Neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire

Star Wars

Appendix N guru Jeffro Johnson responds to charges from the Big Men with Screwdrivers crowd that Star Wars is not, and never has been, science fiction.
Bruce Bethke weighs in yet again on a very old argument: this nutso idea that Star Wars isn’t science fiction:
“Sure, it looks like science fiction. It sounds like science fiction. And based on that guy in the wookiee costume who was ahead of us in the concession line, it even smells like science fiction, or at least like the third day of a furry fandom convention. But Star Wars is not science fiction. It’s a long-winded heroic magical fantasy saga that happens to take place in a world cluttered up with lots of sci-fi props and set dressings. If considered as science fiction, there is not one thing in the entire Star Wars universe that bears close scrutiny, because if you think about it at all seriously, the seams split and all the nonsense comes pouring out.”
Right off the cuff, Bruce resorts to the old "If the scientific elements don't stand up to scrutiny, it's not science fiction!" canard. In doing so, he reduces all SF to hard SF which, as Daddy Warpig proved, does not exist.

Back to Jeffro:
The nonsense just comes pouring out, eh? Well hey, hate Star Wars all you like. (I was done the moment I was stunned by just how godawful the theatrical re-release of “A New Hope” was.) I will say this, though: this particular light saber cuts both ways. Talk about throwing stones in glass houses!
Let’s look again at all that “real” science fiction from around 1940 to about 1980. I mean really look at it:
  • How much of it was predicated on the idea that only a united One World Earth Government could reach the stars?
  • How much of it assumed that the future government of humanity would necessarily be some sort of socialism or communism?
  • How much of it was a glorified bully pulpit used to beat down and mock the concept of religion in general?
  • How much of it included free love and explicit sex or presented the idea that modesty, fidelity, and marriage were all outmoded, uncool, and unfuturistic– to the point of taking on any and every imaginable taboo up to and including incest and pedophilia?
  • Similarly, how much of it went out of the way to present cowardly loser protagonists that are both unheroic and unsuccessful with the opposite sex– in order to be more “realistic”?
I’m one of those people that became a science fiction fan because of Star Wars, and gosh… it really was a chore to find anything to read in that genre when that franchise was first exploding into the wider collective consciousness. For decades, I was convinced that to read anything for fun I would just have to hold my nose and read around all the tacky stuff just to enjoy my favorite genre. But face it, by the late seventies, the science fiction brand was weighed down by a great deal of nonsense. And it had gone on for so long that most people couldn’t imagine it being any other way.
The Hard Buds of SF revel in the narrative that science fiction was the nichest of niche fandoms from its beginnings (by their reckoning) just before WWII until Star Wars came along and made sci-fi mainstream. They often rehash this story while wrinkling their noses at the unwashed masses that Star Wars brought into their intimate little club.

But as Jeffro pointed out, the only Campbellian narrative that's  even more shopworn than the above declares that Star Wars is not science fiction at all, but dirty, elf-riddled fantasy.

You can probably see what the Hard Buds missed in their haste to defend their ivory tower: either science fiction rode Star Wars' coattails into the mainstream, or Star Wars isn't science fiction, and therefore SF has never been anything more than a super niche fandom catering to a small clique of oddball hobbyists.

2016 Amazon Genre Sales
Amazon and Author Earnings got the Hard Buds' backs!
Emcee Jeffro plays us out:
But like it or not, the original Star Wars movies were science fiction– science fiction of a type that was wildly popular when guys like Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke were still in diapers. If science fiction in the same vein as Star Wars isn’t science fiction, then the generation that laid the foundations of the field never existed. And the people who also inspired all of the best known science fiction grandmasters to pursue careers writing classic tales are erased from history as well.
That’s crazy.


  1. Why does anyone have a dog in this fight? The only use I can see it being is where in the library or bookstore one searches for the next book. But since I mostly read stuff from authors I know or based on recommendations from friends, even that hardly matters anymore.

    If one wanted a distinction, it might be made based on how believable the world is: Gibson's Necromancer world is completely believable both scientifically and socially; Star Wars - which I love - does not stand up to a moment's reflection on either count. What's more, it *matters* to Gibson that his universe is believable. He makes it so that his future is not only believable, but feels inevitable. I can't imagine that it mattered one iota to Lucas whether or not his universe was believable on that level.

    When I reviewed your books, I noted that you were not engaged in world-building so much as Universe building, the difference being that in Universe building the fundamental laws are up for grabs. Ether runners are not (I suppose) a feature of our Universe any more than the various powers of the gods and demons, meaning trying to understand it in terms of science is pointless. Is the story good? Yeah. Does the universe it takes place in feel 'real' based on my experience of science? No. Does that matter? No.

    Anyway, is this horse dead enough yet? ;-)

    1. Old-school elitists have a dog in the fight because of "muh skiffy purity!"

      The #PulpRev has a dog in the fight because they know that their cultural birthright--the legacy of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and E.E. "Doc" Smith--was hijacked and hidden from them. The falsehood that "all science fiction must be based on sound scientific principles" was a key bit of gaslighting used in the commission of the crime.

      Me? I'm closer to your more pragmatic view. The old genre labels are largely irrelevant in the new scheme of things. It's all Amazon categories these days.

  2. It's all fantasy. They started as action and adventure tales with fantastical elements. But we have to explain that away in order to get the narrative we want of Campbell defining the genre.

    This is like punks trying to explain away the varied sounds of The Ramones and New York Dolls to get their very narrow definition of a niche special genre that excludes elements they don't like.

    But we excised the action and adventure from most genre fiction, so let's craft a narrative that keeps them out.

    1. MegaBusterShepard here....

      I prefer to call it "Cultural Revisionism". When a younger generation who produces mediocre results derides and shames the work of a superior proceeding generation either to promote their own vastly inferior works or for political motives.

    2. JD

      Agreed. If we go back to tbe very beginning of storytelling: Epic of Giglamesh, the Smith and the devil and so on they're action adventure/quests with fantastic elements.
      There's the mythos aspect but the action is the base of the stories

  3. I suppose those hard SF buds do not include John C. Wright, who has a clear definition of hard science fiction that is widely accepted and states openly is a hard SF writer?

    Warpig's article was never convincing. There is an elitism on BOTH sides that each refuses to acknowledge. I'm with Mr. Moore. The horse is dead.

  4. As one of those who vehemently holds against Star Wars as Sci-Fi, I find your strawman annoying. Nobody argued, even once, about "hard skiffy!!" because that's entirely irrelevant. There's not a single scientific element* to the series (at least theatrical releases - books have some). And the "futuristic" elements are laughable - blasters are terrible weapons, lightsabers are literally magical, sounds in space, localized fake gravity in FIGHTERS, instantaneous FTL that's somehow subject to planetary gravity but not stellar, even the space collisions are laughably bad.

    It's not just that Star Wars plays around with pseudo-science, it's that every element of the story is magic by another name and the fictive "science" elements aren't.

    *Possible exception for Luke's robotic hand. That was moderately scientific.

    1. If my argument annoys you, why did you spend two paragraphs reinforcing it?

    2. I said the strawman was annoying. As far as I can tell, you didn't actually make an argument regarding Star Wars itself (you reposted arguments, but I'm unclear on your agreement with them).

      But specifically the notion of an "Ivory Tower inspired by the Hard Buds of Hard Skiffy" is silly and insulting. There's nobody who has made the argument that science fiction cannot contain fantastic elements. There are, however, several people who are making the argument that Star Wars contains *only* fantastic elements.

      And it's only fair to point out that Jeff is incorrect in his dating. Jules Verne *also* noted the distinction between his work and "scientific romance".

      Additionally, Star Wars is far from the only universe to fall into the category of space fantasy. The Warhammer 40K universe absolutely does. 'Souldancer' does.

      And I say this as someone who primarily reads fantasy.

    3. What's annoying and insulting is hard SF fans' persistent attempts to reduce all of science fiction to their small subgenre. It's a category error based on word games.

      Insisting that a story must contain some plausible future development of contemporary science reduces all SF to some gradation of hard SF and cuts the genre off at the knees. It tosses not only Verne, but Burroughs, Howard, and Brackett. It says that science fiction came out of nowhere and went nowhere.

      As for the "not an argument" accusation, I certainly did make an argument regarding Star Wars which every Campbellian I've discussed the matter with has studiously ignored, viz. either Star Wars raised science fiction from the post-1937 ghetto to the mainstream, or Star Wars is not science fiction, and SF has never been mainstream.

    4. Allow me to reiterate:

      I am primarily a reader of fantasy (as far as fiction goes). I haven't read much in the way of hard sci-fo in ages, primarily because very few authors are good at writing both science and characters. Heck, even the great hard sci-fi generally lacks memorable characters.

      My calling Star Wars "science fantasy" or "space fantasy" or "future fantasy" (any of which is reasonable) is not derogatory. It's simply the accurate description.

      I'm not sure you understood me about Verne. He was quite insistent that his work was based in practical or plausible science from the near future. The obvious exception is one of his most famous ("Journey"), but that standard holds true for the rest.

      You also conveniently ignored Lewis. "That Hideous Strength" was scientifically/socially predictive on several counts. The fact that science fantasy makes up a large chunk of any era is only to be expected: it is, after all, much easier to use fantasy than to predict scientific development. Again, that is not a slight, but simply an observation of practicality​.

      I didn't think the claim that Star Wars bright SF to the mainstream was too be taken seriously as an argument. Star Trek predates it by eleven years, Dune by twelve.

    5. Several typos due to my phone and limited scrolling capacity. I don't think any of them changed the meaning significantly, but let me know if anything is unclear.

    6. "Several typos due to my phone and limited scrolling capacity."

      No worries.

      "I'm not sure you understood me about Verne. He was quite insistent that his work was based in practical or plausible science from the near future."

      Philosophy is a science. Theology is a science--more so than physics or chemistry because the first two yield knowledge with certainty while the body of knowledge derived from the latter two are always subject to change.

      If we're sticking to the original, literal meanings of words, then any story based on plausible conclusions of metaphysics are also science fiction.

      "I didn't think the claim that Star Wars bright SF to the mainstream was too be taken seriously as an argument. Star Trek predates it by eleven years, Dune by twelve."

      Star Trek was a cancelled failure, and Dune was only big with print SF fandom--until both got new leases on life thanks solely to film adaptations of each that were admitted attempts to ride Star Wars' coattails.

    7. OK, let's set aside the fact that nobody actually thinks that a work of fiction on philosophical and theological speculation is "science fiction".

      Star Wars *still* would not qualify. There's nothing about the film that speculates in either of those fields - literally the opposite. 'The Force' is one of the most childish versions of spirituality imaginable.

      Star Trek was a syndication hit in the early 70's, despite its initial failure.

      Beyond that, here's a MASSIVE list of science fiction films from the 60's: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_science_fiction_films_of_the_1960s

      And that's without referencing the hundreds of such films from previous decades or the first half of the 70's.

      Claiming that Star Wars "brought SF into the mainstream" is demonstrably incorrect. It's arguably correct to say that Star Wars was the first blockbuster hit featuring space opera, but I'd have to dig into numbers.

      And here's the personal anecdote: I've read dozens of Star Wars books. Never once did I say to myself "that's a fascinating examination of the potential effects of technological advancement". Not a single time. I thoroughly enjoyed some of the stories, but I was never once intrigued by a vision of the future therein.

      Asimov's "I, Robot"? Exactly the opposite. I could not, for the life of me, name a single character from those stories. I can recite, almost to the word, the Three Laws of Robotics. I can remember the key plot pieces of several of the short stories, each featuring a scientific issue.

      That's the difference.

      Star Wars serves a different purpose and fills a different role than "science fiction". It's space opera - future fantasy - featuring princesses and dark lords and magic and mystic warrior monks with blades of light.

      It is most certainly not a story about technology, or even the future. There's nothing in the story that couldn't be replaced with the elements of traditional fantasy.

      One might as well argue that LotR is science fiction because of Feanor's unequaled gem-cutting techniques.