Author and essayist Ryan Britt will be the one who brings balance to “the Force.” Like Picard serving as Arbiter during the Klingon Civil War, this surveyor of science fiction minutiae provides assertions that mediate between some of the genre’s most legendary disputes. Britt, a talented storyteller and keen critic, has dissected deeply woven—and somewhat unacknowledged—narrative devices from your favorite bits of pop culture, shedding light on unseen consequences, character flaws and what-if scenarios. With his new book, Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths, he follows curious ponderings up to potential (and sometimes inevitable) conclusions.
If you really think about it, do you ever see Luke Skywalker reading a book? Doesn’t everyone communicate in the Star Wars galaxy through holograms? And if it’s true that Luke is illiterate, do you think Han Solo has some recreational novels on the Falcon’s night-stand? Pfft!
That’s just the launch pad for Britt’s entertaining batch of essays, positing new takes on Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek, Doctor Who and Jar Jar Binks, all while including some seriously endearing (and seriously hilarious) autobiographical episodes from his own adolescence.
Paste: I’m reading these essays and I thought to myself, was this guy on the debate team? He’s so persuasive!
Ryan Britt: Yes! I was Lincoln-Douglas State Champion in Phoenix, Arizona, my senior year in high school.?
Paste: I was always struck at how well thought-out and balanced these ideas, arguments and revelations were. You’re sensible and objective in your written trials of iconic figures, living or fictitious, who have wound up attracting some serious derision.
Britt: Something that is important to me about criticism, particularly when it comes to geek culture, even when we talk about Star Wars, is that everybody’s gonna have an opinion about something like Star Wars. And that’s awesome. My batch of opinions are just some of those, but I do think that the word choice matters. I think that there’s a lot of online commentary about the “low-brow” entertainment or “mass media” entertainment that passes for interesting but isn’t well written. Just because we’re talking about Star Wars doesn’t mean we won’t write an essay or article that is not only entertaining, but can be conveyed effectively to someone who doesn’t know anything about Star Wars.
Paste: Talk about welcoming new fans to your debate table…Here we are, with The Force Awakens coming out and you’re digging deep into the fundamental nature of the galaxies’ vocabulary, its ostensible illiteracy…But so much more, like character arcs, scrapped screenplay drafts and the existential gravitas behind, say, a lightsaber fight.
Britt: It would have been a bit of a different book if we’d released it later, but I have always wanted, with writing criticism for a blog for years, to finally do something that was a bit more permanent. There’s something so harsh about reading things online, sometimes. When you’re writing for readers of an actual book, even an eBook, it softens your prose and it made it want to be more fun. I have friends who admit they don’t know shit about Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes and yet could still get something out of this book, which is what I’d hoped for.
Paste: There is a thrill, almost a guilty pleasure, when we fellow geeks read an eloquent dissection of something that is utterly geeky. It brings the debates out of the basements, but, as you said, you’re trying to present something that’s meticulously conceived.
Britt: I was recently thinking about the fashion photographer for The New York Times, Bill Cunningham, and there’s this quote that I’ll paraphrase badly, but, people would say that what he did was “nonsense,” shooting fashion photography. But, the way he put it, there’s value in just documenting [anything that’s a part of culture] as well as one can, because that alone can help people get through their day. That’s effective in getting by in life. And, I’m paraphrasing that terribly, but still, the idea that something that is “fluff” is somehow not valuable is crazy! So, I was inspired by Chuck Klosterman, Rob Sheffield and Sarah Vowell, who each wrote personal essays and analyses; in Vowell’s case with history and with Klosterman and Sheffield it was rock music. I wanted to do that with sci-fi and fantasy.
Paste: And you know how sensitive certain sci-fi or fantasy fans can be, in a post-Jar-Jar world.
Britt: Right, I didn’t want to do this from an angry fan-boy perspective. Some people might glance at the title and be confused or think I’m making fun of Star Wars. Of course I am making fun of Star Wars, but I’m making fun because I love Star Wars. I feel that those knee-jerk opinions that people have, or that they even pretend to have, should [be examined]. Why am I so mad about The Phantom Menace? Or, why do I immediately assume that Superman Returns is awful? Is it?
Paste: It’s a hell of a lot better than Man Of Steel.
Britt: I totally agree!
Paste: But there’s value here, not only in documenting culture, but starting these new conversations, whether it’s about Captain Kirk or Sherlock Holmes or the new iterations of Doctor Who
Britt: Right. It’s changing the conversations. These things are all part of mass culture now. It isn’t “in the basement” anymore, so, as a result, let’s start taking ourselves a little bit more seriously in regards to these aspects of our pop culture intake.
Paste: You’re a writer, a teacher, a debate champ…You could have gone the fiction route for your first book, but you focused on your skills as an essayist and critic of pop culture here. Talk about sharpening that specific axe for that specific kind of grinding.
Britt: I lean a bit on [Isaac] Asimov in this book. There’s lots of problems with how [Asimov] conducted his fiction, but he was a very progressive and liberal thinker for his time—really out-of-the-box thinking when it came to his nonfiction. What I like about the way he describes essays—and it comes from the introduction to his book Quasar, Quasar Burning Bright, which was like his 100th book (the guy was agoraphobic and that certainly allowed him to get all that writing done)—he said that essays are “attempts.” I find that idea freeing, that I could be wrong. So, I want to be sure that I am having a conversation with myself in the essay that lets me know that I might be wrong with certain points. Taking things that are really contradictory and yet they exist, even something as gargantuan in importance as Star Wars, you can have different feelings about it in the same day or even the same minute. And that’s true even for all of the most relevant pop-art, like the Beatles. Say, I’m not so crazy about all this John & Paul focus, or what if Brian Epstein had lived? I have all these different feelings about all these different things, so I try to be as honest about it without letting the essays get too schizophrenic.
Paste: You touch on a lot of topics here, including the mobius-strip time paradoxes of Back To The Future and a very feasible could-have-been world without Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But, I think with Star Wars mania at fever pitch now, it’s the last essay that asks a vital question: What kind of Star Wars fans are we going to be now?
Britt: The last essay was probably the most challenging. I wanted to do something that was up to the minute but also retread my personal journey of being a former hater. You gotta really get over that at some point.
Paste: I did enjoy your takedown of Return of the Jedi. That resonated deeply with my former hater.
Britt: It’s one of those things, you know? How do I reconcile my past feelings for this, when I used to think it was my favorite movie? How do I love this the way that I want to love it? Something like The Big Bang Theory can cast geeks in a quippy light. I wanted to have a balance, because I didn’t want to be a hater, here, but there’s just something that bothers me about that show. People who are actually hardcore geeks don’t even watch it; there’s this huge gulf between that presentation of a perceived geek and someone who really loves Star Wars or Star Trek, and that’s because the reality is that they’re normal people. So, I’d like that Sheldon caricature to go away. We played with the idea of actually not using the word geek in the title, because there’s something pejorative about it. That’s why I wanted to write the essays the way that I did…I’m still on the fence about it.
Paste: But there’s a subtext of encouragement here.. Instead of letting “the freak-flag fly,” it’s like just letting your fan-flag fly.
Britt: Right. Why do we have to keep pretending this stuff is weird at all? I think that’s my thing.
Paste: And it’s not exactly a gotcha-moment to point out that no one seems to be reading much in the Star Wars galaxy.
Britt: I’m talking not just about Star Wars with that essay but a general idea of info-gaps that we have in our culture now. The trailers seem to show that some Jedi have, once again, slipped back to the way of the Sith…because nobody’s keeping track of this shit. They don’t keep records, they’re not informed, they have no idea and that’s a blunder. I think Star Wars holds up a weird mirror to our own culture. Even Anakin was quoting George W. Bush in Revenge of the Sith. Star Wars has always had these big metaphors and themes that mirror what we’re concerned about, whether unconsciously or not. I think the culture is so hungry for hope. The new film looks like it’s not going to be a downer, like Man of Steel or so many other reboots. With this, we love the Force, it’s awesome, right? I think that sentiment seems to be touching into a general zeitgeist weariness of just being done with that kinda thing.
Paste: We’re ready to believe again, Ryan.
Britt: I mean, these actors [Daisy Ridley, Johnny Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver] are just so charming. And the biggest implication here is that, with the exception of The Matrix or Avatar, this is the first film in 15 years, in terms of geek culture or sci-fi/fantasy, that is dealing with entirely new characters and is not a reboot or adaptation. It’s been so long since people have been this excited for an original sci-fi story. And, like everyone else, I have very specific predictions that I think are correct, of course.