Friday, April 29, 2011

Death Star

Oh, you know I'm not going to pass on a good Star Wars thread -- this one begun by the good folks at Overthinking It, who explore a good question:
What’s the economic calculus behind the Empire’s tactic of A) building a Death Star, B) intimidating planets into submission with the threat of destruction, and C) actually carrying through with said destruction if the planet doesn’t comply?
As expected, Death Star cost expert Seth Masket responds by pointing out the importance of factoring in actually building the Death Star and wondering how Palpatine handled the budgeting; my brother David, however, moves the discussion along by pointing out the importance of the absent press corps.

I think the question about why there's no press corps has to do with whether the Republic is more similar to Rome, or to the government under the Articles of Confederation, which is what I've argued before (although I've also noted that the Republic lasted a long time, which makes it more Rome-like). If it's like the Articles, we're talking about basically a weak central government overseeing, but basically irrelevant to, an unimaginably large area. Why no noticeable press in such a galaxy? Perhaps because, for those outside of the capital, the "federal" government really isn't all that important. Oh, it helps out when there's a trade dispute with another planet, but other than that, it's mostly irrelevant, even to the point that in some of those planets the federal money isn't even any good. Why bother to keep an eye on what's happening there?

As for those in the capital, it wouldn't be surprising if the focus is much more on personalities and gossip than on the serious business of government -- after all, in the USA a lot of the press coverage is about personalities and gossip, even though the central government is quite important in people's daily lives. It's just not really clear that the Galactic Republic actually does very much real governing.

(And, yeah, it's not hard for me to believe that Palpatine could lay his hands on quite a bit of money. First of all, the guy is able to manipulate Yoda, so imagine how much he might be defrauding, say, his friends in the Trade Federation, if he needs the cash. Second...remember, we're talking about some very large number of entire planets, all of them incredibly far advanced in technology. I'm guessing that a tiny sliver of Gross Planetary Product in taxes from each of them could buy a lot of clones, and even a Death Star or two, without anyone really noticing much).

Of course, once the Empire takes over then it does make sense to know what's going on, but you're not going to start up a free press then, are you?

I'd expect very little press coverage of the central government under the Republic until the Clone Wars break out...and even less after they end.

Want more? All the nerdy you can handle here.


  1. OK, I know this is just an intellectual parlor game and that even the players themselves realize they're "overthinking," but I think there's a point that should be made here from the standpoint of my field (literary and film analysis). Things don't happen in fictional worlds "because" of facts about those worlds. They happen because the artists who imagined the worlds are seeking certain artistic effects, following certain literary / cinematic models, incorporating certain elements from existing stories or myths, and following through the logic of the literary devices they've chosen to use.

    Example: I once heard a game theorist give a lecture in which he tried to explain Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in terms of game theory -- like, Gawain makes decision X because it's the decision predicted by such-and-such mathematical formula. OK, maybe -- at least the events of Gawain are explicitly presented in the poem as a kind of game. But then one point the guy claimed to be able to explain, game-theoretically, why the Green Knight is green. (I forget what the explanation was.) But this is just preposterous -- the Green Knight is green because of the mythic associations of green (spring, rebirth, renewal, etc.), and Gawain makes the decisions he does because they're the only decisions suitable for a legendary knight in a medieval story anchored in the Christian precepts and chivalric codes of the time.

    Put another way: Gawain is not a real person and is not actually making decisions. The (unknown) poet who wrote the poem made decisions, and they were made in order to solve the problems facing an artist attempting to create such a work, not a knight attempting to prove his worthiness for the court of King Arthur. It's fun and all to enter the fictional world imaginatively and extrapolate from the artist's decisions, imagining "along with him," as it were. Perhaps in the future, when today's video games have morphed into holodeck simulations or the like, this will be the normal way of experiencing stories, as opposed to just accepting the one fixed version of things that the artist put down on the page or on film. But it shouldn't be confused with explaining "why" something is the way it is in the story. The answer to that question, with respect to Star Wars, won't come from examining details of the government or economy of the Galactic Republic; it comes from understanding what kind of storyteller George Lucas is and what traditions of literature and myth he's drawing from.

  2. That's a very interesting observation, Jeff, and God knows I've sat through enough Shakespeare classes that try to explain the plot of Hamlet from a Freudian perspective.

    But don't you think the impulse to deny that things happen in literature "because of facts about those worlds" can be taken too far? Reading a story, we're asked to suspend our disbelief in the reality of the characters' inner lives. Sherlock Holmes stories would be no fun if we were fixated on the fact that nobody's actually solving anything; Arthur Conan Doyle is simply setting up a preposterously contrived scenario, and gradually explaining it through a literary mouthpiece.

    Likewise, I think we're requested to set aside the persistent knowledge that everything in a book is "caused" by the author, as a condition for enjoying the book (well, at least in non-postmodern fiction). In describing politics, a skillful filmmaker would be one who can make it seem as if the political turmoil in his movie happens organically, rather than drawing your attention to the necessity that the events in his movie are so contrived that you can almost see the screenwriter behind them. (I leave it to you to determine which George Lucas has accomplished.)

    In other words, if a filmmaker does a sufficiently good job of painting a realistic political world, then as if causation, causation in the world of the film, becomes an adequate and profitable way of analyzing the events in the world. It can tell us facts (well, as if, but still illuminating and entertaining facts) about the world of the film, e.g. why the Galactic Republic was unstable, that wouldn't be available to us if we simply were focused on "understanding what kind of storyteller George Lucas is and what traditions of literature and myth he's drawing from."

    And I reiterate my guess that George Lucas might not be a filmmaker who's interested in painting a realistic political world, (I don't have much faith in anybody who would name a character "General Grievous") but it can be done.

  3. the hugely influential was contemporary to star wars -- inspired by many of the same serials (filtered through a rich japanese post-war progressive science fiction tradition) and incorporating samurai stories even less apologetically, (infamously) giving the actual *spaceships* the form of feudal soldiers' armor.

    however, the point of serious departure between george lucas and yoshiyuki tomino was that tomino wanted 'ming the merciless' to have a real job. to achieve some level of plausibility, 'the war' was between earth and the most far-flung human space colonies, in orbit just beyond the moon.

    this map shows the post-war arrangement of human habitat. 'side 3' aka 'the zeon empire' was the antagonist.

    gundam's equivalent to the death star is its famous title sequence event of zeon forces pushing a space colony out of orbit to destroy an earth city and wreck terrestrial climate. but unlike star wars, this atrocity showed that the war had gotten dirtier than anyone could live with.

  4. Just wanted to add three links to other Star Wars economic and political analysis.

    First a two-part series comparing Star Wars' hyperdrive to Star Trek's warp drive and noting the economic and political implications of the differences:

    Then a piece noting how ridiculously small the "Galactic" army is in Star Wars compared to its actual needs and functions, and further noting the appropriate size of Star Trek's Federation forces:

  5. Ace, I don't disagree at all with your point about "as ifs." I just wanted to make the (possibly too pedantic) point that that sort of thinking is an extension of the pleasure of reading -- of the way that good stories invite our imaginations to go to work -- as opposed to a mode of explanation. A literary analyst will take note of the internal structure and logic of the story's imagined world, and of how these either motivate or constrain the characters and events -- but always recognizing that the characters are not operating with some sort of free choice in a world that was already just there (as human beings operate in the real world), but rather that the characters AND the world are all part of the same artist-created contrivance.

    Your Sherlock Holmes example is an excellent one. Not only is Holmes the creation of Conan Doyle, but so is the crime he's solving, the criminal who did the crime, and all the clues he "finds." It's all of a piece, all one artistic machine -- and if it's done well, the gears all mesh and the machine "works" in a way that readers find plausible and entertaining (except, as you say, in some postmodernist and experimental works that deliberately throw sand in those gears).

    Hamlet and Freud are another interesting case. I was influenced early in my own literary studies by the Shakespeare criticism of A.C. Bradley, who -- like Harold Bloom today -- talks about Shakespeare's characters as if they were real people with real (Freudian?) motives, and even real lives before or after the events of the story (like, what kind of young man was Lear... that sort of thing). I'm not saying that this kind of criticism is useless -- to a point, it can throw some light on the logic of the story's events -- but I've gravitated more in later years (and especially after directing a few plays myself) toward criticism that recognizes that Shakespeare was a man of the theater, and that a lot of what happens in his plays happens because of stage conventions or because he needs to solve a problem in the staging -- for instance, character X needs to be offstage for long enough to change costumes, or something. Because when you're actually doing a play, that's what you're mostly thinking about. In fact I would get frustrated with actors whose "method" demanded that they somehow "inhabit" the role in some profound way, understanding their characters from infancy on and so forth, instead of just delivering the damn lines in a way that convincingly produces whatever effect the scene requires. (Sorry, you shouldn't have gotten me started on this.......)

    Anyway, I was never much of a Star Wars fan. "General Grievous"? Nice. :-/


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