More David Brin on Star Wars

An Addendum To David Brin's Critique Of The Star Wars Universe
Written In Response To Several Hundred Emails...

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(to see the original articles that caused the ruckus, go to:

http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/feature/1999/06/15/brin_main/index.html

and

http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/feature/1999/06/15/brin_side/index.html)

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Hello all you Star Wars fans and Star Wars skeptics out there!

Well, I knew my piece in SALON -- about the many storytelling sins of George Lucas -- would raise a lot of heat out there. In the first day alone, I received over 900 emails... and this doesn't count the tsunami of commentary taking place at Slashdot and other discussion groups. Seems I struck a nerve.

For a while I tried answering each email message individually, but after about a hundred my hands were in danger of giving out and my answers started to grow incoherent. Too bad. Many folks wrote cogent and interesting remarks! They read carefully, understood the concerns I raised, agreed with some of it and politely took issue with other points. That's about a third of the correspondents. The other two-thirds came evenly divided between those who enthusiastically agreed with me... and those who had (ahem!) very little good to say!

In this generic response, I'll try to address the most-frequently raised issues. Sorry if your point winds up being passed by. I'm only human, not a demigod.

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First a clarification. While I do think that plenty of evidence shows that George Lucas hates a civilization that's been very good to him... and that his storytelling faults are innumerable... this does not mean that I'm saying everything in the Star Wars universe is evil and perverse! (See below where I praise Luke Skywalker and especially Han Solo.) So many people would not flock to the films if there weren't many positive traits. The Campbellian and Enlightenment traditions can have considerable overlap. Among the better (though simpleminded) lessons that you do see in even the worst Star Wars films are -- "Mean people suck," "Be brave," "try to stay calm," and "Keep on trying."

Indeed, I have never said we should eliminate Joseph Campbell-type myths from our storytelling heritage! When they are good, they rock. Anyway, they are deeply rooted inside us, for well or ill. I just think we ought to TRY to grow up a bit and appreciate other modes of fiction that are less cliched, formulaic, predictable, and obeissant to elites.

For the Campbellian myth can VERY easily go wrong, and turn into a nightmare. That's what's happened to George Lucas's particular vision, in which a "rebellion" is used to symbolize the legitimization of demigods. And it's gotten worse the more seriously Lucas takes himself, from the idealism and simple hopefulness of Movie #1 to the dismal futility of the recent Phantom Menace. (See point #1 below.)

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Followup point #1 -

The most common email I've received from Lucas defenders was to attack a single perceived flaw in the part of my article dealing specifically with The Phantom Menace -- zeroing in on my complaint regarding the nature of the scheme by Senator Palpatine. These people avoided commenting on any of the major issues I raised -- e.g. elitism, the "demigod mythos," or GL's openly expressed antipathy toward democratic western civilization. Instead, they cried "gotcha!" -- as if my failure to grasp Palpatine's scheme invalidates every other point I tried to raise.

My answer is simple. Of COURSE I saw that Palpatine was using the invasion of Naboo to engineer his accession as Chancellor. I just couldn't credit that the whole thing could be so stupid. Consider these questions.

If the queen's so influential, able to topple the head of a galaxy, why couldn't she get any help from all these political allies she's calling upon?

Um, so what's to keep the shamed-defeated Federation guys from screaming "It was Palpatine! He MADE us doo eet!" The fact that the Sith Lord's _eyes_ were in shadow? They really know nothing about a guy they've sworn fealty to and staked everything on? Some savvy traders!

Palpatine is clearly concerned about being hunted down by the Jedi, right? Yet he draws their newly-roused attention right to his own home planet? He couldn't have used another? Oh, and why does he send Maul to kill Amidala and her escorts on Tatooine, when they are bringing her to the Senate to do exactly what he wants her to do? Does that make even marginal sense? (In fact, he'd send a space yacht to pick her up and escort her to the Senate in style, while keeping Darth Maul secret a while longer.) (In fact, now that we get right down to it, palpatine WANTS Amidala to escape from Naboo. Or he should. If Lucas bothered to plot at all.)

Oh, the scheme is dumb about forty other ways. But above all, the *success* of Palpatine's plan makes this film vastly darker than the dark but inspiring EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Even the rebel "victory" was part of his plan! Therefore, *none* of Annakin's or Obiwan's heroic efforts matter in the slightest, since, as the new Chancellor, Palpatine has to be seen riding to the rescue, in order to enhance his prestige. He was planning to smash the seige anyway, to become a public savior and reinforce his rule.

So, all the dead Gungas died for nothing. They might as well have waited a week for the Chancellor to arrive and "save" the day! Their heroism's wasted.

Think about that. The Gungans, the brave pilots, the hapless traders, the futility Of Qui-Gon's death. Not one heroic action mattered an iota, even as tragic irony! It's an unalloyed bummer. Like Oedipus. Jeepers.

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#2 Many people objected to my comparing Vader to Hitler. After all, he's not the top baddie, so Heinrich Himmler might be a better choice. Alas, some go to great lengths to excuse Vader from even a henchman's culpability. Here's one fellow's comment.

>Vader is a slave to the emperor, a smart pawn. He tells Luke this, that
>he can't resist the emperor's power, that Luke too will be enslaved, but
>he has no choice but to bring him.

Not! For several reasons.

(a) Lucas never even tries to use this excuse, so why concoct it?

(b) If you excuse evil by saying "He wass chust following Orders!" (even telepathic ones) you open up a morally shaky path... even if it's true! Our only hope as citizens of a civilization is to demand accountability of people, and not encourage excuse-making like that. (In fact, the excuse has already been rejected in the case of murderers with multiple personalities. They aren't executed... but they aren't ever let on the streets again. either.) Is Lucas really preaching this policy?

(c) Anyway, the notion of mind-crushing your best aide doesn't hold water. No such compulsion has ever been known to be compatible with encouraging imaginative service. It doesn't hold!

(d) Finally, if the Emperor can mind-control Annakin Skywalker (all fulla midichlorians!) then he can do it to anybody. If so, he is Isaac Asimov's "Mule" and can simply go from world to world, adjusting elites to adore him! Why be mean at all, then? Battlefleets are inefficient and much costlier than mental-suasion valentines! Why blow up Alderan when you can make Leia's Papa love you?

Phooey!

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#3 Regarding the redemption/apotheosis of Vader --

>At the end, when the Emperor is busy killing Luke, Vader breaks the
>distracted Emperor's control, and sacrifices himself to kill him.
>It is for this that he earn's Lukes forgiveness.

Some people expressed deep affinity for the PERSONAL redemption of the relationship between father & son, in RETURN OF THE JEDI. This is separate from the matter of the Galaxy at large, which owes Vader nothing for his deathbed conversion. I confess, in my focus on the latter, I may have given the former short shrift. After all, Luke Skywalker is a genuine hero. I never had any complaints about him at all... except for bad acting. His need for this fatherly reconciliation redemption is a legitimate topic.

Okay, I'll back off a notch on that.

Aside; Why do I actually like Luke Skywalker, despite the fact that he's a Campbellian "demigod"?
I NEVER claimed to hate all Campbell-Homer-style myths! We need to outgrow them, but they will always have a place in our hearts. In which case, however, I prefer that they be real heroes, not closet tyrants. As for Luke, he's a good dude who remembers his friends. He goes after them even though Yoda tells him he's not ready and it'll cause a disaster. (It doesn't! He does a lot of good and comes back safely, though ticked off over being lied to. Which is why Yoda fakes his own death, in order to avoid fessing-up.)
Luke then goes back to Tatooine for Han. The scenes that follow (in ROTJ) are execrably dumb. Nevertheless, Luke himself hangs in there as a real hero, despite the lies he endured from his so-called "masters." He's not very bright -- and can't act -- but he's a genuine good guy, all the way. Luke might be a demigod, but he'd be on our side. He doesn't like despots. Not one little bit.

Still I like Han Solo more. Always did. He's a guy. Just a heroic guy.

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#4 >> Anyway, Darth Vader rescues the universe from the bad emperor, so isn't that worth forgiving him?

Well, no, on several levels. First, he could have done it long before. Whether or not there's a Dark Side, it is simply bad rulership to be meaner than you have to be. The black & white good evil dichotomy Lucas presents hides the fact that a mighty henchman can desert a master he despises, especially when it could strengthen an opposing side that's getting stronger by the hour.

But there's a more important rebuttal: The whole Luke-Vader-Empreror scene in RotJedi is IRRELEVANT! It makes absolutely no difference to the success of the rebellion. The only characters who matter in a bit are the wookie and Lando! Watch RotJ again carefully. None of the Force people make the slightest difference. At all.

THAT is the only part of the film I like, and hardly anyone noticed it. (Certainly not Lucas, or he'd have changed it!) It is brave NON-demigods who save the day... as they did when Hitler was brought down.

What IS it about Lucas and futility-plots? That's TWO films in which his heroes race about having sword fights and leaping and slashing and dying... FOR NOTHING! In Both RotJedi and Phantom Menace none of the demigods and other main characters alter the big picture even an iota. For all their suffering, they just make a lot of noise. A lot of them die.

Huh!

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#5 Aware of these horrific plot faults, a few of you suggested an innovative/intriguing possibility - that maybe Darth is/was/will be secretly planning to turn things around, all along!

In fact, I hint at this several times in my article! Remember when I kept mentioning "Clue Number One" and so on? It all points to a clever possibility. The one possibility that might make sense out of the whole saga!

All evidence points to Yoda as co-villain with the emperor all along -- one light-side of the force schmuck and one dark-side schmuck. QuiGon was dimly aware of this problem, which is why he tried bypassing Yoda-- twice! -- and yearned for balance. So did Obiwan. And their student?

How about this? Annakin self-hypnotized an inner core of himself to hide behid a mask while pretending to be the emperor's lackey, getting ready for a day of reckoning with BOTH of those sanctimonious bastards, Yoda and Palpatine! It works!

Here's part of the SALON article that never got included:

** ==> Oh, wait. I get it. Annakin was actually a secret agent spy all along! Here's the secret facts --

VADER's the one who sent the secret plans to Leia's ship! He arranged for the droids to get away, and coincidentally land just a few miles from his hidden son! Remember how, a little later, he talks Tarkin into "letting them go so we can trace them"? Likewise, he's the only close-up witness to Obiwan disappearing, when he supposedly "killed" his master in that sword fight! (Maybe he actually helped Obiwan pull a vanishing act.) Note that the "fight" with Obiwan distracted the guards & helped let Luke get away!
But there's more! Remember how Vader "chased" Luke in that Tie fighter... which had the chief effect of turning off all the antiaircraft guns and giving the boy a clear shot to blow up the first Death Star! (From which event, Vader is conveniently the only Imperial survivor.)
Recall how in TESB Vader offered to make Luke co-ruler? (Presumably it would thus be a nicer dynasty than the emperor's). Then in Jedi recall how Vader brought Luke aboard the second Death Star? Could it be because he knew the kid would irritate the emperor and get him upset enough to finally let Darth get a crack at him from behind?
I knew there had to be some reason why Vader didn't detect his own daughter -- all filled with that magic force shit -- when he grabbed her arm and looked into her eyes in Episode... um... IV is it? Then he drug interrogated her, without detecting any Force?
Pah! He let them both get away deliberately! And whenever they needed guidance, there were the droids... his own special droids, assigned to help and guide his children to their destiny.
Now THERE is an explanation that could get Vader into Jedi Heaven! Maybe Obiwan, too. But it CANNOT be the same place as Yoda!

Oh, but I forgot about the billions of people Vader helped kill. So never mind.
(Too bad. It was starting to look like I could make the Star Wars Universe actually make sense. Alas, it cannot be done. Some miracles are beyond authorial skill. Sigh.) <==**

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#5 Here's another point left out of the critique of Phantom Menace: Lucas forgot to provide the viewer anyone to identify with! Qui-Gon at first seems to be the main character, but he isn't allowed an iota of complexity or passion. He's obviously in the "mentor" role (like Obi-Wan in the original film), a second hand character who will in fact sacrifice himself for the sake of the hero. Moreover, he's clearly been duped. McGregor's Obi-Wan was wasted, just wasted alas! And God forbid it was Anakin Skywalker. Not only does everyone know he's destined to become the Hitlerian √úbermensch... but he's introduced WAY too late to be the central point of view character.

Lucas says he's a true Campbellian myth-teller, but he doesn't even do that right. What's a heroic tale without a hero in clear focus? In Phantom we have just an ensemble of characters like some TV series episode? That's the WRONG trait of Star Trek to emulate!

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#6 Some people defended the "getting mad will make you evil" baloney. How? How can it be defended? Millions of men got angry at Hitler, went off to fight him, and never became evil. They did their jobs, ran for days and months on angry adrenaline... and came home scarred but eager to heal.
I already conceded that too much persistent anger CAN make a warrior inefficient, or even prompt many bad decisions. Extended fear can lead to intolerance. That's the excellent warning in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
But the philosophical inanity in RETURN OF THE JEDI is simply indefensible.

Consider: Let's say Luke gets really mad, grabs up the light saber and kills Vader & the emperor.

He's a soldier. IT'S HIS JOB!

(1) That act does not make him evil. Even if he enjoys it!

(2) If he did it while angry, or enjoyed it, and he feels scarred by it, he can tell his worries about going "bad" to Leia and his friends. They can hold him, and be there for him, and hug the anger away while he sobs... exactly what's been done by loved ones for returning soldiers after every war. Lucas seems never to have studied this whole branch of human experience before preaching to us about the Warrior's Way. ASK a veteran who's been in combat, for heaven's sake!

As a soldier, I'd snatch up the light saber, cut off the tyrant's head, save my comrades and my cause, and seek therapy later. I'd take my chances that some core of goodness will sustain me. That and the love of my friends.

(3) If the galaxy gets decent democratic institutions after the rebellion, it won't matter if Luke DOES turn to the dark side! Charles Lindbergh did. He embraced Nazism in the 1930s and there was no greater pre-war hero. Guess what. Our civilization managed to deal with the tragic fall of a demigod. We patted him on the head and said "stick to aeronautics, Lindy."

There goes Lucas again, assuming that only demigods matter.

In fact, I coulda written a better emperor-Luke scene in which the empie puts a REAL soul dilemma before Luke! can anyone else come up with one? A choice that would wrack even a great soul? It could have been done!


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*** An aside! Ever notice how, in so many scifi series, the first movie's kind-of-okay, the second sizzles... and the third one stinks up the joint, betraying every theme raised by the other two? It happened in the Trek, Star Wars and Aliens universes. (I explain elsewhere. ) I hope there'll never be a third Terminator, for the same reason! I call it "3rd movie syndrome"... though some series did not wait for #3... e.g. Poltergeist and Highlander, alas! ***

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#7 Some attacked the Star Trek universe for the very reason i defended it, because the United Federation of Planets seems to work! Corrupt or innept officials are exceptions to be dealt with case by case, while fighting to improve the core system. These readers despise the very notion of a civilization with institutions that work and serve the sovereign citizenry. They say it encourages passivity, while Star Wars encourages rebellion.

Peeee-yeww!

Spear carriers always obey orders in Star Wars...and they die. They routinely ask questions in Star Trek. They perform little rebellions in nearly every episode. That is WHY the institutions mostly work.

Besides, which sci fi world is more like the one we live in right now -- Trek or Wars? Tim McVeigh saw his only option as violent rebellion, because he perceived this culture as unredeemable and totally corrupt/oppressive. A tomantic image, for sure. Do YOU really agree with him? This sweet, gentle, teddy bear civilization is fascistic? Really?

I am a paid member of the Libertarian Party, as suspicious of authority and bureaucrats as any reasonable person. I pounce on any authority figure I can find, especially when they seem to be trying to pull a fast one. But I also know what's benefitted me. The best time/place/civilization anyone could be lucky enough to live in (so far). Hey folks, do you really know so little about what life was like in every other society that ever existed?

Can you name one other culture that taught its boys and girls suspicion-of-authority lessons, like mother's milk, in nearly every song and saga? One that achieved higher levels of education, opportunity or freedom? (Like the freedom to become a movie billionnaire? Or to say what I've said TO a billionnaire?) Can you really justify ingratitude for all of that, the way George Lucas does?

Well, enjoy your solipsism. Me? I have one answer to that.

IAAMOAC! *

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I think I'll stop now, having addressed the most commonly asserted points. Again, sorry if I left yours out.

Again, I am not urging a complete rejection og the Campbellian-Homeric mythic storytelling tradition. I am just asking that people be aware there are new kinds of stories. Tales dealing with plausible warnings of real dangers, or offering a tentative belief in progress for all people. Even when it's an old-fashioned demigod saga, do try to tell when it depicts real heroes or blithering nonsense.

Try to demand more from your SF! Good stuff is out there!

be well. thrive in the next century. let's agree to meet again 200 years from now and laugh over how young and naive we were, way back in 1999!

db



* For those curious about IAAMOAC go see ==> http://www.kithrup.com/brin/
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