Is Star Wars Science Fiction Or Fantasy?
So what's Star Wars all about? I won't bore you with a summary of the story. It was while pondering the subject that I came to ask myself the question of the genre of this highly seminal saga. And, of course, I won't settle for a simple answer. So, is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy?
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, far, far away...
The famous opening phrase of every film, "a long time ago..." immediately and unambiguously places the story in the past. However...
The distinction between fantasy set in the past and science fiction set in the future is simplistic. All the more so when we're talking about space opera, a sub-genre of science fiction of which Star Wars is the most famous example. A sub-genre that integrates a whole range of ancient references without batting an eyelid: sword fighting, nobility, codes of honor, etc.
The ancient references of space opera and Star Wars in particular serve first and foremost to anchor the story in a fantasized past, to give it a mythological stature. George Lucas knows his Joseph Campbell, whose comparative mythology book The Hero with a Thousand and One Faces is one of the crucial inspirations for Star Wars. In the construction of the story, the characters and the universe, Lucas does his utmost to give his story a mythical dimension, without turning it into a work of fantasy.
Space opera: mythological Sci-Fi
For Star Wars has all the hallmarks of a work of science fiction. Beyond its backward-looking folklore, space opera (of which the saga is practically the definition) is quite a sub-genre. And science fiction has nothing (or very little) to do with the era it's set in (steampunk, for example, is SF set in the past). Science fiction, like fantasy, is a question of relationship to the imaginary, which is defined by the fact that divergences from reality are explained from a materialistic, scientific, technological angle, in its universe of reference. It doesn't matter how credible these explanations are (hyperspace, lightsabers and spaceships are not scientifically credible), since the characters accept them as phenomena of science rather than the supernatural.
In Star Wars, the overwhelming majority of on-screen power is presented as the result of technological mastery: the Death Star, lightsabers and laser pistols, intergalactic travel, cloning, robotics... We see a droid factory in Attack of the Clones, as well as a cloning center whose operation is briefly explained. In Rogue One (although I said I wasn't talking about it) the Death Star is designed by scientists, and Vader refers to it as a "technological toy" in Episode IV. The entire narrative arc devoted to the Sith takeover of the Republic (prelogy), then the fall of the Empire (original trilogy), then the fight against the First Order (new trilogy) is that of a science-fictional intergalactic war. But that's not all.
"I have this gift, my father has this gift, and my sister has it too."
It won't have escaped your notice that an equally important narrative arc is developed alongside this one. Star Wars is a story of intertwined families, and intertwined with the destiny of the entire galaxy. The Skywalkers' story is directly linked to the Force, that fundamental power that irrigates the entire universe and connects all things and beings. Directly inspired by Far Eastern religions, in particular the Tao, it represents the mysterious, hard-to-grasp part of the saga's universe.
The divide between ancient beliefs and human emancipation is a recurring theme in fantasy. It's one of the pillars of Arthurian mythology, it's a possible reading of the Siegfried myth popularized by Richard Wagner (and adapted in comics by Alex Alice), and so naturally it's one of the central themes of The Lord of the Rings. In the Arthurian legends, Merlin is a guardian of the pagan arcane of old, of the world of fairies and spirits, who nevertheless guides Arthur in his quest for the Grail, towards the emancipation of mankind through the advent of Christianity (a sign of the times). In the same spirit, Siegfried triumphs over Wutan (or Odin, depending on the version); by breaking the law inscribed on his spear, he frees mankind from the ancient gods, who withdraw from the world. The Lord of the Rings also has its superior people, the elves, who also leave Middle-earth after the victory over Sauron, leaving the world in the hands of men and signalling the end of the Third Age.
Star Wars offers a similar duality between a mystical millennial Force and a technicized universe of robots, ships and cyborgs. However, its construction is very different, since it does not end with the withdrawal of one or the other. In the prelogy, the dark side embodied by the Siths topples the Jedi order, ending the story with the victory of evil. The original trilogy follows the exact opposite symmetry: in a universe ruled by the dark side, a hero rises from the depths of the outer rim (on the very same planet), ascending to the Light to restore balance to the Force. (It's interesting to note the similarity with the Arthurian Legends, in some versions of which Merlin searches for a chosen one destined to find the Grail, and makes a generational mistake by choosing Lancelot instead of his son Galaad, who himself completes the quest long after his father has done his bit. It's only a short step from there to comparing Merlin and Obi-Wan). The start of the new trilogy in The Force Awakens ushers in troubled times that will once again see Good and Evil clash in a never-ending confrontation.
Because Star Wars is cyclical: the balance in the Force, so sought after by the characters, is an eternal conflict that systematically sees the opposite of the one who dominates resurface to oppose him. This never-ending struggle is matched by another duality, one that combines science fiction and fantasy within the same work. And I say "ally" because the two are not opposed, they cohabit.
Or at least, they used to.
The "midi-chlorians" scandal
It's in this fine balance so typical of mythology - the subtle alliance of a world of hyper-technical space-op' and mystical space-fantasy - that Lucas has thrown a huge paving stone into the pond. It's enough to keep ticklish fan communities busy for a long time to come, and the article you're reading is yet another stir.
The Phantom Menace, not content with being a turnip only made up for by the final saber duel, features Obi-Wan's master Qui-Gon Jinn and his encounter with young Anakin Skywalker. Intrigued by the youngster's superhuman reflexes, the old Jedi takes a blood sample and... disaster. His "level of midi-chlorians is extremely high", he says. And Obi-Wan adds, "Master Yoda himself doesn't have such a high level.
On the surface, it seems like nothing, but it is. By introducing the notion of "midi-chlorians" (which will never be mentioned again, by the way), a sort of Jediitude hormone detectable in the blood, George Lucas (awkwardly) evacuates the Force as a mystical phenomenon, mobilized by rigorous knowledge and mastery of oneself and the world (#Spinoza). In one fell swoop, the phenomenon that until now required belief in order to be sensitive to it becomes explained, quantifiable and disenchanted. Luke, Vader, Yoda are merely individuals endowed by nature, as if they had long legs to run fast. With this single sentence, Lucas abolishes any trace of fantasy in his work, and throws it violently to the side of science fiction.
What's even more astonishing is that The Phantom Menace is one of the episodes that most emphasizes the religious aspect of the Jedi. Qui-Gon is a mystic, fascinated by the concepts of "Prophecy" and "Chosen One" (a bit automatic in Hollywood). Now, with his story of "midi-chlorians", Qui-Gon doesn't need to believe in anything, since the science of his universe proves him right. A simple blood test confirms the child's exceptional destiny (a destiny that a little foresight on Qui-Gon's part could have guessed, but that's another debate). All the doubts one would expect in such circumstances are swept away, the messianic mysticism is corroborated by science.
So what's to be done? We could plug our ears and pretend this unfortunate scene doesn't exist. And with good reason: it has no impact on the rest of the plot. But we could also question its usefulness at this point in the film, as if the scriptwriters hadn't found a lesser string to force the pairing of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to take the kid on board. Unless, that is, the scriptwriters deliberately wished to give this great unknown Force a material anchor.
In any case, the scene does exist in the canon, and so do the "midi-chlorians". It's up to us to figure it out. So Star Wars is definitely a work of pure science fiction? Not so sure. Let's get down to over-analysis.
Golden age and obscurantism
Prelogia I, II, III describes a golden age of the Galactic Republic, and its downfall parallels that of Anakin Skywalker. In this golden age of Jediism, where the temple welcomed dozens of child apprentices and counted just as many first-rate masters, it's not unusual to imagine that Jediism is permeated by varied and not necessarily compatible currents of thought... like any living religion.
At the moment of Anakin's presentation to the Jedi Council, Qui-Gon informs them of the very high level of "midi-chlorians" in the boy's blood... and the Council shrugs it off: "He's too old," asserts Windu in a sententious tone. Midi-chloriens" levels are not considered reliable, nor sufficient proof by the Jedi Council. Clearly, the mystical Qui-Gon and his predictions backed up by blood tests are in the minority, marginal perhaps, as will be his "I don't care, I'll raise the child anyway" attitude. The total absence of any reference to "midi-chlorians" outside Episode I may therefore be seen as a reflection of this divergence of viewpoints. There would be a "rationalist school", of which Qui-Gon would be one of the proponents, seeking to corroborate his mysticism by every possible means (and thus building up scientific hypotheses). This school would be buried along with Qui-Gon and the rest of the Jedi during their massacre in Revenge of the Siths. Obi-Wan will go along with his master at first, agreeing to train Anakin, but reluctantly, to honor his word, his character being clearly more scholastic and less hot-headed than his master's.
The original trilogy returns to a darker universe, after the rise of the Empire and the fall of the Republic. Jediism has been abolished, and Obi-Wan and Yoda (aging hermits) are the last to keep the flame alive... until the aptly named Return of the Jedi. In this dark age, the apogee of Jediism has passed, and the Force has once again become a mystical power with no rational explanation. Its teaching and knowledge took a blow with the fall of the temple and the massacre of the Jedi, and the notion of "midi-chlorian" seems lost. Why doesn't Obi-Wan mention it at all, even though he knew what it was when he was young? Perhaps he's forgotten, unless he's turned to a more traditional appreciation of the Force (Yoda school) as a higher, mystical power, rather than the rationalizing appreciation of his first master, Qui-Gon. In any case, the deaths of Yoda and Obi-Wan in A New Hope and then Return of the Jedi virtually complete their camp, with the sole exception of Luke: a complete ignoramus trained at the age of 20 (!) in just a few weeks (!!), whereas the padawans of yesteryear underwent top-notch physical and mental training from an early age. In the Dark Ages, the learned are the uncultured. No wonder Luke uses his saber like a lumberjack, and his attempt to found a Jedi academy ends in abject failure when Ben "Kylo Ren" Solo rebels against him under murky circumstances.
From there, the new trilogy opens a new chapter in this universe, where the remnants of the Empire in the form of the First Order and Princess Leia's Resistance clash. All seems a shadow of its former grandeur, and a new golden age is not just around the corner. The Dark Knight is a boy enslaved by his anger, Luke is withdrawn from the world... until the Force Awakens through Rey. The Force remains a great unknown, resolutely obscure, which we neither tame nor understand, but feel and draw on eventually - but with difficulty. Apart from Snoke (whose identity remains obscure), no one is in a position to know the true nature of the Force. Luke, exiled to Ireland on Ahch-To, has had plenty of time to study the few old books at his disposal... but apparently doesn't know much more than he used to when teaching Rey. With his death and that of Snoke, the page is turned from the old guard to the young, purely instinctive Jedi: Kylo and Rey.
The authors of the new trilogy are thus returning to a theme that is deeply rooted in fantasy: the decline of the forces that once ruled the world. Like the elves in The Lord of the Rings, and the pagan forces from which Merlin sprang, the jedis must make way for humanity to conquer its own freedom, without interfering. And if, of course, it's always jedis we're dealing with in each of the Star Wars trilogies, it's because the Force from which they draw their powers is the very fabric of the world and the Galaxy. The powers it confers are still to be learned, not mastered, through personal initiations woven into the destinies of all.
That's it for now, I hope you enjoyed this "Is Star Wars Science Fiction or Fantasy?" article!