Friday, May 05, 2006

The Sith in the Iron Mask

I swear I read this exact same article when the first Star Wars movie came out and read it again when The Empire Strikes Back appeared and again, and again, and again with the releases of Episodes VI, I, and II.

Thinking about it, I probably read 52 versions of it each time. Boiled down, they all reported, as though it would surprise people, "Science fiction writers pooh-pooh Star Wars flicks."

The latest version, from today's Week in Review section of the New York Times, gives it a slightly new spin, which doesn't make it any more original than the version that appeared in 1977, but which the writer, Henry Fountain, can pretend does: Science fiction writers express relief that the Star Wars saga is finally over so we call forget about it and little kids can learn to experience the real joys of sci fi as it was meant to be.

The way we've all forgotten The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

Millions of "Star Wars" fans are awaiting the release of "Revenge of the Sith" later this month, the sixth and final film in George Lucas's epic series. In it, the young hero Anakin Skywalker is seduced by the dark side and becomes Darth Vader.

Science fiction writers, however, are awaiting the release for a different reason. To them, "Star Wars" is nothing more than a space opera, and if the big guy in the black cloak is finally singing, that means the show is over. The saga continues no longer.

"That's the past of science fiction you're talking about," said Richard K. Morgan, the British cyberpunk-noir writer whose most recent novel is "Market Forces."

Mr. Morgan is one of a newer breed of science fiction writers who have moved far beyond the whiz-bang technological vision of Mr. Lucas's blockbusters...

Like science itself, science fiction has evolved since the days of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the end of World War II, the genre has shifted its focus from space and time travel to more complex speculations on how the future, whatever its shape, will affect the individual.

That shift has only accelerated in recent years, as biotech and genetic engineering have moved to center stage in science and captured writers' imaginations, and as the lines between science fiction and other genres begin to blur. "We're starting to look inward, rather than outward," Mr. Morgan said. "There are exciting and scary things going to be happening in our bodies"...

What Mr. Lucas may have seen as eternal, however, science fiction writers have tended to see as antique.

Fountain rounds up five writers of "real" science fiction

Ursula K. Le Guin, Larry Niven, and Ray Bradbury, punk kids who represent the cutting edge of contemporary science fiction, and Morgan and Mary Doria Russell, who, for all I know, represent the generation of science fiction writers now in its prime as well as William Gibson, Ken MacLeod, and Orson Scott Card or they may be as fresh, hip, and hot as China Meiville.

One after the other sniffs disdainfully at Star Wars.

Le Guin: "Science fiction was doing all sorts of thinking and literary experiments on a totally different plane. Star Wars was just sort of fun."

I doubt she meant to set up a conflict between thinking and fun.

Bradbury: "The problem was [Lucas] made a sequel. People have tried to get me to do a sequel to The Martian Chronicles, but I've never done it. Sequels are a bad idea."

In his way and in his day, Bradbury was huge, but he was never on a level as a popular entertainer as Lucas is and equating what he has done with what Lucas is up to and talking as if Lucas could have, and should have known to, follow his example is almost as foolish as the temper tantrum he threw over the fact that Michael Moore riffed on the title of his masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451.

Le Guin points out that the first Star Wars (which I just can't call A New Hope) was 30 years behind the times as far as what science fiction writers were doing at the time.

She's wrong, of course.

It was 40 years behind the times.


Lucas' inspiration for Star Wars was never "science fiction" and definitely not anything in books. His movies were inspired by other movies. The Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials he'd loved when he was a kid watching them on TV on Saturday mornings, when they were already 20 years old and out of date.

These writers are criticizing Lucas for not doing something he never set out to do.

I'm hardly an unqualified admirer of George Lucas. I love Star Wars for the fun of the original and the joy all the movies since have brought my kids.

I don't dislike, or disdain, the kind of story Lucas set out to tell or its details. My complaint, and the complaint of almost everybody above the age of 15 who has seen and enjoyed the movies, is that Lucas stopped being interested in his own story after the rescue of Han Solo in Episode VI. He went through the rest of Return of the Jedi on auto-pilot and basically threw away the big scene, Luke's confrontation with Darth Vader, in order to concentrate on the Ewoks and blowing up the Death Star again and getting it "right" this time---which is to say he was mostly interested in the marketing and playing with special effects.

With The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Lucas left the story to tell itself while he fussed and fiddled and amused himself no end with the cgi and his new digital cameras.

From what I've seen of Revenge of the Sith---I've seen the trailers and the photos, of course, but I've also peeked at the books. Don't worry. This is a no spoilers zone---it appears that Lucas suddenly noticed the tale is coming to an end and was inspired by a fit of desperation to start caring again about his story and his characters. There are still a lot of confusing battle sequences and too much cgi work but it looks as though it's all in service to telling the story instead of being used in place of it.

Nobody who enjoys the movies mistakes them for science fiction nor do they wish that Lucas had been more inspired by the likes of Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delaney, or Ursula K. Le Guin or Ray Bradbury.

They like it when Star Wars is truest to the spirit of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and those old serials were not science fiction. They were old fashioned boys adventure stories. Swashbucklers in Space.

Fountain mentions Wells and Verne as the inventors of the genre from which he takes for granted Star Wars descends.

But that's wrong.

The 19th Century writer Lucas owes the most to is Alexandre Dumas.


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