Robota, the new illustrated novel from Star Wars Design Director Doug Chiang and Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card, reads like the twelve-year-old boy's daydream that Chiang says it is. The book, which will make a splendid addition to any geek's coffee table, induces instantaneous nostalgia, tribal memories of afternoons spent doodling on the living room floor after a full morning's diet of Space: 1999 and classic Trek reruns. If Robota is as forgettable and derivative as a daydream, it is also just as mesmerizing and cathartic. Dreams are wishes, said Sigmund Freud. There is a necessary comfort in having them, even if they dissolve on waking.
Robota sits at one extreme of the science fiction continuum, the one that happens to be dominant right now. In Billion Year Spree, his "true history of science fiction," author Brian W. Aldiss identifies two poles of modern fantastic fiction. At the "thinking pole" stands H.G. Wells, writing analytical novels like The Time Machine that use fantasy to explain something about the contemporary world. At the other, "dreaming pole," stands Edgar Rice Burroughs, cranking out exotic, bloody, half-clothed tales of adventure like Tarzan the Ape Man. "Wells is teaching us to think," writes Aldiss. "Burroughs and his lesser imitators are teaching us not to think."
Yet while we might have more respect for Wells, it is Burroughs whose books we love. "If one's choice of company lies between a fatigued schoolmaster and an inspired anecdotalist," writes Aldiss, "one's better bet is the anecdotalist." Aldiss is writing about science fiction at the turn of the previous century. Today, we might say that Ursula K. Le Guin or Kim Stanley Robinson sit at the thinking pole, while Hollywood -- a commercial rubric under which we may include novelizations and door-stopping fantasy trilogies -- wholly dominates the dreaming.
While many forces contributed to Hollywood's conquest of science fiction, Star Wars is foremost among them. The images and tropes it established shaped all SF films to come after it, remade SF fandom and reset the commercial expectations of SF publishing. Until the cartoonishly brutal Star Wars, wrote J.G. Ballard in 1977, the SF film had "never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness."
Limited by inadequate special effects, the best and most popular pre-Star Wars SF films -- like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) -- often settled for small-scale stories and imaginative, if not always scientifically consistent, ideas. Those that aimed to tell broad-stroke, epic stories -- such as Metropolis (1926), Things to Come (1936), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) -- fell firmly and not coincidentally within the tradition established by H.G. Wells and contemporaries like Olaf Stapledon. "With Star Wars the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way," writes the ever-prescient Ballard, "towards huge but empty spectacles where the special effects preside over derivative ideas and unoriginal plots."
The financial success of violent, spectacle-driven science fiction films has fed back into the printed word, which is now driven economically by movie novelizations, tie-ins, and cookie-cutter military adventures. At times during the past quarter century, it has seemed that literary science fiction would go the way of the Western and be entirely absorbed by clichéd visual storytelling. (Note 1) The most vigorous literary SF has grown more cinematic (which is not at all a bad thing), as in the early cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson or Bruce Sterling.
Today, the audience for science fiction and fantasy sits comfortably in the Burroughs camp, with the descendants of H.G. Wells relegated to the role of camp followers. What is Buffy the Vampire Slayer but a feminist Conan set in Southern California? Who is John Crichton of Farscape but an echo of John Carter of Mars? Of course Wellsian films and novels still appear, but economically they are more marginal than ever. (Note 2) Audiences do not consume science fiction to better understand the world in which they live, but instead to indulge in fantasies of power and transcendence.
It is not an accident that the images of fantastic animals and machines that fill Robota recall so strongly the legacy of Star Wars. Doug Chiang, who conceived and illustrates Robota, serves as the Academy-Award-winning Design Director for the Star Wars prequels. Robota began as an image of silver flying saucers hovering over wooden sailing ships, sketched when Chiang was a lonely kid living in Michigan. "That image eventually became stuck in my brain and remained there for years," he writes in Robota's foreword. As the adult Chiang "signed on to head up the art and design team for the new trilogy of Star Wars films, I found the image of that unfinished drawing coming back to me." With that drawing as a starting point, Chiang detailed the world in which Robota takes place, leaving it to Card to actually write the story. Card's facile dialogue and headlong writing -- refined over the course of many Ender's Game sequels -- are instantly recognizable.
Robota tells the tale of amnesiac named Caps and his quest to discover his true identity. Teaming up with a lovable talking monkey (a fuzzier version of C-3PO/R2-D2), a wise warrior-ape (a Chewbacca/Han Solo/Obi-Wan hybrid) and a rebellious princess (Leia!), Caps faces all the perils of Skywalker as he journeys through decaying, depopulated cities and battles the evil robot hunter Kaantur-Set (Darth Vader).
Robota shares all its merits and all its failures with the Hollywood sci-fi epic. On a prepubescent level, it is viscerally entertaining. Its visual ideas are fun and sometimes awesome -- I particularly enjoyed Chiang's cities, which variously appear half-submerged, formed from rock or giant mushrooms and hovering over miles-wide holes in the ocean. The smaller, more eccentric images -- like those of a robot playing the piano or riding a horse -- possess the somnambulistic power of a surrealist painting. (Note 3)
There is, however, something disquietingly familiar in these images and especially in the story itself. Robota relies, like so many Hollywood blockbusters, on stereotypical cues for characterization -- the wisecracking sidekick, the spunky heroine -- and preposterous plot twists. (Note 4) The climactic revelation is unintentionally amusing and outrageously sexist, when it emerges -- and this is definitely a plot spoiler -- that the arch-villain is Caps' former girlfriend! Why did she go over to the dark side? Because, we're told, she lost her beauty to age and could not have a child. "You thought you could abandon me for some girl," says Kantuur to Caps. "As I got older, you'd think that you, the powerful man, deserved a young bride, not the old crone who couldn't even have babies."
Take that, Buffy! Honey, don't waste your time saving the world when your biological clock is ticking like a bomb. Robota is the kind of family values tale that desperately deserves to be retold from the point of view of the villainess, like Gregory Maguire's revision of The Wizard of Oz in his 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. The problem with Robota's climax is not that it isn't politically correct. Rather, the problem is that it embraces a different kind of political correctness, the "she's-on-the-rag" brand of sexism that explains all female behavior in terms of biology. As storytelling, Robota 's climax feels lazy and psychologically false.
The thinking, analytical part of me obviously wants to despise Robota. And yet, still I share Chiang's sense of wonder. I was that kid doodling on his living room floor, creating places and times that never existed, a feeling that Robota successfully captures. Buried in the cliches, there is magic in Robota, and magicians can get away with things that philosophers cannot. The truth is that we each contain the thinking and dreaming poles within ourselves. In the end, one cannot exist without the other.
(1) This scenario has not come to pass, thanks to the many brilliant writers that continue to work in the genre. It's interesting to note that the most successful literary SF written in the past quarter century -- such as Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun -- sits comfortably equipoised between the thinking and dreaming poles identified by Aldiss. Although they may walk together through Wolfe's dream of the far future, neither Wolfe's hero nor his readers ever stop thinking.
(2) It's worth noting that both Buffy and John Crichton are more thoughtful than Conan or John Carter could ever hope to be. Informed by the social movements of the past thirty years, today's dreaming tales are much more sophisticated and mature than in Burroughs' time. Buffy must ultimately evolve from a 20th century barbarian -- the valley girl -- to an independent adult woman. For his part, Crichton starts as a buffoon and ends as a multi-culti, sensitive new age guy.
(3) There is a great deal that can be written about the cultural meaning of robots that would apply to Robota. See, for example, "Robots Are Us: The Mystical Side of Science (and Fiction)."
(4) To anticipate an objection: no, I don't agree with those who say that lazy characterization and preposterous plots are intrinsic to stories for children and young adults. There is nothing clichéd about C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, nor is there anything preposterous in the intense dream-logic of the Brothers Grimm. Toy Story, Shrek, and Finding Nemo are all brilliant fantasies. Each alone is better than any ten Hollywood "adult" films combined.
Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith is the interim Executive Director of the Independent Press Association in San Francisco. His reviews and criticism have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the SF Bay Guardian, Interzone, Infinity Plus, and numerous other publications. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.