Speed, immensity, dreaming

“George Lucas, according to his biographer, Dale Pollock, wanted to recapature the romance of space that had been kindled in him by early NASA missions, and “Star Wars,” too, follows the rules that Asimov helped set down. But “Star Wars” and the “Foundation” stories, despite the many things, that they share, have fundamental differences: “Star Wars” is about speed, faith, and fairy tales, and the “Foundation” is about size, science, and history. The differences are profound. I remember as a twelve-year-old already steeped in Asimov (and Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, and the rest of them) being terribly disappointed by “Star Wars”; it seemed to lack any feeling for the things that made science fiction so important to me.

“I am mellower now, and can see that Asimov and Lucas were striving for different effects in different media. “Star Wars” is an essay in acceleration. Its iconic moment is the jump into hyperspace, the stars themselves accelerated to a vanishing-point blur. In all three original “Star Wars” films, it is the speed sequences that stick in the mind- the final assault on the Death Star, the ice skimmers attacking the great walking AT-AT tanks. While speed is not intrinsic to filmed science fiction (Stanley Kubrick delighted in the apparent slowness of his spacecraft in “2001”), it seems crucial to Lucas. His films before “Star Wars”–“THX 1138” and “American Graffiti”—reach a climax with cars moving at high speeds.  According to Pollock, Lucas’s key direction about almost everything was “faster and more intense.” The new “Star Wars” film, “Episode 1: The Phantom Menace,” has a set-piece drag race.”

“Written science fiction prefers size to speed. There is an authentic thrill in imagining big things – an odd sort of purity. The  French writer Gaston Bachelard, in “The Poetics of Space,” caught it beautifully: “Immensity is a philosophical category of day-dream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.” That mark is one that written science fiction endlessy aspires to. It delights in artificial vastness; not just galactic empires but vast structures built out of the raw stuff of space and time, cities and nations uprooted and floating free, cyberspaces that offer infinitv inside a microprocessor.

“The printed word is much better at conveying this sense of immensity than film is. We have to be told, for example, that the Death Star is vast, because usually it looks no bigger than a beachball. The battle station’s interior offers – no vastness at all; its exterior is simply a backdrop against which to measure the speed of smaller spaceships. The “Foundation” series, on the other hand, clearly bears Bachelards mark of infinity. It’s  true that when Asimov tried for size that could be measured or enumerated he could let himself down. Numerically, his twenty-five-million world Empire, covers less than a tenth of a per cent of the galaxy’s hundred billion suns; Trantor, presented as a single city covering a world, is less crowded than Bangladesh. But such slips do not really matter. The sense of scale that drives the “Foundation” series resides in its ideas. The Empire is not just a set of places and planets: it is humanity’s sum total, a great entity that only history can describe and only science can contain.”

Oliver Morton, “In Pursuit of Infinity”. The New Yorker, May 17, 1999. p 87

Image: Azerbaijan Death Star Hotel

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