5 Reasons Real Star Wars Fans Should Like the Prequels

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In honor of Star Wars Day (May the 4th be with you!) here’s a Star Wars list.

First of all, I should say that I don’t define what a “real fan” is and I only really speak for myself. But I can say that I have interacted with many dedicated fans over the years–I’ve been to Star Wars Celebration twice, along with a slew of lesser cons–and in my experience the most dedicated fans who have the most genuine affection for the series (e.g. those who save up for a year to travel halfway across the country/world to attend Celebration) rarely do anything but express their devotion to ALL of the films.

In fact, at Celebration VI there was a panel that occurred multiple times throughout the con called “Why We Love the Prequels.” And then there was the sneak preview of Attack of the Clones 3D that drew enough fans to fill the second biggest auditorium for each of a few different showings. Not to mention the lines for prequel actor autographs never lacked warm bodies.

My point is that all of this prequel hate seems to either only exist on the internet or come from a broader category of “casual fan” who just goes with whatever the popular opinion is. I think it’s a little of both, personally.

Which is why I made this list. I don’t love the prequels in general, though there are specific parts I am really fond of. I do, however, like them, and I know I’m not alone in this. Hopefully this helps give a perspective that is grossly underrepresented in today’s online fandom, with article writers eager to cater to populist opinion. Maybe it can even get some of you to stop perpetuating so much hate about an epic saga we all love.

 

1. It’s new Star Wars!

In a more civilized age perhaps I wouldn’t have to go beyond this point. I mean, come on, who wasn’t excited about getting three new feature-length Star Wars films? It meant we no longer were restricted to the hit-or-miss EU books and comics for new Star Wars material. You need look no further than the box office numbers to know that I wasn’t the only one excited enough about all three films to pay to see them, in some cases multiple times.

When Episode I came out, Star Wars had new, official, non-EU canon for the first time in 15 years, and I thought then and still think today that this is awesome. Were they as good as the Original Trilogy? No. Does that mean they are unwatchable garbage? Absolutely not, especially considering you would have to make quite some film trilogy to ever hope to even come close to the originals. Obviously the prequels were never going to be as good, or even come close. Get over it. When you rant and rave about them you tend to sound like a whiny basement-dweller.

2. Political intrigue

That’s right, I’m calling it what it is. Many fans have criticized the prequels (especially Episode I) for the endless boring “trade negotiations” and that sort of thing. What I see is not boring at all but rather engaging political intrigue that adds a whole new layer of realism to the universe, and something that was obviously lacking in the OT.

These films were made for an aging fan base. Adult fans were meant to appreciate tricky diplomacy, two-faced politicians and commentary on corrupt democracy. Was it always expertly done in these films? Maybe not, but it’s a big part of what makes these films enjoyable for me when I watch them as an educated adult.

3. Anakin’s Story

Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker is by far one of the more complex characters in the relatively black-and-white world of the OT. In the three original films we see him go from being a ruthless, evil villain, to wanting to cast down his master and rule the galaxy with his son, to being hopelessly enslaved to Palpatine, to eventually sacrificing himself to save his only son.

As George Lucas’s early notes show, this story was always about Anakin’s corruption and redemption. And while the character may not always be well-acted in the prequels, the rich story told in the films makes his corruption completely believable, and it makes his redemption make a whole lot more sense at the end of Return of the Jedi.

4. Ewan McGregor

This one should be pretty obvious, considering I’ve heard some of the staunchest anti-prequel crowd praise McGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the trilogy. Not only was he completely believable as a younger version of Sir Alec Guiness’s beloved portrayal of the character, he added a totally new dimension to the character that made him an instant fan favorite. In films where the acting and writing were not always top-notch, Ewan shone through and turned Obi-Wan into one of my favorite Star Wars characters ever.

5. Fantasy becomes science fiction

This is probably the most controversial one, but I think it’s also the most important. The Original Trilogy is fantasy. That’s all there is to it. Some will argue, but if you replaced blasters with steam cannons, hyperspace with teleportation, and space ships with space-dwelling domesticated monsters there would be no question. I mean, there’s magic and spirits in it, after all.

As a kid I loved this aspect of the old movies. I loved the simplicity of the Good vs. Evil struggle and the easy-to-grasp archetypal characters. As I have grown, though, I appreciate these bland tropes less and less. Star Wars is certainly an example of well-done fantasy, but I think the saga needed the dose of science and grey realism injected into it via the prequels. Really, the transition to sci-fi started in the 80s, with the EU novels; George Lucas merely followed the example set by the likes of Timothy Zahn and Kevin J. Anderson, even borrowing some of the EU material. I know people don’t like having the Force scientifically explained or seeing the Good vs. Evil struggle downgraded to more of a power-over-weakness one, but for me this shift away from fantasy tropes and toward sci-fi themes makes watching the entire saga a richer experience.

 

So there you have it. I know my reasons for liking the prequels may not be the same as yours, and I know there are still lots of people out there who will think this list is crap. But this is a sincere perspective from a real fan. As you are reading the countless prequel-bashing articles popping up on the Internet today, just remember that it’s okay to like the prequels. The real fans are out there and we are numerous, despite the absurd unevenness of the online forums and pandering articles.

And to those Star Wars fans who continuously  and vulgarly trash the prequels, ask yourselves: Can you really be fans of a film series when you hate half of its films?

Happy Star Wars Day.

Some Thoughts on Hugos and Sad Puppies

hugo_smA little over a month ago, I received an email with my Hugo Awards nomination information and eagerly went to the Sasquan site to start filling out a Hugo nomination ballot for the very first time. Sasquan 2015 will be my first time attending a Worldcon (or World Science Fiction Convention), and one of the things I’ve been looking forward to most is finally having a voice in the voting of one of the world’s most prestigious sci-fi and fantasy awards. I was excited to finally join this community of fans and writers that come together each year to share a common passion for speculative fiction.

But there are dark clouds looming over this year’s gathering.

For those who don’t keep up with SF fandom and Hugo Awards, there has been quite a lot of controversy surrounding this year’s ballot. For the last three years a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies have been trying to organize a bloc vote in order to put more works they feel agree with their own ideologies and their own concepts of what SF should be on the ballot.

And this year they were successful. They were able to mobilize their supporters (many of whom likely don’t care about the awards but acted based on the politics involved), and they were able to get so many of their nominees on the ballot that every short fiction category was swept by Sad Puppies (and the more radical Rabid Puppies) nominees. Nearly every other category on the ballot has Puppies, many being made up mostly of Puppies nominees.

The Puppies movements are politically conservative. That is a fact that they openly admit to and something that I have no doubt allowed them to effectively mobilize their supporters. People on the radical right (as with any political extreme) are often eager to join a cause based solely on the politics and not the subject matter. Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m flinging mud here; I actually think many of the writers and fans involved are perfectly rational, reasonable people. But their argument is flawed–even ridiculous when it comes to the secret clubs and cliques going out of their way to keep non-progressives down. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, so I’ll direct you to this George R. R. Martin blog post, which wonderfully examines and debunks much of the Puppies’ argument. (And yes, GRRM is an avowed liberal.)

Anyway, when you remove the more absurd positions of the Sad Puppies, the only remaining valid argument they have is that there exists a group of conservatives in a field that leans left who want recognition for their work. Since many people denounce some of their beliefs and opinions as racist, sexist, bigoted, anti-progressive, etc. just because they are religious or libertarian or own gun stores, they can never win an award that requires a popular vote by the fandom. That is, unless they use shady methods like bloc voting to force their way in, rallying together republicans and libertarians and anti-progressive basement-dwellers alike from in and out of the fandom to make it happen.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is, this was all perfectly legal. There is already talk of changing the rules to outlaw bloc voting, and personally I can say that if I attend the business meeting at Sasquan and hear a proposal that makes sense, I may very well vote for it. But any new rule-change won’t take effect until 2017, and already the Sad Puppies have promised to act again next year, which has sparked left-wing groups to call for their own voting bloc for the 2016 Hugos. Regardless of what happens at this year’s con, it looks like next year’s Hugos are going to be a political showdown, and in this situation everyone loses.

What is so disappointing to me about this whole situation is that I will now be going to my first Worldcon with a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll be walking into the convention hall disillusioned without ever having known what it was like to be otherwise. I will have to face a politically-charged atmosphere in a world I usually go to when I want to escape such things.

And why? Because a small group of people on an ideological fringe (in the context of Worldcon fandom) decided to start a war in a peaceful land. Because a band of Puppies decided that since SF/F fans are becoming more interested in social justice and beginning to find enjoyment in more literary spec fiction there must some conspiracy against people on the right and it is their responsibility to fight it.

And what makes me sad is that many writers who were undoubtedly more deserving of recognition based purely on talent and writing ability didn’t even make the ballot. On top of that, the nominees selected by the Sad Puppies (and Rabid Puppies)–many of whom were not involved with the Puppies and do not necessarily agree with their politics and methods–now stand a good chance of being placed lower than “No Award” in the vote. Considering several categories were Sad/Rabid Puppies sweeps, this means we will likely see at least one category (and probably more) where no one gets an award at all. This is a sad thing to have to happen, and everyone–everyone–should be ashamed that it got to this point.

I, for one, plan on reading as many of the nominated works as I can between now and July. I already know there are many I will dislike and some I will hate, but maybe I will be surprised. One things for sure: I will only put works below “No Award” if I have read them and feel that they are not deserving of an award, regardless of the writer’s politics.

Because that’s the best thing I can do in this situation.

Because I refuse to devalue my first Worldcon experience any more than the Puppies already have by joining a political battle.

The Hugo Awards don’t belong to any one group or ideology. They don’t belong to some exclusive clique or secret cabal. They belong to the fans, to all of us. They belong to me and all of the other fledgling SF/F writers. They belong to the graying trufans and the upstart neo-pros. They belong to Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia and Vox Day (the Puppies). And they belong to George R. R. Martin and Charles Stross and John Scalzi (the Not-So-Puppies).

All of us together have a responsibility to cast our ballots each year and decide which books and stories, out of the many many works of sci-fi and fantasy literature, we as a group and as a fandom believe worthy of the recognition and prestige of a Hugo nomination. It is up to the entire fandom, not to one relatively small voice within it, to make this decision.

I believe the fandom should be a place open to all voices and all opinions–and from what I understand it is. But, Sad Puppies, if you find that works you like are consistently excluded from the Hugo recognition, perhaps the Worldcon fandom isn’t what you think it is. Perhaps it isn’t what you want it to be.

And perhaps no matter how many Hugo ballots you ruin, no matter how many conventions you turn into political battlegrounds, it never will be what you want it to be.

 

 

 

Some Thoughts on Matter from Light

First off, I’m not going to get too much into the explanation of the story this post is about, so you may want to go read this article at The Verge.

To sum the article up, two scientists recently announced a new method for turning photons (massless light particles) into matter using a “photon-photon collider.” According to their research, this process is not only possible but should actually be relatively easy with technology that exists today. In short, we may very well be turning light particles into matter in the near future.

This is very exciting to me, as I see enormous potential for this in technology that may help to change the world for the better in the future. What I am thinking of could still be many, many years off, but it is still exciting: a molecular assembler–that is, a machine capable of manipulating matter on the atomic level and producing anything you can imagine (like a replicator on Star Trek or a cornucopia machine in Stross’ Singularity Sky).

The molecular assembler itself is easily conceivable without needing the ability to turn light into matter, but this ability completely changes what the technology could be. Without it, the assembler needs some type of matter it can then change into whatever matter you want it to produce. Because of this, there would always be some kind of cost to supply the machine.

When you can convert light into matter, though, there is virtually no cost (other than the power supply, of course). This opens the door to the possibility of a post-economic society, or a world where money has become irrelevant. You only need one assembler because theoretically the machine can produce a copy of itself, so through exponential growth it wouldn’t take long for everyone in the world to have access to one. If the machine could have the ability to turn light into matter, then anyone anywhere in the world could have anything anytime they want since we have no shortage of photons coming to us constantly from the sun. Food, water,  clothing, the latest tech gadget would all be a button-press away; there would no longer be any need–or at least a significantly lower need–for money. Of course, there are limits; you can’t exactly produce a house with a molecular assembler, but there may be solutions to these issues that don’t require money.

Personally, I don’t think this will happen in the immediate future. I do think a post-economic Earth is one possible part of a future where our species is not in imminent danger of self-destruction. But then I also think this is something that will come about so gradually no one will realize it happened. So there’s no reason to be afraid, money-lovers.

I’ll definitely be waiting to hear whether this actually happens or not, because regardless of what technology this leads to in the future, it’s still really cool.

Are We Truly Individuals?

I think it depends on how we define it. My first thought is that yes, we are individuals; but upon examining my own definition, I become less certain. A question arises: Even if we are individuals now, could something happen in the future to change the way we think of ourselves?

Before I get into why we may not always be as unique as we believe we are now, I should put “individual” in context. With respect to this discussion, I would define it as the self-aware psychological projection of a single organism’s experience of the universe. In other words, a unique personality that could only come to exist in a specific physical form (genetically speaking) oriented in a specific place in the universe with a specific set of experiences. By this definition, every human is an individual–even identical twins, who only share one of the three criteria.

I think a time could come when this definition is no longer universally applicable.

At this very moment in time there are scientists studying and mapping the processes of the human brain with the goal of possibly someday transferring or copying a human consciousness onto a computer or some type of virtual realm. There is some uncertainty as to whether this is feasible; it definitely isn’t possible with today’s technology. But if you look forward ten or fifteen years, given a few breakthroughs in processing power and our understanding of the brain, it starts to look much more probable.

Let’s just say it is possible, and let’s suppose I go to a lab tomorrow and have my brain completely mapped–every memory, thought, ability and experience–and then copied onto a computer. The copied consciousness is self-aware and able to perceive the world through a special camera and communicate through text. If the copy was to engage in textual communication with someone who has known me all my life, there would not be a single question that person could ask that would make them believe they weren’t talking to me.

By my earlier definition, what I’ve done is created a new individual, right? We share the same experience of the universe up to the point the copy was made, but after that, both the copy and original have their own unique experiences. Going forward they would be two unique individuals.

You certainly could look at it that way, or you could say that a single individual has become a plural individual. (I know that’s an oxymoron, but stick with me.)

Consider this: what if the copy was not on a computer but rather imprinted on the brain of an exact, living replica of my physical body produced at that precise moment? The replica body shares my DNA, and it is identical down to the last atom and even contains the undigested breakfast I ate that morning. After walking out of the lab, both versions of me could truthfully call themselves Andrew Vrana; each could go on living as me, believing he was the original, because each would have the exact same memory of going to the lab to have the copy made.

Which one is the original individual? The obvious answer is, the one that walked into the lab to begin with. But they both have that same memory, that same experience, of going into the lab. In fact every memory and experience they have up to going into the lab is the same, so are they not both the original? Even if you could determine which one entered the lab, would it even matter since the experience has the same effect on both? The simplest way to solve this problem is to say that there was one individual that diverged and became two, and now these are two individual people. If both are the original individual, however, this can’t be a true statement. They must then be a single individual with two separate sets of experiences.

But how is that even possible? The next part may make it more sensible.

Suppose the two Andrews both develop a terminal illness and have days to live. We go back to the lab together and have our brains mapped and uploaded. This time, our consciousnesses are merged and imprinted on the brain of yet another identical body–this one modified so it does not have the terminal illness. This new individual will still be the original Andrew Vrana, since it still has the same experience of entering the lab the first time, and it will have the experiences of the plural individual created by the copy. Thus the time spent as a plural individual would just be part of my individual experience.

So then what if two or more people who weren’t two versions of a single individual had their brains merged? The resulting person would be a single individual, yet at the same time three previous individuals. What if a plural individual merged with separate other individuals and never rejoined? The possibilities here are nearly infinite.

Assuming this is all possible in the future (and I believe it could be), is my above definition of the individual still valid? Maybe, though I’m still not convinced. At the very least we need to make the definition less restrictive. Perhaps each individual is the one and only product of a specific set of experiences and a specific physical form, but that individual could exist again if the exact conditions were met again. Or maybe we are all just aspects of a single individual, waiting unknowingly for the day we can end our fragmentary existence and become whole. In any case, we might not be individuals according to my original definition.

I hope to live long enough to see this discussion become an important one. For now, I like to think that I’m unique–at least, until someone can prove otherwise.

Reality and the Observer

If there is a universe, and no observer is around to perceive it, does it exist?

My answer is, probably; in fact it almost certainly does. We can say this with a fair degree of confidence because we know the universe has existed for around 13.8 billion years and life on Earth only for about a quarter of that, humans only for a minuscule fraction. The universe had to get to the state it was in when the first life here or somewhere else in the cosmos was able to perceive it; thus, it had to exist for a time without any observers.

But what about reality?

One way to define reality is our minds’ approximations of the universe based on our perceptions and experiences. Looked at in this perspective, reality is then different for every organism capable of higher cognitive functions (i.e. asking existential questions) since we all are unique individuals, and it is different still for organisms capable or perceiving but not wondering. From a lowly ant all the way up to Neil deGrasse Tyson, virtually every unique organism has its own version of reality. But then how can the universe really exist independently after all?

The answer is simple enough: reality and the universe are not one and the same.

If you go down to the quantum level–or even the atomic–you see that the universe is a lot like bits of data in a computer, all working together in ways that create the laws and processes that govern the universe. We can’t, however, perceive atoms and quantum particles; it is our brains that render the accumulation of this data into what we call reality.

Imagine a digital photo saved on the hard drive of your computer. On your hard drive, that photo is raw data that makes no sense to you, but makes perfect sense to the computer. Access the photo and suddenly that raw data turns into an image on the screen that your mind can perceive, and you see a photo. Now, say you turn your monitor off; the photo still exists (on your computer as raw data), and yet your brain can no longer make sense of it.

Perhaps the universe, then, is like the photo; the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin access the raw data, and, through the brain, render it into a perceivable image that the consciousness knows as reality.

Go back to my original question: Does the universe exist without an observer? Yes, but reality, I think, does not. Perhaps the universe is what exists, objectively but incoherently to us, and reality is what our brains transform this incoherence into–the image that we need to make sense of the raw information flow. Perhaps reality is merely an evolutionary trick to help life make sense of everything.

In an earlier post I wondered if our ability to ponder the universe was part of a greater natural process that may ultimately lead to a universal self-awareness. Perhaps this answer comes close, or perhaps everything is truly random and chaotic. I can’t say for sure, but I do think it’s worth thinking about.

I will probably never know, of course, but I will always be an observer.