The Technium

The Used Future


The most shocking aspect of the original Star Wars films on first viewing so long ago was not their gee-wizardry, or the coolness of alternative worlds so richly rendered, or even the arch-mythic story of a hero in the space age, but the brand new idea that the future could be gritty, worn, dilapidated and a mixed bag of modern and ancient.  The “used future” of Star Wars was entirely new to me, and liberating.

In Charles Champlin’s coffee-table biography of George Lucas, he notes “… Lucas’s emphasis on the idea of a used future, a future that was meant to be experienced as reality rather than fantasy. The Star Wars future was not showroom shiny but dented and rusty, as if it hd hard use on the back roads on innumerable galaxies. Lucas told an interviewer during production in England that the Apollo casules may have looked brand new when they soared away, but it was clear when they returned that the interior was littered with candy wrappers, empty Tang cans, and other trash, just like the family station wagon.”

The heterogeneity of old and new felt absolutely real in a profound way, and the future has not been the same since.  This “Star Wars esthetics”  has influenced not only all of science fiction since, but also the design of cities, fashion, literature, industrial design, and design in general. In short, Lucas’s vision of a used future has shaped our own future.

That’s the thesis of a remarkable manifesto, Star Wars: A New Heap by the artist John Powers. It is one of the densest, highest ideas-per-page reads I’ve had in a long while. It appears in an innovative and very likable web-booklet form on triplecanopy, a new online magazine of idea-art. Here are a few excerpts:

In defiance of conventional wisdom, Lucas revealed a place that was modern, but not new, a future long occupied, unfinished, worldly. Modernity is the presumption that the natural environment for man has yet to be built. Lucas was the first to imagine that future built environment as already old.

“I was working very hard to keep everything nonsymmetrical. Nothing looks like it belongs with anything else…. It’s a very common thing in science fiction to see a set that has one influence. Everything matches. The chairs match the table, match the rug, match the design of the doors, match the door handle, match the lamps. I wanted it to look like one thing came from one part of the galaxy and another from another part of the galaxy.” — George Lucas, quoted in “The Making of Star Wars”

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A flying saucer had never been a slum before. The immaculate silver sheen of the saucer was reinvented as a dingy Dumpster full of boiler parts, dirty dishes, and decomposing upholstery. Lucas’s visual program not only captured the stark utopian logic that girded modern urban planning, it surpassed it.

Lucas attempted to reproduce the sense of immersion in an alien culture that he experienced while watching Akira Kurosawa’s historical dramas for the first time. The Hidden Fortress made a particular impression on Lucas. The film follows the misadventures of two peasants fleeing their own army after being mistaken for enemy soldiers and forced to bury the dead. They are the lowest of the low, dressed in rags stiff with filth and stinking of carrion. It is though their eyes that Kurosawa’s film unfolds. Star Wars follows two equally worn and dirt-streaked losers, who happen to be robots. Kurosawa created historical realism by layering his sets and characters with patina, wear, and filth. Lucas created a realistic future out of distressed surfaces, oil stains, and a soundscape that included grinding gears and backfires. Kurosawa called his attention to realism “immaculate reality”; Lucas called his a “used future.”

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Kubrick’s film presented a future of company men moving with assurance and clear intention toward a godlike minimalist object. Lucas, on the other hand, gave us a slapdash world of knuckleheads pursued by industrial-scale minimalists. Visually, Kubrick’s film is as seamless and smooth as the modernist authority it mirrored.  Like the mid-century modernists, 2001 associated abstraction with the progressive ideals of the United Nations as embodied by its New York headquarters. Lucas, on the other hand, was a nonbeliever. Even the initially smooth and unitary form of the Death Star was shown, as the rebel fighters skimmed its surface, to be deeply fissured with an ever-diminishing body of structural fragments. These crenelated details suggested a depth and complexity to modern life that modernism’s pure geometries often obscured.

Star Wars showed that we do not have to return to nineteenth-century pastiche and the top-down hierarchies it represents; instead, we can look forward to a future of incremental cities built by competing but interdependent players.

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“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean…plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings…. Old ideas sometimes use old buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” — Jane Jacobs




Comments
  • Olivia Nellums

    It’s worth pointing out here that Star Wars isn’t set in the future, but the past, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

  • vanderleun

    This brings to mind a ditty I once heard sung at a convocation of SF editors after a hard day at a Star Trek convention:

    Give us DAW books!
    They’re not so bad.
    We want the Future
    That we’ve always had!

  • chris

    This concept of “used future” also came to my mind while watching “Blade runner” for the 10th time : This futuristic city where you feel the multiple layers of history and culture, makes the whole story more “credible”.

    • Cid

      Old comment, but new reader!  Blade Runner gave me the feeling of used future…but with absolutely NO future at all!

  • Howard Weaver

    Kevin, what’s the best way to read this piece? The formatting has me a little buffaloed, online or in print …

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Howard: Read by clicking on the + sign to the right of the booklet’s text online.

  • Rodneyoscopy

    Excellent, kick-ass article.

    I’d only quibble about Star Wars influencing ‘all of science fiction since,’ and point out that the ‘used future’ aesthetic pre-dates Star Wars by a decade or two in written science fiction; Try some of Robert Silverberg’s space operas, or early Samuel R. Delany. Both depict ancient civilizations coexisting with young spacefaring races, teeming, smelly spaceport ghetto towns, beat-up robots and improvised space hot-rods.

  • CharlesP

    Tangent, but semi-related:
    It may be that it’s my home town, but Atlanta has a distinctly different feel than most other large American cities because of this lack of “old” (or at least the “old” cycle being out of whack). Whereas most cities its size and age had a continuous cycle of old buildings gradually replaced by new buildings and road/traffic/population structures following in line, Atlanta (due to that whole Sherman march to the sea thing) had that cycle broken and it just doesn’t have the same feel as cities like NY, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, (even Tampa) etc.

    I go into this to point out how it’s not just a sci-fi thing, there are real instances of it and things that could be examined to give a feel for how cities grow and develop, and what happens when you interrupt that. There is probably a good research project there that could then be applied to fiction.

  • Dan

    The Firefly universe is another fine example.

  • 0rison

    George Lucas and “Star Wars” deserve exactly zero credit for the dingy, disparate, “lived-in” look of a future more grubby and human than Stanley Kubrick’s. This very important and influential take on science-fiction set dressing was pioneered by Andrei Tarkovsky in his hugely influential “Solaris” (1972), and revisited by John Carpenter in his extraordinary student film, “Dark Star” (1974).

  • Greg Borenstein

    I’ve always loved the story of Allen Ginsberg’s reaction to seeing the Star Wars opening crawl and the setting of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”. He said, “Thank God – I don’t have to worry about it!” http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.05/lucas_pr.html

  • vanderleun

    Off topic but you might be interested in this assuming you don’t already know about it: swissmiss: Science Commons and Why They Matter in 120 Seconds.

  • JoseAngel

    Good point, Olivia: but that only proves that the story is set in the past for the narrator: for anything we know, the story may be past for us while the narrator speaks from the future.

  • Steve Witham

    Sure Lucas had a particular take, but gritty and time-layered SF could only be new to people for whom Star Wars was their first SF. I mean, _The Martian Chronicles_, _Dune_, _A Princess of Mars_ (1911)…

    One thing that was new to me in Star Wars was the honorable 20th-C trailer trash people wiring up circuit boards on the same world as princesses, swordfighting magician-monks and ultratech imperial soldiers. It’s as if Connecticut Yankees had been time-sandwiched *between* past and future. I don’t know if that’s invention or just excess, but I sure ate it up the first time.

    Certainly Lucas didn’t invent greeblies, the long tradition of piles of model tank parts encrusted on movie spaceship surfaces.

    Modernist sterility was Kubric’s *point* in 2001. Mankind settling into polite, air-conditioned obsolescence and needing a kick in the butt. That it came from that scary mathematically perfect slab was the contribution of Clarke’s original short story. I mean, rescued from our modern sterility by superultramodern hypersterility!? Yikes!!