Over at Tor.com, Ryan Britt has published a smart essay about how most of the residents of the Star Wars universe are illiterate. Its really insightful and worth a read. I particularly liked the point he raises about droids:
Uncle Owen needs a droid who can speak “bocce,” and then says something about the binary language of load lifters. Okay, so Uncle Owen needs a translator and someone to do math for him. This doesn’t sound like a guy who has gotten a suitable education. I suppose it’s possible that Luke picked up some reading here and there, but we don’t see any books or any evidence to suggest he’s a fluent reader. It seems like all the characters in Star Wars learn how to do is punch certain buttons to make their machines do what they need to do, and everything else is left up to droids.
– Ryan Britt
This essays triggered three unrelated thoughts about reading as an action and a theme in sci-fi:
First: Its not just Star Wars. The act of reading is often overlooked in many areas of fiction and movies. I suspect that the primary reason is that its difficult to compellingly portray reading. After all, it’s hard to find a more internalized action. For an audience, reading not a particularly exciting visual activity. The answer in film is to either (a) make the reading an address — either to a present in-story audience or via voice over or having the reader read the actual text in question or (b) convey reading through a quick montage of cuts between the individual looking at the book/screen and then a close up of the text in motion ending with a visible “ah ha!” reaction on the face of the reader.
And, as Britt points out, 99.9% of the time when reading is only there (along with Libraries) to advance a plot point (Indiana Jones reading where the treasure is buried, or the Officers on the Death Star reading a control panel).
Second: It’s noteworthy how many great distopian and sci-fi works are based around societies willingly giving up reading. Take the examples of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the first reading and the traditional arts are abandoned for a society built on easier pleasures, in the latter reading is abandoned because it was seen as bringing the world to ruin.
I sometimes wonders how much of the popularity of this theme — beyond being a excellent hook — is because it offers a platform for the author to justify their profession. Viewed in that way these books belong to a wider genre of works-about-the-importance-of-the-works. For other examples see: plays that largely revolves around celebrating the importance of theatre, journalism about the importance of journalism, etc.
Third: While it may be true that few people seem to read in the Star Wars fictive universe, it’s equally true that the Star Wars universe has inspired untold amounts of writing and reading in the real world. Think about it: reviews of the films, novelizations, spin off fiction (textual and graphic, pro– and fan-), behind-the-scenes books, video games instructions and cheat docs, toy packaging, academic articles, and, even the contents of this post.
The characters in Star Wars lives might lack the richness of the typographic word, but their “existence” has enriched our lives and filled it with lots of reading.