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.