Is this the moment that inspired the Force in Star Wars?

Damien Walter writes on technology, culture and scifi for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches the Rhetoric of Story.

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Much has been written about the origins of Star Wars in ancient mythology, via the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell. But the blockbuster movies’ origins in modern mythology are sometimes forgotten.

The Foundation saga by Isaac Asimov is one of the most influential science fiction stories ever written. It inspired classic storytelling from Frank Herbert’s Dune to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, and is an ancestor of many contemporary takes on space opera including Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

“In thousands of details, Star Wars seems to be set in the universe of Asimov’s Foundation.”

The Foundation saga can be a little off-putting for today’s reader. The first volume is exceedingly dry and told almost entirely in exposition, in long conversations between bureaucrats discussing the fate of the galaxy. But as the story develops in Foundation and Empire then Second Foundation, and the young Isaac Asimov becomes a little more interested in human beings as characters, the Foundation takes on a different tone.

The resemblances between Foundation and Star Wars are clear, and not all that surprising. The novels are well known to have been influence on George Lucas. But at times you wonder if the Asimov estate should be getting a royalty from Disney on the Star Wars money machine. Characters like Captain “Han” Pritcher (later promoted to General!) seem directly lifted in places. In thousands of details, Star Wars seems to be set in the universe of Asimov’s Foundation.

Perhaps the most interesting influence of Foundation over Star Wars is “The Force”, the power that connects all things in the universe, and gives the Jedi order and it’s opponents the Sith, their mental powers. The Jedi are remarkably similar to the Second Foundation, a secret order of psychic humans, and the Sith are mirrored in the Mule, a mutant psychic who rises to dominate the galaxy.

Attempting to describe the psychic powers of the Second Foundation and the Mule, Asimov repeatedly resorts to describing them as a “force” or “mental force”. The first ultimate conflict between the Mule and the Second Foundation is startlingly similar to a Jedi vs. Sith battle, although without the light-sabres.

It’s not hard to see how Lucas, inspired by Asimov’s brilliant imagination, took the “mental force” of the Second Foundation and re-invented simply as The Force of the Jedi.

Star Wars reads in many ways like a simplified version of Asimov’s Foundation. The latter’s complex ideas about the evolution of human civilisation are reduced in the former to a simplistic conflict of Evil Empire vs. Heroic Republic. Where Asimov gets bogged down in explaining his concepts through the mouths of his characters, Star Wars substitutes sword fights and space battles.

For any Star Wars fan who hasn’t encountered The Foundation saga, it’s a highly recommended read. Isaac Asimov, like many great science fiction authors, was a brilliant but unconventional writer. His fiction lacks many of the things – like complex characters – that readers often look for in any novel. His treatment of female characters mirrors his tarnished reputation as a human being. But as a powerhouse imagineer of science fiction, his reputation is untouchable. And with a new tv adaptation on the way, may soon be rediscovered by a new generation of readers.

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Writing the 21st century myth

Damien Walter, writer on sci-fi and geek culture for The Guardian, BBC, WIRED and graduate of the Clarion writers workshop, leads a journey into scifi and fantasy storytelling.

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Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.

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