I blame Star Wars for science fiction’s downfall

If 2001: A Space Odyssey was deeply inquisitive and soulful, as the best science fiction often is, Star Wars was the worst thing to befall the genre

A new Star Wars movie is upon us and the fanfare is louder than a thousand Star Destroyers revving their engines at once. Rogue One takes us back to the original struggle between the evil Galactic Empire and the plucky Rebel Alliance, with the promise of a gritty sensibility inspired by the franchise’s late Seventies origins.

Among even casual Star Wars fans excitement ahead of the film’s release this Thursday is at Jar Jar Binks levels of stuttering giddiness. Christmas has come early and it’s packing a lightsabre.

Such enthusiasm, alas, is unlikely to be shared by devotees of science fiction in its literary manifestation. We may have a fondness – even a love – for Uncle George’s Marvellous Mythology, while also suspecting it is the worst thing to ever befall the genre.

Star Wars isn’t terrible, exactly – though it has certainly had terrible moments (ie everything it has spewed into multiplexes from Return Of The Jedi onwards). The series at its finest is a romp that updates the matinee thrills of Flash Gordon with whizzy effects and a serviceable good versus evil lore (quick recap: the heroes fight in their pyjamas and can make objects float; the bad guys are Rada-trained Space Nazis).

And yet the one blockbuster to rule them all has arguably had a toxic impact upon science fiction. From 1977’s A New Hope all the way through to last year’s The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams’ tone-deaf cover version of George Lucas’s original, the movies have been pandering, glib and profoundly unserious about the moral questions they raise.

This was most painfully demonstrated by Return of The Jedi, a calamity featuring feral teddy bears and an 80 per cent disrobed Carrie Fisher chained to a slug. Especially egregious was the redemption of villainous Darth Vader, who, with nary a flicker of foreshadowing, flipped from villain to cuddly hero. One moment Vader was chaperoning his son, Luke Skywalker, to the Dark Side of the Force, the next he had chucked his best mate, The Emperor, off a balcony. Saturday morning cartoons have smarter character arcs.

Science fiction’s misfortune was that Star Wars arrived just as the genre’s literary maturity was seeping onto the screen. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s 1948 short story The Sentinel had demonstrated that sci-fi was uniquely positioned to grapple with deep existential questions (why are we here? what’s the best way to toss a shin-bone over your head?). Arriving at the height of Sixties counter culture, 2001: A Space Odyssey was attuned to the trippy sensibilities of the era. But it was also deeply inquisitive and soulful, as the best science fiction often is.

In the same decade, Frank Herbert’s Dune – later to be vandalised by a feckless David Lynch – pre-empted current debates about competition for shrinking resources and the tensions between religion and secularism in advanced societies. And in 1984, just a year after Jedi, William Gibson’s Neuromancer gave us a future in which the social order was broken down and remade by a ubiquitous computer network – a “world wide web”, if you will.

By then, alas, nobody was paying attention. Largely thanks to Star Wars, science fiction had come to be seen as the realm of the giddy geek, a refuge for those not properly equipped to deal with the real world (Star Wars was meanwhile spawning an ironic non-fandom fandom, as typified by jokey Star Trooper t-shirts and Yoda-as-stoner memes).

Please do not misunderstand. I adore Star War. In many ways, it was a defining influence on my childhood. Yet I also recognise that the escapism it offers is fundamentally juvenile. These are deeply unserious films, with little genuine interest in world building (every planet is either a vast desert or endless jungle) or memorable alien races. Star Wars is fun – but deeply silly with it. And for those who see science fiction, on page and screen, as so much more, its prominence rates as ongoing tragedy.