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How Much Technology in Star Wars is Too Much?

luke-robohand

With the recent return of Star Wars Rebels, we’ve finally been exploring the aftermath of Kanan Jarrus’s blinding last season. Kanan’s existing doubts and fears were only amplified by his handicap, and he spent months in apparent isolation before finally learning from Bendu how to use his Force senses in place of the real one he lost.

“Warrior learns how to see without seeing” is a time-honored trope that was all but made for Star Wars, and I loved seeing Rebels‘ take on it—I see the value in telling that story, not just for its own sake, but as a means of growing Kanan as a character and opening his mind to new paths. But at the same time, I admit I have a little suspension-of-disbelief issue with it: couldn’t the guy just get new eyes? Forget the ample prosthetic limb technology that we already know exists; if they can clone an entire army of dudes and age them at double their natural rate, surely they could clone him new biological eyes?

Well, maybe, but maybe not. Post-reboot, there are far fewer examples of cyborgs in Star Wars than there used to be, and the ones that we do see often are often portrayed as faulty or not quite optimal–so it’s unclear whether a robotic eye, or a cloned one, is actually possible, as counter-intuitive as that might be. The reality is, Kanan doesn’t have new eyes because that story wouldn’t be as interesting—just like Return of the Jedi wouldn’t have been as interesting if Luke had to duel with his left hand only.

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Where’s the button for midi-chlorian counts?

That tension between the stories Star Wars is designed to tell and the logic of its setting is very interesting to me—if they have hyperspace and antigravity, shouldn’t they have figured out teleportation by now? Or time travel? If the TI-85 I used in high school in the nineties had a screen on it, why don’t comlinks?

The reason, again, is because that’s beside the point. But it’s a hard line to draw, isn’t it? A lot of the world of Star Wars is drawn from World War II combat, but does that mean technology can’t evolve past concepts they had in the forties? Is it wrong for the HoloNet to have a Twitter equivalent, say, when technologically that seems perfectly logical? Are there any technologies that have been used that you think went over the line, or absent ones you’d like to see?

David: Most of the technological equivalents that we can see basically create a fantasy World War II setting. Repulsor engines are just a way to make ground vehicles look fancier, and hyperspace is just a cooler name for the classic “warp space” sci-fi trope. AT-ATs are basically tanks, AT-STs are jeeps, starfighters are fighter planes, and capital ships are naval ships. The technology is firmly anchored in the 20th century, and anything that goes outside of it risks shattering the suspension of disbelief. Yes, Star Wars has become retro-futuristic before our very eyes. We are old, folks.

Perhaps I’d be more forgiving with new technology appearing in the time of The Force Awakens, as it’s been a long time since the original movies, but this technology still shouldn’t feel too advanced. It should still easy to comprehend. Personal GPS, for example: an idea that’s been present in sci-fi forever and that could easily fit a more advanced GFFA. I could see our heroes using some kind of geopositioning system, as it’s not too different from the existing tracking technology. Call it autotracker and no one will complain.

The Expanded Universe didn’t always respect the retro-futuristic side of Star Wars. I guess in a way they tried to connect with modern audiences by creating a more relatable galaxy, but they sometimes went too far. I don’t like the way comlinks basically became smartphones in the EU, for example, and how you had Jedi texting other Jedi. Especially, I don’t like the way the Imperial HoloNet went from being just what Palpatine used to talk to Vader while in the Hoth asteroid belt to being a substitute of the internet with newsgroups, chats and everything. And let’s not even speak of that Living Force article that had HoloNet users typing “lol d00ku roxxors” to “HoloNet nodes”. Brrr.

Star Wars is based on pulp fiction and as much as possible should be based on that pattern and should fit that mold. Everything should feel like a more grounded Flash Gordon. So yes, I’d rather have our heroes taking a “potion” that makes them super-strong for a few minutes than using Spacechat to take selfies and then send them to their friends.

Ben: Star Wars tech being a sort of retro-futuristic style makes perfect sense when you think of the films less as science fiction as more as World War II era war films or even Jidaigeki samurai films that wear the skin of a science fiction franchise. Technologies that would make sense in those sorts of universes, or within those sorts of stories, fit better into the Star Wars archetype than things like transporters or genetic engineering. The closest that Star Wars really gets to that sort of technology, and the one piece that I wish had been left out of the franchise, is cloning. Cloning opens up way too many potential issues and problems that basically just get ignored by all but a few sources (can Force users be cloned? How ethical is cloning someone against their will or without their knowledge? Are clones real people?) and really only serves as a convenient retcon tool (have a story where someone is out of character? They were a clone all along!).

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On the other hand, most military technology is right on point with a WWII setting, things like bombers and transports that sport bulbous turrets for warding off improbably designed but undoubtedly cool single-person fighter craft, while massive warships line up and deliver broadsides of cannon fire into each other and ground combat sports massive armored figures stalking and stomping around on the ground. The fact that we have not seen any actual treaded tanks yet makes the war history geek inside of me a bit upset, but the hovertanks we appear to be getting in Rogue One seem close enough. I’d rather that than the ridiculous massive Juggernauts that existed before.

If there’s a technology that has not been used or explored nearly enough, my thoughts go to things like prosthetics and limb replacements. One of the understated landmark technologies of Star Wars, with Luke and Anakin’s robotic hands being a very large part of the symbolism of their parallel journeys, and Vader and General Grievous both encased in mobile iron lungs, fully capable of not only movement but even feats of strength and acrobatics on par with or exceeding what they were capable of before their injuries. But that’s been the extent of it, very little beyond that has ever really been seen. Are prosthetics limited to just limbs, the equivalent of having a hook for a hand? Or are there more advanced things that can be replaced, like eyes or other organs? I have so many questions…

Mark: The idea of bionic eyes or other replacement organs is interesting, because in a civilization advanced enough to travel through hyperspace, you’d expect technology like that to be commonplace. It’s almost as if the Star Wars galaxy discovered this great ability to travel faster than light while at a roughly 20th-century-Earth stage, and has since slowly played catch-up with the rest of its technology. Carl Sagan once speculated that any civilization capable of interstellar travel would have needed to advance past its self-destructive instincts, as we see in worlds like Star Trek, but in the Star Wars galaxy – with its civil war, tyranny and Death Stars – that definitely isn’t the case. These people are still basically us.

That’s part of what makes it such an eclectic, fun universe, and why we can’t really compare the logic of its technology to our own world. It’s there to serve a purpose in the story and create an aesthetic, whether it’s the elegant 1930s-esque designs of the prequels or the utilitarian World War II-style ships of the original trilogy. That 20th century look is relatable to us in a way that “hard” sci-fi often isn’t, because we have an immediate emotional response to those designs. We recognize them. I suppose the important thing is that it obeys its own internal logic. After all, it’s a galaxy where they design sonic bombs specifically to be used in space – sound in space is an accepted part of their laws of physics!

One strange beat I noticed when re-watching The Clone Wars recently was the use of nano-droid technology in the Jedi Temple bombing episodes in season five. That jolted me for a moment, because something about it seemed very un-Star Wars. It might be because it’s at the forefront of scientific research now, in our own world, and we occasionally see some great development in the media, so it doesn’t have the space-fantasy of hyperspace, or that 20th century Flash Gordon aesthetic. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d want Star Wars to investigate those kinds of ideas any further. I don’t think that kind of very modern, real-world, “in the news” technology sits comfortably alongside X-wings and lightsabers.

Rocky: One of the things I’ve come to love about Star Wars tech is how lopsided it is. This is a society where losing a hand or leg or eye isn’t that much of a problem, crossing a galaxy in several days is fully doable, and yet there are planets so out-of-touch with the rest of the galaxy that a starship is a rare arrival. However, my big nitpick about all of the technology is the uneven rate of its appearance, since real-world technology changes so quickly. Some Star Wars tech seems normal for a society so advanced, but there are a few things that are weirdly absent.

"Greedo has accepted your friend request"
“Greedo has accepted your friend request”

A thing that I wish we saw more of is social media in the Star Wars universe. With something like the HoloNet, with anything like the communication we see and entertainment in cantinas, I feel that a modern-day rendition should include social media. How do people in the galaxy really communicate with their friends and families, when people can be scattered across the galaxy? Even under the Empire’s heavy censorship, there has to be some way that soldiers assigned to different planets are able to communicate with each other other than letter-writing or sending holos. Even with the spirit of 20th century technology, there is still quite a bit of room for something like social media, and it would seem like a fairly logical thing for such an advanced society to have.

Communication as a whole seems like there are many gaps left in it, and I sometimes wonder if much of that is due to the technology available when the OT was first made. Something like texting seems like a useful method of communication, but there don’t seem to be many places for that to fit in. Comlinks seem to be for voice only, and a lot of communication between planets or from starship to starship seems irregular. It would make sense to have better communication technology as a whole; holo messages and comlinks just don’t always seem to line up well with lifelike bionic hands and hyperdrives.

5 thoughts to “How Much Technology in Star Wars is Too Much?”

  1. I would like to bring up one note with the idea of “Cloning” as sticking out of place in a WWIIish setting. Actually, if you think about all the eugenics overtones that were going on in the 1920s, 30s, and into the war… it actually fits. There were all sorts of ideas about how to make the “pure” or ideal human; in fact, this lead to massive dehumanization of vast numbers of people. The Kaminoans – totally would have fit in in the 1930s.

    1. Good point about clones and eugenics. And anyway cloning, even if under different names, has existed as a plot point since WW2. William Temple’s “Four-Sided Triangle”, for example, featured a human duplicator in 1939.

  2. Also kanan probably didn’t get prosthetic eyes because the Rebels couldn’t spare money to fund that at the time.

  3. And let’s not forget that many of our technological advances we normally use depend on a vast network of resources that is not usually available in many Star Wars locations.

    For example, GPS uses a network of satellites to triangulate your position and it doesn’t work without it. Those satellites would have to constantly emit signals that would be easily detected, and are therefore a liability if you want to keep your secret base hidden. As a result, there’s no way to accurately know where Luke went on Hoth after he was last heard of. Also, if the planet is a backwater it might not have such a system in place, especially if the Empire can locate their troops and resources with their powerful sensors without the need to provide the population with that service.

    Same with our smartphones. Without widely distributed antennas and repeaters we don’t have any signal, while a comlink is a more advanced handheld device that can transmit information to much larger distances (even different planets sometimes!). Regarding social media, you still need the network too. Sure, the citizens of Cloud City would probably be able to text each other and interact in social media, but you can see examples here on Earth of what happens when a regime controls the internet access. I can imagine technologically advanced planets having a network like this, but interstellar communications are controlled by the Empire in the end.

    And about medicine… keep in mind that Luke’s hand was repaired in a medical frigate and Anakin’s/Vader’s were backed by the Galactic government at the time. The base in Rebels might only have basic medical facilities, like a campaign hospital would have. Also, we’ve seen cases when not acting fast enough with bacta or similar made injuries semi-permanent. Perhaps Kanan’s optical nerves were damaged to the point where only complicated surgery would connect cyborg or cloned eyes with his brain.

    What I mean to say with all this is, I don’t see the technology so uneven as described here. We must remember that we live in the most developed regions of the world where these advances are all available, but this is not the case in many places. I think the GFFA reflects that. Not everything is Coruscant there.

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