The debate over whether Star Wars is more fantasy of science fiction has waged since 1977. Despite being a massive Star Wars fan (to the point where I saw The Phantom Menace 7 times at the cinema), I never really had a close look at the arguments. When people said dismissively that Star Wars was more fantasy than scifi, I believed them, it made sense with initial, superficial reflection. I have recently spent more time looking at this premise and I don’t think I do agree. Star Wars is science fiction, though admittedly it has some aspects that could appear in fantasy (remember that both genres are sub-genres of the large ‘speculative fiction’ genre and have a great deal of overlap at the best of times).
Star Wars is a prime example of the sub-sub-genre (speculative fiction > science fiction > space opera), space opera (that’s right, we’re getting right down into the nitty-gritty). Space opera requires a science fiction story to be epic. But notably, that’s the story that must be epic not the technology. The tech in a space opera should be secondary to the story, just a fact of the world/universe in which the epic plot is set. In space opera, there needs to be big battles, OTT love stories, moustache-twirling villains, beautiful women, incredible settings, political intrigue, conspiracies, multiple civilizations and races… Sounds a lot like Star Wars, no?
If Star Wars is fairly undisputedly characterized as a space opera, why do people still seem to think it belongs in the fantasy category? The answer is both simple and entirely confusing: the force. What makes a story fantasy? Magic! And what is the force? Ummmm…. Well… if Obi Wan were here he’d say ‘It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.’ So that doesn’t really clear things up for us… at all. In The Phantom Menace, George Lucas tried to retroactively make it a little more scientific, giving us the ludicrous midi-chlorians. Call me a purist, but I prefer Obi Wan’s vague representation.
Sure, on the surface, the force could easily be mistaken for magic. You can make things happen with your mind, like a force choke or moving objects, and intuition is incredibly important. Ok, so maybe it is more than a surface resemblance… maybe it is magic? The archetypal characters – a princess, farmboy, rogue, evil emperor, sidekicks of another species, etc – all feel at home in a fantasy setting. Also, the ‘a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’ proposition plays into the hands of the fantasy trope of involving the remote past and secondary worlds.
It certainly seems like I’m contradicting myself, doesn’t it? Having just established beyond refute that Star Wars belongs to science fiction I’ve gone and shown you how it could easily fit in with the fantasy genre as well. This is the problem with Star Wars and why it has evaded clear classification for so long. I admit that there are a few – very few – aspects of the story that potentially place it in the fantasy camp, but science fiction wins out overall.
The fundamental piece of science fiction is asking ‘what if?’ Star Wars does this in spades. Scifi stories tend to involve advanced technology (spaceships, landspeeders, laser blasters, lightsabers, robots, etc), travel between stars and planets, aliens, dystopian societies (an evil empire to be thwarted!), and superhuman abilities (the force!). The characters that could easily be transplanted into a fantasy story are still quite at home in the science fiction universe of Star Wars. All the technology in the Star Wars universe, based in scientific advancement of their civilizations, necessarily means this is science fiction and not fantasy.
The only real potential argument for fantasy is the force. While I might scoff at the thought of ‘midi-chlorians’ in the blood stream of jedis, I’m perfectly happy to believe that jedis are kind of mutants that have an ability to tap into energy that exists in all things around them. That certainly sounds science-y rather than fantasy. No magic here kids.
Star Wars is all science fiction. Next time you have someone dismissively tell you it’s more fantasy than scifi, ask them to back up their claim with a decent argument.