The exotic and the familiar (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

Throughout the 1970s, the ‘New Hollywood’ had been establishing itself. Heroes and villains, Westerns and war movies, were out of fashion. The critics’ new darlings were men like Coppola and De Palma, who pointed their cameras at the mundane and the sordid. The good characters in the new films were ineffectual; the effectual characters, as a general thing, were unselfconsciously evil. This refusal to engage ethical reality was called ‘moral ambiguity’, and praised; the tight focus on a narrow and unrepresentative segment of modern city life was called ‘realism’, and praised more strongly still.

So far as the film business was concerned, fantasy, like animation, was banished to the realm of children’s movies. Such things were considered beneath a grown-up audience, and Hollywood as a whole was trying to be very grown-up indeed. One or two cracked auteurs tried to make animated fantasies for adults, and succeeded in making cult films for stoners and adolescents.

The leading director in this strange movement was Ralph Bakshi, a graduate of Terrytoons, the knacker’s yard of animation studios. Bakshi made his name with an adaptation of Fritz the Cat, which had all the ‘moral ambiguity’ and ‘realism’ of any good 1970s film, except that the characters (all properly cool and urban) were depicted as talking animals. In the spring of 1977, Bakshi released his own magnum opus: a strange little movie, part drug trip, part twee morality tale, about the resurgence of Evil Technology in a post-apocalyptic fairyland. The protagonist was a hairball in a pointy hat who smoked cigars with his toes; the love interest was a bimbo fairy with porn-star curves and protruding nipples. Several scenes are delivered in the form of chalk drawings with voiceover by a dreary hippie-chick narrator: Bakshi had not enough money to finish the animation. The second half of the movie is filled with nightmare images made by rotoscoping black shadows over old war movies and Nazi propaganda reels – another money-saving device.

The film was called Wizards. It was hailed by the critics as an animated cartoon for grown-ups, and promptly bombed. Within a fortnight of its release, hundreds of cinemas were yanking it off their screens and searching desperately for a replacement that would fill their empty seats.

Unlike fantasy, science fiction was considered hip and intellectual enough to fall within the purview of the New Hollywood – as long as it confined itself to dreary post-apocalyptic morality plays that required little in the way of special effects. The age of Harryhausen was over; monster movies had been banished to the Late Late Show. In the New Hollywood, science fiction meant Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, Zardoz and Rollerball. These movies tended to follow a reliable formula. Humanity, being evil and stupid, destroyed itself and ruined the earth; the few survivors lived in dreary dystopias full of unnecessary suffering, with enough joyless sex and mindless violence to hold the attention of a marginally profitable audience. Science fiction critics (this was the heyday of the ‘New Wave’) praised these films to the skies, as mainstream critics praised The Godfather or Midnight Cowboy. The movie-going public remained serenely indifferent.

One of the dystopian films was THX-1138, by a very green young director named George Lucas. It was regarded as an interesting failure; Lucas himself, as a less talented version of his friend Coppola. He abandoned SF to make a nostalgic film about the car-mad California of his teenaged years: American Graffiti. It was not cool or trendy, ‘realistic’ or ‘ambiguous’ or even urban; therefore it was a massive hit. Lucas found himself with the money and clout to make anything he wanted; and what he really wanted was to make a film that combined nostalgia with science fiction. He wanted to remake Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon as a big-budget ‘A’ film with modern effects and modern production values; but he could not get the rights to those properties. So he did the next best thing: he plagiarized them, and borrowed a plot from Japan, and made an SF film that evoked the adventure serials of the thirties and forties. It was a remake of an original that never existed: a movie that created nostalgia for itself.

That movie was Star Wars. It was the sleeper hit of 1977: the cuckoo egg laid in the nest so carefully prepared for Bakshi’s abortive triumph. In the movie business, it changed everything. That summer, those hundreds of cinemas that had given up on Wizards were showing Star Wars instead, and making more money than they had ever dreamed possible.

You could say that the nostalgic appeal of Star Wars represents ‘the familiar’ in Aldiss’s formula, and the science-fiction elements ‘the exotic’. But you would need to define your terms carefully, because the elements of the story are not divisible in quite the way you would expect.

We can begin with the Leitmotiv of the movie, the unforgettable line that begins the opening crawl – the line that announces, with perfect confidence, where this story is going to take us:

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

This is a perfect opening line: balanced, poetic, paradoxical. It recreates the form of ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, and does it in a way that adroitly advertises the subject-matter of the story. A long time ago: a classic fairy-tale opening, just sufficiently removed from ‘Once upon a time’ to seem fresh and exciting. In a galaxy far, far away: an opening from the pulp era of science fiction, from the gigantesque imagination of E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith or Edmond ‘World Wrecker’ Hamilton. Nostalgia for the myths of the past; nostalgia for a future that never was. Lucas himself has said that Star Wars is not science fiction at all, but ‘techno-fantasy’; and this is clearly announced in the very first frame of the film.

Here again we have the strange reversal of ‘the familiar’ and ‘the exotic’. To a young viewer in 1977 (myself, for instance), it was science fiction that was the familiar element. We were brought up on Star Trek and 2001 and Planet of the Apes; we had seen the Apollo landings on TV, had played the first commercial video games, and some of us were beginning to play with the first home computers. Life was science fiction, and the future, far more than the present, seemed like our native country. The mainstream culture, for the time being, still belonged to jocks and businessmen; but we already knew that the geek would inherit the earth.

For us, ‘the exotic’ was precisely the intrusion of fantasy into this technological wonderworld, naked and unabashed. Like us, the denizens of Star Wars lived in a world of (often frightening) technical marvels, but the permanent and transcendent things were once more intruding into their lives. The military men of the Empire were delighted with their new toy, the Death Star; but Darth Vader was not impressed. ‘Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed,’ he told them. ‘The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.’

The Force was exotic; the Force was otherworldly – was alien even to the creatures that inhabited this superficially alien world. We loved the Millennium Falcon at first sight, as we loved the souped-up deuce coupe in American Graffiti, and for the same reasons. It represented the familiarity of technology; the tameness of machines grown old. But the Force did not grow tame. If a man could use the Force for his purposes, so could the Force use the man; could turn him to light, like Obi-wan Kenobi, or darkness, like Darth Vader. And as Luke Skywalker proved in the climax, it could even offset the world-wrecking power of the Death Star.

At bottom, I suppose, ‘the Force’ is a manifestation of the old adolescent wish for infinite power, in a democratized form. It seems odd to talk about infinite power as a democratic thing; but it is true to the emotional experience. A child wants to be the centre of the universe. An adolescent knows, or is beginning to know, that he is not that special; that the universe was not built around him. In the older style of fairy tales, it is the One True King who can remove the sword from the stone; the One True Prince who can break the enchantment and wake the princess with a kiss. The Force gives us a free ride to destiny.

So far as we knew at the time, Luke was not anybody in particular; there was no hint that the Jedi were a super-powered hereditary élite. Luke was an Everyman, a Jack the Giant-Killer, and we could imagine the Force doing as much for us as it did for him. At the same time, in our fantasies, the Force did that only for us – certainly not for the dull grown-ups and mundanes around us. Han Solo was a dashing rogue and a wizard at keeping old spaceships in repair, but he would never learn to use the Force. That was reserved to the special ones – that is, to all the millions of us in the audience. But we never stopped to think what it would be like if every kid in the cinema had the powers of a Jedi Knight. We were never meant to.

Since the day that Star Wars was released, dull-minded critics have complained about the badness of the science, the impossibility of the technology. All such complaints miss the mark. They would matter in science fiction; but Star Wars is not science fiction. It is fantasy that happens to include spaceships and robots. Because science fiction was a recognized category in the film business and fantasy was not, it was sold as science fiction; and it helped science fiction and fantasy become inextricably muddled in the collective mind of Hollywood.

All this, of course, leaked back into the world of literature; or flooded in. Del Rey Books published Alan Dean Foster’s ghostwritten novelization of Star Wars, and his non-canonical sequel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (since consigned to the memory hole). They already held the rights to The Lord of the Rings, and published the Thomas Covenant books. They had, through no merit of their own, cornered the market on three big combinations of ‘the familiar’ and ‘the exotic’: the story about the good magic of nature and the evil magic of the super-weapon; the one about a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away; the one about the unbeliever and the leper. The third of these, so expressed, seems rather small and unsatisfactory alongside the other two; and it is true that Covenant has remained a specialized taste, not very accessible to the bulk of fantasy fans, not much imitated by other writers. But it showed that the formula could be commercially successful even without the shock-appeal of novelty. Big Fantasy did not have to be sui generis; it could be replicated.

And it was replicated, to the point of ennui and beyond. All through the next decade and change, SF publishers cranked out trilogies and tetralogies and as-many-as-we-can-sell-ogies, all cashing in on the form, if not the formula, of The Lord of the Rings, and selling largely to the market that had devoured Star Wars. The process culminated in the early nineties, when Tor Books, with cynicism and malice aforethought, commissioned Robert Jordan to write a mash-up of all the ologies, a shameless recycling of Tolkien and Frank Herbert and whatever else he could lay hands upon – The Wheel of Time. That gigantic series sucked the oxygen out of the room, and there was less space for Big Fantasies thereafter; until the literary version of the ‘New Hollywood’ people retooled and began cranking out ‘gritty’ and ‘grimdark’ and nihilistic anti-fantasies. That fashion is with us still, but there are beginning to be signs that it has reached its sell-by date.

By the middle of the 1990s, the fantasy field, thanks largely to the tunnel vision of publishers, was in a state of apparently hopeless stagnation.

Then came a Scottish welfare mother, with a series of children’s books that stubbornly refused to confine themselves to an audience of children.

(Continued in Part 3….)


  1. Well, some writers tried to move away from both sci-fi and fantasy with the so-called weird fiction style, which can be a lot of fun, yet also feel forced. Worse, chasing extreme originality for the sake of it is hard, and fatigue quickly sets in — for both reader and writer, one suspects. Then again, one also needs caution when blending more conventional genres, not because it’s difficult to pull off — on the contrary! — but because any remotely high-tech element tends to have a story pigeonholed as sci-fi, and all the elves, vampires or magical spells in it won’t help at all. (As personal experience taught me quite well.)

    But all that is somewhat off-topic. Can’t wait to learn what you think of the current fashion for young-adult urban fantasy.

  2. It’s interesting to note that fantasy has been advancing in technology recently. Steampunk, I think, really got it started.

    I’ve been able to put stories through medieval-ish through Victorian-ish, and even one in modern times. Though it does raise interesting questions about magic and science and magi-tech and making it all work together. Do your wizards use magic to get to the tops of their towers, or do they have elevators?

    (I was noticing it in the stories for Journeys And Wizardry, just out.

    • How ironic that steampunk is largely associated with fantasy nowadays, considering it was codified and made popular by a pair of cyberpunk authors. As for how it’s been used to advance the tech level of fantasy, I can think of several reasons: the novelty element, and an increased awareness that technology isn’t some encroaching evil — as Tolkien made it to be at the end of LOTR — but something that can make our lives vastly better if used properly. Moreover, an increasing amount of fantasy in recent times has been moving from the stuff of fairy tales towards paranormal themes, and those just so happen to fit much better stylistically with gaslit cities than quasi-medieval burgs. Mostly for historical reasons, mind you.

      To answer your question, it all depends how you make magic work in the setting. Is the whole point that it competes with science and engineering, or does it have complementary strengths and weaknesses? Since magic is imaginary by definition, it all depends on what story you’re trying to tell…

      • Well, there has been a thread of contemporary magic throughout the history of fantasy. Consider Heinlein’s Magic, Inc. and Anderson’s Operation Chaos where you have magitech.

        • Randall Garrett’s series of Lord Darcy detective stories — set in “modern” (circa 1960) times — with a slightly delayed magical technology more similar to Queen Victoria’s times than Lyndon Johnson’s — blend a number of tropes.

          I would be highly interested to see the Darcy universe updated by half-a-century and the Lord’s grandchild take on a protagonist’s role.

          (now that the idea has entered my head, I ought to go to “Archive of Our Own” and search for whatever fan-fic of these characters exists…)


  1. […] a work of Art balances them both, perfectly: think the Shades of Gray phenomenon, George Lucas’s Star Wars, or the Harry Potter series. Sometimes the Art precisely pings the Zeitgeist, and the audience just won’t let the industry […]

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