February 10th 2009 Star Wars and Literature

When I was a wee boy, I loved Star Wars. I watched the entire trilogy every couple of months. I collected every action figure I could afford on my meager $10-a-month allowance. (It paid off: I once dated a girl who first turned me down twice—and then gave in two days after seeing my collection. Coincidence? I think not.) I loved Star Wars so much that between fifth and ninth grade, my pleasure reading consisted almost exclusively of Star Wars novels. I read dozens of them, from the Young Jedi Knights to I, Jedi, from Timothy Zahn to Michael Stackpole and back, finally, to Timothy Zahn. Almost every book I bought or borrowed bore the Star Wars logo, as though it were some personal stamp of approval.

Sadly, as a 23-year-old college graduate, I don’t find the same sense of joy when I crack open my Star Wars novels and knock off a few chapters for old times’ sake. The thrill I experienced when watching The Empire Strikes Back with my cousin for the first time—I was only four or five, but it’s one of my earliest vivid memories—no longer feels as though it is attainable. That’s the cost of growing up, I suppose.

Star Wars novels are the intellectual equivalent of junk food: I can consume page after page, and it’s all good, but in the end, my mind just feels…empty. A good book, on some level, should be inspiring or enlightening—it should “fill you up”. As science fiction novels go, however, Star Wars books fall short of the goals of the genre. Ideally, works of science fiction should force us to examine the role that science and technology play in our own culture, and how they affect our society, our politics, our environment, and so forth. Barring that, they should at least present a setting or characters that encourage us to scrutinize our own place in the world.

Stories set in the Star Wars universe are uniquely positioned to allow such an examination. Take droids, for example: they are fully sentient, electromechanical beings that are basically built to serve their biological masters. In a word, they are slaves. C-3PO admits this numerous times in the original films, often prefacing his protests with the phrase, “It is against my programming!” The droids have enough self-awareness to know they are enslaved, yet they never rise up, or even demand the same rights as biological beings. This seems like a perfect context in which to explore issues of freedom, natural rights, and even political persecutions. (At the very least, it seems to offer great moments of humor: imagine a mass of metallic droids clanking around and yelling at the top of their digital lungs, “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!” Hilarity and hijinks would no doubt ensue.) To my knowledge, however, these issues never arise in any Star Wars novels (except, if memory serves, in a rather superficial way in one of the New Jedi Order novels).

Another obvious issue that could easily be approached, but is hardly touched, is racism. The typical Star Wars novel features a plethora of alien races who all, more or less, live together harmoniously. (Well, that’s not exactly true—but their differences are rarely caused by racial issues.) In all fairness, Star Wars doesn’t completely ignore race. Star Wars authors are quick to note, for example, that the Empire only tolerates humans, and often enslaves entire alien races (like the Wookiees and the Mon Calamarians). And here and there, authors introduce readers to a stereotypically racist character, whose narrow-mindedness causes problems. But aside from the logically-weak proposition, “The Empire is evil, and the Empire is racist, so racism is evil,” and a couple character flaws, issues of race are largely ignored. Racism plays a major role in Timoth Zahn’s Hand of Thrawn series, but other than those two books, writers seem reluctant to tackle the issue.

It’s a shame, because the Star Wars universe is rich with culture, embroiled in political strife, and populated by vivid characters—the perfect melting pot for stories that could push the frontiers of space-opera sci-fi. Add in a dash of social justice issues, and you have the makings of a delicious dish of literature.

But instead, we just get the literary equivalent of potato chips.