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STAR WARS Is Not Science Fiction

September 8, 2014

What if I told you the most iconic science-fiction film of all time isn’t actually science-fiction? It’s not. Not really. But what about the space travel, the aliens, and the laser weapons? The effing lightsabers? Sure, Star Wars superficially features all of these things (and more!). But Star Wars isn’t true science fiction. I’ve riffed on what defines the genre before, but let’s take a look at what a movie really needs to have to be satisfactorily deemed science fiction.

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1. Fiction

Self-explanatory. This is why stuff like Apollo 13 isn’t science fiction.

1.5. SF stories are typically set in the future. There are a few exceptions, but listing them would require me to acknowledge Wild Wild West (whoops). Similarly, many films are not explicitly set in the future but still feature the requisite SF elements needed to separate us from the present as we know it.

2. A “Science-Fiction Element”

Basically, you know these elements when you see them (you know, same as the definition of pornography). Some of the most popular examples are time travel, space travel, aliens, alternate dimensions/worlds, scientific/medical breakthroughs and, of course, the Apocalypse.

This element could also be pushing some everyday function to its extreme. One of the best examples of this would be The Truman Show. Tech-wise this film could be set in the present, but since it pushes the phenomenon of reality television to  the extreme of staging a man’s entire life for a television audience without his knowledge is “out-there” enough for this to be a science fiction film. Let’s call this one the “Socio-Sci-Fi Corollary.”

2.5. The Issue of Superpowers. I prefer to keep the major superhero franchises separate from the general SF population. This means Batman, Superman, Spiderman, The X-Men, and many others. Though many of them adhere perfectly well to the principles I’m establishing here, I just feel like if those franchises were people, they would form a comic book/graphic novel clique and not deign to mingle with their single-medium counterparts.

3. Earth

This is the most important rule to remember when trying to understand why Star Wars is not really SF. Without Earth being present somewhere in the story, there cannot truly be any “science-fiction elements.” Think about it. The fact that the story is set “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” means we simply don’t have the needed frame of reference to differentiate between science-fiction elements and fantasy elements. Theoretically, the spaceships and the laser weapons could have all have actually existed. Since they existed in the past, so impossibly far away from Earth, Star Wars is not advancing any scientific premises. There may not have even been life on Earth yet. There is no premise that links anything in Star Wars to the world as we know it.

***

The qualities that make Star Wars different from science-fiction are precisely the qualities that make it a more of a fantasy story. The Lord of the Rings, also fantasy, has humans, magic, and monstrous creatures not entirely dissimilar to Star Wars, and where they really converge is in how the events unfold in a time and space that is completely unaccessible to Earth as we know it. The tech is futuristic, and yet, it happened “a long, long time ago.” I love Star Wars, but science-fiction has no room for such nonsense.

In LOTR, the story is set in a fictional period from Earth’s past, namely the Third Age. With Star Wars, the setting is a far off galaxy, many years ago. How long ago? Maybe it’s pre-historic, maybe it’s 1976. There’s no way of knowing. See the parallels? The only thing we can know about the setting of Star Wars is that nothing in the evolved from anything we’ve ever seen before. This may seem like a tough detail to get around, but it’s important in separating SF from fantasy.

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A sect of scholars will tell you that SF expands our world, where Fantasy transcends it. I suppose Star Wars can be said to do both. However improbable it may be, one can envision the road society may go down leading to the futures seen in The Terminator (1984) or Her (2013). There is no road (even in sci-fi terms) that leads us to what we see in Star Wars or LOTR. Both stories took place in a world we can never see, even if we can eventually travel through hyperspace.

Ultimately, Star Wars borrows the science-fiction aesthetic, but still speaks the language of fantasy. Old Wizard, The Force, destiny, princesses and evil lords. Just a few of the terms thrown around in Star Wars, all of which conjure visions of fantasy, not science.

I know convincing the world to stop thinking sci-fi when it thinks of Star Wars is an uphill battle. The important thing here is to broaden our perception of genre. Star Wars is an appropriate place to start because it bends genre. It’s a sci-fi, fantasy, western, samurai space opera. It riffs on Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress just as much as it does Flash Gordon. I love Star Wars and I love science-fiction, but they are by no means a perfect match.

For more investigation of the vagaries of genre, check out Sports Movie or Not a Sports Movie by Bill Simmons. Simmons tackles the issue of separating true sports movies from romantic comedies, dramas and high school movies that happen to feature sporting elements.

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