Science fiction is a broad term for a big, big genre. At its core, it is a genre of stories in which science or technology beyond the bounds of what is currently known plays an important role, and tends by default to incorporate any fiction set in the future. This creates a vast continuum embracing space opera, steampunk, tech-oriented hard science fiction, alien-invasion thrillers, and dystopian studies of human society — to name just a few types of science fiction.
Star Wars primarily falls under the label of space opera — pulpy adventure stories set in outer space, a subgenre heavily influenced by fantasy. These stories have the trappings of advanced science and technology — spaceships, laser guns — but aren’t interested in examining the science of the setting, or using it to explore mankind’s relationship with technology or illustrate ideas about society in the way most idea-oriented traditional science fiction does.
In addressing how Star Wars interacts with the science fiction genre, I thus want to focus in on how the space fantasy saga engages with the “harder” elements of traditional science fiction.
With Captain America: The Winter Soldier coming out tomorrow (in America, the nation that is in the name of the damn movie yet somehow getting it last), it’s timely to address Star Wars’ relationship with the superhero genre. Thanks to the Jedi’s powers and its expansive continuity, it has more than a little in common with superhero universes, but less has been done with those similarities than you might think.
The superhero genre, long restricted primarily to primacy in comics but now becoming the dominant form of movie blockbuster as well, is best understood as stories about outstanding heroes endowed with superhuman or unrealistically optimal abilities who make careers of fighting evil under a distinct identity. The tropes of the genre — secret identities, costumes, supervillain rogue’s galleries, superhero teams, origin stories, interlocking shared universes, fuzzy continuity, sliding timelines, temporary deaths — should be familiar to most of the general public, let alone the geek community.
Star Wars lacks a lot of those tropes. Its heroes operate in the open, not hidden behind masks and nicknames. They tend to face villains sequentially and beat them, rather than constantly matching wits against the same pool of bad guys. Star Wars’ continuity is, in principle and usually in practice, sharp and its timeline immobile, its deaths mostly permanent. But there are similarities worth noting.
With Maul: Lockdown soon to appear on bookshelves, the time seems right to take a look at the prison story genre. Stories about prison and prisoners go back a long time (though probably not as far back as you might think, given the relatively recent introduction of imprisonment as punishment). Though Lockdown is the first pure prison story of note for Star Wars, the genre has its place in the Star Wars franchise as well.
Prison stories, though united by their depiction of the experience of incarceration, tend to break down into two main groups. There are escape stories, which concentrate on portraying jailbreak attempts — they are often spiritual cousins of the heist story, focused on elaborate schemes to get out rather than in. Then there are prison life stories, which are concerned with depicting the travails of life behind bars rather than telling a jailbreak yarn. It’s not always a binary distinction; The Shawshank Redemption manages the twist of seeming to be solely a prison life story until the end reveals that it’s been an escape story all along, too. Cool Hand Luke‘s titular hero’s escapes are an important part of his character, but the film’s focus is not on their execution, but on the toll prison life is taking on Luke. But overall, the distinction is useful.
Since the Star Wars franchise is better suited to adventurous capers than melancholy meditations on the hardships of the incarcerated, and since both the regular casts of characters and the needs of a franchise geared toward ongoing story tend against protagonists rotting away in jail, the Expanded Universe is always going to lend itself more naturally to escape stories than to ones about prison life. I will focus, therefore, on that area of storytelling, a type of adventure that is a natural fit for the setting.
What is swashbuckling adventure? The term conjures images of dashing heroes rescuing damsels in distress via energetic swordfights in a romantic historical setting. It should be obvious that there is some of this in Star Wars’ DNA: it is dominated by dashing, high-octane heroic adventure, and sometimes openly apes the tropes of swashbucklers. Twice, a lightsaber-armed Luke Skywalker rescues Princess Leia and escapes by swinging across a gap on a rope (it’s not real swashbuckling adventure until somebody swings from a rope, vine, or whip). At its core, Star Wars is a spiritual descendant of swashbuckling adventure, which means the genre should occupy a significant place in the Expanded Universe.
There are certain tropes that go along with the swashbuckler: elaborate fencing-centric action sequences, romance with a damsel in distress, a bold and idealistic hero fighting against oppression or cruelty, a wicked villain in a position of power (who must inevitably be defeated in a swordfight), a historical setting of approximately 1200-1800 (or a fantasy version thereof). Think Robin Hood. But fundamentally, swashbuckling adventure is about an attitude. A swashbuckler’s approach to entertainment is energetic and flamboyant: its characters are larger than life, its plot one of constant thrills and excitement, its tone exuberant. It is almost never in question that the hero will win; the point of the story is to enjoy the fun-packed journey to victory. Read More
Most of the genres I’ve examined so far have been ones that the Star Wars universe can adapt and has adapted wholesale, in addition to pulling in elements of the genres for its own use. Not every genre out there, however, drops easily into the Star Wars universe. That doesn’t mean that those genres don’t still have relevance, however. The sports genre is one of them.
Sports stories are a familiar brand of fiction. The most recognizable is the uplifting sports movie, one or two of which seem to come out each year. In that formulation, the narrative follows an athlete, coach, or team through adversity on and off the field, ending with a significant victory. The action of sports livens up the personal drama of the subject, almost always an inspiring underdog. It seems almost comically formulaic, but it has worked time and time again. Rocky, Moneyball, Remember the Titans, Warrior, Seabiscuit, Hoosiers, 42 . . . the examples go on and on, covering all kinds of sports. There are other ways of making sports fiction, however. Field of Dreams examined the way baseball binds generations together, how people find meaning in the sport, and its rich emotional resonance. Films like The Hustler and Raging Bull used sports as a backdrop for examining larger issues of character and personality, and Raging Bull is additionally a good example of a sports biopic that is interested not in inspiration, but in the flaws and rise-and–fall narrative of its central figure.
But in any form, it should be clear that this genre is a rather more awkward fit for Star Wars than most others. Star Wars doesn’t really have a ton of room for stories purely about space football. The only existing Star Wars works I can think of that are stories about sports are the shockboxing short story Fists of Ion and the racing video games Episode I Racer and its sequel, Racer Revenge. Both of the games are tie-ins to the most prominent sports sequence in Star Wars, the podrace from The Phantom Menace.
Say what you will about the cartoonish execution of the podrace, but the idea itself is solid. In an adventure series like Star Wars, integrating high-adrenaline sequences that happen to revolve around sporting events is a perfectly fitting diversification of the action. Whether it’s Anakin Skywalker entering illegal garbage pit races, Han Solo fighting in gladiatorial contests on Jubilar or the Wheel, Luke and Ben competing in the Dathomiri version of the Olympics, or the Solo kids racing starships at Ord Mantell or Dubrillion, sports sequences have been successfully integrated into Star Wars stories. They are an excellent way of providing fresh types of action. Sports can offer intense action and conflict in thrilling sequences without unnaturally high stakes — though as with the bets riding on Anakin’s podrace, they certainly don’t have to be low-stakes events.
So far, the Expanded Universe has generally focused on universal, easily translatable sports concepts like racing and gladiatorial combat. While Star Wars analogues to popular spectator sports along the lines of American football/rugby, basketball, golf, and soccer have been created, they tend to be used as background detail, not played out in the course of the narrative, due to the difficulty of fully selling a made-up space version of modern spectator sports with their fiendishly complex rules. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, however, and a great variety of sporting action is possible.
One can imagine many ways to integrate sporting events into tales. In Return to Ord Mantell and Vector Prime, sporting competitions were recreational diversions, undertaken as part of the setup for the story or killing a little time before the story kicked in for the competing characters. Like the technique of putting the characters at a sporting event as spectators and describing the action they witness, this is a way of building in sports that doesn’t rely on tying the event deeply into the plot, but it does depend on the characters being at leisure to use their recreational time in such a way. So while there could be a few stories with Chewbacca entering a wrestling match to make a little money while waiting for a smuggling job, X-wing pilots playing limmie in their downtime, or spies making a handoff at a smashball game, it isn’t a device that could be used too heavily.
More integrated to the story are scenarios in which the protagonists are forced to compete by the larger plot. A captured character might be entered against his will in gladiatorial games. Characters facing hostile aliens or attempting to enlist their aid might have to beat them at a rough-and-tumble local version of rugby where they may not know all the rules. An undercover Jedi Knight might enter an underground shockboxing tournament to get close to an assassin who competes in his spare time. Han Solo might compete in a swoop race to get the money to repair the Millennium Falcon while stranded in the middle of a smuggling operation. In a story set at the Jedi Praxeum or Imperial Academy, students may participate in extracurricular sports, in much the way Quidditch is integrated into the Harry Potter novels.
Including scenes of sporting action, however, is not the only way to integrate elements of the sports genre into Star Wars. Giving characters backgrounds in sports, or even making them current athletes, can inform their characterization and bring in story elements from sports without requiring sporting events on the page. A military character might be defined by his past as a standout athlete at the academy, or by his continuing dominance in battalion grav-ball tournaments. A smuggler character could have a past as a down-and-out shockboxer, providing a possible entry point for former competitors, ex-promoters, and match-fixing mobsters to weave their way into a scoundrel’s story. An espionage story might feature a popular wegsphere player who is secretly a Rebel spy, able to travel from world to world to pass messages along. Perhaps a Jedi Knight is a great sports enthusiast, but his partner on a mission roots for the rival team.
There are lots of ways that sports — such a staple of modern life, and such a staple of storytelling — can be used to add color to the universe, even if the opportunities for straight sports tales are few.