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Robert J. Sawyer, “A long time ago,” and science fiction’s social commentary

I recently came across a portion of a lecture given by science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer divided into three installments on YouTube. The lecture is titled “‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….’ my ass!”. Each of the installments can be viewed at the bottom of this post. In the lecture Sawyer takes issue with George Lucas, claiming that the introductory phrase that launched the Star Wars phenomenon, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”, functions as a disclaimer by Lucas in terms of science fiction’s connection to reality. As Sawyer understands Lucas, he is saying that because science fiction, or at least the form in Star Wars, has no connection reality, it therefore cannot be understood as including social commentary. Below are my thoughts as I interact with Sawyer’s thesis.

At the outset I must say that there is much to commend in Sawyer’s presentation. It is clear that he takes science fiction seriously, not merely as entertainment in its literary, cinematic, and televised forms, but also as a genre that addresses key issues in culture, many times controversial ones. Science fiction is ideally suited to addressing controversial issues as it presents them in veiled form , which then creates distance between the difficult issues and the individual reflecting on them, enabling a look at issues that might be too uncomfortable to consider without the prism of science fiction.

Sawyer has also correctly identified 1968 as a watershed year for science fiction, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Planet of the Apes setting new standards for intelligent science fiction. This has been noted by other commentators such as Marco Lanzagorta of PopMatters’ Dread Reckonings, who has argued that not only was 1968 well represented through these science fiction films, but that year also saw the release of Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead, thus providing horror with significant expressions for that genre as well. Lanzagorta goes further in echoing Sawyer’s observation that the impetus for such novel expressions of social issues in these genres can be traced to the significant cultural upheavals that came with the late 1960s and the rise of the counterculture.

After further discussion of significant forms of science fiction in the late 1960s that touched on social issues, including the original Star Trek television series, mention of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel and one that incorporated social commentary, and a contrast of the work of Jules Verne with H. G. Wells, Sawyer returns in his conclusion to his critique of Lucas. Having noted the strengths of Sawyer’s presentation I now turn to critical interaction.

In my view Sawyer has misinterpreted Lucas, as well as the function of the introductory phrase of Star Wars (“A long time ago….”), and thus has incorrectly identified the film as science fiction. Although many consider Star Wars a work of science fiction it is best understood as fantasy, or more specifically as Lucas himself categorized it, a space fantasy or space opera. In the 1999 CD ROM production Star Wars: Behind the Magic produced by LucasArts, Lucas stated:

“Basically I was saying, you know, ‘A long time ago in a kingdom far away.’ That was my way of saying this is really more like a fairy tale than it is a piece of science fiction. And I really thought you needed to do that, to say ‘Don’t worry about the scientific part of this, cause there isn’t any.’ In this world, it’s a world I’ve made up, and in this world spaceships can have noise and you can do anything you want.”

Lucas has identified Star Wars as fantasy rather than science fiction on more than one occasion. Although viewers’ interpretations of the film may be different, understanding it as science fiction rather than fantasy, it is important to consider the perspective of the creator of the mythology. Beyond this, writers like Thomas Sipos define science fiction as “a story about a problem, or a solution to a problem, that originates from an as yet unrealized, but plausible, scientific discovery.” It is clear that Star Wars does not meet this definition, so it is best understood as fantasy, even if it incorporates outer space, space ships, and blasters as the backdrop for its fantasy story. So my first area of disagreement with Sawyer is that he has incorrectly categorized Star Wars. In addition, if we consider Lucas’ statements regarding Star Wars as fantasy rather than science fiction, he seems to have argued that the film cannot be held to scientific standards of reality, rather than claiming no connection to the real world and immunity from critique in social commentary.

But perhaps regardless of how to classify Star Wars, Sawyer’s argument may be understood as saying that whether science fiction or fantasy, particular elements of Star Wars set back the cutting edge aspects of science fiction set forth in the decade previous to its debut. Sawyer’s states that the opening “disclaimer” of Star Wars means that it attempted to isolate itself from incorporating social commentary, and the fact that it includes troubling social elements, such as slavery and racism, sets back science fiction which had previously tackled these subjects and critiqued these aspects of culture in the late 1960s.

In response it must be acknowledged that Star Wars does include troubling aspects in its storyline, even if it is a contemporary fairy tale. As Sawyer argues the way the droids are treated in the film must be understood as forms of slavery, paralleling the experience of blacks in America. Granted, Star Wars is dealing with robotic entities, and human beings are still grappling with how to understand and relate to robots and artificial intelligence, a problem that is much more pronounced now than in the late 1970s when Star Wars premiered. Even so, beyond taking the droids literally in application to robotic entities, they certainly can be interpreted as mirroring the social problems of racism and slavery, and doing so in unflattering ways that endorses these issues rather than making them the focus of critique as in certain examples of late 1960s science fiction.

In addition, although fantasy films are often interpreted by audiences as escapist entertainment with no connection to reality, this is not the case. Scholars like Joshua Bellin have argued that fantasy films are rightly the objects of critique for their problematic elements, and the fact that they are fantasy films only deepens the problems associated with their objectionable elements. As Bellin has stated:

“But of course, that’s what makes these films particularly powerful vehicles of social alienation, the phrase I use to suggest the whole range of processes by which marginalized groups are stereotyped, victimized, and scapegoated: fantasy films’ resistance to critical scrutiny enables them to perpetuate loathsome social ideologies under the guise of ‘harmless entertainment.’”

Examples of this social alienation, disturbing to both Bellin and Sawyer, include racism, and this is exhibited in everything from King Kong to Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. When these elements surface in films or television, whether science fiction or fantasy, they must be recognized for what they are and critiqued appropriately. Sawyer is to be commended for taking a sacred cow in the universe of the fantastic and drawing critical attention to aspects of it.

But what about the main thrust of Sawyer’s argument? Have the problematic elements of Star Wars, prefaced by the fairy tale introduction “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”, really set back the cause of science fiction with its biting social commentary as evidenced by films like Planet of the Apes? Planet of the Apes set the bar pretty high, and we should not expect many films to provide not only great entertainment, but also significant cultural interaction as well. After all, films are designed to entertain and make money first, and if possible, engage our deeper reflection as a distant second. Even so, over the years there have been intelligent science fiction films that have engaged key social issues, including race and class. Here I would include Blade Runner, Altered States, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element, The Final Cut, The MatrixDistrict 9, Surrogates, Avatar, and Splice. Certainly the quality of these films differs, as does the type of social issues and degree into which they engage them, and the reader may not consider them on the level of 2001 or Planet of the Apes, but the point is that there are plenty of examples of science fiction engaging in social commentary despite Star Wars and “A long time ago….”. District 9 is perhaps the best example of a recent science fiction film that critiques race, and while there are a number of years between 1977 and 2009, it is an assumption that science fiction films would have critiqued race more readily had it not been for Star Wars.

Readers may wonder whether my disagreements with Sawyer come as the result of being a fan of Star Wars and my offering a biased critique as a result. True, I am a Star Wars fan (at least of the original trilogy), but I have long been a fan of intelligent science fiction incorporating social commentary in the vein of Star Trek and Planet of the Apes, and would rank these higher in my appreciation as a fan and scholar of the fantastic than Star Wars. So while I am aware of my biases (we all have them), they cannot account for my critique of Sawyer.

Despite my disagreements with Sawyer’s analysis, I hope critical interaction with science fiction, fantasy, and horror continues by Sawyer and others, as well as the debates over their social significance.

For a more extensive analysis, critique, and defense of Star Wars see Star Wars on Trial: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time (Smart Pop Series) (Benbella Books, 2006), edited by David Brin and Matthew Woodring Stover.

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