I went to the local Tescos yesterday. We needed some cooking plonk, some pitta breads and the orange lift raft of American culture that is whatever Reese’s products have made it across the Atlantic this week. It was, as every visit to Tesco is, a little like a crap version of Cube. Tiny aisles, too many people, nonsensical layouts, fishing wire high velocity grids. Lasers. The usual.
But on my way out, food in hand, scars healing and the blood of the less fortunate shoppers cooling on the floor around me, something caught my eye. It was a Star Wars magazine, and the front cover had four characters in vertical columns on it. From left to right they were Luke, Han, Darth Vader and Captain Phasma.
The tide’s coming in. The new Star Wars movies are about to break over us like a vast cultural tsunami and one of the geek cornerstones for the last 30 plus years is about to be changed forever.
The Star Wars prequels were the Twilight movies before a vampire ever sparkled; a set of films so loudly reviled that they became something less than a punchline. Whether or not they were any good is irrelevant. They’re a filling that never stops throbbing, a wound that fandom never lets close and that’s key to understanding the Force Awakens backlash. Because the thinking runs like this;the last time there were new Star Wars movies, the prequels happened. Now there are about to be new Star Wars movies again and the same thing might happen.
It’s more complex than that though. Disney have it made abundantly clear that the new material will ignore or overwrite what’s gone before. The Star Wars expanded universe is a colossal, labyrinthine place that takes in comics, games, books and all manner of other stuff over decades of accretion. It’s a fascinating exercise, a fictional universe that’s expanded in a manner both planned and somewhat organic and the only thing almost as large as it is the vast amount of material written about it.
All of which is now useless.
This isn’t the kind, rip off the band aid ‘well it’s a parallel timeline’ of the new Star Trek movies either. The new continuity, books. Movies, games and all is going to overwrite the old continuity. And that’s terrifying to some people because it threatens not only their nostalgia, but one of the core pillars of their self-image.
A huge part of geek culture is how much you know. Done right that leads to inclusion and community as people help fill the gaps in each other’s knowledge. Done wrong you get ‘well actually’ and ‘fake geek girl’. Both of which come from the reaction some people have to their geek cred being threatened. Both are toxic, both are geek culture at its worst and both come from entitlement. The thought process looks like this:
-This thing has been around a long time.
-We’ve known about it a long time.
-We know a lot about it.
-We’ve based a lot of our mind set and confidence on that knowledge.
-Anything that threatens that knowledge threatens us.
So what we’ve got here is a double threat; the terror of new material being perceived as bad and the terror that new material will overwrite the old and with it our identities. I won’t lie to you, I can sympathise with the second quite a bit. There’s a persistent rumour about a thing that happens in The Force Awakens that, if it pans out, is going to send legitimate shockwaves through certain chunks of fandom and, well…me. How I deal with that, if it happens, will dictate a lot of how I feel about The Force Awakens.
But here’s the thing; I don’t know how I’ll react because I’ve not seen the movie yet. What we have right now is a situation where the excitement over the new movies is finely balanced with terror at what they might do both to the sainted canon and to our view of it. So on the one hand people are excited and on the other they’re annoyed and defensive about the thing they’re excited about.
Which is ridiculous. And means things like this happen.
That’s an article complaining that a comic, that isn’t out yet, explaining why C-3PO has a different colored arm in the new movie is a step too far.
Yes you read that right. A comic explaining a relatively inconsequential detail that may not even be relevant to the central plot is being decried for not being needed. Weeks before anyone’s seen it.
Let’s be clear here; I have no doubt the writer may be correct and it may be a big old piece of fictional bumfluff that has all the relevance of the 187,000th Republican Presidential candidate. But I don’t know that, and neither do they, because it isn’t out yet. So in fact what we have here is two races being run at once. The first is the crushingly depressing sprint to get more clicks than everyone else and maintain the gossamer thin tissue of relevance that is continually sacrificed for a cheap, fast piece of copy.
The second is, amazingly, even more toxic and pointless. It’s the race to be the first to ironically hipster slam something even though no one has seen it yet. Not so much ‘I hated this before it was cool’ as ‘I hated this before anyone other than the production team had seen it.’
It’s absurdly defensive, a retaliation launched before an attack. It’s also bad writing, bad journalism and bad practice and it all stems, again, from fear. In this case both the fear the comic will be necessary to enjoy the movie and the fear that it won’t be. There’s no win here, for anyone, just a never ending downward spiral of despair that leads to another decade of tired, lazy Star Wars jokes that will lock geek culture into calcified irrelevance.
I don’t want that. I damn well don’t deserve that. Neither do you. And yet, here we are.
Then there’s Aftermath. Written by word geyser Chuck Wendig, Aftermath begins in the closing seconds of Return of the Jedi and explores the immediate consequences of the victory at Endor.
You will note the remarkable skew of opinions there. You’ll also note a surprising amount of them that object to the presence of a gay character. Object to it so vociferously they feel the need to not only 1-star the book but spray their objections all over Amazon. Because apparently when Admiral Ackbar said ‘May the force be with us.’ The actual line was ‘May the Force be with us, aside from the homsexuals because they’re evil personified. Now, let’s go kick this wrinkled, bath towel wearing psychopathic cakemaker square in the groin. For freedom! For everyone! Aside from the people whose lifestyles we irrationally object to!’
To be absolutely fair, I have some sympathy with the folks bemoaning the EU being left behind. Genre fiction is escapism a lot of the time and a lot of us have needed places to escape to and having that place shut off or simply stop growing has to hurt. But the bigots can get out, right now and make sure the door hits them on the ass on the way out. Not just because they’re bigots but because they’re luddites.
Any piece of pop culture is reflective of the time it was produced. Look at the ridiculous ‘70s hair of A New Hope, the CGI fest of The Phantom Menace, look at any film or book or album or game or comic EVER MADE and it will ring with the concerns and practices of the time it was made. Even if you object, for reasons that pass understanding, to the reality of a lot of people not being heterosexual, you have to accept that human sexuality is a far more openly discussed, protean topic now than it ever was in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s. As a result, it’s inevitable that it will be discussed in the popular culture of our time. Popular culture you are under no obligation, whatsoever, to participate in.
Except, of course, if you don’t participate. How can you complain?
We build our lives on foundations of story and we lie to ourselves that those foundations are immutable. The truth is the world around us changes, the stories change and so do we. If we accept that, then we accept that modern culture is a conversation that we never stop having and learn to revel in the new discoveries we make every day. It’s incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding and worth every minute you spend on it. Because if you rebel against that change, then all you have left is fear. And, like Yoda, we all know where that leads.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelance writer, journalist and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, a podcasting company that runs four pro paying markets and will shortly add a fifth. He’s an ENnie shortlisted-RPG writer for his work on the Doctor Who RPG and he tweets and blogs at places hidden behind the words ‘tweets‘ and ‘blogs‘. Click on them and learn that not only do the words do what he tells them to but his eyes are in fact sparkly. (And that last link is a mite sweary)