The Uncanny Galaxy

Star Wars is different and special, and all because of the very first line.

published: December 18, 2015 - last updated: February 26, 2019

Tonight I saw Star Wars VII. For years I've sworn I'd stay away, that I wouldn't give the evil Disney Empire a further dime of my money. And I meant it the whole time.

But, as the excitement swelled I just couldn't stay away. Star Wars is special to me. Star Wars has throughout my life given me the deepest feelings of wonder, of excitement and motivation and desire. I couldn't turn down an opportunity to feel that way again. I craved that feeling so deeply I didn't care what miserly hand was offering it to me.

I think it's very important to point out that the new movie didn't really make me feel that way again, but it's still Star Wars, and it's still got that special something.

But all of this got me thinking.

§ Why Star Wars?

Everyone's always yapping about how Star Wars is an homage remix, equal parts Samurai Movie, Western, War Movie, Robin Hood, Buck Rogers. Everyone's always saying it updated the Hero's Journey, and brought flashy special effects and warm-hearted optimism back to a cynical country.

But is it just a cultural accident that we love it so much? I don't think so, since I saw it as a child in the 90's and had no concept of a cynical country. Was it just the first big effects thriller? No, because it hit me the same despite much more amazing movies existing right alongside it, and it keeps hitting generations of people that way, no matter how advanced our effects get. Was it just the mish-mash of good story elements being combined into one? No, because people do homage remixes all the time, and they haven't pulled it off.

So why does it make me feel that way? Why isn't some other story at the pinnacle of my adoration? Why hasn't some other fictional universe stolen my heart like Star Wars has? Why hasn't someone been able to replace it with something we love even more? Why didn't all of the original myths and Hero's Journeys make it unnecessary? Why aren't we all freaking out about Star Trek the Movie? Or King Arthur? Or Harry Potter? Or Aragon or Avatar the Last Airbender? Why Star Wars so specifically?

Because Star Wars accidentally avoided hundreds of Uncanny Valleys that we didn't even know existed, and it did it with one crucial line:

§ A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

For those of you who I still have to explain this to, the Uncanny Valley is when something is incredibly close to perfectly realistic, but just barely off in a tiny and almost imperceptible way that is nonetheless incredibly important (opens new window). It's why humanoid robots or computer renderings often look creepy or wrong. The Uncanny Valley is almost always a feeling you get, one that if you were asked to explain it you'd just shrug and say "I don't know, it just seems off."

So now think about stories. Think of a story that was set in a completely different reality than ours. Probably the first things that jump to mind are fantasy stories. Lord of the Rings, Avatar the Last Airbender, Fairy Tales, etc. Notice how all of those are set in the past in some way? Now think of the stories you know that are in the future. Firefly, The Matrix, Minority Report, Mass Effect. Notice how those are all set in our future?

But can you think of any stories set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away? No you can't. Stories have happened in a land far, far away, or many years in the future, or many years in the past, but none has ever been simultaneously in the future and in the past and in a land so far away it isn't even in our galaxy. And it isn't just the presence of that one line, but the way that the spirit of that line is adhered to throughout the entire work.

Fantasy stories are almost always set in worlds that don't exist, but they're almost always curiously similar to our medieval history. They're basically just our world except in the past. They're only unfamiliar to us because of the names and races and occasionally the magic. Everything else about it is just old-timey. And as an added shackle, unless magic is sufficiently understood that it inherently changes these societies and economies (it pretty much never is since that basically morphs the story into sci-fi), people still have to walk or ride horses everywhere, so that sense of wide open adventure and exploration and excitement is cut off at the knees by the imperiously slow story pace.

Futuristic stories are almost always set in our future. Sci-fi has always really been about our relationship with science. It's equal parts story and societal projection, a cultural mental exercise in trying to see where we're going and how we feel about it. But that means that these places are therefore still very familiar, they're still our world. Firefly constantly reminds us that we're slowly destroying Earth. The Matrix constantly reminds us that our technology is increasingly supplanting us. Minority Report constantly reminds us that our privacy and ability to resist social engineering is rapidly diminishing.

And then of course there's all the other stories, all explicitly about history or hypothetical history or the present.

The point is, all of our fiction has always fallen into the same trap: we're expected to emotionally believe and invest in these fictional places, but they're familiar enough to us that we can discern all of their flaws. They were created out of thin air specifically to act as an escape from reality, but they're close enough to reality that our minds are constantly being reminded about it.

§ Star Wars avoided that for the first time ever.

Star Wars is the first story that avoided the Uncanny Valley of fiction. Everything you include in a story that the audience recognizes they'll compare to what they already know. If the audience knows a story is set in a version of their own reality, they'll immediately begin to compare the two, and for the purposes of most stories, that's inherently counterproductive. Any and every element you include that is familiar to the audience must feel both correct, and good. This is the crucial difference between all of fiction and Star Wars. Since we feel those other stories are in some ways connected to our own reality, we subconsciously compare the two and ruin the illusion. Star Trek and Mass Effect and 2001 A Space Odyssey and Ender's Game are all still our story, and so the minutiae and boredom and hopelessness and irritation of real life can't help but creep into our experience. But Star Wars goes out of it's way at the very beginning to reach into your brain and snip that connection in the most unequivocal way possible. Not your time, not even your galaxy, not your world.

It is a reality completely separate from ours, but with threads tying it back to ours in only the ways that matter, the ways that we truly crave. The characters we follow are human, or have very human qualities. The rules of physics as we've come to understand them play out in an intuitive way, but science has broken many of the chains that still hold us back. God exists, but he doesn't have a face we recognize or any of the prophets we've grown so tired of, so our sense of spirituality is confirmed and held aloft in a way even the most angry atheist can feel warm about. Our desire to believe we are all tied together and have a cosmic purpose and place is given a strong foundation of proof to stand on, but in a way that can't be completely unraveled. Magic exists, but we don't have to deal with any rune books or crystals or incantations. God and his spirit are present, the oneness of nature is present, the brilliance and promise of science is present, the craving for purpose and adventure and daring and exploration, but we dispense with the priests or hippies or haughty professors or chuckling swordsmen that have traditionally delivered those things.

Star Wars is a story that allows angels and demons to battle without the specters of purse-lipped nuns or honor killings or teenage celibacy. It allows nature to be a literally holy and unified place at one with our spirits without Cheech and Chong or inane yoga class slogans hovering to mind. It allows science to reach to new heights and stretch our reach across the universe without sweaty engineers and algebra classes and irritating software patches.

It gives us everything we instinctively want, but in a way that completely divorces those desires from their messy real-world counterparts. It takes everything that's good about fiction, and removes all the ruining traces of reality.

It has the calm, "old as the hills" feeling of fantasy settings because it's lived in and shabby. People talk like the galaxy is vast and unknown, and everyone actually walks and talks to each other in a curiously old-fashioned way that feels right. No one ever bothers to explain how any of the technology works, so the science in Star Wars feels like it was figured out hundreds of years ago. It feels like the firm and reliable technology of the plow and the iron-smith, things that have always worked and only change in the details of the craftsman. It doesn't feel like a dizzyingly escalating slope constantly causing chaos and confusion and change like in our reality.

Everything is completely different, but feels familiar. Feels right.

Can you think of any other story that was both more advanced than our reality, but also deliberately severed from it? Can you think of one that melds both the future and the past in a way that satisfies all our desires of both? Can you think of a story that gives progress vs tradition, science vs faith, nature vs technology, to all have a godlike manifestation of their values?

No you can't, and that's why Star Wars is more than fiction, it's truly fantasy.

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