Back in the days when Analog Science Fact-Science Fiction was still Astounding Science Fiction, science fiction was virtually the only literary field where epics were being produced. The clash of good and evil on a monumental scale that characterized the works of A. E. Van Vogt, perhaps the foremost author of what was called “space opera,” was mirrored in a kaleidoscopic profusion of images in a score of good and many lesser authors. The phenomenon of decline and fall of civilizations, of responsibility and power was explored by Isaac Asimov, easily the most versatile and prolific of science fiction giants. Robert A. Heinlein pioneered the science fiction version of the Bildungsroman (a novel form describing the development and education of a hero) in Starship Trooper.

In much of the early serious science fiction—as differentiated from the even earlier work of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs—issues of fundamental importance to mankind were given a serious and thought-provoking treatment unmatched in the popular novels of the day. This was the age of the Kinsey reports, in which—to paraphrase Francis Schaeffer—statistics became ethics. This mistake was never made in works such as Van Vogt’s World of Null-A or Asimov’s Foundation series. The most recent magnum opus in this vein is Frank Herbert’s Dune triology, which began as a serial in Analog years ago and has recently become a best-selling literary phenomenon. Each of them, from a variety of perspectives, took ethical and philosophical problems with the utmost seriousness. Religion and spiritual issues also figured prominently in many of them, whether treated with relative scepticism, “comparative religion school” detachment, or genuine seriousness as a vital field of human concern.

To the basic conflict of good and evil that figured so centrally in so many major science fiction novels we must add the specific setting that made them science fiction—the future world where no predetermined limit was set to development, where the imagination was given free rein. In many early works, though the problem was moral, the solution was technological—a scientific break-through permitting a resolution. In this sense much science fiction was like the morality play, with a deus ex machina appearing at the right time to resolve the apparently insoluble problem. Indeed, more often than not it was a machina (machine) without the deus (the term deus ex machina, god from the machine, refers to the sudden and unexpected appearance of a god or divine hero propelled by a theatrical machine). But science fiction was almost never exclusively technological. The best authors saw science, technology, and the future as powerful factors, but not as offering in themselves Utopian solutions to age-old problems.

Article continues below

Because of the tremendous, indeed literally universal scope of much science fiction, it certainly did not lend itself to film production. When television popularized a version of the genre with Star Trek, it could do so only at the cost of a tremendous impoverishment of the vehicle. The little screen was pitifully inadequate to contain the galactic vision of an Asimov or a Van Vogt. The more manageable, more humanly-scaled work of Heinlein would have been easier to present, but it was ignored—perhaps because of that author’s deep pedagogic and philosophical interest. As science fiction became known to a wider public, it was in the form of debased imitations such as Star Trek. As a result many who noticed the genre for the first time remained ignorant of the philosophical, ethical, and even spiritual seriousness characteristic of so many of the best SF writers.

A development in many science fiction writers through the late 1960s was the reintroduction of a serious religious or quasi-religious element into the technological world. Insoluble problems were no longer being attacked with technology, but with new spiritual developments. Many authors showed a remarkable concern for ancient wisdom—an example being Frank Herbert, whose Dune trilogy draws heavily on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources to produce a deeply religious, though not easily identifiable, amalgam.

At least some of the imagery in the Dune works is picked up in Star Wars. Superficially Star Wars—the first work of genuine science fiction to become a film sensation—might seem a debasement of the genre, much like the Star Trek series. But—in contrast to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, where the science fiction setting is merely the stage for the director’s intensely personal psychological drama—Star Wars for the first time brings to the screen a technology capable of giving visual reality to the sweeping vision of what we have called “space opera.” The television-conditioned viewer, whose crippled imagination may not be able to present to his mind’s eye the vision of intergalactic empires described by Van Vogt, can see them on the screen in Star Wars. The unbelievably good technical work is certainly one of the major keys to the success of the film, for much less that is positive can be said about its content.

Article continues below

The idea in the Star Wars plot is epic, the struggle of good and evil with religious overtones on a cosmic scale. The three male heroes—teen-ager Luke Skywalker, the hardened and yet somehow good-at-heart adventurer Han Solo, and the noble, mature warrior monk Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi—have many prototypes in both Greek and knightly epic. The film is a protracted Minnefahrt, a knightly journey in quest of and in defense of a beautiful, threatened, and pure princess, carried out by three men representing three different phases of male heroism. To the simplicity of the plot—a tyrannical galactic empire threatens universal rule by terror and mass destruction—is added simplicity of heart. Luke is the pure young knight postulant, Kenobi the old, bruised, yet faithful warrior. And even Han Solo, who appears first as the experienced and cynical man of the universe, is transformed by his contact with the other two—and his admiration for the dynamic, sovereign, virtuous captive princess, Leia Organa—from a perfect knave into another perfect knight.

There is evil in Star Wars. Yet curiously, as in Tolkien’s Ring series, it is undefined and unclarified. We understand the Empire to be tyrannical, and we see its sinister genius exemplified by the black-clad, masked Lord Darth Vader. But exactly why it is evil or wherein its evil consists is not specified. Likewise the knightly errand of Luke and his companions, which culminates in the destruction of the Empire’s death star, is unreflected and undifferentiated. Evil is recognized as evil, good as good. How they are recognized is not specified. There are heavy religious implications—the “Force” served by Kenobi, acknowledged by Vader, and sheepishly invoked by Solo. But this “Force” is mentioned, invoked, becomes central, and in the end triumphs without any precise indication of its nature or attributes. This is indeed a testimony to what Schaeffer called the “contentless mysticism” of our age.

The tremendous enthusiasm with which Star Wars has been greeted cannot result merely from its technological virtuosity and beauty. Certainly it cannot depend on the psychological or dramatic refinement of the plot, for they are all but nonexistent. Hence at least a fair measure of the response to Star Wars must result from the fact that it presents, in exaggerated but unmistakably recognizable images, the clash of good and evil, youthful idealism, feminine beauty—and strength—mature manly virtue, and a romantic love-motif that is pure and self-sacrificial rather than carnal and self-seeking. Perhaps few of those who view Star Wars look or act much like Luke, Leia, or Ben Kenobi. But apparently millions—no doubt far more than filmmakers expected—admire them and want to think that there is room for them in the universe.

Article continues below

Star Wars, like all great screen successes, will spawn sequels and imitations. It is hard to imagine what the sequels will be like. If they merely repeat the formula in its once charming simplicity, it will probably soon grow stale. If they wish to pursue the “space opera” genre, and get beyond the Gondoliers stage—that of a beautiful, somewhat serious, yet basically frivolous operetta—they may bring to the screen something that otherwise is almost totally lacking—the artistic evocation of philosophical, ethical, and even spiritual questions that, in the midst of all the technical props, has been the prime preoccupation of the serious science fiction novel.

Harold O. J. Brown, science fiction afficionado, is chairman of the systematic theology department at Trinity seminary in Deerfield, Illinois.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.