He holds my hand tightly. He’s become amazed at his own strength lately. His favorite game is to squeeze my hand as tightly as he can. I feign indifference for a moment, then put on my most excruciated grimace.
“Stop, stop, you’re breaking my hand!” I protest.
“I’m using the Force!” he proclaims. And who am I to say he’s wrong?
For the seventh time in as many minutes, Timothy points to an object under glass.
“Is that from Star Wars?” he asks. It’s been his question about each and every exhibit in Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum. The answer continues to be “no.” Anything actually from Star Wars he has spotted long before me: R2D2, the Death Star model, Yoda, the Storm Trooper costume. At exhibit after exhibit I explain to Timothy and his sister another piece of the science fiction canon: why Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot is so much cooler than the unnamed Robot from Lost in Space, and how this distinction summarizes the primary difference between didactic morality tales told in a speculative format, and sit coms. Plus Robby looks cooler and has legs.
For me, the museum is a trip down memory lane. Every book mounted lovingly in humidity controlled enclosures mirrors the copy already locked inside my own head. For my children, it was a series of sharp analytical moments in which everything they saw was divided into two and only two buckets: Star Wars. Not Star Wars.
Why is it that 30 years later Star Wars has become the sine qua non of science fiction – not just science fiction movies, but the whole genre. What about this universe that has made it compelling enough to dominate the last two weeks of our multi-generational cousin-rich and sugar-infected vacation? Every video game played, every movie viewed, even the make-believe whizzing through the unfortunately-multi-family 4 bedroom rental condominium has had a common root: they were all imported from a galaxy far, far away.
Let me be clear: while I have consumed the 15 or so hours of Star Wars movies dozens and dozens of times, the Star Wars movies are almost universally crap. They are not good films. The acting is wooden, the writing stilted, and the very universe Lucas so lovingly imagines is plagued by boils and cesspits (Jar Jar, midi-chlorians, Ewoks, Padme's unfortunate choices in lip gloss). And yet I love them. I love them not only despite, but because of their flaws. Half the fun of being a Star Wars fan is the sith-like stew of anger, suffering, and rage that errupts every time crazy-uncle George actually messes with his own creations.
But here’s what I think is most captivating about Star Wars. Star Wars is ultimately about the Force. And what is the Force?
Religion in the over-educated techno-libertarian geek circle which I enthusiastically inhabit is nearly taboo. While my family and I go to church most Sundays neither that fact, nor the content of those church services is the topic of dinner table conversation when we have guests over. I consider myself a believer – not in someone else’s specific doctrine, but in a collection of things that have helped me understand my own human experience. Alternatively, if you’re a Marxist, I have successfully opiated my primal Nietzschean understanding of the abyss.
My children yearn for religion. They are fascinated with religion, not in the big “R” sense of the word, but in the dictionary sense – a belief in a supernatural something that governs the universe. They are being trained – quite intentionally – to never stop asking “Why?” And eventually that series of questions leads to big unanswerable “why’s.”
In my own personal parenting worldview, I don’t actually think it’s my job to dictate the answer. I tell my kids what I believe, and why I believe it. But I don’t tell them it’s the only way – I want them to explore.
But when Obi Wan described the Force to them in “A New Hope,” he explained the simplest, clearest, most practical religion ever envisioned for children:
“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
For a 5 year old, this explanation is intoxicating. In a nutshell, the Force:
- Only requires you to believe that “alive” is fundamentally different from “not-alive.”
- Provides some people with superpowers, with conditions applied.
- Explains good and evil.
(This all assumes that like most geeks, you’re willing to just overlook all the midi-chlorian crap and get on with life.)
This is a pretty compelling explanation of the world. A good friend of mine once explained his view of Jesus: “I dunno, he just strikes me as that really cool older brother, who kind of gets it. With superpowers.”
Jedi are the ultimate cool older brothers with superpowers.
That my son is obsessed with Star Wars has, I suspect, less to do with light sabers and blasters than it does with the idea of two boys – one 7, and one 16 – discovering a religion in which they could participate. A religion in which the “miracles” are just a Force-push away.
It's taken me 30 years to realize that this is one of the reasons I keep coming back to it. And really, it took the announcement of Knights of the Old Republic, the not-so-secret MMO. Nearly every SF nerd I’ve talked to is more interested in a Knights of the Old Republic MMO than they ever were in Star Wars Galaxies. And I've finally realized it's because the force is so much more present - in other words, religion is so much more present.
From the perspective of religion, the Civil War period of the Star Wars universe – the Rebel Alliance vs. Darth Vader part – is the period most devoid of the Force. It’s all one sided, and it’s only a chosen few who have any interaction with the supernatural. But in the Knights of the Old Republic time frame – that pre-Anakin period – that’s when the Force was everywhere. People believed in their religion because they saw it right in front of them. Maybe not every day, but they saw it.
And there was a chance to be a righteous bad-ass with a light saber, even if a bunch of creepy space-bacteria didn’t knock up your grandmother.