wordless R2D2 are often imbued with heroic qualities, for they do just what they were programmed to do, which is a virtue in the Star Wars universe.
No accident, then, that Star Wars was inspired by myth and legend, Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” while real science fiction is inspired, first and foremost, by science, but also by the likes of Hegelian philosophy and other disciplines centered upon a quest for knowing and understanding reality. No accident, then that Lucas’s creation has inspired religious movements. A very brief web search turns up a Church of Jediism, a Temple of the Jedi Order, and a Jedi Church. Maybe some of these were founded as jokes, but the point is that Star Wars fosters the supremacy of myth and mysticism. Nowhere in any of these communities will anyone likely ask that question that rocks the foundations of the universe:
“What does God need with a starship?”