Sunday 22 June 2014


By David Brin, Ph.D.

"But there's probably no better form of government than a good despot."
George Lucas (New York Times interview, March 1999)

Well, I boycotted Episode I: The Phantom Menace -- for an entire week.

Why? What's to boycott? Isn't Star Wars good old fashioned sci-fi? Harmless fun? Some people call it "eye candy" -- a chance to drop back into childhood and punt your adult cares away for two hours, dwelling in a lavish universe where good and evil are vividly drawn, without all the inconvenient counterpoint distinctions that clutter daily life.

Got a problem? Cleave it with a light saber! Wouldn't you love -- just once in your life -- to dive a fast little ship into your worst enemy's stronghold and set off a chain reaction, blowing up the whole megillah from within its rotten core while you streak away to safety at the speed of light? (It's such a nifty notion that it happens in three out of four Star Wars flicks.)

Anyway, I make a good living writing science-fiction novels and movies. So "Star Wars" ought to be a great busman's holiday, right?

One of the problems with so-called light entertainment today is that somehow, amid all the gaudy special effects, people tend to lose track of simple things, like story and meaning. They stop noticing the moral lessons the director is trying to push. Yet these things matter.

By now it's grown clear that George Lucas has an agenda, one that he takes very seriously. After four Star Wars films, alarm bells should have gone off, even among those who don't look for morals in movies. When the chief feature distinguishing "good" from "evil" is how pretty the characters are, it's a clue that maybe the whole saga deserves a second look.

Just what bill of goods are we being sold, between the frames? Elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule; common citizens needn't be consulted. They may only choose which elite to follow.

"Good" elites should act on their subjective whims, without evidence, argument or accountability.

Any amount of sin can be forgiven if you are important enough.

True leaders are born. It's genetic.

The right to rule is inherited. Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.

That is just the beginning of a long list of moral lessons relentlessly pushed by Star Wars. Lessons that starkly differentiate this saga from others that seem superficially similar, like Star Trek.

Above all, I never cared for the whole Nietzschian bermensch thing: the notion -- pervading a great many myths and legends -- that a good yarn has to be about demigods who are bigger, badder and better than normal folk by several orders of magnitude. It's an ancient storytelling tradition based on abiding contempt for the masses -- one that I find odious in the works of A.E. Van Vogt, E.E. Smith, L. Ron Hubbard and wherever you witness slanlike superbeings deciding the fate of billions without ever pausing to consider their wishes.

Wow, you say. If I feel that strongly about this, why just a week-long boycott? Why see the latest Star Wars film at all?

Because I am forced to admit that demigod tales resonate deeply in the human heart.

Before moving on to the fun stuff, will you bear with me while we get serious for a little while?

In “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell showed how a particular, rhythmic storytelling technique was used in almost every ancient and pre-modern culture, depicting protagonists and antagonists with certain consistent motives and character traits, a pattern that transcended boundaries of language and culture. In these classic tales, the hero begins reluctant, yet signs and portents foretell his pre-ordained greatness. He receives dire warnings and sage wisdom from a mentor, acquires quirky-but-faithful companions, faces a series of steepening crises, explores the pit of his own fears and emerges triumphant to bring some boon/talisman/victory home to his admiring tribe/people/nation.

By offering valuable insights into this revered storytelling tradition, Joseph Campbell did indeed shed light on common spiritual traits that seem shared by all human beings. And I’ll be the first to admit it’s a superb formula — one that I’ve used at times in my own stories and novels.

Alas, Campbell only highlighted positive traits, completely ignoring a much darker side — such as how easily this standard fable-template was co-opted by kings, priests and tyrants, extolling the all-importance of elites who tower over common women and men. Or the implication that we must always adhere to variations on a single story, a single theme, repeating the same prescribed plot outline over and over again. Those who praise Joseph Campbell seem to perceive this uniformity as cause for rejoicing — but it isn’t. Playing a large part in the tragic miring of our spirit, demigod myths helped reinforce sameness and changelessness for millennia, transfixing people in nearly every culture, from Gilgamesh all the way to comic book super heroes.

It is essential to understand the radical departure taken by genuine science fiction, which comes from a diametrically opposite literary tradition — a new kind of storytelling that often rebels against those very same archetypes Campbell venerated. An upstart belief in progress, egalitarianism, positive-sum games — and the slim but real possibility of decent human institutions.

And a compulsive questioning of rules! Authors like Greg Bear, John Brunner, Alice Sheldon, Frederik Pohl and Philip K. Dick always looked on any prescriptive storytelling formula as a direct challenge — a dare. This explains why science fiction has never been much welcomed at either extreme of the literary spectrum — comic books and “high literature.”

Comics treat their superheroes with reverent awe, as demigods were depicted in the Iliad. But a true science fiction author who wrote about Superman would have earthling scientists ask the handsome Man of Steel for blood samples (even if it means scraping with a super fingernail) in order to study his puissant powers, and maybe bottle them for everyone.

As for the literary elite, postmodernists despise science fiction because of the word “science,” while their older colleagues — steeped in Aristotle’s “Poetics” — find anathema the underlying assumption behind most high-quality SF: the bold assertion that there are no “eternal human verities.” Things change, and change can be fascinating. Moreover, our children might outgrow us! They may become better, or learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. And if they don’t learn, that could be a riveting tragedy far exceeding Aristotle’s cramped and myopic definition. “On the Beach,” “Soylent Green” and “1984″ plumbed frightening depths. “Brave New World,” “The Screwfly Solution” and “Fahrenheit 451″ posed worrying questions. In contrast, “Oedipus Rex” is about as interesting as watching a hooked fish thrash futilely at the end of a line. You just want to put the poor doomed King of Thebes out of his misery — and find a way to punish his tormentors.

This truly is a different point of view, in direct opposition to older, elitist creeds that preached passivity and awe in nearly every culture, where a storyteller’s chief job was to flatter the oligarchic patrons who fed him. Imagine Achilles refusing to accept his ordained destiny, taking up his sword and hunting down the Fates, demanding that they give him both a long life and a glorious one! Picture Odysseus telling both Agamemnon and Poseidon to go chase themselves, then heading off to join Daedalus in a garage start-up company, mass producing wheeled and winged horses so that mortals could swoop about the land and air, like gods — the way common folk do today. Even if they fail, and jealous Olympians crush them, what a tale it would be.

This storytelling style was rarely seen till a few generations ago, when aristocrats lost some of their power to punish irreverence. Even now, the new perspective remains shaky — and many find it less romantic, too. How many dramas reflexively depict scientists as “mad”? How few modern films ever show American institutions functioning well enough to bother fixing them? No wonder George Lucas publicly yearns for the pomp of mighty kings over the drab accountability of presidents. Many share his belief that things might be a whole lot more vivid without all the endless, dreary argument and negotiating that make up such a large part of modern life.

If only someone would take command. A leader.

Some people say, why look for deep lessons in harmless, escapist entertainment?

Others earnestly hold that the moral health of a civilization can be traced in its popular culture.

In the modern era, we tend to feel ideas aren’t inherently toxic. Yet who can deny that people — especially children — will be swayed if a message is repeated often enough? It’s when a “lesson” gets reiterated relentlessly that even skeptics should sit up and take notice.

The moral messages in “Star Wars” aren’t just window dressing. Speeches and lectures drench every film. They represent an agenda.

Can we learn more about the “Star Wars” worldview by comparing George Lucas’ space-adventure epic to its chief competitor — “Star Trek?”

The differences at first seem superficial. One saga has an air force motif (tiny fighters) while the other appears naval. In “Star Trek,” the big ship is heroic and the cooperative effort required to maintain it is depicted as honorable. Indeed, “Star Trek” sees technology as useful and essentially friendly — if at times also dangerous. Education is a great emancipator of the humble (e.g. Starfleet Academy). Futuristic institutions are basically good-natured (the Federation), though of course one must fight outbreaks of incompetence and corruption. Professionalism is respected, lesser characters make a difference and henchmen often become brave whistle-blowers — as they do in America today.

In “Star Trek,” when authorities are defied, it is in order to overcome their mistakes or expose particular villains, not to portray all institutions as inherently hopeless. Good cops sometimes come when you call for help. Ironically, this image fosters useful criticism of authority, because it suggests that any of us can gain access to our flawed institutions, if we are determined enough — and perhaps even fix them with fierce tools of citizenship.

By contrast, the oppressed “rebels” in “Star Wars” have no recourse in law or markets or science or democracy. They can only choose sides in a civil war between two wings of the same genetically superior royal family. They may not meddle or criticize. As Homeric spear-carriers, it’s not their job.

In teaching us how to distinguish good from evil, Lucas prescribes judging by looks: Villains wear Nazi helmets. They hiss and leer, or have red-glowing eyes, like in a Ralph Bakshi cartoon. On the other hand, “Star Trek” tales often warn against judging a book by its cover — a message you’ll also find in the films of Steven Spielberg, whose spunky everyman characters delight in reversing expectations and asking irksome questions.

Above all, “Star Trek” generally depicts heroes who are only about 10 times as brilliant, noble and heroic as a normal person, prevailing through cooperation and wit, rather than because of some inherited godlike transcendent greatness. Characters who do achieve godlike powers are subjected to ruthless scrutiny. In other words, “Trek” is a prototypically American dream, entranced by notions of human improvement and a progress that lifts all. Gene Roddenberry’s vision loves heroes, but it breaks away from the elitist tradition of princes and wizards who rule by divine or mystical right.

By contrast, these are the only heroes in the “Star Wars” universe.

Yes, “Trek” can at times seem preachy, or turgidly politically correct. For example, every species has to mate with every other one, interbreeding with almost compulsive abandon. The only male heroes who are allowed any testosterone are Klingons, because cultural diversity outweighs sexual correctness. (In other words, it’s OK for them to be macho ’cause it is “their way.”) “Star Trek” television episodes often devolved into soap operas. Many of the movies were very badly written. Nevertheless, “Trek” tries to grapple with genuine issues, giving complex voices even to its villains and asking hard questions about pitfalls we may face while groping for tomorrow. Anyway, when it comes to portraying human destiny, where would you rather live, assuming you’ll be a normal citizen and no demigod? In Roddenberry’s Federation? Or Lucas’ Empire?

Lucas defends his elitist view, telling the New York Times, “That’s sort of why I say a benevolent despot is the ideal ruler. He can actually get things done. The idea that power corrupts is very true and it’s a big human who can get past that.”

In other words a royal figure or demigod, anointed by fate. (Like a billionaire moviemaker?)

Lucas often says we are a sad culture, bereft of the confidence or inspiration that strong leaders can provide. And yet, aren’t we the very same culture that produced George Lucas and gave him so many opportunities? The same society that raised all those brilliant experts for him to hire — boldly creative folks who pour both individual inspiration and cooperative skill into his films? A culture that defies the old homogenizing impulse by worshipping eccentricity, with unprecedented hunger for the different, new or strange? It what way can such a civilization be said to lack confidence?

In historical fact, all of history’s despots, combined, never managed to “get things done” as well as this rambunctious, self-critical civilization of free and sovereign citizens, who have finally broken free of worshipping a ruling class and begun thinking for themselves. Democracy can seem frustrating and messy at times, but it delivers.

Having said all that, let me again acknowledge that “Star Wars” harks to an old and very, very deeply human archetype. Those who listened to Homer recite the “Iliad” by a campfire knew great drama. Achilles could slay a thousand with the sweep of a hand — as Darth Vader murders billions with the press of a button — but none of those casualties matters next to the personal saga of a great one. The slaughtered victims are mere minions. Extras, without families or hopes to worry about shattering. Spear-carriers. Only the demigod’s personal drama is important.

Thus few protest the apotheosis of Darth Vader — nee Anakin Skywalker — in “Return of the Jedi.”

To put it in perspective, let’s imagine that the United States and its allies managed to capture Adolf Hitler at the end of the Second World War, putting him on trial for war crimes. The prosecution spends months listing all the horrors done at his behest. Then it is the turn of Hitler’s defense attorney, who rises and utters just one sentence:

“But, your honors … Adolf did save the life of his own son!”

Gasp! The prosecutors blanch in chagrin. “We didn’t know that! Of course all charges should be dismissed at once!”

The allies then throw a big parade for Hitler, down the avenues of Nuremberg.

It may sound silly, but that’s exactly the lesson taught by “Return of the Jedi,” wherein Darth Vader is forgiven all his sins, because he saved the life of his own son.

How many of us have argued late at night over the philosophical conundrum — “Would you go back in time and kill Hitler as a boy, if given a chance?” It’s a genuine moral puzzler, with many possible ethical answers. Still, most people, however they ultimately respond, would admit beingtempted to say yes, if only to save millions of Hitler’s victims.

And yet, in “The Phantom Menace,” Lucas wants us to gush with warm feelings toward a cute blond little boy who will later grow up to murder the population of Earth many times over? While we’re at it, why not bring out the Hitler family album, so we may croon over pictures of adorable little Adolf and marvel over his childhood exploits! He, too, was innocent till he turned to the “dark side,” so by all means let us adore him.

To his credit, Lucas does not try to excuse this macabre joke by saying, “It’s only a movie.” Rather, he holds up his saga like an agonized Greek tragedy worthy of “Oedipus” — an epic tale of a fallen hero, trapped by hubris and fate. But if that were true, wouldn’t “Star Wars” by now have given us a better-than-caricature view of the Dark Side? Heroes and villains would not be distinguished by mere prettiness; the moral quandaries would not come from a comic book.

Don’t swallow it. The apotheosis of a mass murderer is exactly what it seems. We should find it chilling.

Remember the final scene in “Return of the Jedi,” when Luke gazes into a fire to see Obi-Wan, Yoda and Vader, smiling in the flames? I found myself hoping it was Jedi Hell, for the amount of pain those three unleashed on their galaxy, and for all the damned lies they told. But that’s me. I’m a rebel against Homer and Achilles and that whole tradition. At heart, some of you are, too.

This isn’t just a one-time distinction. It marks the main boundary between real, literate, humanistic science fiction — or speculative fiction — and most of the movie “sci-fi” you see nowadays.

The difference isn’t really about complexity, childishness, scientific naiveti or haughty prose stylization. I like a good action scene as well as the next guy, and can forgive technical gaffes if the story is way cool! The films of Robert Zemeckis take joy in everything, from rock ‘n’ roll to some deep scientific paradox, feeding both the child and the adult within. Meanwhile, noir tales like “Gattaca” and “The 13th Floor” relish dark stylization while exploring real ideas. Good SF has range.

No, the underlying difference is that one tradition revels in elites, while the other rebels against them. In the genuine science-fiction worldview, demigods aren’t easily forgiven lies and murder. Contempt for the masses is passi. There may be heroes — even great ones — but in the long run we’ll improve together, or not at all. (See my note on the Enlightenment, Romanticism and science fiction.)

That kind of myth does sell. Yet, even after rebelling against the Homeric archetype for generations, we children of Pericles, Ben Franklin and H.G. Wells remain a minority. So much so that Lucas can appropriate our hand-created tropes and symbols — our beloved starships and robots — for his own ends and get credited for originality.