Lester del Rey and Star Wars

Unlike seemingly everyone who writes—either professionally or as an amateur—about computers and programming, I am not a fan of Star Wars. I saw the original movie back in ’77, didn’t think much of it, and basically ignored the rest of the series until my wife and I, on a rare kid-free evening with nothing better playing, went to Revenge of the Sith in ’05. It just confirmed all my prejudices; two incredibly dull hours of pure exposition 1 followed by twenty minutes of action.

I can think of a few reasons Star Wars never captivated me. First, I was already out of high school the summer the original movie came out, a little too old to be sucked into the “universe.” Second, for all its bad fashion, stupid arena rock, and lowest-common-denominator television, the ’70s had great movies with great acting. Star Wars came into that environment with some of the most wooden acting imaginable.2 And finally, in 1977 I considered myself a serious science fiction fan; the bad space opera and worse science of Star Wars didn’t sit well with me.

Sounds in space, people who fought with swords when they had ray guns—this was the sort of crap science fiction had been fighting against for years. Like most readers of hard sf 3, I was willing to accept a certain amount of bullshit, like FTL or time travel, if it was the result of new knowledge. But no new scientific discoveries are ever going to make explosions audible in a vacuum.

Thunder in Space

The authors I admired did the science right. Heinlein spent days doing numerical integration to calculate an orbital transfer. A plot point in Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama turned on the calculation of terminal velocity. Every page of Clement’s A Mission of Gravity was an exploration of the consequences of working on a planet with intense and highly variable gravity. How could I enjoy a story in which spaceships banked as they turned?

Which leads me to Analog magazine and Lester del Rey. Analog was the premiere science fiction magazine of the time, the successor to Astounding Science Fiction, where all the great stories of the Golden Age had been published. Lester del Rey was the Analog’s book reviewer in the late ’70s, and I remember him reviewing the novelization of Star Wars some time before the movie came out—late ’76, I think. The review included a line that went something like “This will probably be the movie science fiction fans will be talking about next year.”

In retrospect, his modest expectations are pretty funny. But you have to remember that science fiction was a film ghetto before Star Wars. Not only were the movies artistically bad (for every 2001, there were a hundred Logan’s Runs, and sf was still fighting the legacy of the low-budget BEM films of the ’50s), they regularly failed at the box office. Star Wars changed the box office part, anyway.

I think del Rey panned the book, but if so, there’d be some irony in that. He was a big proponent of space opera at a time when most sf critics4 thought that sub-genre had deservedly died out. And Ballantine’s Del Rey imprint was soon pumping out space opera books—including the Star Wars novels.

I’d love to see a copy of del Rey’s review, if for no other reason than to confirm a shaky memory of something I read almost 35 years ago. I did some Googling and found this wonderful bibliography that includes all of del Rey’s Analog reviews, but no links to any of the reviews themselves. There are plenty of used book dealers who would happily sell me all twelve 1976 Analogs so I could dig through them to find the review, but I don’t care enough to do that.5

If, on the other hand, I find myself in DeKalb with an hour or so to spare, I might go looking in Founders Memorial Library.

  1. One of my favorite lines from SCTV was in its parody of Fantasy Island: “I hate you, you cheap little device for exposition!” Everyone in Revenge of the Sith was a cheap device for exposition. 

  2. Harrison Ford as Han Solo in carbonite? Type casting. 

  3. Sci-fi was a term of derision; sf was preferred by sophisticated seventeen-year-olds like me. 

  4. And sophisticated seventeen-year-olds. 

  5. It is fun to see the Analog covers from back then. Some of them are instantly recognizable. And I remember reading the serialized version of Children of Dune that ran that year.