The nexus of fandom and logic

“Nexus” – get it?? –>

Heh. Anyway…

Introduction

I should start, of course, with the famous caveat that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. In the nebulous world of polling, people’s feelings are one of the hardest things to quantify, and even if that were not the case, the fact remains that I am by no means a statistician. There are always mitigating factors – one or two of which became apparent to me as this experiment went forth – that could, and do, prohibit me from making any absolute declarations as the result of my survey. My goal, then, was simply to probe an area of fandom I felt could stand some probing, in the hopes of starting up a conversation I felt was worth having. I’ve been wrong in the past (once or twice), and I could be wrong now.

To recap, requests were posted on both TheForce.Net’s Books and Comics pages and the Jedi Council forums for Expanded Universe fans to complete a survey that involved rating certain books and comics, as well as certain plot elements, on a 1 to 10 scale. The order of these ratings was random, but the selection was very careful and very specific – aside from a handful of red herrings, the vast majority of the plot items were “paired” with their respective book/comic, and vice-versa. The idea for this was as follows: I’ve always sensed, from extensive conversations with other fans, as well as fan news articles and reviews, a degree of variation between how much we like the events depicted in a Star Wars book and how much we like the book itself. While I’ve been keeping an eye on other related factors, like how long ago a book came out, and the amount of people who’ve actually read the item versus the amount familiar with the plot, the central question has always been “do we like the books more than we like the plots, and if so, what does that mean?”

Findings

Within the forty items on the survey were fifteen pairings of plot and book (I use the term “pairings” loosely, because in a few cases I used multiple well-known events for one book, like Anakin’s and Borsk Fey’lya’s deaths in Star By Star), and sure enough, in all but three of them, the plot point rated lower than the book or comic itself. The first thing many people may say is that one’s opinion of a book is a complex thing – you can like the style of writing, or the characters, or a bunch of other things, and still dislike a particular plot point. This is a fair point, and unfortunately, it was hard to compensate for that in any real way. That said, I did do my best to pick books with very big and definitive events that are always spoken of in the same breath as the book itself – Jacen’s training with Vergere in Traitor being a good example; it would be very hard to like or dislike that and still feel differently about the book overall.

Secondly, while it’s true that you can like a book and dislike its plot, the opposite, generally speaking, should be just as true. While the actual variation was, on average, not huge – a little over seven percent in favor of the book – if there were nothing to my hypothesis at all, there should be more of a balance and the average variation would be practically zero. Between that and, perhaps even more importantly, the fact that an overwhelming 80% of the pairings exhibited some variation in favor of the book, I’m convinced that I’m on to something here. The relationship between opinions of a book and opinions of its plot may indeed be variable, but in the case of Star Wars fans, at least, it is largely predictable – we like the books better.

Conclusions

On to the second part of the question, then – what does it mean? A while back, I was asked by a non-fan to explain what exactly made Star Wars so appealing to me. My response, in part, was as follows:

I would say that, most accurately, I’m very interested in it…and the fact that it’s so interesting is what interests me most of all. Star Wars is many different things to many different people, and everyone can find something to like in it if they try; that’s why it’s so successful. The writer in me is drawn to the themes of struggle and redemption, and the mythological undertones; the amateur politico in me responds to its messages about real-world society – what it’s made of, and how it can fall apart, then put itself back together. And, of course, the geeky kid in me likes watching spaceships and laser sword fights.

At the time, I had recently finished reading Star Wars on Trial, and the above argument pretty much sums up the thrust of Matthew Stover’s defense – Star Wars is a success, and more to the point, a good thing, because of the wide range of completely understandable responses people have to it. I’ve given that notion a lot of thought over the last year or so, and it’s more or less become my predominant understanding of why this obsession of ours is what it is. It’s colored my reactions to everything I’ve read since, and it was a big part of why I passed Andrey Summers’ controversial article – most commonly known as, though not technically titled, Star Wars Fans Hate Star Wars – on to TFN back in January (and, I’m proud to say, prompted the follow-up): it may have been tongue-in-cheek, but because it was written by a fan, it contained elements of truth.

It follows, then, that it’s essentially impossible to be wrong about what Star Wars is as long as your opinion is rendered from an informed and honest perspective. Of course, if everyone’s right, but they’ve all got different opinions, there’s bound to be some controversy, and what aspect of Star Wars isn’t controversial? Most EU fans would probably point out Grand Admiral Thrawn as an example of something that’s universally loved, and sure enough, the Thrawn Trilogy garnered an approval rating of 8.84, the highest in the survey. But even then, there’s the enormous amount of people who don’t even read the books, who entirely disregard them as being not worth reading at best, or fan fiction at worst. What I’m saying, now that I’ve finally made my way back to the original point, is that everyone wants something different out of their Star Wars.

Whether you like your villains irredeemable and unstoppable, or misguided and lost. Whether you want larger-than-life heroes or everymen. Whether you’re looking for politics, adventure, or realistic warfare; thrills, chills, or laughs – it’s all there. But the important part is that while any of these can be the focus of a good Star Wars story, what makes a good Star Wars story is that it’s got little parts of all of these, and far more. We like or dislike the stories based on how closely their chosen aspects of Star Wars reflect the ones most important to us, but even when we disagree vehemently with what’s happening (and are prompted to go online and complain that it doesn’t feel like Star Wars ), we enjoy it in spite of ourselves because it still is Star Wars – if it weren’t we wouldn’t keep buying it. We’re sick and tired of the Big Three having to get involved in big galactic wars, aren’t we? But at the same time, which eras sell better, Legacy or Old Republic? What do we really want from this universe? There are millions and millions of Star Wars fans out there, and I truly don’t know the answer. But I think it’s a question we should start asking.

Addenda

Some interesting observations that didn’t necessarily relate to the thrust of the piece…

– On average, the difference between those familiar with a plot point and those who’d actually read the book was a surprisingly low (I thought) seven percent. The two items with the biggest difference, by a healthy margin, were the Marvel comics and Dark Empire at 16%.

– The two cornerstones of the modern EU, arguably, are the Thrawn Trilogy and Dark Empire- both signaled the launch of publishing programs in their respective mediums that have lasted almost twenty years now. Despite this, almost twenty percent more people have read the Thrawn Trilogy than Dark Empire – 91% to 74%. Between that and the previous item, it seems that way more fans read the books than the comics. The Legacy series, easily the highest-profile comic going at the moment, only had a familiarity of 61%. It should be noted again that this is primarily a sampling of TFN readers specifically, but I find it hard to believe that comic fans would spend less time taking internet surveys than book fans.

-The three pairings that bucked the trend and had a higher rating for the plot point than the book were Darth Bane – Path of Destruction (Rule of Two), Inferno (Luke vs. Jacen), and blowing away the competition, Force Heretic (“The Empire will always strike back”) with a 14% higher rating for the moment itself. The latter two are pretty popular, and not very surprising, but I was honestly surprised to see Path of Destruction do as well as it did.

-Say what you will about the NJO, but Chewie’s death and the Vong invasion led the way in familiarity by a solid two or three percent, beating out Heir to the Empire, Anakin’s death, Luke and Mara’s marriage, and lots of other big events. Chewie won the top spot by a furry nose, with 94.2% to the invasion’s 93.9%.

– Of the several lessons I learned from this on the difficulty of accurate polling, the biggest was that you have to be very careful about phrasing – several people in the feedback thread pointed out that they were under the impression that “The return of Thrawn” was in reference to his “return” in Hand of Thrawn, not his actual return in HttE. Even if the vast majority of respondents thought the same, the effect on the data wouldn’t have been huge, but I still regret not being more specific.

-Lastly, since extensive polling like this doesn’t get done often (or ever, that I’ve seen), I figured I’d make the raw data available for download (in Excel format) here; the original questions can be found here. If anyone’s chomping at the bit to use it in a way that destroys my entire argument, or even to discuss something entirely unrelated, I’d love to see it and add a link to this page; just let me know. The conversation, after all, was my main goal here. =)

Update!

Turns out there’s more to learn from this data after all – Zee Zee from swbooks.co.uk has, after looking over the responses herself, posted an analysis entitled Always in motion is the future, which asserts that, given the data, the future of Star Wars has to continue to feature the Big Three for it to remain popular (refuting, interestingly, another article she’d posted about a month ago). Some of my own thoughts on the matter can be found below the article.

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