Science Fiction and the Soul

A friend and philosopher wrote in late to ask that I consider a topic for discussion: midi-chlorians. For those of you who aren’t big on Star Wars, those who scooped out parts of their own brains after the prequels, and for the rest of you, who purged the memories from your brain with alcohol, midi-chlorians are a newer addition to the Star Wars canon. I don’t want to blow through a full summary in the intro here, but to say that this addition was controversial is a gross understatement. If you really, really want to know what a midi-chlorian is in excruciating detail, you can find a suitable explanation on its Wookieepedia page. It’s nuts, and in case you don’t want your browser ever remembering that midi-chlorians exist, I’ll summarize it below.

You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let's get nuts!

You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!

To start, let’s get that brief summary out of the way. George Lucas officially added the idea of midi-chlorians as canon with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Apparently, he’d wanted to introduce them much earlier, but couldn’t find a good way to do it. Because there is no good way to do it. He wanted there to be a rhyme and reason for Force sensitivity, and the best way he could figure was to create a kind of cellular mitochondria, present in all living things, but super abundant in Force sensitive folks, like Jedi. The midi-chlorians are not the Force itself, but a connection between the Force and, as Yoda said of Luke’s meat suit, “this crude matter.” To emphasize that Anakin Skywalker (soon to be Darth Vader) was super-duper special, Anakin’s midi-chlorian count was the highest ever recorded.

In a way, on its own, the midi-chlorian is kind of an interesting idea–a physical link between the body and the soul. A lot of other science fiction writers and filmmakers have touched on the idea of a subjective versus objective soul. Clearly, Lucas was talking about the latter, which is fine. There’s no proving or disproving either side. The trouble begins with his inclusion of the idea in the Star Wars universe. Most other science fiction and fantasy authors, faced with ideas that they can’t fit into their current long-running series, simply start a new project or write a stand-alone novel. Much to his fans’ frustration, George R.R. Martin has a few side projects going, but we thank him for not trying to shoehorn those extra ideas into his Ice and Fire series. Unfortunately, Lucas created an empire on Star Wars and Indiana Jones and apparently couldn’t find the time or inspiration to explore his creativity outside of those realms.

The next bit of trouble harkens back to a post I made a few days ago about science fiction versus science fantasy. Star Wars is and has always been science fantasy. The root causes for many things in the original movies (IV, V, and VI) were never explained. We don’t really know how hyperspace works, nor do we need to; it gets our characters from one place to another nigh instantaneously, and reduces unnecessary exposition. The same is true with the Death Star, or any other space-bound craft for that matter. We kind of assume that the materials for the Death Star’s construction were strip-mined from somewhere. The Empire is a vast, black-gloved tyranny made up of thousands of worlds. Pull a few of them apart, and–bam!–instant Death Star. Just add sadness. A second one? Easy as eatin’ pancakes. How does gravity plating work? Who cares? Why don’t spacecraft need retro rockets? Who cares? Where does all the air come from? Who gives a crap? If we cared, we’d have more exposition than we ever wanted, and none of it would serve to advance the plot even a little bit. And that’s why Star Wars (the originals) works. It’s essentially Lord of the Rings in space–knights, wizards, unwilling heroes, trolls, and elves–except that instead of throwing the ring into Mount Doom, Vader’s has to throw the Emperor into the reactor core.

So what happens when we add midi-chlorians? Exposition, and a lot of it. Because they weren’t part of the original trilogy, we now have to tell half our audience (pretty much anyone born before 1994) why Anakin is Force sensitive, and why Luke is. This is time that could be spent in character development. In the Star Trek series, we get a ton of technical exposition about the ship, the inner workings of stars, Data’s brain, and the space-time continuum because these things are integral to the plot, because it’s science fiction–science as fiction. Mostly, anyway. We know that Betazoids are telepathic, but do we know exactly how or why that works? No. Why? We don’t need to. Geordi’s visor shattered the universe in Star Trek: The Next Genereation, and was also able to help the crew identify inter-dimensional newborns. In fact, his visor practically wrote more than a few episodes of that show. Midi-chlorians are introduced as a major reason that the Star Wars universe exists, but they end up playing no part in the driving action. We’re never going to need to know anything technical about them ever again. Seriously. There are plenty of books and comics, post prequels, of course, that mention them, but at heart all of these works are science fantasy. Wedging a science  fiction element into the existing science fantasy construct only serves to fracture the story and take attention away from the characters.

I wanted this post to be mostly on the subject of science fiction vs. science fantasy, but I want to take a chance and wrap it up with an idea I began earlier that I’m not sure holds every drop of water I’m about to pour into it. Which idea is that there is an almost de facto balance between the objective/subjective soul and science fiction/science fantasy within the sci-fi genre. As fiction within the genre leans toward fantasy, the soul is depicted more objectively, as an concrete thing that can be weighed and measured with the right equipment. And as literature leans more toward science, the soul is portrayed more as an abstract thing, mystical and necessarily outside the bounds of tangibility. Let’s start with the first two obvious examples: Star Trek and Star WarsTrek, falling well on the science side, mentions the soul, but almost every instance of its inclusion in canon, it is something beyond measurement or understanding. For example, Data’s journey, as an android, toward humanity is constantly fraught with questions of soul. Where inside that complex mass of circuits and flashing LEDs is the thing that makes Data Data? It was established by the end of TNG that the question was never going to be answered by a measure of his emotion (which is pretty much where the movies went horribly wrong in this aspect). In fact, it became clear after a while that there may be no answer at all. In Star Wars, even before the prequels, Yoda says, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” As a crazy-old crazy old wizard, he is a religious and spiritual figure, and as such, he has the ability to see and sense the soul–and thus weigh and measure it.

In literature, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon sits on the science side of the spectrum, while Frank Herbert’s Dune sits on the fantasy side. In Altered Carbon, a person can have their consciousness swapped from body to body like renting a car, yet the soul is somewhat of a stickier wicket. Those rich and powerful enough to have their consciousness ride through the centuries, changing out of their old bodies like dirty underwear, are known as Methuselahs (a reference to the Book of Genesis). Their minds are typically intact, but it becomes clear that their souls are twisted and corrupted. Yet the nature of how this comes to be or where the soul exists is left as a big question mark. In Dune, by contrast, the search for the Kwisatz Haderach is essentially a mission to find the galactic messiah by creating it. But what makes a messiah, if not the soul–in this case a very carefully weighed and measured soul?

It’s no secret that fantasy and science fantasy writing is typically tied closely to religion and mythology. Herbert, for example, uses a crazy mishmash of Zen, Islamic, and Judeo-Christian stories and iconography to sew the Dune universe together. But Altered Carbon uses mainly philosophy, borrowed and fabricated, as its foundation. Star Trek does the same, and really only touches on religion with any consistency in Deep Space Nine, and the writers pretty much made up the Bajoran religion from scratch, using old pagan practices as a guide. And it was clear that George Lucas always meant for Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader to be an exceedingly special character, the prodigal father, maybe. But then in The Phantom Menace, he wanted Anakin to have been possibly conceived by midi-chlorians. So then he’s Jesus with a lightsaber?

Speaking of robots with a soul...

Speaking of robots with a soul…

The point, I think, is that there is redundancy in the storytelling. Telling us how Anakin is supposed to be special does nothing for us. In A New Hope, we needed no expositional dialogue to tell us that Luke was going to end up a hero, nor did we need his midi-chlorian count to know that his soul was incorruptible (well, until Dark Empire, but let’s keep things simple). The same should have been true of Anakin. The mytho-religious science fantasy of Star Wars should have been enough to show us that Anakin was a troubled soul.

The end result of exposition is that it cheapens the sense of adventure. In a way, it’s why the Book of Genesis and its long lists of A begat B begat C begat D and so on is practically unreadable. It may lend a sense of realistic credibility to the endeavor, but ends up reading like the IKEA manual for my desk.


One comment

  1. Pingback: The Foundation – Some Thoughts | The Leather Library

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