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Inelegant Weapons for Less Civilized Ages, or, How to Kill a Jedi

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To quote the eternal wisdom of Han Solo: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” Of course, as anyone who has seen the rest of the Original Trilogy can attest, he was ultimately proven quite wrong on that point (among a number of others), but perhaps there is a core of truth to his words that we should not completely reject out of hand.

The lightsaber is a formidable weapon in the hands of one strongly attuned to the Force (and a deadly menace to anyone who isn’t that attempts to wield it), of that there can be no doubt, but it must also be noted that it is ultimately just a sword. A laser sword that can cut through steel and bounce blaster bolts like a baseball bat does balls, yes, but still one that shares many of the limitations that caused its medieval counterpart to fall out of use so many years ago in our own history.

In fact, it’s truly remarkable how long the lightsaber has served the Jedi as their weapon of choice: several thousand years without any significant alterations to the design or crippling countermeasures being developed. Let’s put aside the questionable logic of preferring swords in a universe full of guns for a moment, and just look at the frequency with which they hurl themselves into harm’s way and stand in opposition to well-funded and heavily-armed empires, criminal organizations, and other assorted malcontents. One is compelled to wonder why so few seem to give even the slightest thought to attempting to combat the Jedi with anything other than blasters: the one weapon they’ve proven time and time again that they can reliably render completely and utterly ineffective.

It’s not even a question of the universe not yet having invented the technology to circumvent lightsabers, for it clearly already exists and enjoys widespread use. It’s just that apparently nobody has ever connected the dots and decided to employ it where it would do the most good (or bad, as the case may be). Today, we’re going to take a look at that technology and all the ways in which we might exploit it to imperil our favorite heroes and maximize dramatic tension.

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The Grandfather Clause: Exclusive Territory and What Makes Us Unique

For those who might be unfamiliar with the term, a “grandfather clause” is, broadly speaking,

law : a part of a law which says that the law does not apply to certain people and things because of conditions that existed before the law was passed

Put simply, in this context, it’s when a particular work of fiction can get away with something primarily due to when it was made, while that exact same thing would not be nearly as welcomed by audiences in a more modern product: something with which I think most Star Wars fans are familiar.

That we can blindly accept psychic monks knocking laser bolts out of the air with the blades of their laser swords and still utter the title “Grand Moff” with a straight face are truly testaments to the Original Trilogy’s enduring ability to convince us to take even its most absurd core elements seriously. There is also a certain historically significant implementation of the principle which is worth noting, but otherwise of no relation to what we will be discussing today.

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The Art of Star Wars

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Alas, despite the name, this is not to be an exhibition of the countless fine works that have been produced by this franchise’s artists over the years, though they would undoubtedly be deserving of such a feature. Instead, today we’ll be taking some time to discuss the place of military strategy in Star Wars – or rather, the technological basis that makes it all possible.

As even a cursory study of history will tell you, the methods by which wars are fought have always depended heavily on the tools available at the time. All great advances in weaponry have heralded significant changes in the very nature of how warfare is conducted – consider the evolution in our own history from mounted knight in armor to modern infantryman, or from ancient galley to aircraft carrier.

Despite their somewhat eclectic nature, the standards of warfare in the universe of Star Wars are fairly well established, if not the specifics. Starfighters are more or less analogous to World War II fighter aircraft, infantrymen are still deeply entrenched in trench warfare, and starships map more closely to the great vessels of the Age of Sail than actual spacecraft, lining up alongside each other and blasting away with broadsides.

It is an approach that I, for one, wholeheartedly endorse: while a realistic depiction of space combat might be scientifically interesting, it would make for rather dull watching and reading. However, in a galaxy that often finds itself sundered by war, even such dynamic portrayals of combat will eventually become stale, so it would be of considerable benefit to us to be forward-thinking about what we can do to stir the formula a bit to keep it fresh.

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He’s More Machine Now Than Man

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In our first article in this series, we discussed the possibilities of what might occur should organics and their most trusted and relied upon synthetics come into conflict. Today, we’re going to turn the tables around and reverse that premise: what happens when we fuse man and machine to an even greater degree than ever before? One of the most integral elements of Darth Vader’s character is that he is a cyborg: a sinister and inhuman blend of flesh and metal that serves as the physical representation of his inner corruption by the dark side (not everyone can have glowing yellow eyes like the Emperor, after all).

When Luke Skywalker loses a hand, his is replaced by a pleasantly fleshy quintet of fingers that is, to our knowledge, identical in appearance and function to its predecessor. There’s clearly a galaxy of difference between their prostheses, but how often do we actually think about that contrast, and what it means for the universe?

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Do Droids Dream of Electric Nerfs?

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As one might reasonably assume from the name of the genre, advanced technology capable of (currently unachievable) wondrous feats has been an integral part of science fiction since its inception. Though Star Wars draws from numerous and varied sources of inspiration, and its primary story is one deeply rooted in fantasy and mythology, the basic building blocks of the universe are very much taken from how we once imagined the future would look.

Many aspects of the setting can be found in our own times, but have been subtly (or not so subtly) altered so as to give them a more futuristic look and feel. As substitutes for guns, we have “blasters” that shoot lasers instead of bullets. Duels are fought with superheated laser swords rather than metal blades. Naval and aerial warfare are merged and relocated to outer space, where “starfighters” fill the role of fighter aircraft and titanic battleships fire broadsides against each other with lasers, not cannonballs.

In some franchises, the science is the focus of the fiction, particularly the implications of the technology particular to a setting on the lives of its inhabitants. While new discoveries can make life easier in many ways, it’s equally possible for them to have unpredictable (and unpleasant) side effects, to say nothing of the ways in which it can fundamentally reshape a society if the new invention is sufficiently revolutionary. For the most part, however, Star Wars has thus far demonstrated little interest in seriously pondering such questions.

Whatever advanced technology the galaxy far, far away possesses is merely a means to an end – pieces chosen to form a puzzle that suits the creator’s aesthetic preferences, regardless of how well they actually fit together. New technology is created as the plot requires, and specific details are often vague and fluid enough that the characters will rarely find themselves backed into a corner by the limitations of their equipment (except when dramatic tension calls for it).

While this sort of casual disregard for logistics worked well in creating a fresh and memorable universe for the Original Trilogy, few reasons come to mind that would require the Expanded Universe to always follow suit. We have many more novels than we do films, and any one of them contains a far greater amount of information than any movie script – there’s certainly no shortage of opportunities to more thoroughly explore the impact different types of technology can have on our fictional setting of choice.

Why this would be beneficial is fairly self-explanatory, I think, as most things involving the expansion of horizons are – in this new series of articles, what we’ll be looking at is how. How we’ve used technology in the past, how other works and franchises have handled similar themes, and how we might use it in more effective and interesting ways going forward.

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