Last week was the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars, and since (as you will know if you read this blog much) it’s a movie series that I have loved a great deal, I thought I would write a little more about it today. I’ve written some about why I like these films so much before; I like the very clear good vs. evil of the stories and the idea that power always carries a price with it. (We saw a rather more shades-of-grey take on the setting with Rogue One, which was fun, but I hope they won’t continue that with Last Jedi.) I’m not sure I have anything new to say along those lines today, though.
Ok, so something new for this time around. I love the way the Star Wars movies (thinking primarily of the original trilogy, Force Awakens, and Rogue One) look. Specifically, I love the way the technology looks. Most of it is beat up and a lot of it is covered in grime. There’s no touchscreens and not a lot of chrome. In fact, not all that much looks shiny at all (C3P0 being the obvious exception), and the stuff that does mostly belongs to the Empire, to the bad guys. The good guys’ stuff is oil stained and scratched and dinged up, which I think helps quietly and consistently underscore the desperation of the Rebellion.
It’s pervasive through a lot of the tech in the movies, though. The outside of starships are not sleek and streamlined, and certainly don’t have giant bird paintings. There’s pipes and hatches and various flange-y bits sticking out everywhere. In general everything looks (to me, anyway) like tools rather than showpieces; this is all stuff that gets constant heavy use and is designed primarily for function rather than form. I like that a lot.
Now, there’s also arguably a bunch of stuff that is missing from the tech in Star Wars. The touchscreens are one example. There also doesn’t appear to be wifi or anything like it, R2 has to physically plug into computers with those very satisfyingly mechanical, rotate-y ports. There’s no hi-def recordings either, the very best you get is a flickery, blurry, mostly monochrome image, if you get that at all. This is, somewhat paradoxically, a retro-future, and although that sometimes ends up seeming silly, to me it works out.
Another recent example of this being done very well was the Battlestar Galactica TV series, with the corded phones and Cold War looking computers. There was an in-universe explanation for it, first of all that Galactica was an old ship, but also that the more advanced gear we’d expect was fatally vulnerable to Cylon shenanigans. That worked fine, but I don’t think it was necessary. One of the players in my Star Wars RPG likes to think about why there are no touchscreens in the game world, and although I enjoy hearing his thinking, I also don’t think I ultimately need an explanation. There isn’t because there isn’t. There isn’t because it’s cool.
That may be the reason why they continue to keep the retro-future, clunky tech in the new Star Wars movies. Consistency is of course part of the deal, and I like to think that part of it is that technology isn’t the solution to the problem in Star Wars. A lot of the time, technology is the problem, and so maybe that’s why the movies don’t glamorize it. Part of the reason, I also suspect, is that the clunkier tech tends to look more dramatic in action. There was a lot to like about Star Trek: The Next Generation, but no matter how furiously you tap on a touchscreen, it doesn’t convey a great sense of urgency, not like flipping some big chunky switches or slamming a receiver into its cradle.
I also know a lot of the props for Star Wars were scavenged or modified from real world bits and bobs, with the blasters being tricked-out pistols rather than purpose-built future guns. So some of the look is also probably practicality in set building. They used what was relatively easily available and could be used as-is (or as-was, I guess) rather than scratch-building a bunch of stuff that probably wouldn’t look as convincing in the end anyway. I really do like Star Trek perfectly well (not as much as Star Wars, but you probably knew that), but the computers and tech props made for the original series never looked like anything but props to me. Also everything is distressingly tidy. (I wonder whether part of why I like the knocked-about, messy Star Wars stuff is that my spaces tend to be cluttered, and anything owned by me tends to look beat-up in a hurry)
I also think that the way Star Wars looks reflects the way people in the late 70s and 80s imagined the future, which is probably inevitable but is kind of interesting to think about. (Now yes, of course I’m aware the movies are set in the distant past, but I think it’s reasonable to say that in imagining a world of space ships and interstellar travel and intelligent robots we’re thinking about the future of our society to some extent) First of all it’s not unreasonable to say that there are no touchscreens and no wifi in Star Wars because the people writing the scripts and making the props didn’t envision how technology was going to develop. This happens all the time, of course – in one of my very favourite books ever, Neuromancer, no-one in the ‘near future’ setting has a cell phone. That change in tech wasn’t seen coming.
That also gets me to another point, though, because Gibson is at pains to point out that he wasn’t trying to predict the future with Neuromancer, and that it was really a book about the 1980s. I think that’s almost always the case with the visions of the future that we create; they’re nearly always more about the time they were created in than any real attempt at futurism. They reflect the perspectives and assumptions that the creator was immersed in when they sat down to write. Neuromancer imagines a future where the line between technology and humanity is becoming blurry, that dehumanises people and makes the artificial closer to human. Star Wars imagines space as a place where people live and work in their regular lives, doing ordinary work; where there are working-class beings putting in a hard days’ labour. This is not a gleaming future with contemporary concerns solved, it is one that still has poverty and crime as things to be worried about as well as alarming space fascists.
Some of these visions of the future become obsolete as time goes by. I don’t think you’d get a lot of traction with a story about the gee-whiz, rockets everywhere, meals in a pill, spandex jumpsuit future of the 1950s any longer. There’s parts of it I think we actively don’t like and parts of it readers would not believe. (Although, I would also love to be proven wrong!) It’s not a version of the future that has aged very well for us. Almost universally (it seems to me), if someone does present you with this bright, shiny, perfected future, it’s because they’re setting up to jerk back the curtain and reveal some horrific underside.
It’s not always a case of future visions simply not aging well. Not all that long ago the futures we imagined seemed to almost always include the idea the virtual reality would become endemic, that we’d be constantly immersing ourselves in digitally created worlds to work and play. I don’t understand the technology enough to get why, but it didn’t happen (Gibson is interesting on the road we may have taken instead), and our VR fantasies seem vaguely silly, now.
On the other hand, we seem to like the 1980s futures a good bit more. That new Blade Runner movie that I fretted over a couple of blogs ago is very much cut from that cloth, for example. There’s something about that grim, crumbling future that still appeals to us, on some level, some part of it that fits with how we either think about our world or think about where we’re headed. You could argue that the steampunk genre takes a Victorian vision of the future as its inspiration. I don’t know why we like certain futures more than others, but it’s been something I’ve been thinking about lately, and I’m hoping to put together a discussion along those lines at Can*Con this fall. We’ll see.
However all that may be, the 1970s future portrayed in Star Wars is obviously one that works for today’s audience, or at least a good portion of it. When the two most recent movies came out, I remember hearing from more than a few people that they were glad to see that the tech was all chunky and beat the hell up. Captain Andor’s U-Wing looks like it has been used for many hundreds of hours by hundred of people and it is glorious. When we meet Rey, she lives in a junkyard of wrecked and abandoned ships. The Rebel base, when we get there, is once again in a dingy, dark concrete bunker. Saw Gerrera’s partisan stronghold was filthy and his gear looked like it might stop working any second now.
40 years is a fantastic run for any imaginary world, and it says something about the basic quality of the Star Wars story that both the original movies and the newer additions to the franchise seem to be as popular as ever. I hope they keep making Star Wars films for us as long as they have good stories to tell, and I hope all of them have that clunky, battered, busted-looking tech as part of them.
If you’ve missed me talking about it before, the Limestone Genre Expo is in Kingston this weekend, and it’s not too late to register! This will be my second year attending and if last year is anything to go by it will be a marvellous weekend of time spent thinking and talking about reading and writing. I’ll be on a few panels and hanging out at the Renaissance Press booth if you’d like to say hello, and it’s a great opportunity to meet writers and fans of great fiction. Details are here.