As a Star Wars fan, I’ve been wanting to review this one for a long time.
Smart Pop Books released a self-admitted “Completely Unauthorized” review of the Star Wars saga called Star Wars On Trial in 2006. With such SF&F authors David Brin and Matt Stover leading the tongue-in-cheek Prosecution and Defense, the book is an anthology of essays that both criticize and defend the merits of Star Wars in both design and story.
Essentially, you could sum up the entire collection of arguments into one not-so-sophisticated argument: “Star Wars is stupid!” vs. “You’re thinking too hard and not having enough fun!”
But why stop there? Let’s review each “charge” one at a time.
Charge No. 1: The Politics Of Star Wars Are Anti-Democratic And Elitist
David Brin starts off by challenging that Star Wars promotes anything resembling democracy, given that a chosen few are left to decide what’s right under both the Rebellion and the Empire. I have to agree with Keith R.A. DeCandido and say that Star Wars is about fighting the elites rather than trying to uphold them. Yes, the Good Guys are trying to bring back an order of knights, but they’re up against a Dark Lord and an evil Emperor who overthrew a democratic government (albeit a failing one).
Charge No. 2: While Claiming Mythic Significance, Star Wars Portrays No Admirable Religious Or Ethical Beliefs
John C. Wright asserts that the films don’t give a good moral message to kids, or if they are, it’s a message that’s often contradicting itself. Scott Lynch argues that the original and prequel trilogies show two parallel paths of corruption and redemption, with the path that Luke Skywalker takes being the “moral” road.
I can agree with a few of Wright’s points, but Lynch more or less summarizes what I believe about the films. Luke Skywalker is the Star Wars messiah, despite whatever prophecies were uttered in earshot of his father.
Charge No. 3: Star Wars Novels Are Poor Substitutes For Real Science Fiction And Are Driving Real SF Off The Shelves
Lou Anders argues that the eye-catching Star Wars Expanded Universe novels are being mislabeled in bookstores everywhere as “science fiction” when in fact they’re fantasy stories set in space. In defense of the novels, Laura Resnick, Karen Traviss, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch all hold to the same line that states, more or less, “Who cares? ‘Pure’ SF is boring! Star Wars is big and exciting!”
This is one argument where I’m not sure where to stand. On the one hand, Star Wars isn’t as serious as, say, stories that only take one speculative issue and make an entire dramatic plot around it. And some of those stories are definitely in need of more exposure, even if they won’t reach every corner of the SF market. But on the other hand… it’s Star Wars and who cares? It’s fun.
Charge No. 4: Science Fiction Filmmaking Has Been Reduced By Star Wars To Poorly Written Special Effects Extravaganzas
John G. Hemry states that Star Wars has introduced a trend that allows films to get away with substituting cheap special effects in lieu of developing good plots and characters. Bruce Bethke retaliates that George Lucas didn’t do anything more to the filmmaking of his era than to reintroduce the shining hero as a main character.
Like with the last section, I’m a bit divided on this matter. At least with the prequel films, I do feel there was some story and characterization sacrificed for the sake of more detailed CGI. On the other hand, there’s no denying that the original story has a deep and enduring story arc involving Luke Skywalker and his heritage, which has nothing that special effects can ever detract from.
Charge No. 5: Star Wars Has Dumbed Down The Perception Of Science Fiction In The Popular Imagination
Tanya Huff argues that Star Wars has inaccurately become popular shorthand for science fiction, while Richard Garfinkle holds that the franchise is a useful shorthand that makes science fiction more accessible for the public. I’d have to go with Garfinkle on this one, since it was thanks to Star Wars films and novels that I got interested in other SF&F stories.
Charge No. 6: Star Wars Pretends To Be Science Fiction, But Is Really Fantasy
Ken Wharton puts forward the idea that the Force makes Star Wars more of a fantasy tale than a science fiction story, with Bruce Bethke adding his opinion that the films (at least the prequels) seem more like classic anime. In defense of the franchise, Robert A. Metzger puts forward the notion that the more fantastic elements of the series could be waved away as “glitches” inside its simulacrum of a universe, while Adam Roberts argues that there’s nothing to be taken so seriously as SF and it’s better to just laugh along with Star Wars and its easily-parodied saga.
I’ll be honest, I have to go with the Prosecution on this charge. Star Wars isn’t pure SF, but a fantasy story with SF elements set in space. And I have to agree with Bruce Bethke’s take on the prequels as being like live-action anime. The defense’s position was taken with good intentions, but I just couldn’t get behind what they were saying.
Charge No. 7: Women In Star Wars Are Portrayed As Fundamentally Weak
Jeanne Cavelos writes that characters like Princess Leia and Queen Amidala are essentially faux heroines, who get early setups as strong women before being pushed off to the side in favor of traditional male heroes like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. In defense of the franchise, Bill Spangler makes the point that characters like Leia and Amidala aren’t obvious heroes like the male characters, but tend to contribute whenever the men aren’t doing as well.
I can see the merit to both arguments. It certainly seems like Leia and Amidala aren’t given as much focus or chance to be anything more than love interests to guys like Han and Anakin. Then again–in yet another opportunity for me to nitpick the prequels–I do feel that at least Leia had a better story arc than Amidala, since the former is actively participating in the Rebellion rather than sitting on the sidelines being marginally involved.
Charge No. 8: The Plot Holes And Logical Gaps In Star Wars Make It Ill-Suited For An Intelligent Viewer
Nick Mamatas argues that every film after Episode IV: A New Hope raises more questions than answers, rendering the entire saga incoherent as far as an overall plot goes. In answer to his charge, Don DeBrandt claims that the plot holes don’t matter since the films are more about imagination than intellect.
I’ll have to go with Don DeBrandt on this one. As a kid, Star Wars never failed to spark my imagination. Tell me about Jedi Knights fighting Mandalorians in some ancient past and I’ll fill in the rest. If anything, the current rash of new films and material has driven me away since they’re either trying to fill up the gaps in Star Wars history or trying to wield together radically unusual plots.
Final Verdict: Since The Book Itself Refuses To Give One…
Although the whole book tries to pull a tongue-in-cheek courtroom scenario, the “judge” doesn’t give a final verdict, but rather cheaply asks the reader to go to their online poll and submit his vote there. It seems anticlimactic to end the arguments that way. Perhaps the book would’ve done better as just a collection of essays discussing the merits of Star Wars and nothing more.
That said, while this book is good for stimulating thoughts about the franchise and the fandom, I don’t know that it’s really all that useful. At times, I found myself agreeing with the attitude that it’s Star Wars and fun doesn’t need to be so thought-out, but at other times, I marveled at the positions that some of the “Defense” authors were taking. In the end, whether or not you’ll enjoy this book depends on just how seriously you take Star Wars.
Bibliography: Star Wars On Trial. Ed. David Brin, Matthew Woodring Stover. Dallas: BenBella Books, Inc., 2006.