October 9th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Review: Brin & Stover, Star Wars on Trial

I picked up something in the Archon dealers' room pretty much by accident: David Brin and Matthew Woodring Stover's Star Wars on Trial. Basically, while picking up a couple of other books that had caught my eye, I picked this up and just on a whim skimmed the excerpts reprinted just inside the front cover ... and laughed myself silly. So even though I was already familiar (or so I thought) with the central debate in the book, I went ahead and bought it because it looked like it would be tremendous fun, a pleasantly silly diversion. To my great surprise, it turned out to be more than that. In fact, the blurbish excerpts do the book a great disservice: there's more "red meat" here than there is rampant silliness. I don't feel cheated though. If I had known how seriously the subject was going to be debated, I might not have picked it up at all, because (like many of you) I've been aware of the central argument in this book for about seven years now, considered it to have been settled at least three years ago, was tired of the argument before it got to what I considered to be the point of diminishing returns (which was as close to a "conclusion" that this argument is ever going to get) and by no means worth all the gazillions of words that have been wasted on it. But I'm glad I did. To my surprise, there did turn out to be not merely amusing but interesting, and sometimes not merely interesting but potentially important, things still left to say about David Brin's famous 1999 Salon.com indictment of the politics and economics of Star Wars, both inside the storyline itself and as the franchise has affected our society.

In summary, David Brin and seven other science fiction professionals start out with a weak, half-hearted defense of George Lucas's original Star Wars movie, the one we've all come to know by its retroactive renaming as Star Wars episode IV: A New Hope. The eight of them then expend substantial rhetorical and analytical (and satirical) ammunition on the following eight charges: "#1: The politics of Star Wars are anti-democratic and elitist. #2: While claiming mythic significance, Star Wars portrays no admirable religious or ethical beliefs. #3: Star Wars novels are poor substitutes for real science fiction and are driving real SF off the shelves. #4: Science fiction filmmaking has been reduced by Star Wars to poorly written special effects extravaganzas. #5: Star Wars has dumbed down the perception of science fiction in the popular imagination. #6: Star Wars pretends to be science fiction, but is really fantasy. #7: Women in Star Wars are portrayed as fundamentally weak. #8: The plot holes and logical gaps in Star Wars make it ill-suited for an intelligent viewer." For the defense, Matthew Stover and ten other authors, nearly all of whom have made good money writing Star Wars novels, attempt to refute those charges or hand wave them or distract the audience from them. To my delight, SF critic and satirist Bruce Bethke takes both sides, attacking Star Wars on one charge and "defending" it (with, admittedly, substantial irony) on another.

There were quite a few interesting things said in the book, but one of the defense arguments fascinated me. I also don't buy it for a heartbeat; I think that they're lying through their teeth. But here goes. David Brin's single most devastating set of charges is that, either through negligent failure to plug plot holes and sloppy characterization or possibly because of potentially disturbing political leanings on Lucas' part, the "heroes" of the series, the Jedi Council of the Old Republic, who are portrayed throughout the series as an order of wise and holy monks, are total rat bastards, some of the most malevolently awful heroes in the history of science fiction. Obiwan Kenobi, in particular, gets singled out by Brin and others as a self-serving lying psychopath on a level that would make Dick Cheney blush, and Yoda (or, as Brin calls, him, "that malevolent green oven mitt") they prove to be not merely monstrous, but the entity most directly responsible for several truly genocidal massacres any one of which he could have prevented if he weren't such a stiff-necked, inflexible, stuck-up prick. And, well, frankly, I think so too. Once we got it made clear to us that the Old Republic was something that even its own defenders admit was monstrously dysfunctional and we saw that the only thing stopping those who sought peaceful, negotiated separation from that single inept and kleptocratic bureaucracy was an order of hereditary mutant mind-controlling telekinetic super-spies who were above all law and answerable only to each other and (barely) to the Chancellor of the Republic, I instantly became the Empire's greatest fan. Once I came to understand that Palpatine's dissolution of the Senate and its attendant bureaucracy was followed by defacto devolution, a breaking up of the Republic into self-governing smaller units, I became his biggest fan. Heck, when Star Wars: Galaxies came out, his was the side I signed up to fight for. And I hadn't even thought of some of the more thoughtful indictments that are thrown at the "heroes" in this book.

What surprised me, no, what stunned me to the core, was watching Lucas's most ardent defenders rush to throw the Jedi under the wheels of the bus. What we are now being asked to believe, by Stover and others who claim to know the inner workings of the Lucasfilms empire through their non-disclosure briefings, is that Lucas always intended us to think of both the Jedi and the Sith as horrible, terrible villains. That that's why we see Obiwan throwing around mind-control powers in the beginning of the very first movie we saw him in, so we would know that everything the man said was a self-serving lie and that he was a propagandist for an evil Republic that had deserved what it got. That it's obvious to anybody but a moron that Luke is a hero not because he's a Jedi, but because he disobeys every order that Yoda and Obiwan ever gave him, and that it's not a coincidence that hardly ever does anybody who is "Force sensitive" ever do anything in these movies that actually helps. But the part of that line of argument that crossed all lines, that was flatly impermissible sophistry, was that they all claim that everybody but Brin has always known this, that the awfulness of the Jedi is something intuitively obvious to every Star Wars fan on Earth. Presumably including the 390,127 people in the UK alone who list "Jedi" as their religion? I'm sorry, I don't buy it. I've heard too many Star Wars fans insist to the contrary, try to ret-con some indefensible justification for the crimes of the Jedi with all the ingenuity (and lack of persuasiveness) that you see in attempts to rationalize the contradictions internal to Star Trek: The Next Generation or the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rule books. (Ah, AD&D 1st edition, how well I remember you. A better practical workbook for would-be lying manipulative self-serving sophists I've never seen.)

Another thing that pleasantly surprised me I'll only summarize, and you can take my word for it or not, but as improbable as this is going to sound, one thing that both sides did is persuade me, by a third of the way into the book, that this isn't just sour-grapes hard-SF authors versus fawning fanbois, that this isn't just a pointless fannish war between people of two competing tastes, that this isn't as pointless as the Cola Wars were and therefore even more pointlessly heated. No, to my great surprise they managed to persuade me on both sides that this subject is worth arguing about ... and not just because of the movies themselves. There are not merely artistic and philosophical issues at stake here, there are substantial economic issues at stake. And even when all is said and done, the argument about the effect of media-tie-in work-for-hire novels on the economic viability of the science fiction genre midlist in a world where 3 European corporations between them get to hand-pick which few books will make up 99% of the mid-list books will be sold on the science fiction shelves, and the potential effects on audiences of the types of movies (inside and outside of science fiction) get made, are worth talking about and Star Wars and its Expanded Universe of tie-ins are so central to these epi-phenomena that it would be disingenous to try to talk about those trends without being able to cite data from this category-dominating set of examples.

One last small example of something that caught my eye: Karen Traviss's deeply impassioned defense of her own work-for-hire Star Wars novel trilogy. I've got the three books of her own original Wes'haar trilogy in my library, and I was very pleasantly surprised by them. Because of my deep and abiding contempt for media-tie-ins, I wasn't even aware that she was the author who got handed the contract for a set of books that you frankly couldn't have persuaded me to handle through leaded glass with remote manipulators, let alone read. One of my more reliable rules of thumb, learned young and through bitter example, was that media-spinoff series suck warm chunky sick through a short, thick straw. I grant that there are exceptions, but so few of them that I will not accept recommendations on this subject from anybody who actually likes the category; it takes recommendations from people who share my distaste for shallow hackwork, a distaste strong enough that merely peopling a book with characters I'd like to see more of is not sufficient to cause me to set aside common sense and minimal literary standards, before I'll risk even a minute of my time on something like (to name one exception) the late John Ford's Star Trek parody novel, How Much for Just the Planet? I have an even more strongly held conviction, again learned by long and bitter experience, that the only thing that sucks worse than a media spinoff novel is a gaming spinoff novel.

So you couldn't have forced me at gunpoint to pickup the trilogy that was spun off from the console game Star Wars: Republic Commando. But her description of what her moral reaction was to the premise she was given, and what Lucasfilm let her do with it, suggests to me that she brought even more moral depth to her analysis of that setting than she did to her own; now I'm mildly curious. An example relevant to the first point: at no point does Yoda show the least scruples about using the stormtrooper army he so-conveniently inherited, one that it's never proven that he didn't order in the first place, in battlefield combat and suicide missions ... despite, and here's the point I'd failed to catch, the established fact that they're all ten year old children in grownup bodies at that point in the series. If that doesn't establish the muppet's malevolence, what will it take? So when she asked if she could deal with the legitimate moral revulsion any sane person would feel towards this, whether the ten year olds in question realized how badly they were being used or not, she says she got the green-light. She argues that in light of how they'd been treated by the Jedi, any sane stormtrooper would have enthusiastically volunteered for Order 66, just to protect the universe from anything like what happened to them ever happening again. Hunh. I wouldn't have expected that kind of thinking from a defender of the series. Are we talking about the same fandom here?