Exploring the fantasy of the galaxy far, far away…
This is perhaps one of the most contested issues in popular culture. Ever since Star Wars premiered in 1977 is has become synonymous with the Science-Fiction genre. Whenever a discussion or mention is made of Sci-Fi, Star Wars follows not long after, usually being proclaimed as the greatest of all Sci-Fi, enough, even, to rival the inimitable Star Trek.
However, I am here to tell you now that anyone who has ever labelled the movie juggernaut as Science-Fiction is wrong, plain and simple. Star Wars isn’t Sci-Fi, in fact, it is closer to the opposite, more of a fantasy than anything else.
How can that be I hear you ask? Star Wars has all the tropes of traditional Science Fiction you say: faster-than-light travel, lasers, spaceships, clones, androids and different planets to name only a few. To that, I would say absolutely, on the most superficial level Star Wars could, in fact, be viewed through the lens of Science Fiction. And yet, scratch just inches below the surface and one may find a surprising amount of fantasy elements in George Lucas’ brainchild.
Let us start by defining our two opposing sides to the argument. Works of fantasy can be traced back centuries, with Milton’s Paradise Lost, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and even The Bible cited as examples of the genre. Fantasy is characterised by the inclusion of a variety of different character tropes and settings that define the genre. It is also a genre in which the emotion of the characters drives the narrative forward and where good confronts evil in the ultimate battle for the fate of the world. World-building is key in fantasy too, with many fantasy locales such as Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire and Narnia in C.S.Lewis’ novels all going on to become much more than empty places for the characters to traverse through, taking on lives of their own and earning places in the hearts of readers and viewers alike.
Secondly, Sci-Fi can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, with many positing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as one of the first and finest entries into the genre. Science-Fiction boomed in the 1930s in what has come to be known as the ‘Golden Age of Science Fiction’ until the 1950s. It was during this era that many of the most beloved and preeminent writers of the genre published their most famous works, with Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Isaac Asimov all writing during this period. Unlike fantasy, Sci-Fi is grounded within objective fact and places onus on overcoming obstacles through rigorous method and logic, using reason and investigative thinking to solve the issues of the day.
While both genres can be whittled down to several tropes and characteristics, throughout George Lucas’s Star Wars the more subtle notions of fantasy raise their heads and these are what we shall look at today.
Beginning with one of the central elements of the Star Wars saga, The Jedi, their diametric opposites the Sith and the Force they both wield are pivotal aspects of the narrative woven throughout every entry. The Force, an energy field that binds all living things in the universe together is at the centre of the franchise and works as a thread which ties all the films together. Until the prequels at least, when George Lucas tried to rationalise the Force with Midichlorians, the power wielded by the Jedi was one shrouded in superstition and mystery; more dependent on belief than macrobiotic cells. The Jedi, clad in their robes and residing in a temple on Coruscant, are indicative of religion, they live by a code which bears similarities to many real-world religious beliefs and focuses more on emotion than reason or logic.
The Force is a mysterious and unexplainable energy that’s grounded more in belief than cold, objective fact. A far cry from the traditional Science-Fiction of old which relies on logic and reason. The Force, Jedi and Sith are all based within a fantasy context, thematically theologist and spiritual in nature. On the most superficial level even their weapon, the vaunted lightsaber, is more akin to a sword than a laser gun or Phaser. Even the wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi is described as a wizard in A New Hope with the Jedi feared and admired as sorcerers throughout the galaxy and described as an ancient religion by the Empire.
Furthermore, our heroes of the Star Wars story, fantastic characters such as Anakin, Luke, Yoda and Obi-Wan all bear similarities to characters of fantasy in the ways through which they deal with their problems. Rather than using reason, logic and scientific method as characters in traditional Science-Fiction do, they instead use courage, magic and violence. As much as the moniker of ‘Kids movie’ is aimed at the franchise, the heroes do ultimately resolve conflicts in ways that are aggressive and separate from what one may come to expect from Sci-Fi.
Additionally, the technology in the galaxy far, far away has amazed audiences for decades. Ever since a Star Destroyer glided onto our screens in 1977, or since Luke Skywalker ignited his father’s lightsaber for the first time, we have been in awe of vehicles and gadgets found throughout the franchise, with most going on to find their own place as icons of cinema. Yet, many of these wonderous things are only further proof that Star Wars is more of a fantasy than anything else. Lightspeed travel, planet-destroying space stations and energy swords might look at home in a Sci-Fi epic, but they are, in fact, far from so. The principle of Science Fiction is to feature technology and science that is hitherto unheard or unseen, but most importantly, within reason. For example, Star Trek presaged tablet computers and voice assistants such as Siri and Alexa. Both once unimaginable wonders of 1960’s television have now become commonplace in our lives only six decades later.
Star Wars, however, has yet to be realised in our own sphere. There are no faster-than-light ships, no power sources capable of destroying planets, no swords of concentrated energy powerful enough to dismember or maim. The closest invention we have come to realise from Star Wars is Boba Fett’s jetpack. It is not impossible that one day, a long, long time from now we might see our Star Wars fantasies realised, but Science Fiction has always worked within the bounds of reasonable reality, it is a peek behind the nearest corner, not a telescope looking into the next thousand years.
In order to peek behind the corner, works of Sci-Fi are almost uniformly set in the present or the future, with works of fantasy using the context of the past to tell their stories. This is again true of Star Wars, which is set not only in a galaxy far, far away, but also a long time ago. The context of Star Wars is based within myth, the saga is framed as a story that has been passed down through generations, so much so that the narrative and characters have become legendary. This is contradictory with usual Sci-Fi which places its characters and story very firmly in the present day or the future in order to expose the progress – or evils – of modern science.
While superficially Star Wars has a futuristic Sci-Fi exterior when one looks beyond the most obvious elements they can find a centre closely bonded with fantasy. Thematically speaking the Skywalker Saga is rich in fantasy tropes that, for most, are undetectable amongst the plethora of lasers and spaceships. Despite what the legions of fans and critics may say, at its heart, Star Wars is undoubtedly, a fantasy.