Since 1996

May 31, 2002

Star Wonks

I sure talk about Star Wars a lot for someone who has yet to actually see Attack of the Clones. (A lot of people are following LucasArts’s convention of referring to the movies by episode number, but I will resist.)

Much to everyone’s excitement, I have some more background reading about the mythical underpinnings of Star Wars. The first is a bit at Salon enshrining the original Star Wars as a masterpiece.

The second is an essay discussing Star Wars as a myth which is full of interesting ideas (some of which, like his opinion of the Timothy Zahn novels, I disagree with; you also have to look past the excessive use of boldface type). Although the author, Robert Brown, is clearly a fan of the movies, he is clearheaded enough to see and acknowledge their imperfections. Some of these explains with the conceit that Star Wars, like other epic stories, is presented as a rendition of an older story (in this case The Journal of the Whills, much as The Lord of the Rings is allegedly derived from the Red Book of Westmarch). Thus, some inconsistencies can be attributed to the film-making process, rather than the underlying “true” story. (This is also my preferred explanation for why the Klingons look different in the newer Star Trek works.)

Also interesting is Mr Brown’s discussion of why Return of the Jedi is often seen as weaker than the rest of the original trilogy and why it seems to repeat the first movie (which I’ll call A New Hope, so we can distinguish it from the series as a whole). At least some of the problems stem from the fact that, at the time Hope was being made, Mr Lucas did not anticipate that he would be able to make a trilogy, and thus he took events that would otherwise have been left to later episodes, like the destruction of the Death Star, and placed them earlier, to give the movie a sense of closure. Unfortunately, this meant that there was no Death Star around when the time came to make Jedi. Similarly, the much-disliked Ewoks were supposed to be Wookies (note the similarities of names), but Chewbacca’s character evolved differently and a new species of furry forest-dwellers was needed (then, of course, Mr Lucas succumbed to the Dark Side—marketing—and cutified the Hell out of them).

Check it out. I’d begun to grow cynical about the Star Wars phenomenon, and the essay reminded me of some of the reasons why I had enjoyed it to begin with. #.

Perhaps not that new

You may have heard about Stephen Wolfram’s new book A New Kind of Science, which he has recently published after several years of secretive research. You may, like me, have read a few articles about it and not come away with any real idea of what this new science mentioned in the title actually is. I don’t blame the articles for being uninformative; if there’s anything to this, it’s likely to be too complicated or abstract to explain in a general-interest publication—or mostly hype.

It doesn’t help that the explanations in the articles tend to be things that have been well known for a long time, such as the fact that complex phenomena cannot be reduced to equations, or that the repeated application of simple rules can produce patterns of enormous complexity. If all Mr Wolfram is doing is claiming “Equations can’t describe everything!”, then the reaction of scientists is likely to be “We’ve known that for centuries.” But he’s reputed to be a smart guy, so there’s likely to be more depth there.

Fortunately, Ray Kurzweil has written an essay questioning some of Mr Wolfram’s conclusions, and in doing so also explains what some of them are.

I haven’t read the book, yet, so the fact that I agree with most of Mr Kurzweil’s points is somewhat irrelevant. But at least now I feel like I have some idea what it’s about. (via Wesley Felter) #.

Lesbian what?

I suppose I can refer to the events at the end of the recent season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer without spoiling anyone. Specifically, to the death of Tara, one-half of the show’s sanest on-going relationship (which also happened to be between two women). If you prefer not to know about that, you probably shouldn’t read this post. Especially the second sentence of this paragraph… shoot.

The actual details aren’t important here, since I’m not going to discuss the episode itself. An article on Salon about the finale noted that there had been some controversy about killing off such a prominent lesbian character:

Some fans in the lesbian community have asserted that by killing off one-half of the show’s lesbian couple—Tara, the girlfriend of the very mild-mannered, very brainy but also, we now know, very powerful Willow—Whedon destroyed one of the few positive lesbian role models on television. Thus, they argue, it follows that he’s most certainly anti-gay. Other fans have said that every character who gets killed off on the show is either black, gay or a woman (or any combination of the three), which surely marks Whedon as a misogynist and/or a racist.

That’s a difficult claim to counter, actually, although I wouldn’t go so far as to conclude that therefore series creator Joss Whedon is a racist, homophobic misogynist. Whether it’s true depends on whom you consider a “major” character, but this isn’t my subject, either.

Several reader responses note that the anger is not necessarily that Tara died, but that it perpetuates the television cliché that women in lesbian relationships tend to end up dead or evil. The writers on Buffy have expressed awareness of these clichés and apparently promised to avoid them. As one puts it: “[Mr Whedon] has simply lied, and that is the betrayal at the heart of the controversy of Tara’s death.” Several of those writing the letters also point out that they are not themselves lesbians, or even women.

The claim of cliché is also difficult to counter; particularly since several of the complainers admit that the writers probably would have killed off Willow’s significant other no matter the gender. Even if Tara did not die because she was a lesbian, it still reinforces the cliché. But that also is not my subject.

Salon does not always link to articles using their titles as the anchor text. Letters pages, in particular, have fairly non-descript titles and more enticing text in the link. This particular set of letters, which is mostly from people annoyed at being characterized as angry lesbians, is linked with this text: “Letters: Lesbian outrage!”

I realize that running an on-line magazine is difficult, especially if you’re interested in not losing a lot of money. I recognize that injecting some excitement into the front page is an effective way to increase readership. I think “Lesbian outrage!” is a bit much—especially with the exclamation point. Come on, guys, this isn’t some supermarket tabloid. #.