I’ve been a Star Wars fan most of my life. So while I was delighted to enjoy Rogue One, my favourite bit wasn’t any of the stuff that makes a good movie. It wasn’t the exciting plot. It wasn’t the diverse cast of characters. It wasn’t the action, though the final act was pretty bad-ass.
No, it was a single moment snatched out of childhood memory and shifted from the first film in the sequence to the eighth in this franchise:
Those words, that tone, it took me straight back to my childhood excitement. It’s an obscure little touch, but damn, these guys know how to please their fan base.
As we seek to broaden our culture, we’ve found ways to tame what we bring in. It’s a process that’s problematic but also useful, and like so much of being human, it can be understood in terms of control.
This is the realm of the manageably exotic.
Difference on Familiar Terms
I came across the term “manageably exotic” following my post on Christianity in sf+f. My friend Marios suggested that the prevalence of Catholicism in the fiction of Protestant countries is partly down to it being manageably exotic – different enough to intrigue, but familiar enough for people to cope with.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the manageably exotic is a huge deal. For example, when American and British culture looks to the far east it seldom shows the more alien parts of foreign cultures. It’s Chinese businessmen in western suits, Japanese kids remixing American pop culture, and of course the once exotic but now terribly familiar ninja. We usually look at the manageably exotic rather than the truly unfamiliar and different.
There’s something similar going on with the co-opting of elements of other cultures, and the watered down way diversity is achieved. The upcoming Star Wars film Rogue One has taken flack from the culturally conservative for its more diverse cast, yet even in this case, five out of the eight racially identifiable characters in the trailer are white. As for its allegedly over-female casting, six of those eight are men. The film-makers are increasing diversity, but in a manageable way – mostly white and male still, and using familiar faces.
Picking the manageably exotic – even when ‘exotic’ means something as trivially different as Anglo-Americans with a different skin colour or set of genitals – waters down the representation of more diverse people and cultures.
That said, making things manageably exotic is also useful. By making culture more varied by tiny inches, it expands people’s comfort zones. We all become uncomfortable with stories that are too different from what we expect, whether in subject matter, genre or structure. My dislike of James Joyce’s Ulysses isn’t the same as some racist idiot complaining about diverse casting, or bigots complaining that Chuck Wendig has put homosexuality in Star Wars, but some of the same emotional drivers are there. “This thing is not what I’m used to – take it away.”
Making things manageably exotic makes them palatable, and after a while not exotic at all. It leaves people feeling comfortable with the new elements. It can expand minds.
I’d love to be able to turn our culture upside down tomorrow, to see race, gender and sexuality representative of our complicated reality. But I also know that attempts at radical, sudden change create resistance. Gradually revealing the manageably exotic has done a huge amount to make our society more diverse and tolerant.
I’m not even forty years old, and I can remember when gay marriage was a dream even more unimaginable than a black American president. Our very awareness of intolerance is a symptom of tackling it. The shittiest edges of our world are being eroded by a slow but accelerating agenda of not just accepting but embracing difference.
This isn’t to say that our acceptance of the manageably exotic comes from a good place. Let’s face it, the sign of decency is our ability to cope with people and beliefs completely different from us.
No, the manageably exotic is about that vital but ugly human motivator – control.
By shrinking down the exotic elements, we make them appear as something that can be incorporated into the status quo, and by extension be controlled by it. Like 18th century aristocrats commissioning paintings of their country estates, our portrayal of the unfamiliar lets us feel control over it. It creates a sense of ownership – “that’s OK, it’s part of my thing now”. And let’s face it, trying to control others leads to some terrible places, from dysfunctional relationships to horrible social inequality.
Our collective desire to make things manageably exotic means we compromise values. It comes from a dark place. But it still does good, and that’s worth remembering, even as we reach beyond its limits.
They may not be the most innovative of stories, but for me the Star Wars films have gained huge value. I realised it when I bought The Force Awakens on DVD. The woman behind the counter wasn’t a huge fan, but we chatted about how her husband watched it twice in a row. When I tweeted as I re-watched the film, I quickly got quick responses from people I know, ranging from discussing favourite lines to asking my thoughts on the up coming Rogue One film.
There’s something similar with Star Wars games. When I bought Star Wars Battlefront for my PS4, the woman behind the counter talked about her love of it and her excitement at playing well-known characters. I went to play the X-Wing miniatures game at a games store in London recently, and the moment we put x-wing models on the table, everyone present, both friends and passing gamers, had something in common. X-Wing has been a real boon to my social circle, a game and setting lots of us love, which makes a fun talking point, and which draws other geeks in.
I get excited about Star Wars because of associations I have from childhood. But its huge popularity brings another emotional benefit. Wherever I go, it gives me something to talk about with people. It’s a way to connect, to carefully test the boundaries of new people’s geekery, to find out how much we have in common. Because the massive power of such works might not be good for cultural diversity, but it’s great for connecting people together.
I recently finished re-reading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone. A YA novel from before marketers had invented the term ‘YA’, it’s a fantasy story about Enid Blyton-esque children pursuing a lost relic in 1960s Cornwall. When I was a kid I loved this book and the whole Dark is Rising series that it’s part of. While I enjoyed reading it again, it was a reminder of the dangers of nostalgia, and of how we’ve moved on.
The Over Sea, Under Stone I remember from my childhood was exhilarating and atmospheric, full of excitement and mystery. The experience of reading it as an adult in 2016 was somewhat different. The characters aren’t all that interesting. Their terribly old-fashioned upper-middle-class lives feel completely unreal, to the point where their family started to creep me out. The sense of excitement and danger just wasn’t there.
I had a similar experience re-watching the original Star Wars before going to see the new film. In my youth, the whole Star Wars trilogy was a magical, flawless thing. Not so watching it now. The acting is hit or miss. The pacing sometimes falls flat. Entire scenes are saved only by the presence of Harrison Ford or John Williams.
It’s tempting to put this down to growing older and losing the innocence of youth. But I like to look at it in a more positive light.
Writing and film-making have come on a long way over the decades. What made for good pacing or deep characters in the 1980s has often been surpassed. Only truly sublime works stand the test of time, and even then have to be understood in context. Creators like Susan Cooper and George Lucas helped to shape the cultural landscape, paving the way for the works that would surpass them.As times goes by we learn more as a species, and that includes improving our ability to tell stories. What has been learned is seldom lost, while new techniques are constantly developed.
As times goes by we learn more as a species, and that includes improving our ability to tell stories. What has been learned is seldom lost, while new techniques are constantly developed. Of course we get better. Of course older stories don’t stand up so well by modern standards. We don’t expect a Victorian terrace to be as warm as a modern house, or a biplane to fly as fast as a stealth bomber. Why would we expect creative technique to stand still?
I still love that the world contains Star Wars and Over Sea, Under Stone. I love that they shaped my tastes. But would I recommend them to anyone who’s now the age I was when I first found them? Probably not. The world has moved on. There are better options now, options that only exist because these came first.
When I was six years old, Dad took me to the cinema for the first time. They were showing a triple bill of the original Star Wars trilogy. It was one of the most amazing moments of my young life.
By the standards of its day, Star Wars was incredible. The effects, the world building, the grand storytelling. To a six-year-old staring at the big screen for the first time that impact was magnified a hundred times over. Entire planets hung suspended before me in the darkness of space. Exciting characters and strange creatures battled for the fate of the universe. Explosions filled my entire vision. There were sword fights and gun fights and dogfights and Han Solo being immensely cool. I was too young to sit through six solid hours of it, and so Dad missed his chance to watch Return of the Jedi in the cinema, but still, my tiny mind was blown.
Thirty years later, I went back to the cinema with Dad to see The Force Awakens. As a Star Wars fan, the journey to that point had been a bumpy one. There were awesome action figures, and then there were broken action figures. There were those first exhilarating extended universe novels, with all the promise they held for more of what I loved, then some less inspiring novels, then deciding I’d grown out of tie-in novels because I was eighteen and wanted to read ‘proper fiction’. There were the remastered films, which brought back the spectacle of Star Wars on the big screen, but with inconsistent visuals and scenes that were better off cut out. There were the prequels, which were their own strange mix of excitement and bitter disappointment.
So here I was again, with Dad, sitting in the cinema as the trailers ended and the credits rolled. I could feel my heart beating in my chest as John Williams’ amazing score sounded against a backdrop of stars and the introductory text scrolled up the screen. I waited tensely to see what this would be – an Empire Strikes Back or a Phantom Menace.
I’ve read some wildly varying reviews of The Force Awakens. For some people, it’s what they were after, a fun space romp. For others, it’s Hollywood treading water in bloated style. I understand the different perspectives. I think there’s something valid in all of them. It’s a matter of taste and of priorities – what you think is important in a film. And having re-watched the original films before seeing this one, there’s a lot about them that hasn’t aged well. I long ago accepted that my childhood fixation is not as perfect as I remember it being when I was six.
But for me, The Force Awakens was a perfect experience. It was everything I loved about the original trilogy, combined with 40 years of progress in blockbuster film-making. The action was spectacular. The characters were splendid. The visuals were jaw-dropping. Han Solo was still cool. There are plenty of flaws, but I was drawn along despite them. For the whole length of the film, I was caught up in a wave of sheer childlike excitement. It was as amazing as I remember the original trilogy being, not just as good as they actually are. This is what Star Wars means to me – it means recapturing the innocence and imagination I once had. The Force Awakens did just that.
And once again, my Dad loved it too. He didn’t even miss out on part of the fun because I was fidgeting.
Fandom is weird. I say that with all due love, and in the certainty that I am part of that weirdness. But fandom is weird.
Take Wedge Antilles, an x-wing pilot from the Star Wars films. Just in typing that sentence I’ve divided responses to this paragraph in half – between those nodding sagely and thinking, ‘ah, good old Wedge’, and those who suspect I made that name up.
Wedge appears in a minor role in all three films of the original Star Wars trilogy. He has a name, appearances in several scenes, and even a couple of lines of dialogue. But if you’re anything other than a dedicated Star Wars fan, you probably mistook him for a series of unconnected extras. His role in the films is to personify the phrase ‘third fighter pilot from the left’.
Why? Why does anybody care about third pilot from the left? It’s not like Boba Fett, an equal minor character whose popularity surely resides in his awesome outfit and having the label of greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy.
I have a few theories:
Wedge personifies the everyman, and there’s something emotionally appealing about low key, unrecognised heroes, the unnamed soldiers.
Because we don’t know much about him, we get to imagine that he’s like us, more easily so than a fully rounded character like Han Solo.
Knowing who he is, and discussing him, is a bonding experience that lets fans of the series connect with each other, like the mating call of some lightsaber wielding songbird.
Knowing obscure characters and details lets people feel superior in their level of commitment to their fandom, for whatever that’s worth – it’s a status symbol.
Everybody loves a sailor. Flying spaceships is the sailing of space.
Maybe Wedge does all these things and more. Probably it depends on the fan considering him.
What do you think? If you’re a Star Wars fan, what do you think of Wedge, and why? If not, can you think of similar characters in other stories? Share your thoughts below.
Thinking about Redwall also reminded me of its prequel, Mossflower. I enjoyed Mossflower. It had many of the things that I’d loved in the first book – animals with funny accents, fantasy action, delicious sounding food.
But somehow it didn’t feel quite right. The legend of Martin the Warrior loomed so large over Redwall that reading about his adventures couldn’t live up to the vague but exciting image I had in my mind. It’s part of the problem with the Star Wars prequels too – they could never live up to the things us fans had imagined over the years.
Are prequels always doomed to disappoint? Given the pictures we all paint in our minds about what’s come before will they always leave most of the audience disatisfied, no matter how hard the author tries?
I don’t know for sure. I can’t think of enough prequels that I’ve read or watched to draw a firm conclusion. But as logic goes it feels right.
What do you think? Can you point me at some good or bad prequels? Or do you feel the same about sequels too?
It’s easy to make characters’ self-perceptions accurate. It’s simpler for the writer, and for the reader, though it’s probably less satisfying for both. But a couple of things I’ve stumbled across this morning gave me interesting ways to break this pattern.
For real human beings, accurate self-perception is hard. I have a wobbly grasp of my own abilities at the best of times. I thought I was good at painting until I made a blobby mess of our bannisters yesterday, while my career trajectory has been marked a lack of belief in my own aims. Insight is hard work, and we often don’t even know we need to do that work.
When writing characters, on the other hand, it’s self-deception that’s tricky. You as the writer have a clear idea of who this person is, and you want to get that onto the page. One of your mechanisms to achieve this is through their self-perceptions, so it’s natural to default to making them accurate. If you’ve got more than one point of view, or an outspoken companion, you can slip in a different perception of the character, but that’s likely to be about emphasis or style rather than capability.
For example, I’m currently writing a story with two central characters. One is a grizzled veteran who likes to get physical, the other a city girl who prefers sophistication and manipulation. She thinks he’s a dullard, but his ability to fight has never been called into question. The things that she challenges him on, like his ability to navigate the city, are the areas where he’s actually weak. By my standards, I was challenging myself writing these two characters. But in terms of self-perceptions, I’ve taken an easy route.
So what’s made me think about this differently?
Han Solo, bigger hero than he thinks
First, have I read this article on Han Solo, especially the last point – that Han isn’t actually confident in his skills as a captain and pilot. It might seem counter-intuitive, given his attitude in the Star Wars films, but it made sense to me. He’s not so confident in his skills, so he over-compensates by bragging. But the truth shows in his actions. He’s like some people who aren’t confident in their social skills, but try to cover for it by being really loud and brash when they’re on show.
Except those guys don’t hang out with a wookie.
Just world fallacy – I totally deserve it
Then there’s the just world fallacy, as explained in this vlogbrothers video:
People want to believe in a just world, so they believe that they’ve earned what they’ve got, even if the evidence doesn’t support this. Remind you of any politicians you’ve heard? What, most of them? I agree.
We do see this one played out in villains sometimes, where they truly believe that they deserve the riches and power they’re trying to haul in. But we also see a lot of villains who don’t buy into their own status, who justify it through ideals or just giving in to villainy – as Keanu Reeves put it during his screen foray into Shakespeare, ‘at least I am a plain speaking villain, dude’ (alright, the ‘dude’ may have been unspoken, but it’s there in his voice). Maybe this is an aspect of psychology we could play with more.
In conclusion, ignore me
What’s the point of all this? Well, mostly to gather these thoughts in one place for my future reference. What can I say, I write these posts, sometimes they’re for me.
But beyond that, if you’re writing, maybe have a go at using the just world fallacy, or someone more skilled than they are confident. And if you’re reading – which you are, you’ve just read these words, this sentence was a trap! – let me know what you think about this. Can you think of similar aspects of psychology to use in stories? Of other examples of this in books and films? Then comment below.
And thanks to occasional commenter Jon Taylor for putting me onto that video.