No, my father didn’t fight in the wars. He was a navigator on a spice freighter.
That’s what your uncle told you. He didn’t hold with your father’s ideals. Thought he should have stayed here and not gotten involved.
You fought in the Clone Wars?
Yes, I was once a Jedi Knight the same as your father.
I wish I’d known him.
He was the best star-pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior.
The young man thumbs the plasblade’s stud while the old man smiles, his eyes travelling back to a distant time…
The GALACTIC DEMOCRON shines across a million suns, an interlocking nexus of cultures united in representative politics on its shining capital planet. It has stood for 20,000 solar years, an elegant frozen tableau of 1970s-ish American suburbia protected by its enigmatic and vaguely Asian battle-sages, the KNIGHTS OF WUXIA. It might stand for a hundred thousand more. But dark winds of change are swirling, amid rumours that the dreaded DARK LORDS OF NU-METAL, last faced a thousand years ago, have returned. Their terrible leader, CHAD NYKYLBACK…
Yes, okay, but how does it actually work? This whole galaxy-falls-to-fascism-in-a-generation thing?
Like, is the republic slowly rotting and did the Imperials just give it a last push into crisis? Or was it fully functioning and one and a half Sith (plus a robot exosuit of no known Force alignment) are really just that strong? For that matter, what do the Imperials stand for? What do they believe in? What’s the big attraction? Because presumably people did support them, there must have been a movement at one point. Was the Empire seen as a saviour? A quick fix? A new vision of the future? Was it religious, technological, Millennial, conservative? What might it have felt like, to live through such an era? How might we recognise something similar in our own lives, should it happen?
In light of recent American political events such questions about a fictional universe feel much more urgent and pressing.
The simple answer of course is that the Star Wars universe doesn’t really have a functioning backstory, and can’t be made to have one, in much the same way that “what happens behind a movie set when the actors aren’t there” doesn’t really have a meaning. It’s a fictional world constructed entirely out of surfaces made by jamming together pieces of other sci-fi properties, so that it feels – or felt to a 1970s audience – realistic and familiar and exotic, but not too exotic. Influences that went into the Star Wars hopper include, best as I can tell:
- Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), for the giant sand planets with a vaguely Middle Eastern vibe and ‘spice’; itself a parable of ecology, drugs, petrodollars and World War I politics
- Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels (1942-1953) for the general outlines of a Galactic Empire wrestling with an alternate way of structuring society
- The long shadow of the Fall of the Roman Empire over Western civilisation or rather its many romanticised versions, since the real thing was much longer and much messier and much harder to tell from Business as Usual in the classical era
- American Western movies, for lone gunslingers in cowboy getup who hang out in desert bars
- World War II movies, for the feel of fascist Stormtroopers and dogfights and naval-fleets and Dam Busters trench runs
- Chinese wuxia stories, as filtered through Japanese samurai movies, for the feel of empires in rebellion and martial-arts masters and apprentices; flavoured with 1910s-1940s China and its princesses and warlords and wistful dreams of ancient warrior sects already outmatched by technology
- 1930s adventure serials, themselves set in that world on the edge of a technological singularity and world war, but with tight focus on the mostly bloodless and thrilling adventures of a few heroes
- Flash Gordon, especially Alex Raymond’s legendary founding run 1936-1943, a comic that was visually light-years ahead of the competition, in a world of rocket men and rebel princesses fighting against an evil (and depressingly racistly mock-Asian) Emperor
- The 1970s space and computer age of satellites and solar panels and ‘personal computers’ and lasers and orbital stations and even ESP research with its dream of reducing psychic functioning to a ‘force’
- And let’s even throw in Jefferson Airplane-nee-Starship’s 1970s album, ‘Blows Against The Empire’, where future hippies steal a starship and… go into space to grow trees and take drugs and have kids, I guess? Because The Man back on uptight city Earth didn’t like or understand any of those, but flying a starship is something kids can work out on the fly?
In short: everything that was cool to a 1970s sci-fi nerd. Real space tech (still pioneering in that decade); robots rising out of their 1950s chunky humanoid shapes into blocky, square configurations; artificial planets; the shadows of a real world war 30 years earlier; the century-long trials of China’s collapsing empire and revolution; Communist revolutions and capitalist counter-coups in the decades after the world war; nuclear weapons; dreams of the American Frontier, a century earlier.
None of this quite makes a coherent picture. Our world wars – the spectres of Nazism and Communism and British-American gunship diplomacy – came on the up-curve of a world spinning into a technological and population singularity. One on which we’ve perhaps reached a dangerous point: a plateau. Or perhaps even a collapse.
The Western fairytale of Rome, and the wuxia fairytales of China and Japan, also generally are set in worlds going through rapid changes. But there’s more of a technological stasis in the past; the slope of that singularity curve is much flatter.
And for the technology, we love that blocky 1970s look. Anything much later – certainly not the Stanley Kubrickian iPhone tech of the 2001s or 2010s – just doesn’t read as well in silhouette. We want our future to look used; not quite steampunk, but the retro-future equivalent. Nasapunk.
And so we have a contradiction. How did this ancient, technologically 1970s Galaxy persist with rusty droids and tramp freighters and desert space-pilots at flatline tech level for thousands of years, while its troops talk about the release of new spaceship models as if it was 1943 and the Allies are running factories 24/7 under full military production and rationing?
It really doesn’t, is the thing. Star Wars is a sort of a one-off cultural terrarium dreamscape that we accept because – and again, this is part of the huge social problem we’re facing here in the 2010s – our Western Anglosphere cultural dreams are stuck in the 1970s. Far more than the Matrix’s 1999, that’s our magic moment. A world that, functionally, doesn’t exist anymore; a world that hasn’t existed for many of us since before we were born; but a world that we want desperately to preserve.
The world in 2017 that we actually live in has icecaps melting and coral reefs dying; billionaires sweeping our social safety net into their pockets; automation, which answers to the billionaires (not to us, its mere users), poised to delete millions of jobs at a stroke; and fascist movements are spawning in our cities as if Sith have been fed into a cloning vat, but inconveniently it’s our parents and siblings and co-workers who are the new Stormtroopers.
These are not nicely solvable Star Wars problems, is the problem. That’s because they’re not 1930s problems and not 1850s problems and not even 1970s problems. We’re in a place, as a planet, we’ve not been before. But our stories are about the problems we already solved. World War II and the interwar period, mostly. Those few decades of war and romance when our dreams (film, comics, pulp, noir) were forged.
Our problems today come from the solutions of yesterday. In particular, the solutions to World War II gave us automation, climate change and nuclear weapons. But we keep reliving that moment when it felt like we were on top, we could do anything, we were gods of the planet.
And though it’s fun to punch a Nazi, we’re not sure if we really want to do that full Civil War thing again. Do we want to punch our parents, our brothers? Can you fire missiles at bees to make them come back? Can you shoot a glacier to stop it calving?
The great thing about Star Wars – or, I guess, the WW2 period, because we seem to keep coming back to it in our minds – is that it’s about races uniting to Solve A Big Problem. And I guess WW2 did have that effect on our grandparents. We seem to have lost, at least us Gen-Xers and our Boomer parents lost (will the Millennials save us?) a sense of we: that there are things bigger than any one of us, goals worth pursuing, actual unironic victories to be had.
I mean that WW2 victory sure looks pretty ironic from 2017! Put ’em up in a neat list: DDT, atomic fission, internal combustion engines, Communism, Capitalism and FDR’s New Deal, the CIA, the NSA… so many of the ‘wins’ from that war turn out to have had a Dark Side. Which our parents spent the 60s and 70s deconstructing. But then… somehow managed to reconstruct? I dunno. It all went weird after the 80s. And the engines our grandparents built, and we improved, began to eat the earth.
We desperately need a new pop myth. WW2 was powered by pulp like Superman and Flash Gordon; whatever it is that we’re sleepwalking into, in this terrifying moment in January 2017, is it going to be Star Wars and Indiana Jones that gets us through?
Did the Republic fall or was it pushed by a Sith? Looking back from 2017, it seems like the Republic’s been falling for a long time; that even its biggest victories are now its biggest defeats. For America, for the UK, for Europe, for the world. Have we processed that? Do we grasp what it means? I know I sure don’t.
But man, The Force Awakens’ neo-Nazi First Order just cold straight up out of nowhere blowing up the New Republic’s capital was a whole lot more on the money than I thought when I watched it in the theatre.
So what happens now? What if the X-Wings are destroying the galaxy? And your kids are worshipping Vader. What do you do, try to build a slightly more fuel-efficient X-Wing? Or walk away, like Luke, to look for a more radical solution?
Star Wars, to me, said three things:
- Technology can be your friend or your enemy. Choose it well. Get the blueprints. Use them to your advantage.
- Life is an adventure! There is more out there than you realise. Strangers are worth meeting. Work together. Have fun.
- There is a bigger world. Minds are not just machines. Be open to spirituality. Its fire has not yet gone out of the galaxy.
And I guess those are all valid lessons. It also said we should shoot a whole bunch of people in the face, as long as they’re strangers, but I’m not actually convinced that part is the way forward.