Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Why "Star Wars" Isn't Science Fiction

Science Fiction has been degraded in recent years to mere spectacle, without purpose.

I wrote before about E.M. Forester's The Machine Stops, a real science-fiction story about a dystopian future where people huddle in their homes, connected to each other only by video screens and electronic communications, having their every need catered to by machines, while at the same times having no idea of how the machines work.  It could have been written last week, describing America today or in the near future, where we all "cocoon" in  our homes and have our meals pre-made and delivered, while we all watch YouTube videos and instant message each other.

It was written over 100 years ago.

What is interesting about the story is not the technical details, but the human ones.  The main character's Mother spends her days bloviating online to her thousands of online Facebook friends about "Music of the Australian Period."  Forester is hinting that her lecture is full of bullshit nonsense - anticipating the podcasts of the future - where everyone is an expert and facts are flexible.

He gets the human part right. But even the technical details are amazingly prescient - predicting indirect LED-style lighting, pad-type devices (round, not rectangular - there's a hint, Apple!) as well as a voice-activated control system like Siri.  Missing are any light sabers, exploding death stars, or evil empires.

Instead, Forester points out the evil empire is us - humanity - and our desire to wallow in our own crapulence.  And sadly, it seems Forester was right.  Corporations seem to look at these descriptions of a dystopian future as a roadmap for profitability.  Republicans subscribe to a "Club for Growth" as if packing as many humans onto the planet as physically possible is part of God's plan and the route to success, not misery.  Yet others have given up on planet Earth entirely and want to colonize desolate waterless planets bathed in radiation.  It makes no friggin' sense.

The problem with Star Wars is that it is all spectacle and no plot.  Oh sure, there is a plot, as much as any soap opera has a plot.  People connive against one another and two sides fight it out, with neither one ever winning.  It is Space Opera, not science fiction, based in part on Japanese Samurai films and in another part on the mindless Saturday morning matinee 13-chapter serials that kept children entertained before the era of television (e.g., Tom Mix, Flash Gordon).  Why do you think the first Star Wars was called Chapter IV?

A year or so ago, I signed up for Disney+ for a month, figuring I would see what the fuss was about in The Mandalorian.  I told Mark, "You probably won't like this, it is Star Wars crap!" as he wasn't really a SciFi fan.  Oddly enough, he liked it, I think in part because of Pedro Pascal's gravelly sexy voice, and in part because of all the action sequences.  Before anything gets too boring, a fight always breaks out. That's action-adventure, not SciFi.

Sadly, so much of SciFi today is this way - plotless spectacles that rely on CGI to keep us entertained. And while we all enjoyed watching the Titanic sink in 3-D, people have since become jaded by CGI spectacles.  Heck, you can create your own with an online AI-chatbot in a matter of minutes.  Just don't count the number of fingers on each hand.

So much has been lumped in with "SciFi" these days, including fantasy films (swords and elves and that sort of shit) as well as comic book heroes.  Each is the same as the other - CGI distractions, little in the way of plot, and nothing that really makes you think about greater issues confronting humanity.

The best SciFi stories are often allegories about humanity and life on Earth.  The best of the original Star Trek episodes weren't about shooting it up with Romulans or Klingons, but were thought-pieces about issues confronting humanity in 1968 - or indeed, any era.  And not surprisingly, those episodes were written by actual science fiction writers, such as Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, D.C Fontana, as well as a host of others.

The Machine Stops isn't about battles between empires or sword fights between protagonists - indeed there are no fights involved.  It is a prescient warning about where humanity is headed with technology and is designed to make you think about what technology has wrought.  That it still is relevant a century later is evidence as to its real power.

Apple has licensed The Mandalorian to promote its new phone - telling people they can take snappy pictures and join-up with their fellow cosplayers via the machine.  In a way it is apt, as they are using a SciFi franchise that mindlessly glorified technology to promote mindless technology.  After all, you wouldn't want to have a phone that connects you with people who don't think as you do, right?  And we certainly don't want people thinking Apple is part of the problem and not the solution - right?

That is the weird thing about Star Wars - they posit a future (or a past, in a galaxy far, far away) where there is limitless energy, limitless natural resources, and yet what do people do?  Kill each other over control of resources.  Quite frankly, it makes no sense.  If you have that level of technology, you don't need to "restore order to the galaxy" or whatever (the weakest plot motivation ever devised) because the galaxy has, if not limitless, at least untold resources.  And there are always other galaxies, right?

(And please, don't get me started on Space Whales!).

But maybe that is the real corporate message here - no matter how much we have as a civilization, it is never enough, and we need to go to war and kill each other to maintain power and control of these resources.  It is a pretty sick message, if you think about it.

But hey, maybe Star Wars is a message movie after all!  Because if you think about what they are really saying, it is that humanity really sucks and that we are doomed to fight with one another, perpetually, to gather whatever scraps we can scrounge from the table, or to hoard resources and accumulate power.

Pretty sad message!