Dear Fandom: Stop Trying to Quantify Everything

This is a Star Wars site, and I try hard to keep us on topic (our Twitter account is a different story). However, I also try hard to keep us looking at the “big picture” instead of the minutiae, and sometimes, that means talking about larger “geek culture” issues that might exhibit themselves in SW fans, but are by no means limited to them. As such, I’ll endeavor to use franchise-relevant examples in this piece more often than not, but it should be understood that I’m not levying any charges here against SW in particular.

I’m here to say that we need to get out of the habit of assigning numerical values to every little thing. Not everything needs a number attached to it. Not everything, pragmatically, really can have a number attached to it. And some things very much should not have numbers attached to them.

This extends to ranking things, as well. Let’s face it: everyone’s favorite Star Wars movie is Empire. It’s accepted wisdom. But that will never stop a SW geek from telling you so if they’re given the opportunity, and typically continuing from there into the other five films.

I’ve never been a big RPG person; maybe that’s why I feel a disconnect here. I know a lot of us grow up in that universe—where everything from the sharpness of your sword to the firmness of your constitution has an exact value without which the game doesn’t work. I played the Knights of the Old Republic games because I wanted to experience their stories, but leveling and friend:enemy ratios and dark side points were all things I had to endure, not valuable parts of the experience in their own right.

I’ve got nothing against RPGs, but I think that kind of focus speaks to broader tendencies in the geek community that don’t necessarily do us any favors, and in some cases may actually be hurting us.

As Exhibit A, I present to you the notion of “versus threads”, as they’re called on the Jedi Council Literature forum. Everyone’s walked into a comic shop in the midst of a “who would beat whom” debate; it’s one of the most enduring quirks of fandom, because everybody who cares is bound to have their own headcanon for why Superman could beat the Hulk, or why Darth Maul could beat Darth Vader.

I’m prone to jumping into these debates myself, but mostly because I’m an insufferable contrarian; the more carefully-constructed and elaborate someone’s argument is about how Thor’s hammer could disrupt the circuitry of Iron Man’s armor, the more fun I have poking holes in it. But hey, that’s just me—the point is, it’s easy to poke holes, because trying to empirically nail down the dynamics of a fight, to say nothing of the murky notion of “power levels”, is just plain silly. Can the Hulk bench-press more than Superman? That seems reasonable enough. But what if Banner has the flu? What if it’s summer and Superman’s absorbing more energy than normal? What if Superman just binge-watched the last season of Breaking Bad and his head’s not in the game? What if the Hulk just saved a ton of money on his car insurance by switching to Geico?

It can actually be really fun, I think, to hash out these hypotheticals, but there’s a reason why the Jedi Council, likely the most heavily-trafficked Star Wars forum ever, banned versus threads—they’re empty calories. They can never really be resolved, and they tend to turn ugly fast. There’s nothing a hardcore fan hates more than contradictions, so if one person has a book that says Superman’s strong as an ox, and another has a book that says he’s as strong as a bull, those two people will kill each other before accepting the other’s source over their own. The ensuing clusterfuck will be many things, but “fun” will not be one of them.

Which brings me to Exhibit B, and this is where it really hits home for Star wars fans: measurements. Depending on your chosen source and its year of publication, you could swear on your grandmother’s grave that a Super Star Destroyer was either 8, 12.8, or 19 kilometers long and dear old Gammy would be just fine, because they’ve all been true at one time or another. As Jason Fry explained in our interview with him a while back, you can’t win a numbers fight because in a fictional universe, it’s entirely possible for everyone to have their own numbers. Ask anyone who’s actually writing in the Star Wars universe, and they’ll tell you that this is why they don’t even give a character’s exact age if they don’t have to—sorry, Wookieepedia. I’m not here to say fans should stop having heated debates about their franchise of choice, but there’s something about the introduction of hard in-universe data that just strips all the fun out of it, and brings us further and further away from the real reason we became fans.

And last but not least, I admit that this argument may seem ironic from the editor who commissioned a nearly four-thousand-word feature on the racial demographics of the Star Wars galaxy, and who actually invented a “Diversity Score” to track the preponderance of white males from book to book. This, in fact, is where the numbers game becomes especially troublesome.

In my Diversity Thread at the JCs, I’ve spent several years now advocating for greater human and alien diversity in SW stories, both for the sake of broader cultural value and in-universe plausibility. To illustrate the problem, I and a few helpers have been “scoring” both old and new books based on their Dramatis Personae, with every main character counting toward a positive score except the straight, white human men. The first thing I would say about this practice is that it’s meant more as a way of keeping the subject in people’s heads than as an absolute pass/fail diversity test—kind of like the Bechdel is to feminism. There are always mitigating factors, and over the years I’ve seen excellent books with low scores, and mediocre books with good scores.

But more importantly—there is no “right” score. One of the most common challenges the diversity conversation comes up against is “let the story decide”; no diversity for diversity’s sake, in other words. What these people seem to think is that all we want is a certain percentage of characters wantonly gender-swapped, race-swapped, or species-swapped, and once everything’s even, we’ll call it a day. Without getting into too much of a tangent here, this totally misses the point of the conversation.

Raw demographics are different from ship lengths or power levels because they represent real data regarding a fictional setting—namely, the likelihood that a gay Mexican or an heavyset Inuit or a handicapped Korean will open up a Star Wars book and find a character that reminds them of themselves. But getting too wrapped up in those numbers, at best, allows people the false comfort of a measurable goal for “ideal” diversity where none really exists, and at worst, it adds a glossy veneer to sheer laziness—I don’t have to create layered, believable non-WHM characters, just so long as I have enough of them. Sucker Punch, in other words.

It is for these reasons and more that while you will often see “list” articles on this site (hell, this kind of is one), you will never see the “top five” anything. Nor will you see “why so-and-so could beat what’s-his-face”, or worst of all, “how many clonetroopers were there really?” I see it as beneath us, and I’d wager it’s beneath you, too. And there’s certainly more than enough of it already.

9 comments

  1. You do realise you just started a “vs.” argument about why the rounded, multi-sided Mon Calamari frigate of flexi-canon inclusiveness is better than the Star Destroyer of straight-line hard-numbers continuity?

    I guess I get to be the contrarian today, and disagree with you!

    :p

    Yes, you’re right to lay into the sort of discussions that are usually provoked by taking genre-fiction trivia too seriously: they’re dumb and offputting, or at best frivolous and introverted. You’re right they don’t belong here – and this website is all the better for it.

    But…

    … at the same time, I think continuity and rigour are vitally important for establishing the mood and integrity of a major genre-fiction franchise.

    In fact, I’d go so far to suggest that the sort of dreadnaught-measuring contest you’re criticizing is a sign that a franchise might be having problems with the integrity of its continuity and world-building — a sign that the parameters of a franchise are under pressure in some way, whether from retcon-jockeys or the simple pattern-forming nature of geek discourse, with its tendency to self-referential predictability.

    And when that happens, I think it’s important to stick firmly to the continuity you started with.

    Here’s why:

    Firstly, making your story live by its rules creates a sense of reality and consistency, a major component of world-building (think of Tolkien, not so much in his large-scale plotting, which in its inconsistencies and evolutions is that of a national mythology rather than a single epic or an imagined history, but in the far more stable architecture of language, culture, identity and character that sits below it). It gives the saga _honour_.

    Secondly, making sure that the next chapter respects what was in the one before prevents the audience being jarred by sudden shifts of tone or plot or backstory (“Into Darkness” and “Prometheus” are both high-profile example of franchises deliberately/casually abandoning the nuances of their continuity in an attempt become more commercial and fashionable – “to sell toys”, as it were – and simply failing to connect as a result). It’s part of the _characterzation_.

    Thirdly, and I think most importantly, keeping things consistent force the new chapters of the story to stay fresh and sharp, avoiding tired retreads of the same old story (Kara Zor-El and her various retreads are an excellent example of this – an iconic character, but every new writer has her fighting against lame villains-of-the-week and feeling bratty and confused about her outsider status, while fending off random monkey-nuts of the wider Kryptonian meta-continuity thrown at her by the editor in a dorky attempt to increase sales). Respecting the continuity is the very best way to avoid _cliché_.

    Do I think any of this prevents telling good stories in a fictional franchise? Kriff, no. It didn’t prevent _Mindor_, or _Invincible_, or _Edge of Victory: Conquest_, or _Specter of the Past_, or _Rogue Squadron_, or _Heir to the Empire_…

    If you want to tell a new story in an established franchise the size of _Star Wars_, one that isn’t burdened by too much continuity, you just step to one side and actually go somewhere _new_: take the _Legacy_ comics, for example, or _Dark Rendezvous_, especially the parts with non-movie characters, or anything by JJM – he’s told great stories in all sorts of times and places we never really saw before he showed up. Or go back a little and to the side, and take “Simple Tricks”, or “The Final Exit” – familiar movie tropes, and a real sense of the Star Wars happening in the background, but new characters, new worlds.

    But as I look over that list again and think about it, it occurs to me that all those stories keep their core setting small and tight, whether it’s a spaceship or a backwater planet. The _Ebon Hawk_ is a much better platform to build a new angle to the franchise than the Star Forge.

    _Star Wars_ is perhaps less about blowing up the big Imperial weapons platforms than it is about the _Millennium Falcon_ trying to get its passengers through.

    In short, I think insisting on all SSDs being 8km long prevents the sort of lazy pseudo-liberal storytelling that you rightly mocked in your conclusion.

    But yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? ;)

    -TMcE

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      Well, the argument I’m trying to make isn’t anti-continuity or anti-consistency—I want Ryloth to stop rotating as much as anybody. But IU numbers are simultaneously the hardest thing to keep straight (apparently) and far, far less important to me than consistency of character, action, and context. It would be delightful if every source had SSDs as the same length, but that’s not what’s bringing anyone to the party, ultimately, and obsessing over imaginary data is at minimum a waste of energy—as your co-author would attest.

      • Great arguments from both of you! The problem too is, when it comes to numbers, people tend to want numbers not out of thin air but backed up by facts. You could randomly assign numbers to ships that are consistent with each other f.e. but if visual shots do not add up hell breaks loose on TFN. And visual shots, due to being not real but of a movie, never will add up 100%. The other way around, you could have the best fitting visual evidence ever… and people still would loath some numbers for being impractical to storytelling. F.e. realism would demand hyperspace travel times being kept.. but we know everything moves at the speed of plot! That is where storytelling and realism clash. In the end it all comes down to Heisenberg.. the closer you look to detail, the more you loose the big picture and vice versa. You can enjoy the ride and not mind details or dig too deep into the mines of Moria and awaken the beast that haunts nitpickers nightmares and ruins their enjoyment of their hobby.

        The core misconception here is though to compare SW to the real world. Fictional worlds follow fictional rules, not real hard science, at least not in every detail. And especially with Star Wars there is another component that should not be forgotten. “A long time ago” it starts and thus is not a verbatim representation of actual events in a fictional universe but rather a flashback to a long past time. Star Wars is History. And I recommend the brilliant book “Star Wars and History” to every fan. It really broadens your view of the saga and the expanding universe and how to view it properly. As History, SW can be both: events as they happened, and the historians perspective of myth, legends with a core of truth, historic point of views on events long past with all its exaggerations and else. A collection of conflicting accounts and opinions that together shape history, like real history is full of truths and semitruths, of Atlantis, Troy and the Egyptians, the Romans, King Arthur in whatever shape the truth beyond the myth may be, and so on. And seeing Star Wars as that.. part truth, part myth, part fiction with a core of truth, numbers debates grow less important yet still relevant. Like the Bible is a history book and a collection of fiction, Star Wars Journal of the Whills contains it all ranging from The Clone Wars series to the comic run in the same era and all else.

  2. And I agree – from a certain point of view!

    When it comes to canon, the hot-button decisions aren’t going to be made by low-level Ewok-Mandalorians, so I was never going make any effort trying to discuss it in committee.

    :D

    But, when we’re talking principles and ideals and high-falutin’ stuff of the sort that this blog exists for… I’d argue that there’s not really a serious distinction between the orbital mechanics of Ryloth and the length of the _Night Hammer_.

    Both of them are elements of the same continuity and consistency — though I agree that it takes a peculiar form of stubbornness to insist on keeping the “mechanics” properly straight.

    They’re also alike insofar as sincere creative people have kludged the continuity of both of them for valid reasons, and they’re reasonably minor compared with some continuity issues in some franchises…

    I’m just expressing a fairly well-known personal opinion that you’d get an even stronger result if SSDs were still 8km and if Ryloth had retained its full Expanded Universe depiction in TCW.

    – TMcE

  3. P.S. ceiran, we cross-posted there. I agree with you about fans wanting numbers, and about the movies not always giving them (the _Falcon_ is the best example of this!)… but the question of what Star Wars “is” is a huge one…

    … except obviously that Star Wars is a huge commercial multimedia franchise owned by Disney…

    … and a huge number of talented people (Leland Chee, J.W. Rinzler, Dan Wallace, Ryder Windham, Abel, Jason, Zahn, Stackpole, KJA, Luceno, Keyes, Denning, etc.) have shown it’s possible to run a tight continuity while still telling really compelling stories of one sort or another!

  4. That’s it, Coop. I’m writing up a Top Five Clone Army Numbers vs. Top Five Droid Army Numbers: Who Would Win Each Matchup? article.

  5. Tricia Barr says:

    Well said, as usual, Mike.

  6. […] know I’ve expressed disdain with what you might call “Buzzfeed-style” articles here before, but let’s be […]

%d bloggers like this: