The empty politics of Star Wars

It’s beginning to make sense to me. I used to want my science fiction to aim for the head. I thought it could have political meaning only if it had well-developed political themes. To be confident that there was political meaning in sci-fi stories, I wanted to see clear institutions such as those showcased in the political/military contests of Battlestar Galactica. I pored over the navy-in-space rank structure of Star Trek, in which the United Federation of Planets set missions for Star Fleet, an armada for peace.

I used to be infuriated by the vagueness of the Star Wars universe. Political structures were shown in ellipsis. In the organization chart of the evil Empire, where did Darth Vader fit? Was he a military commander? A prime minister to the Emperor? A religious high priest? The new movie revives this ambiguity: Vader acolyte Kylo Ren seems at times in control of, and at times subordinate to, the secular authorities of the First Order.

Things were no clearer on the side of the good guys. Mon Mothma, the political leader of the Rebellion, was absent from the saga until a single scene at the climax of Return of the Jedi. She gave no elaboration of her governing philosophy, and we see her exercising power just once, in a pre-flight briefing of rebel fighter pilots. We were told nothing of where she came from or why she is in charge. She was on screen for 26 seconds.

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