Star Wars: Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Let’s talk fluff….

Awhile back there was an op/ed in CNN arguing that Star Wars ruined science fiction by hemming in the expectations of what “science fiction” really is; basically the argument went that Star Wars made sci-fi solely into westerns in space.  A lot of that discussion had to do with the kinds of story arcs that could be within science fiction and less to do with what defines science fiction.

Well, watching trailers for the new Star Wars movie got GG mildly annoyed with the notion that this is science fiction in the sense fans of science fiction know it. In fact, if anything, written science fiction has been moving away from the lazy approximations of some hazy future and deeper into developing fairly rigorous conceptualizations of a possible future. Developing such future or distant universes is so involved that authors are increasingly making multi-volume stories to fully take advantage of the effort spent in world-building in the first place. Such efforts can inspire real-world goals (space stations, asteroid mining, etc). It has even gotten to the point where authors will set their tales within a universe created by another author (see the whole Man-Kzin Wars series, for instance).

Now of course there is a longstanding continuum between hard and soft science fiction and on into fantasy that, generally, each reader defines for his or her own self. But in the popular mind, Star Wars defines science fiction.  Is that fair?

(OK, so there are plenty of other places like here and here and here  where this is argued; GG being a geoscientist, we’ll think a bit more about some aspects that seem to go under the radar for those discussions).

Science fiction readers will usually grant one huge leap beyond science “as we know it”–usually to allow for travel beyond light speed.  (This is kind of invoking Arthur C. Clarke’s law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic). But start piling it on and things quickly devolve into fantasy.  Arguably the Force carries Star Wars solidly into fantasy all by itself [and really, the best name Lucas could come up with is THE FORCE? The all-mystical fabric of the universe is that quantity equalled by mass times acceleration in a Newtonian universe?]. But let’s say that this is the one gimme, and we’ll give a second gimme for faster-than-light travel as sort of a default option for lots of science fiction.

Before we get to worlds, what of the abilities (or lack of same) of spacecraft? In the original Star Wars (rechristened A New Hope), the launch of X-wing fighters seemed borderline plausible–after all, these things kind of look like there might be something aerodynamic about them. But how does the Millennium Falcon get anywhere in an atmosphere as it seems to only have engines pushing from the rear?  At best this thing should be plowing along the surface until it goes so fast that the bending of its course by gravity is insufficient to keep it from escaping into space. (And how does all the extra junk on the outside of this not-at-all-aerodynamic ship survive passing through the atmosphere at escape velocity?).

This gets worse in The Force Awakens, where in addition to the Falcon zooming in all kinds of directions, we now have strafing runs by TIE fighters, which are almost the opposite of aerodynamic (if GG was tying two pie tins to a ball to make an aircraft, the pie tins would at least be parallel to the ground). How does this work? To stay aloft, they have to mainly be pushing upward against gravity.  If they are doing this, why bother flying around like WWII fighters? [Oh, right, that was Lucas’s motivation for choreographing the space battles]. And clearly there is a technology for mastering gravity in this universe (third gimme)–if they are using that for propulsion, why not stop on a dime and shoot to pieces the thing they are after? [Even a movie as troubled as The Last Starfighter could envision that option].

[Another pet gripe: speeds of sound and light are very different.  You’d think that the sort of plasma-missiles that seem to be the ammo for these space fighters would be producing pretty big thunderclaps each time they were fired, and that thunder would follow seeing the shot by some time.]

Grr.

OK, started this because of the planets in this universe.  We now have a second desert planet (Jakko) to match up with Tatooine, both apparently lacking surface water and yet having breathable atmospheres.  Where is this oxygen coming from? On Earth it is photosynthesis, which seems not to happen on these very desert planets.  On Mars, it is largely because the atmosphere has been stripped off and oxygen has been left behind. It gets worse: the lava planet (Mustafar) in Revenge of the Sith has no chance of having oxygen. So we have another gimme science-wise; these human-looking folks apparently can breathe nearly anything (or maybe nearly nothing) and live just fine.

What is it with desert planets, ice planets, forest moons and the like?  These things are spheres, right? Since everywhere seems to have day and night (not to mention near 1-g gravity), the obliquity of the rotational axes can’t be too serious, so there should be pole-to-equator gradients in climate.  Even Mars has polar ice caps. How can the forest moons have so much moisture and so little open water? How could the ice-planet Hoth have any native fauna, let alone an apex predator big enough to take out humans? And how could there be giant space worms in asteroids? As near as GG can tell, the only planet that might look remotely planet-like is Alderaan, which of course got blown up inNew Hope. Why do all these planets have to look like a single part of Earth? [What if they had tried doing something on a world like Titan?

[Contrast all of that with the thought that went into Avatar, which, for what faults it has, really does seem to be science fiction with only one big gimme, the ability to remotely inhabit another body.  There isn’t even faster-than-light travel or fake gravity in Avatar even though the superconducting solids kind of push the edge of plausible].

And let’s not even go into how the Star Wars universe could so desperately need OSHA regulations

So basically, there was no science in Star Wars.  It is straight fantasy; there was no effort to try to make something remotely plausible. In fact, the whole series has been exceptionally lazy, not even playing with the tropes they took in clever ways [see, for instance, the idea of controlling gravity being played with in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country]. Basically, the filmmakers wanted things to look a certain way and didn’t bother worrying about how that could be possible. [Arguably, it is even lazy fantasy, as many fantasy universes are more carefully constructed].

OK, enough being grumpy.  It is the holidays, after all.  Enjoy the movie for what it is, not what others take it to be….

[Addendum: Abrams doubled down on the non-science in The Force Awakens even more than suggested above with perhaps one of the biggest violations of conservation of mass in film history.]

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