What started off as a defense instead became a prosecution, which then collapsed due to it being beyond such simple binary definitions! Why? Well I suppose exhibit A is this interesting quote from an essay by Steven Erikson of Malazan fame:
The Malazan Book does not offer readers the escapism into any romantic notions of barbarism, or into a world of pure, white knight Good, and pure, black tyrant Evil. In fact, probably the boldest claim to escapist fantasy my series makes, is in offering up a world where we all have power, no matter our station, no matter our flaws and weaknesses—we all have power.
At the same time, when you look at the worlds of stories deemed escapist, you have to question the term in the first place, or as Matthew Stover put it:
Escapism is only rarely driven by yearning for a safe haven. It’s almost always driven by will to power. Grimness and violence in fantasy fiction has never been an answer to the criticism that fantasy is escapist; all fiction is escapist. In fantasy, we at least get to escape to a reality where characters have the power to change their lives for the better. As for “fairy-tale worlds,” well, have you read any Robert E. Howard lately? Or Fritz Leiber? Stephen Donaldson, maybe? Hell, even Middle-Earth is a friggin’ nightmare once you get outside the Shire – and the cheerful country-squire contentment of the Shire is only possible explicitly because Gandalf and the Rangers keep it safe from the rest of the world.
Indeed, when you get right down to it, Sir Terry Pratchett’s version of Cohen was right on the money, way back in the second Discworld book The Light Fantastic:
“What is it that a man may call the greatest things in life?”
“Hot water, good dentishtry and shoft lavatory paper.”
Yet, if Stover’s quip of all fiction being escapism is true, and anything that takes you away from the real world can be deemed such, then the questions become what sort of escapism we seek and what escapism Star Wars offers.
To a degree it can be suggested that the films argue against the state, against the notion of government, even though this is what sets up and maintains civilization. Where you have lawless anarchy, it eventually gives way to some form of order. A better line would be to say Star Wars sets itself against extremes and absolute positions, not least as in a civil war, where does each side draw its soldiers from? The same beings. The Galactic Civil War is as much one for hearts and minds, as it is one of physical resources. As SW rarely focuses on this aspect, the escapist element may be said to be that we don’t get to know many characters that well, we don’t know where the bulk of the pilots at Yavin came from, which, as the majority die, is perhaps just as well. It’s easier not to care about redshirts after all.
Yet, by that same measure, a functioning and effective government is deemed an escape too far by Star Wars, unlike its great rival Star Trek. Across Bantam’s EU run Leia was entangled in political fracas after fracas, with the last Bantam tale being how the New Republic nearly killed itself, albeit with a helping hand of Imperial machinations – but not much of that was really needed! This was followed by the New Jedi Order arc that saw the New Republic fail utterly and be replaced the Galactic Alliance. Which then a few years later took a decidedly fascistic turn, with people glamourising the Empire and being very willing to follow he who would be Führer, Jacen Solo. You’d be forgiven for thinking there was no further for it to fall, but you’d be wrong as, after the foiling of Solo’s nefarious reign, the Galactic Alliance then got taken over by an ancient eldritch demon – no joke, I promise. Whatever this is, it ain’t escapism!
What of the Jedi and Sith then? Surely a good form of escapism? You would have thought, given that each wields the Force and lightsabers, this would be true. If SW contented itself to Sith dueling Jedi, then maybe it would qualify. As it is the Sith can’t see a government without wishing to infiltrate it and the Jedi can’t miss an opportunity for a whole load of internal bitching, settled by punch-ups no less. If you were looking to watch or read SW to take your mind off that empire-building bastard at work, or to get away from the other manipulative crap-stirrer, think again! You’ll see them here! Heroes? When they’re allowed to be yes, but that’s not very often.
No, the escapism SW offers is that of a galaxy that we can see and imagine ourselves traveling in. Why does that matter? Everyone looks at the stars and has some notion of how vast the sky they see is, the actual numbers end up meaning little due to the scale. The idea that you could easily travel from star to star, system to system is a hopelessly romantic one and it’s one that SW plays on to maximum effect.
It’s an effect that can be said to have only increased in the last 30 years as our knowledge of the universe has grown. One area where that is particularly relevant is just how hostile the environment of space is for humans. It is not designed for us, we do not belong there and just trying to go out as far as orbit or our moon are perilous undertakings. Traveling to planets? Even if we pull off a trip to Mars in the future, quick it won’t be and other systems? Systems light years away? Forget it. If he was alive now, Douglas Adams might well be writing something to the effect of: Space is big. Really big. And it really doesn’t like you!
It’s the same escapism that the Mass Effect games tapped so effectively by having you create your character, you then get given a ship and an entire galaxy to explore! It’s that notion of not only there always being more to see, but that you’re able to go and see it with ease. Unexplored parts of Earth? Oh, plenty, but we can’t get to them and live! The recent news story of the missing Malaysian aircraft was a reminder that the world is still bigger than we think; despite telecommunication improvements making it seem so much smaller.
The escapism of SW is enabling us to envisage and for a time inhabit a different world via imagination. Would you want to live in the world of SW? Doubtful. As a good deal of the galaxy is a crap pit and you can’t go a year or so without a war of some kind kicking off. There’s all kinds of super-death weapons scattered across the galaxy, oh you thought you were safe on a planet? Think again, it’s about to go boom in about, oh 5 seconds! The escapism is allowing a sense of virtual adventure in a world that does not exist in total security. But, in that same world, there will be no perfect ending, no perfect solution, no escape from some characters dying, it will be just imperfect enough to feel as if it could be real.
Finally, the escapism SW offers is that of a bare handful of people being able to topple an Empire. In real life we know states can be far more durable, indeed that idea was the pre-Special Edition basis of the EU – that the Empire could not possibly have instantly collapsed. (And in a post-SE world? A whole lot of those celebrations became massacres real quick!) A New Hope makes this point better than any with the destruction of the Death Star, what importance could a mere 2m wide exhaust port in a moon-sized battle station have? Well, if it happens to be one that leads directly to a reactor and someone chucked a couple of nuclear bombs down it… The escapism of SW is you have these Rebel briefings where various insane plans are laid out, and no one goes: “Fuck, no! Are you nuts?”