Riffing on Star Wars: #16 – The Clash of Fantasy and Science Fiction in Star Wars

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Science fiction and fantasy have long been bedfellows when it comes to the shelves of bookstores.  Side by side are the adventures of elves and space cadets, both offering readers escapist opportunities, and film genres continue this tradition.  One will find The Lord of the Rings shelved next to Interstellar, and somewhere near the end of the section, by virtue of an alphabetical sorting system, one will also find Star Wars.  The franchise is unique, however, because in George Lucas’ creation, fantasy and science fiction are smashed together with little regard for anything other than creative storytelling.

A source for Star Wars’ hybrid make up is built right into its DNA, a mixture of 1950s era sci-fi serials, like Buck Rogers, and the samurai laden works of Akira Kurosawa.  One leaps ahead to the future, while the other retreats a couple centuries to the past, and the result is most apparent in A New Hope.  In the confines of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s home, we go from viewing a hologram projected by a droid to Kenobi introducing Luke Skywalker to his father’s lightsaber.  It’s the future and the past, melding together in a hermit’s hut on Tatooine.  The conflict between fantasy and science fiction even carries into the dialogue of the film.

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The drama built within Darth Vader’s second appearance in A New Hope is centered on the debate over the power of the battle station versus the power of the Force.  Unsurprisingly, the fantastical energy field which surrounds all living things finds its defender in the character dressed reminiscent of a black armor clad samurai. The scene climaxes with the choking of an Imperial officer, stopped only by the command of Grand Moff Tarkin, who as the proponent of the technological terror relegates Darth Vader’s religion (the Force) to be a relic of the past.  Elsewhere within movie, the original mouthy cynic, Han Solo, also makes the comparison of science fiction and fantasy when he wanders into Luke’s first lesson in wielding a lightsaber and quips, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

Blasters represent a direct line to the most traditional science fiction fare, from the heat rays of alien invaders in War of the Worlds to the laser ridden finale of Guardians of the Galaxy.  Massive laser blasts punctuate the incredible opening of A New Hope and fill the smoke laden corridor as the storm troopers breach the airlock of the Tantive IV.  The blaster in both large and small form, be it the Death Star’s weapon or Han Solo’s side arm, dominate the debut Star Wars film.  Yet, more often than not, the impossible counterpart, the lightsaber captures the imagination and fancy of most viewers.  In the hands of a Force user, the fantastical weapon, can overcome the understood supremacy of being able to shoot one’s opponent from yards away.  As the Star Wars original trilogy unfolds, the lightsaber becomes more and more effective as Skywalker becomes more adept at its use, rendering confrontations between it and the futuristic blaster heavily one sided.

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It’s the Force which allows the lightsaber, which in itself is a blending of ancient metal weapon and laser, to be such an iconic tool in the hands of both good and evil.  It’s the Force, which truly comes into its own through the teachings of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, as something mythic along the lines of pure magic.  Connotations of magic and Force users are drawn early in A New Hope when Owen Lars cynically refers to Obi-Wan as a crazy wizard living in the wastes, and in the hands of the miniature green wizard on Dagobah, the Force is revealed to be capable of incredible feats.  The Force never so clearly trumps technology than in a conference room on Cloud City, where the Darth Vader reveals his capability to deflect blaster bolts with an upraised hand to the surprise and shock of Han Solo.  Undoubtedly, beholding the negation of his very words to Luke in the previous film helped Solo along the way to becoming the true believer in The Force Awakens.

Even the technological application for identifying Force users, the Midichlorian count in one’s blood, only goes so far as to explain why some are stronger in the Force than others.  No explanation is given as to why these cells are more prevalent in some and not others, or even how they actually allow someone to access the Force in the first place.  The simple fact that the Force is constructed with a Light Side and a Dark Side, each dictating behavior, suggest rules toward one’s “magic” use, long a favorite element of fantasy magic, such as that found in Lord of the Rings.

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For as much as the Force permeates the Star Wars franchise, it is resplendent in technological goodness.  Armies of battle droids clash against armies of cloned soldiers in arguably the most science fiction match up in film history.  Star fighters zip through the vacuum of space, battling each other and larger capital ships, with such grace as to influence science fiction films and television shows which followed A New Hope.  While the aliens which populate the cantinas and the backgrounds can definitely be seen as a nod to the various races that often populate fantasy novels, they are also undeniably citizens in the imagination of every science fiction writer from H.G. Wells to John Scalzi.  Fantasy and science fiction are interwoven within Star Wars, and while Arthur C. Clarke noted that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, in the galaxy far, far away, they remain always recognizable, calling to one genre or the other.

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