STAR WARS. Can wielding a lightsaber be already considered SCIENCE FICTION?

What are Star Wars more of – plain fantasy or science fiction with elements of fantasy?

Odys Korczyński

14 August 2023

Yes, if we still see when the Jedi Knight builds that sword, chooses the right crystal, constructs the emitter himself, tests it, improves it, and finally fights with it. If this context is not present, the lightsaber is no different from a sword with a steel blade. And swords with such blades are mainly used in fantasy productions. They are enhanced with oils, enchanted, adorned with gems, engraved with runes, etc. Those of you who played SWTOR (Star Wars: The Old Republic) probably realized that Star Wars can be more science fiction than fantasy. Even in its early stages of development, when Lucas and the team had just finished filming Episodes IV, V, and VI, they aspired to be something more than just a popular tale of magic and swords, much like some die-hard fans wanted the aura of seriousness to hover over George Lucas’ saga through scientific, not just magical references in the world of an unknown, distant Galaxy. So what is this timeless franchise today – simple fantasy set in an alternate future world, science fiction with elements of fantasy, or separate subgenres of the broader fantasy called “space opera” and “science fantasy”? What do fans expect more? Or perhaps the saga has evolved from fantasy to sci-fi over these decades on the cinematic market, especially under Disney’s auspices?

Let’s start with the author’s perspective on his own works. He has classified them many times, although this taxonomy probably won’t sit well with many hardcore fans. Without a doubt, George Lucas incorporated many science fiction motifs into Star Wars, but he did not want them to define the work as a science fiction genre. The opening words already attest to this – “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Furthermore, the explanation of what the Force is and how it operates resembles a tale of magic and its consequences. Finally, when directly asked where he would place Star Wars in terms of genre, George Lucas answered that he sees it as a fantasy story, or alternatively, science fantasy. So, we can respect his opinion and accept his need to place Star Wars outside the realm of science fiction, or we can dig deeper and ask potentially uncomfortable questions in two ways. First, is the definition of science fiction according to which Star Wars is classified as not fitting the genre still valid? Second, what will Star Wars lose if it is classified as science fiction, and what does it gain by belonging to fantasy? And finally, we can formulate a third provocative question – will George Lucas’ proposed classification always be valid, so we have no right to place the work, which has already taken on a life of its own beyond its creator, within slightly different genre boundaries?

One of the more popular definitions of the science fiction genre, often referred to by defenders of its purity, ironically pertains not to film, but to literature. It dates back to the early 1950s and was formulated by Isaac Asimov. Science fiction, according to him, is a “literary field that deals with the impact of scientific progress on humanity.” Following this definition, it is difficult to imagine Star Wars as a science fiction film, as it primarily revolves around the impact of the Force on human life. Technology is a backdrop for the characters’ journey – a tool, rather than the main theme or driving force. If it were the other way around, Star Wars could indeed fit Asimov’s definition of science fiction. However, the issue has not been entirely resolved by Lucas himself and is essentially semantic. Lucas added a few too many words about his saga – he classified it not only as fantasy but as science fantasy, a genre that is inherently syncretic. Thus, Star Wars can partly be considered both fantasy and science fiction.

As a kid, I read a lot of science fiction. But instead of reading technical, hard-science writers like Isaac Asimov, I was interested in Harry Harrison and a fantastic, surreal approach to the genre. I grew up on it. Star Wars is a sort of compilation of this stuff, but it’s never been put in one story before, never put down on film. There is a lot taken from Westerns, mythology, and samurai movies. It’s all the things that are great put together. It’s not like one kind of ice cream but rather a very big sundae.

So, addressing the first question – whether Asimov’s science fiction understanding is a proper and still valid definition for Star Wars, it seems that Star Wars escapes the narrow semantics of that definition, and even today, it doesn’t entirely align with how we view science fiction in literature and film. The seventy years that have passed since its formulation have transformed the entire world of film and, most importantly, changed our perspective on technology. In the 1950s, it was easier than today to separate life from technological advancements. Nowadays, it’s challenging to maintain an “outside” stance. Technology has permeated our lives on the most intimate level, from smart cars to discreet vibrators carried in purses at mundane parties with dull men. The science fiction genre has become inherently syncretic, and the Star Wars saga remains in the present, regardless of our opinions. We shouldn’t rigidly apply outdated definitions created for different times, different audiences, and, most importantly, not for film.

Looking at the problem from a purely logical standpoint, classifying Star Wars as fantasy or space opera, something other than science fiction, requires all those who oppose this classification to agree on what “true” science fiction really is. This appears impossible and even regressive. Science fiction is semantically multifaceted today, while emotions, a characteristic feature, are not very expansive. So, irrespective of emotions and considering that today’s science fiction definition is inherently syncretic, even in its futuristic scientific nature, which is experimental rather than empirical, Star Wars cannot be neatly assigned to either science fiction or fantasy. It’s worth noting that Star Wars is listed as science fiction on Disney+, for some reason not labeled as fantasy or space opera, or even science fantasy. This is also an argument, perhaps stemming from visual classification and to some extent emotionally motivated. Pop culture always leads the way, disregarding old definitions, which hardcore science fiction researchers (and George Lucas) might refuse to accept. Undoubtedly, Star Wars has reshaped the definition of science fiction, and there’s no turning back.

The argument that Star Wars isn’t science fiction is largely emotional and compelling for many reasons. First, it allows people who view science fiction derogatorily to still enjoy Star Wars without adhering to certain standards, allowing them to delude themselves into thinking they appreciate something more profound than “silly fantasy,” a genre often looked down upon by great writers and critics. On the other hand, this refusal of scientific and fantastical validity for Star Wars also absolves those who critically analyze their emotions from having to engage in discussions related to this genre. After all, science fiction is often poorly understood by them and poses an enigma they eagerly, just like a newly ordained priest sent to some remote village, keep discussing critically. Every time Star Wars is classified as “not real” science fiction, there’s also a semantic reflection of this situation. An alternative on two levels – Star Wars is either too good, iconic, historical, artistically beautiful, etc., to belong to something as mundane as science fiction, or it’s science fiction that’s too perfect for something as naive as Star Wars. So, is it not better for them to simultaneously be and not be science fiction?

Saying that Star Wars isn’t “true” science fiction presupposes that we know what “true” science fiction looks like or what it is. But that’s impossible because science fiction consists of both “science” and “fiction.” And I intentionally used the verb “looks” here because, today, we primarily perceive science fiction through its APPEARANCE rather than its intellectual meaning. Hence the difficulties in classifying Star Wars. Because imagine, in the very popular understanding (which isn’t inherently wrong, as I am partially influenced by it), science fiction includes any film, book, comic, etc., in which we find space exploration, aliens, advanced computers, spacecraft – essentially, anything technologically nonexistent in our current reality. In Star Wars, we find these elements, so it fits the science fiction genre, even though it doesn’t explicitly “consider,” as per Asimov’s definition, the impact of technology on human life. So, what does Star Wars lose through its potential association with science fiction?

Magic, mystery, ambiguity, and value for both die-hard fans of the saga, fantasy enthusiasts, and everyone who sees science fiction as something inferior. In their eyes, a fascination with science fiction characterizes immature or childlike individuals, as if they and their worldview were inherently inferior. This emotional attitude of fantasy fans towards placing Star Wars outside science fiction can lead them astray. It involves inventing various subgenres solely to emphasize the non-scientific nature of Star Wars, even though the facts are as unyielding as Darth Vader’s helmet. Beyond Asimov’s definition of science fiction, there are numerous other definitions formulated by Samuel Delany, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C. Clarke, and many others. A common thread among them is the consensus that science fiction explores events that are future to the author, and this future can be inferred not only chronologically but also through visual assessment of technological advancement depicted in a given artistic work. It’s challenging to confine this genre within strict boundaries because it is ever-changing, becoming outdated and evolving. It was different in the 1950s, different during the release of A New Hope, and different today. At times, navigating these changes can be difficult, while fantasy has remained constant for centuries. Fantasy worlds stagnate rather than evolve, especially in realms of magic and swords.

So, it appears logical that one of the reasons some fans refer to Star Wars as “space fantasy” or “space opera” is that these genres have definable rules that remain unchanged over time, passed down from generation to generation, making them feel safe. Star Wars can be cosmic fantasy or a space opera. I have no objections. However, it’s important to be aware that this fantastical and operatic aspect is built on a foundation of science fiction.

The Star Wars universe could not have emerged without technological futurology, influencing human lives as Asimov envisioned. Han Solo, frozen in carbonite, might have something to say about it. Everyone can see that. The reality of Star Wars features devices and technologies that are inherently futuristic, regardless of their connection to the Force or the saga’s timeline, which bears no resemblance to our centuries and millennia. The technology in Star Wars is pure science fiction, driving the story in tandem with the Force. I agree that the story is magical, quite literally, and the lightsaber battles, enhanced by the use of the Force, are reminiscent of fantasy films. However, this in no way negates the presence of technology, dismissing neither the lightsaber nor droids, hyperspace travel, supercomputers. Star Wars exists within the realm of science fiction. Nothing will change that, not even the desires of fans or George Lucas. Respecting his opinion doesn’t necessitate abstaining from expressing one’s own. To some extent, Star Wars is built on science fiction. This will remain true until our world is filled with spacecraft, robots, flying cars, phasers, jumps to hyperspace, and other fantastical elements from pop culture.

ad Yet, science fiction fans should take heed. Once, a very wise science fiction author, Kurt Vonnegut, stated that science fiction fans have a problematic trait that makes the genre slightly ridiculed among literary circles – namely, science fiction fans love staying up all night and arguing about what science fiction actually is, as if they themselves are not entirely sure. So, does science fiction even exist? Or perhaps, instead of the term “science fiction,” we should use the term futurology?

Odys Korczyński

Odys Korczyński

For years he has been passionate about computer games, in particular RPG productions, film, medicine, religious studies, psychoanalysis, artificial intelligence, physics, bioethics, as well as audiovisual media. He considers the story of a film to be a means and a pretext to talk about human culture in general, whose cinematography is one of many splinters.

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