A big disconnect I have with geek culture is that I don’t share their taste in fiction. I think the most celebrated sci-fi and fantasy stories are just bad. For instance, Star Wars.
This will be a spoiler-free discussion, entirely avoiding reference Episode VII, and focusing purely on a common defense of the original Star Wars trilogy, which is that it was “groundbreaking”. To me, this is not a defense of Star Wars, but a condemnation.
When you praise Star Wars as groundbreaking for its time, it doesn’t really function as praise, but as an explanation. It explains why other people value Star Wars. More to the point, it explains away why other people value Star Wars.
Other people like Star Wars because they lived through the time that the movies were released, and therefore were amazed by how groundbreaking it was within that context. I, on the other hand, have never lived in that context, and therefore have no reason to share their valuation.
However, the explanation doesn’t entirely work. Many of the people offering this defense of Star Wars are, like me, too young to have lived through its original release. I can only speculate why:
- Some people are strongly affected by empathy for previous generations. If you imagine people in the 70s and 80s being astounded by Star Wars, that might make the movie more enjoyable. Some people had parents who were very enthusiastic about Star Wars, and that enthusiasm understandably rubbed off on them.
- On a meta-level, if fiction is praised as groundbreaking long after it loses its novelty, that could encourage new fiction to try out new ideas, rather than rehashing old ones.
- Some people don’t really know why they like what they like, and will offer inaccurate explanations.
Personally, I believe in value that is transient. When a work of fiction is novel in some way, I am willing to praise it as such. And then when the novelty wears off, I will stop praising it for novelty, although it could perhaps be praised on other grounds.
We are all well-acquainted with the fact that taste is subjective, and that different people have different tastes. But another consequence of subjectivity is that value can change over time. Just because something is great doesn’t mean that it needs to continue to be great for all time.