Sunday, August 15, 2010

The oddness of Star Wars technology

I've observed in previous posts that the Star Wars saga would have been very different if the Rebel Alliance had access to e-mail or torrent so that they didn't need to drag those droids across the galaxy. (Also handrails...).

It struck me recently that this is actually one example of something much more general in the Star Wars universe. As far as I can recall, there is no new technology whatsoever in the entire "galaxy far, far away". Everything shown in the movies either existed on Earth at the time that Star Wars was made, or was a well-established element of other space operas. Space ships and lasers and blasters and flying cars and robots were more realistically rendered and executed better in Star Wars than they had even been before, but were far from new. And earthbound imagination shows up in the absence of technologies we take for granted, such as mobile phones, personal computers, or credit cards. The medical technology is also oddly primitive despite being administered by robots: how did nobody know in advance that Padme was carrying twins? What kind of prenatal care are they giving senators and queens out there?

The one original contribution of Lucas appears to be the lightsaber. Although there may be inspirations and echoes of some earlier story elements, the lightsaber as a complete, unified concept can, I think, be attributed to Lucas. He also imbued it with rich symbolic meaning in the original trilogy, rather than merely using it as a shiny prop. Lightsabers, and the duels they are used in, all mean something significant in Luke Skywalker's "hero's journey". (One of the tragedies of the prequel trilogy is that they somehow managed to make lightsaber duels dull by repetition.)

The other odd element of Star Wars technology is that Lucas appears to have been familiar with the fiction but not the science of science fiction. In other words, his script is littered with the vocabulary of existing sci-fi, but without any apparent understanding of established meanings. For example, robots are famously known as "droids", an apparent abbreviation of android. But as any sci-fi fan will tell you, an android is a robot designed to resemble a human being (and that resemblance is the jumping off point for rich explorations in the sci-fi literature of the nature of what it means to be human, whether an android can truly be alive, etc.). No droid in Star Wars looks remotely like a living creature of any species -- the closest perhaps is C3-PO, who at least is roughly human-shaped. Similarly, C3-PO's role is described as "human-cyborg relations"; a cyborg, of course, is a hybrid of a living creature enhanced with robotic technology, something that is never actually seen or even referred to ever again, raising the question of the need for a droid specializing in relations with them?

The same odd dissonance applies to space travel technology. The terms "jump to lightspeed" and "jump to hyperspace" are used more or less interchangeably, often when speaking about the same vessel (ruling out the possibility that both technologies exist side by side). These are two completely unrelated technologies, about as different as "drive faster" and "take a shortcut" as ways to get to your destination sooner. Similarly, references to the speed of travel make no sense. At one point the Millenium Falcon, famously one of the fastest ships out there, is described as being capable of "point-five above lightspeed"; it's hard to imagine any reasonable interpretation of that term that wouldn't still leave you requiring years to travel between star systems. Amusingly, when the Millenium Falcon escapes (again) from capture by Darth Vader, a crew member comments a few seconds later that "if they've made the jump to lightspeed, they could be on the other side of the galaxy by now". In reality, at 1.5x the speed of light, it would take the Falcon about 5 minutes to travel the distance from the Earth to our Sun, and assuming the Star Wars galaxy is typical of the ones we know, tens of thousands of years to get to the other side!

There are many more such internal inconsistencies -- for instance, why do large spacecraft fight like naval battleships at sea, all oriented the same way up, while the small craft dodge and roll like fighters using wings in an atmosphere for lift? -- and this kind of "World War II in space" transplant is exactly what leads fans of serious Sci-Fi to dismiss Star Wars as "space opera".

The overall effect is of Lucas as somebody who knows all of the notes and none of the music.


Ultravox said...

Great Post Carl... I like how you didn't bother with the tired Kessel Run comment - which talks as if a parsec is a measure of time instead of distance...

Carl Zetie said...

I've seen people attribute the Kessel Run line to Han Solo's ignorance; and it would certainly be in character for him. It could also be that Solo knows perfectly well what he's saying, but he's testing the reaction of Luke and Ben to see how much he can overcharge them. It's one of the most easily excusable alleged goofs in the whole canon, IMO.

The interesting thing for me about the Kessel Run line, invariably overlooked by the people still complaining about, is that a parsec isn't just any old unit of distance. It's a unit based off of the distance between the Earth and the Sun... which doesn't make a whole lot of sense in a galaxy far, far away.

But damn, it sounds good and science-fictiony, doesn't it?