Sunday, December 2, 2012

Star Wars and History Review

No, this blog isn't quite dead. I've just been busy. However, I recently read the Star Wars and History book and quite enjoyed it. It was an important book for me as it was the first book in a long time to come close to what I'd like to do in the Chancellor's Suite, namely to take the history and politics seriously at an intellectual level. In my review, I point out a few ways in which I think the analysis could have gone even deeper, but overall I liked it. Without further ado, here's the review:

I eagerly awaited this book, being both a Star Wars fan and a scholar of politics. I've always felt there was a lot of potential for scholarship about the historical/political influences on Star Wars. Upon reading the book, I find myself coming away with mixed feelings.


I suspect the book was aimed towards younger audiences or readers with only a passing familiarity with history. In some ways, this book is a great way to encourage wider interest in history. The authors universally convey their passion for history and placing Star Wars side by side with real history shows how exciting reality can be. If George Lucas wants to encourage education, I think this book will go a long way.

One thing I really appreciate about the book is that the authors are clearly fans of the Star Wars movies. The refer to characters, events, and aliens with ease and no hint of a patronizing tone. There's no attempt to explain the basics of Star Wars to readers. Some authors even refer to characters from the EU and the Clone Wars TV series, such as Ashoka Tano. At the least, the book doesn't waste time or space introducing the saga.

The book is organized by topic, not by chronology or Star Wars movies. So authors write about insurgencies, cities, corporations, etc. Organizing the material this way allows for more focused comparisons between Star Wars and history.


Where I felt the book fell short was in analyzing those historical influences and whether and how they influenced Star Wars. There are three strains of analysis that would have made the book more interesting.

First, most of the authors seem satisfied simply showing a correlation between history and Star Wars. In other words, there was an insurgency in Vietnam and an insurgency in the Original Trilogy, this is how insurgencies work, and presto! The authors generally don't take the next step and analyze the differences between how political phenomena are portrayed in Star Wars as opposed to the real world. Does Star Wars get it right? What do those differences mean?

Second, there's relatively little discussion of whether and when history actually influenced Lucas' scripts for Star Wars. Some authors mention the obvious cases, such as Lucas drawing on the model of the Viet Cong for the Ewoks, but by and large the authors don't actually try to make a case that these historical events actually helped shape the Star Wars saga. For that, check out [[ASIN:0978465237 The Secret History of Star Wars]].

Finally, I think the authors should have challenged common moralistic or overly simplistic interpretations of history. Fortunately, the history isn't "dumbed down", but in some chapters there is little discussion of alternative interpretations of historical motives. For example, the author writing about insurgencies claims that insurgents fight because they believe in their cause and have moral claims. However, the flies in the face of much of the political science literature. Incorporating a bit of this debate might have thrown an interesting light on the Rebellion for instance.


Here is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book:

1) Rebellions

The chapter draws some neat parallels between the Rebel alliance and resistance movements in history. However, this is the chapter I think would have benefitted most from more discussion of alternative perspectives on Rebellion. A big remaining question I have is whether the Star Wars Rebellion's tactics are realistic. We never see the Rebels attack non-military targets, such as power generators, railroads, etc (even in the EU, the targets are almost always military). Is the Star Wars Rebellion sanitized?

2) Femme Fatales

This is a fun chapter about women in resistance movements. Definitely for fans of Leia or Padme.

3) Monastic Warriors

This chapter provides interesting historical analogues for the Jedi. The comparisons between the Knights Templar and Jedi were eerie. However, there's no indication as to whether Lucas actually modeled the Jedi after the Knights Templar.

4) Civil War

I felt like some of the comparisons in this chapter were a stretch. That's not all the author's fault - the politics behind the Clone Wars are pretty murky. However, it was fun to see Dooku compared to John C. Calhoun.

5) Dictatorship

This is probably the central chapter, just as the rise and fall of the Emperor is central to the Star Wars saga. The chapter does a pretty good job drawing the now familiar connections between the Roman Emperors, Hitler, and Palpatine. Other authors have covered similar ground, but this chapter is great for those unfamiliar with the comparisons.

6) Queens

Padme's role as queen in the movies was pretty short. We see her mostly as a fighter in Episode I and a Senator thereafter. However, this chapter was fun because of the variety of anecdotes about powerful female rulers. I really like to comparison between Cleopatra and Padme as teen queens. No seduction of course, but other than that there are some striking parallels.

7) Tyranny

I like that this chapter tries to asses whether the depiction of tyranny in Star Wars rings true to life. It also notes some political features not present in the Galaxy, such as patriotism.

8) Military Technology

For readers too young to remember Reagan's "Star Wars" program in the 1980s, this chapter will probably be the most shocking. There's a good recap of how Star Wars influenced the terms of the Cold War.

9) Slavery

Of all the chapters, this is the one that problem raises the most moral questions about the Star Wars universe by highlighting not only slavery but also bondage. However, I thought some of the moral arguments (such as Luke Skywalker being in bondage to his uncle in ANH) went a bit far.

10) Corporations

I was wary of this chapter (I feared it might simply be an anti-corporate screed), but it turned out to be my favorite of the entire book. The chapter draws fascinating parallels between the Trade Federation and the Dutch and British East India Companies during the height of colonialism. While many viewers could never accept the idea that Episode I's main villain was a company, this chapter shows exactly how some companies combined military and political might to conquer territories. It actually increased my appreciation for TPM and made me appreciate Lucas' decision all the more. Of course, there's no evidence Lucas actually drew inspiration from this period of history, but the parallels are so striking I'd be he did.

11) Cities

This chapter seemed a bit out of place for a book about the historic parallels to Star Wars. Much of it focused on comparing London and New York with Coruscant as a metropole, but we frankly don't ever learn enough about Coruscant to assess its urban management problems. From the movies at least, we don't really know if Coruscant suffers from pollution, epidemics, etc. In the EU novels there are suggestions of a vast, slimy underworld, but this chapter doesn't go into the EU depictions as much.

While it didn't go as far as I'd have liked, this book has a lot to offer Star Wars fans who are also interested in history. I could even see this being used as a high school textbook in basic historical/political concepts. As such, I'm glad to see a book about Star Wars and history come out. Fortunately, I also think there's so much more potential for richer analysis - meaning one day I can write my own book about Star Wars and politics!

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking forward to the day you write that book! I chanced upon your blog some time ago when you were just starting it (I read one of your reviews on Jedi Temple Archives), politics in Star Wars being something of a guilty fascination of mine too. I looked forward to your first blogs, including the one on political parties in Star Wars, but I ended up distracted over the months until just now. I'm pleased to see I have some reading to catch up on!

    I have something that might be of interest to you on this broader subject, if you'd like to email me?