STAR WARS AS SCIENCE FICTION - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Alexander Wallace presents the case for the defense.
This article is first and foremost a response to Is Star Wars Science-Fiction?, also published here on Warped Factor. It is a well-argued, well-written article, but it is one that I feel to have some significant oversights in regards to its treatment of the subject. Here, I hope to further the discussion started there.

The article argues that Star Wars is fundamentally fantasy; I can certainly understand why one would think that. For crying out loud, so much of the setting is motivated by a mystical energy field that connects all life in the galaxy! That’s plenty fantastic! The Force is heavily influenced by Asian mysticism as encountered by George Lucas from films from China and Japan.

But this may be a bit more complicated than what that article suggests. One argument I’ve seen for the distinction between science fiction and fantasy is that the former has a fundamentally enlightenment worldview, while the latter has a fundamentally romantic worldview. To put that in layman’s terms, science fiction believes in a rational, understandable universe, whereas fantasy believes in a universe that is, to some extent, beyond our comprehension.
The Force in the original trilogy definitely reflects a mystical view of the universe. However, the prequels complicate this, with the introduction of the rationally understandable midichlorians. However, much of the rest of the technology in the franchise is approached rationally; it is built in factories with tibanna gas and forged with beskar metal and put together with Kyber crystals mined on Ilum. There is evidence of industrial supply lines that criss-cross the galaxy. This mix is not new; you have the high technology combined with psionics in the StarCraft series or a similar combination in Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (although in the latter psionic abilities are used for teleportation and not for direct communication).

Kim Stanley Robinson in an interview with Public Books argues that science fiction claims a historical link with our world, whereas fantasy does not (there are complications to this; take the prehistoric fantasy of Conan the Barbarian, or any number of Victorian fantasies, for example). In that conversation there is an exchange between Robinson and his interviewer, John Plotz, that I think is very relevant (this exchange is directly quoted from the linked interview):
KSR: For this subgenre there used to be a term, “science fantasy,” describing authors like Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe, who set stories so far in the future—like five million years, or a billion years—that anything could be happening then. So the story feels like fantasy but includes a cover story that makes it supposedly science fiction; it’s part of our history, but very distant.

JP: Ursula Le Guin talked about a genre of the late ’60s and early ’70s—“Swords and Spacecraft”—in which space travelers arrive at fantastical worlds. Actually, a lot of Le Guin’s work feels close to that. In the Hainish Cycle, she has that interstellar federation called the Ekumen, which is a space-technology world (that theoretically intersects with our own, real Earth). But then the places that the space travelers arrive at are essentially fantasy spaces.

KSR: Yes, when she began there was a thing going on in science fiction that I would call the planetary romance. You get to a new planet and things there are wild and different. It goes back to works like David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus in the ’20s, but then in the ’50s, Jack Vance and Cordwainer Smith and many others. When Ursula began to read science fiction there was quite a bit of this going on. And she loved it and put it to use.

Note that in science fiction you see the word planet, while in fantasy it would be a world, or in any case, never the word planet. These little markers indicate which game you’re playing.
A lot of that sounds very much like Star Wars. I would argue that Star Wars is fundamentally a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘sword and planet’ sort of pulp science fiction that was popular in the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century and as practiced by the likes of Jack Vance in Big Planet or in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. I would argue that most, if not all, planets in Star Wars meet Robinson’s definition of ‘fantasy spaces.’ This sort of pulp science fiction is still common; StarCraft counts, as does most of the work of Timothy Zahn and the winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine.

The Warped Factor article to which this piece is a response argues the following:
“For a story to qualify as science fiction, then, it must feature not just a twist of reality, but also an illustration of the impact of that twist on the characters, the society, or both.”
Allow me to provide a counterexample. In one of the pivotal scenes of A New Hope, Grand Moff Tarkin authorizes the use of the Death Star, a weapon conceived as rationally understandable (there’s an entire movie involving events connected to its construction) capable of destroying entire planets. The ramifications of such a technology are seen in how the destruction of Alderaan affects the galaxy and the ongoing civil war, as well as its effects on Leia as a character (and many other characters in the expanded universe).
My ultimate contention with the aforementioned article is that it acts as if there are concrete definitions of science fiction and fantasy; Merriam-Webster is a vaunted dictionary, but even it cannot be definitive on the subject. Science fiction and fantasy readers and writers are a notably quarrelsome bunch; we will never agree on anything, genre boundaries most of all. Kim Stanley Robinson has one definition, but it can absolutely be quarreled with. The ultimate message of this whole exchange is not to put too much stock into labels and abstractions, but rather put said stock into that which we enjoy and love.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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