These days, it seems like a non-trivial percentage of all my stuff has that Disney logo on it. For an extra 10%, one can get the same shirt, cup, toy, etc., but with a Star Wars character printed upon it. My problem is that I have children who are Star Wars nuts and, therefore, a Star Wars -themed, well whatever, has a better chance of acceptance. I guess the money is worth it, but I feel like I’m being cheated.
I’ll tell you this in confidence. There is one Star Wars item I would love to buy but I know I’d be strung up if I did. I want a shirt with a picture of a (Star Wars) Storm Trooper and the words “Support the Troops” on it. If the local patriots didn’t get me, I’m sure Disney’s copyright lawyers would eventually do me in.
I bring this up because one of the reasons I feel so bad about sending all this money to Disney is I hate what has been done with Star Wars. Every time a new film comes out – and I have to see it, on that there is no question – I get more and more frustrated with the direction they’ve taken things in. Of course, I’m not alone, so I won’t go into the big picture of that. Who doesn’t hate the prequels and the SJW-fication of 7-9 and spin-offs. All that, yes, but the real failure began when The Empire Strikes Back was released and was sealed with the Ewoks, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
Star Wars, now known as A New Hope, was not exactly high art and I don’t think anyone thought it was ever meant to be. As much as anything, it was a tribute to classic movie making. It took a little something from all kinds of genres; Westerns, War Movies, Fairy Tales, etc. and mixed them together into this “Space Opera.” By using state-of-the-art defining special effects, it brought that last genre into the modern world. Instead of robots that looked like a guy in a silver-painted box, we had believably realistic aliens*, spacecraft, robots**, and weaponry. The resulting potpourri was not, and really could not be, hard science fiction. It was light and it was simplistic – meant to appeal to kids, with the hidden layers for the adults who remembered the movies they watched as kids.
With its success, though, people were bound to want more. In delivering that more, the creators had to fill in the blanks with things that were left vague in the original. I’ve pondered the Star Wars concept of hyperspace before, and it is to this I’ll come back today, however my point goes well beyond that. We view the world from the perspective** of Luke Skywalker, who understands little of the big picture. We know we live in a vast monarchy ruled by an Emperor and other nobility (Lords and princesses, for starters). We know that Empire is engaged in civil war. We also have a few planet names, but little that helps us fit those (and the characters) into the scheme of things. This is OK. In fact, it is great. Our imaginations can wander among the possibilities.
The story does not develop from the science to the fiction, although that might a very rare occurrence for any film. The spacecraft battles, which is the primary exposition of the spacecraft and their effects, are derived from World War II footage and the subsequent war movies made about the War in the Pacific. The other weaponry, such as blasters and the light sabers, seem deliberately designed to insert the old-West’s six-shooters and the katanas of feudal Japan into a sci-fi setting. Again, it all remains effective because of what it leaves to the imagination.
As more films were added, and more detail, it was both necessary to keep those details consistent and, at least within the fantasy/sci-fi context, logical. This replaces the wild wonder of our imaginations with distinct details that, in many cases, is going to fall short.
To a specific, and certainly over-analyzed detail, of pertaining to spacecraft propulsion. In the initial movie, Han Solo claims that the Millennium Falcon is among the fastest in his neck of the woods. Clearly we are talking about transit times, as it is reference to being hired to carry Obi Wan and Luke from Tatooine to Alderaan. Han responds that his is “the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.” To the 1977 viewer of this line, this is all giberish. We don’t know what a “Kessel Run,” nor like do we have any idea of what a parsec is – it’s just supposed to be a vague, yet scientific-sounding, explanation of his qualifications; one that Obi Wan apparent accepts.
Fans (and probably fairly quickly, I don’t know) noticed that this line didn’t make sense. A parsec is a measure of distance based on the distance between the earth and the sun and angles to derive a measurement appropriate for interstellar distances. It isn’t speed. The line was identified as a mistake by those fans and, in fact, was corrected in the novelization to use a non-meaningful phrase (it became “twelve standard timeparts”). Years later, George Lucas claimed it was intentionally gibberish intended to mark Solo as a bullshitter, deliberately making stuff up to snow his potential clients.
Spin-off novels later came up with another explanation. The “Kessel Run” was a particular route which passed near a black hole. The extent to which a spacecraft can pass close to the black hole would depend on its speed. Therefore a faster spacecraft could cut distance from the “Run” by moving closer through the black hole’s gravitational field. Specifically, that savings was 1/3 of the total distance, turning a standard 18-parsec route into a record-setting 12 parsec route. This interpretation was then brought back into the films by portraying Solo’s 12-parsec Kessel Run in the movie Solo.
Wow. Wasn’t it all easier when it didn’t mean anything?
Almost independently of the explanation, we are apparently using hyperspace as Star Trek has seemed to use it – that some sort of futuristic drive is capable of moving**** at multiples of the speed of light but that there is an upper limit (somewhere starting at Warp 7, in the Star Trek series), which becomes physically hazardous to the spacecraft. In Star Wars, the concern Obi Wan has for the speed of Solo’s spacecraft implies that there is an equivalent of “warp factor” that varies widely among spacecraft.
The other factor introduced in the original film is the computational aspects of faster-than-light travel. Solo warns that without precise computations, traveling at hyperspeeds is a recipe for instant death. Of course, if we interpret hyperspace as simply a faster-than-light traversal through normal space, he is wrong, but I’m not sure that’s either here nor there. The point is that the Star Wars universe has created a two-pronged dependency for spaceships when it comes to hyperspace travel; a hyperdrive propulsion system and the computational abilities of the navigation system. In the original Star Wars, the Millennium Falcon would seem to be exceptional on one or perhaps both counts. Indeed the Kessel Run/parsec explanation relies on the Falcon‘s superior navigational abilities as a factor in its record breaking performance.
Between 1977 and today, the theoretical understanding of faster-than-light travel has changed dramatically, particularly within the public consciousness. The theory of relativity sets an absolute limit on the maximum velocity of mass and the idea that this was simply a barrier to be broken, as the speed of sound was, is no longer plausible. There does remain a speculative theory about the ability to (if I understand it, which I’m pretty sure I don’t) scrunch the dimensionality of space in the direction of intended travel. By doing so, you can limit your speed to below the speed of light while actually traveling distances faster than light, in its direct path, travels. From a sci-fi perspective, this has interesting analogies to Dune‘s folding of space or even A Wrinkle in Time‘s explanation of faster-than-light travel.
The other mechanism that has begun to pervade science fiction is that of travel by wormhole. The idea is that connections can be formed between four-dimensionally distant points in the space time continuum, either natural or man-made, allowing instantaneous transit between them. The term “hyperspace jump” is often used to describe, non-technically, this process. It is rarely depicted as instantaneous, with a Stargate-inspired depiction of the inside of the wormhole as a tunnel-like phenomenon. The newer Star Wars films seem to have adapted this as a mode of travel.
An advantage of wormhole-style jumps is it eliminates (or can explain away) relativistic time-dilation effects of near-light-speed travel. Ender’s Game (particularly in the subsequent books of the series) makes excellent use of the physics within the story. Ender can travel rapidly the vast distances between stars. As he does, however, the rest of the world moves on. So while he can travel light years in only a few months, the “when” of his arrival is in his own distant future. But while Ender’s Game used it well, this mechanism would be disruptive in a more traditional, space-opera story. Imagine assembling your fleet, traveling to a distant star to battle the forces of your enemy – only to find that they are long dead and their great-great-grandchildren don’t know who you are or why you just showed up itching for a fight.
Ironically, then, the new Star Wars with its instantaneous jumps is perhaps more “accurate” than the vague “warp speed” that seemed to be the case early on, despite my being so bothered by it. Why am I bothered by it, then? First, I don’t like the CGI depiction – the newer movies show the jump to hyperspace from a stationary spacecraft frame of reference. We see a space ship sitting there, and then zips off into nothingness. It’s a variation on the Battlestar Galactica sequence, although I have to say that one doesn’t bother me. In Star Wars, we actually see the spaceships accelerating into faster-than-light speed and then decelerating afterwards, applying molecule-rending g-forces in the process. Secondly, it seems like any old spaceship can do it.
In the original series, it seemed to me that the Millennium Falcon was a bit special with its hyperspeed capabilities – a capacity that might otherwise be reserved for “the big Correllian ships.” It is even explained that the TIE Fighters are “short-range fighters” and wouldn’t have the ability to travel hyperspace like the Falcon. Yet, with each new installment in the series, more and more spacecraft can travel the vast interstellar distances without much trouble. First, Luke rockets from Hoth to Degobah in what I assumed was a short-range fighter. In the prequels (which should be, if anything, older technology) we seem to see all sorts of spacecraft making hyperspace leaps. Of course, it could just be that because the characters we are following are making interstellar journeys, we are seeing only those spacecraft that they would use to do so. Still, going back to that original dialog, Luke comments that he could almost buy his own space ship (presumably capable of interstellar travel) for the 17,000 credits that Obi Wan offered Han. Assuming this isn’t outrageous hyperbole, the implications is that an interstellar, hyperspace capable craft is something like a factor of 10x the cost of a landspeeder – a piece of machinery apparently within reach of a teenaged dependent of a run-of-the-mill farming family.
The problem is, you can’t get something for nothing. This is true from a physical standpoint, if we assume the Star Wars universe obeys the laws of Thermodynamics. It is also true from a story-telling standpoint. If the cost of travel is reduced to nil, that has strong implications story-wise. For starters, how can Tatooine (or any star system) be “remote” if to travel there is instantaneous?
Which all brings me to the question, if the way they’ve taken Star Wars has ruined it for me, where might have they have taken it instead? I’m not saying that adding realism to Star Wars would save it. In fact, it would probably make it worse. However, if I’m going to complain about where the series ended up, I can at least fantasize a little bit about how I might have done it better. For me, that would have been a more realistic universe (meant in the space sense, not the Disney cash cow sense).
The combination of fan fiction and the extended universe of Star Wars has apparently worked to resolve the apparent illogic of hyperspace. I have no intention of getting too close to that particular rabbit hole, especially after seeing it’s end result with that light-speed-jump sacrifice in The Last Jedi. However, I did manage to pick up one bit from the obsession of the fans. The explanation, as near as I can understand it (which I’m pretty sure I don’t, really) is that hyperspace is kind of a extra-dimensional, alterspace. I’m imagining, to lean on as crutches some better-thought-through sci-fi/fantasy, something like The Ways in The Wheel of Time. In this, a network of wormholes crisscrosses the galaxy, allowing non-conventional movement. It can also explain that “fly right through a star” line from the original. Hyperspace may well be dominated by the mass of real space in a way that either it is riddled with massive objects with little maneuver room around them, or the wormhole-type channels that one travels through can, without careful pre-planning, inevitably direct you right into the closest large gravitational sink.
Suffice to say that that a wormhole-based hyperspace seems to best unite all the depictions of FTL travel in the Star Wars films. The time and cost which was, well, either apparent or ambiguous in the first film could have been extended. In other words, I think we’d need to simply create a non-trivial transit time when your traversing a wormhole and make both that time and the cost proportional to distance and to mass.
Particularly those early films have unspecified delays that have to be, at least, non-trivial to make the story work. Luke and Han take the Death Star plans to Yavin 4. The rebels then, assuming that the Empire somehow tracked Han, realize they have only a short time to prepare before they must confront the Death Star. But what is a short time? Will it take weeks to analyze the data? Will it take months to assembly weaponry and train the fighter pilots? Or do they have only a matter of hours? I would have thought it logically works better if the time leans toward the longer, but Darth Vader’s line about “a day long remembered” suggests that it is at the short end. This leaves tension being created by the fact that Death Star came out of hyperspace on the wrong side of the planet and must wait some 35 minutes before being able to fire.
So after all this talk, I guess what I would have done is to ground Star Wars space travel in some kind of self-consistent explanation, but one that involves a cost. The “wormhole” style of travel seems a necessity, but it can’t be both instantaneous and nearly-free. Two more examples, because I’ve talked about them so recently. Dune went with the instantaneous travel, but (without being specific) it was exorbitantly costly. It was also costly in a proportional way – transporting an invasion force between planets was a nation-breaking expense. By contrast, in The Expanse series using the ring seems***** free and easy, but the rings themselves are in distant orbit around the planets which they connect. Therefore, even after instantaneous travel across 100s of light-years, you still have months of deceleration to reach the earth-like planet in a lower orbit. That’s how you do it.
*That decision to use muppets as aliens may be seen as beginning of the end.
**Again, referencing that connection to the classics of movie making, C3PO is clearly inspired by Maria of Metropolis.
***Alternatively, the perspective is that of C3PO and R2D2, whose story is followed almost exclusively through the film. Luke himself This follows the arc of Lucas’ inspiration, The Hidden Fortress, where the two “‘droids” are substitutes for the peasants (is this a subtle commentary on class war?) in that film. Also, intriguingly, the focus on the ‘droids was introduced in the post-filming edit work, using the C3PO/R2D2 focus as a way bring the audience along with the story.
****To add intrigue, the pilot episode of Star Trek implies that the “warping” refers to time travel. In essence that, perhaps, the ability to cover vast distances in space involves traveling backwards in time to arrive before it would otherwise be possible. As the series developed, the reference to “time warp” was dropped and the engines seem to be analogous to a standard, classical propulsion system.
*****Remember where I am in the series. Ill effects from ring transit is only suspected.