Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons – more of why I love sf/f

"Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid." Harrison Ford as Han Solo in the original Star Wars.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo in the original Star Wars. (Click to embiggen)

I was a high school student in the small town of Longview when Star Wars first came out. I saw it on opening night, thanks to a couple of older friends who were even bigger science fiction fans. They drove me down to Beaverton, Oregon, (which was the closest place with a full-sized wide screen and Dolby sound at the time) on opening night, insisting that I’d love this film I had never heard of.

They were right. A lot of people loved it.

It wasn’t really original. The movie was a loving homage to the pulp magazine adventure stories and serial movies of the 30s and 40s. It didn’t have anything profoundly new philosophically to say. The special effects were better than we were used to seeing, but otherwise it just told an old-fashioned story. You knew who the good guys and the bad guys were. The heroes were confronted with a series of obstacles to overcome, and they worked hard to win the day.

In that way, it was an oasis in the desert. Over a decade before the movie came out, “legitimate literature” had embraced the modernist school. Narrative (storytelling) was considered “unrealistic” and “naïve.” Modernist writers abandoned plot and character development for style and grand themes. Resolution was replaced with ambiguity.

That listless ambiguity had infected a lot of pop culture. To be fair, in the U.S. at least we had good reason to be despondent. The economy had tanked. Inflation was out of control, lots of people were out of work, and even more were under-employed. We had finally admitted what a pointless quagmire the war in Viet Nam had become, so closely on the heels of the national embarrassment of the Watergate scandal and the ouster of President Nixon (itself following not the long after Vice President Agnew had resigned and pled guilty to tax evasion charges). And victories of the civil rights movement seemed to have produced more backlash than noticeable improvements in the lives of ordinary people.

By 1977 most of popular culture had been tainted by modernist angst. Many of the films and novels of the day accentuated style, mood, and setting, and had endings that left the audience wondering what had happened.
Star Wars brought plot, heroes, and villains back in style. And none too soon, in my opinion. There’s something comforting and satisfying about a story that begins with a problem, builds to a climax, and resolves things in the end.

Not to say that some of the other types of stories aren’t fun from time to time.

Star Wars was the perfect combination of fun, adventure, struggle against a seemingly unbeatable foe, and triumph. With space ships and blasters and energy swords thrown in for good measure. It’s not really science fiction, because the attempts it makes at science are laughably wrong. It follows the conventions of 30s science fiction in that regard. It’s space opera, following the rules of epic fantasy with the accoutrements of science fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Empire Strikes Back was a much darker story, and as a middle chapter in a continuing tale, its ending wasn’t triumphant. But it still told a really good tale. There were resolution of some issues, character arcs advanced, and the open issues were daunting problems, but with a hope that they could be resolved. It was a superior movie to Star Wars in every way, but was still firmly built from the foundation laid by the previous movie. Return of the Jedi was fun—flawed, but fun. It wasn’t as good a move as Empire, but it still worked, and it paid off in at least an acceptable way on all of the cliffhangers of the previous films. Don’t get me wrong, some of the pay-offs were fantastic, I’m just admitting that not all were perfect.

Star Wars (which I hate referring to as “Episode IV – A New Hope”) still remains an especially bright shining beacon in my personal firmament. It made me love the idea of science fiction and fantasy in movies, again. It gave me a new celebrity crush (if you were a queer boy watching the first film and didn’t swoon for Han Solo I don’t know what’s wrong with you!). It gave me characters to aspire to be like: Obi Wan, Luke, Leia (yes, Leia! Seriously! Go watch those scenes with Leia and Darth, or the moment she takes the blaster away from one of the men, shoots open a vent cover, and says, “Someone has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, fly boy!” and tell me she isn’t bad ass!)…

I love Star Wars. I loved it so much that the first summer it was in theatres, I drove to a theatre in another state 13 times to re-watch it. Not to mention seeing it at a local theatre, later watching it on cable, and eventually on tape again and again. It was a life changing experience.

But I must admit that the modernists were right in some ways. The traditional narrative form is seldom the way real life works out. The difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. In real life, we don’t always get the clear-cut endings where the heroes defeat the villains and go on to live happily ever after:

  • The friend who drove that night when I first saw Star Wars, 38 years ago, is dead. James Curtis Bruce died from complications of AIDS at the age of 36.
  • Another friend, who drove us down to see the opening of Empire, has also passed away. Lawrence Lee Church died of an anueurysm at the age of 34.

I had admired and looked up to both of them as “big brothers” during a very important part of my life. Jim was a lot like the character of Han Solo, while Larry had more in common with Yoda.

I miss them both.

Sometimes we all wish that life was more like a good, fun movie.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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