Star Wars or Star Trek: It’s a Question of Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

Let me get this out of the way right from the start: Star Wars is NOT science fiction. Yes, it has lasers and spaceships, but those things are not what makes a work science fiction, science does. Star Wars is a work of fantasy, with no grounding in science whatsoever.

That hasn’t stopped major film media sites from adding it to their SF lists, such as ScreenRant’s list of the most anticipated science fiction films of 2016 ( Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn’t the only non-SF film on the list, Ghostbusters isn’t either, and Independence Day is a real stretch. The fact is arguing over Star Wars or Star Trek is like arguing over apples or broccoli; they are members of different distinct categories and each largely unique in their own group.

Science Fiction is fundamentally based on contemporary ideas of science. Many argue that the genre began with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Yes, Frankenstein is science fiction, and a pretty good example of the genre.

Shelly’s parents were literati who closely followed the new science being discussed and developed in the early 1800s. This period was the birth of our modern system of science, a methodological trade based on experimentation and peer review. At the time, some scientists were obsessed with the idea of reanimating bodies with electricity. These experiments eventually led to our understanding of the human nervous system which is based on electrical impulse, but at the time people honestly suggested you might be able to bring a body back to life.

Shelly wrote a book which took the basic concept presented by the science and examined where such discoveries could lead. Pure, traditional science fiction is a plot-centered work which focuses on a core scientific principal, usually taken to a point of great exaggeration. It is a thought exercise of sorts. These concepts can vary from physics-based concepts, such as the significant time requirements for space travel that are detailed in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, or psychological concepts, such as the inherent human drive for war and conflict as examined by Orson Scott Card in Ender’s Game. At their core, works of science fiction focus on the science they examine, as detailed in their plots, often at the cost of their characters. Sci-Fi characters, particularly in older works, are often flat and emotionless plot devices.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is centered on characters. These are typically some brand of the hero archetype famously described by Joseph Campbell. Fantasy works often have a limited cast, more concerned with the heroic rise of a single character or very small group, rather than the society they live in. Characters usually start of weak or powerless, such as Tolkien’s hobbit, and grow in heroic status through to the work’s conclusion. The mechanisms and systems that allow the world to function, that keep the action moving, are rarely examined in detail. Explanations are not necessary.

The fundamental difference between science fiction and fantasy is the questions they ask. Science fiction asks “how”–how do things function? Contrarily, fantasy asks “why”–why are the characters doing these things?

If we look at Star Trek, we see it is a story grounded in the how, which is derived from the new science from the 50s and 60s when Roddenberry first developed the show. How does the ship fly light-years from star system to star system? The ship uses a warp drive which bends space, based on Einstein’s general theory of relativity which was first published in 1916. How is it powered? By antimatter, the modern theory of which was propagated in 1928. Even the terminology used in the show, such as positrons or gravitons and so forth, was ripped from the scientific discussion.

Star Wars does not ask the question how. Nothing is explained. How do the ships fly? How do lightsabers work? How did wookies evolve? And how come they can’t speak normal language? I mean come on, their mouths look mostly human, with teeth and tongues, so why not? We like wookies for what they are, funny walking carpets that beat on the bad guys (and its very clear who the bad guys are). In fact, the first and only time Lucas tried to make up a pseudo-scientific explanation for something, namely the midichlorian connection to the force, fans spurned the idea angrily. We didn’t need to know how the force worked, all that mattered was that it was part of the world and it affected our heroes in significant ways. Some books in the Extended Universe did try to give halfhearted explanations for things, such as space travel, but it never was at the level of real science, nor did it matter to the story being told. What matters in Star Wars, what has always mattered, was the moral conflict and how the heroes overcame this conflict, rising to greatness. This is fantasy at its most basic level. Lucas himself has noted the influence of Joseph Campbell’s theory on his work. Lucas even addressed the issue quite directly, beginning his film with “a long time ago.” It was a not so subtle hint that we should overlook the laser-swords and spaceships and see the work for what it is.

I love both of these worlds. They are among my favorite series of all time. Though, I have to say that I find my fandom for Star Wars to be a bit more powerful simply because of its focus on characters and the heroic tales. I have a soft spot for hero stories in the traditional mold, and I find myself writing fantasy stories even when they are set in space. The point is Star Wars and Star Trek are fundamentally different stories which cannot be directly compared.

So internet, please, stop asking Star Wars or Star Trek like they are two flavors of the same kind of ice cream. Instead just ask Sci-Fi or Fantasy. And stop putting Star Wars in your Sci-Fi lists.

So what kind of fan are you, Science Fiction or Fantasy?

(Bibliographical note: Some of the facts and details in this post were confirmed with Wikipedia. All textual content is my own.)


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