The meme has been going around pretty much since Star Wars first came out in 1977: Star Wars wrecked science fiction. George Lucas' extravagant space opera messed up a genre that was fumbling towards grown-up sophistication. This idea made a bit of a come-back with the Force Awakens teaser, and it's time to kill it.
Last week, I saw a piece by CNN's Lewis Beale floating around, advancing this notion. (The piece was first written in May, but got republished everywhere after the teaser trailer became a huge story.) Writes Beale, "Star Wars has corrupted people's notion of a literary genre full of ideas, turning it into a Saturday afternoon serial. And that's more than a shame — it's an obscenity."
It's true that pre-Star Wars, science fiction was in an experimental phase that included a lot of great stuff. The New Wave gave us some brilliant novels by Le Guin, Moorcock and Delany. The decade before 1977 included some challenging, cerebral films like 2001, Silent Running and Solaris. Movies, and to a lesser extent other media, turned more adventure-oriented after Star Wars hit.
But there are a few major obvious problems with blaming Star Wars for cheapening the genre. First, you have to argue a counter-factual that's impossible to prove: you have to believe that the New Wave would have gone on forever, books would have stayed weird and personal and experimental into the Reagan era. And that some other project wouldn't have jumpstarted our interest in big-budget VFX spectaculars.
Which leads to the second logical hole in the "blame Star Wars" argument — it ignores that improvements in VFX were probably inevitable. When Star Wars came out, computer effects were still barely in their infancy, but they were bound to rise to prominance. And improvements in practical effects were also probably bound to happen around that time, as technology and the craft both improved.
There's also the notion that science fiction books stopped being thought-provoking or challenging in the late 1970s, which I've seen raised over and over — and which ignores things like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Ender's Game, Neuromancer and the works of Octavia Butler.
Meanwhile, if we're being honest, there were perhaps one or two really notable "brainy" science fiction films per year before 1977. And after 1977? There were perhaps one or two really notable "brainy" science fiction films per year — it's just that they were just surrounded by a lot more big-budget splodefests.
Finally, it's worth noting that the "Star Wars ruined science fiction" meme comes from the same place as the notion that "science fiction has gone too mainstream." Because people love to believe that a more insular version of science fiction is somehow purer or smarter than a version with more money, popularity and cultural resonance. And yet, even if you hate Star Wars, you'd have to admit that its rise to popularity actually helped open the door for a lot of great and fascinating stuff, from Enemy Mine to Firefly to the rise of thoughtful, challenging military science fiction.
Star Wars stands as a turning point in the history of pop culture, not just science fiction — but at this point, two or three generations have grown up with its thundering hero-chords in their ears, and it's hard to imagine science fiction without it.