Carl Sagan Tells Johnny Carson What’s Wrong with Star Wars: “They’re All White” & There’s a “Large Amount of Human Chauvinism in It” (1978)

Is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy? Different fans make different arguments, some even opting for a third way, claiming that the ever-multiplying stories of its ever-expanding fictional universe belong to neither genre. Back in 1978, the year after the release of the original Star Wars film (which no one then called “A New Hope,” let alone “Episode Four”), the question was approached by no less a popular scientific personality than Carl Sagan. It happened on national television, as the astronomer, cosmologist, writer, and television host in his own right sat opposite Johnny Carson. “The eleven-year-old in me loved them,” Sagan says in the clip above of Star WarsClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and other then-recent space-themed blockbusters. “But they could’ve made a better effort to do things right.”

Everyone remembers how Star Wars sets its stage: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” But right there, Sagan has a problem. Despite its remoteness from us, this galaxy happens also to be populated by human beings, “the result of a unique evolutionary sequence, based upon so many individually unlikely, random events on the Earth.”




So Homo sapiens couldn’t have evolved on any other planet, Carson asks, let alone one in another galaxy? “It’s extremely unlikely that there would be creatures as similar to us as the dominant ones in Star Wars.” He goes on to make a more specific critique, one publicized again in recent years as ahead of its time: “They’re all white.” That is, in the skins of most of the movie’s characters, “not even the other colors represented on the Earth are present, much less greens and blues and purples and oranges.”

Carson responds, as anyone would, by bringing up Star Warscantina scene, with its rogue’s gallery of variously non-humanoid habitués. “But none of them seemed to be in charge of the galaxy,” Sagan points out. “Everybody in charge of the galaxy seemed to look like us. I thought there was a large amount of human chauvinism in it.” That no medal is bestowed upon Chewbacca, despite his heroics, Sagan declares an example of “anti-Wookiee discrimination” — with tongue in cheek, granted, but pointing up how much more interesting science fiction could be if it relied a little less on human conventions and drew a little more from scientific discoveries. Not that Star Wars is necessarily science fiction. “It was a shootout, wasn’t it?” Carson asks. “A Western in outer space.” Johnny never did hesitate to call ’em as he saw ’em.

Related Content:

Fans Reconstruct Authentic Version of Star Wars, As It Was Shown in Theaters in 1977

The Complete Star Wars “Filmumentary”: A 6-Hour, Fan-Made Star Wars Documentary, with Behind-the-Scenes Footage & Commentary

Carl Sagan Predicts the Decline of America: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “Without Noticing, Back into Superstition & Darkness” (1995)

Carl Sagan on the Importance of Choosing Wisely What You Read (Even If You Read a Book a Week)

Blade Runner: The Pillar of Sci-Fi Cinema that Siskel, Ebert, and Studio Execs Originally Hated

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Life & Art of Hilma Af Klint: A Short Art History Lesson on the Pioneering Abstract Artist

Like many artists whose abstractions cemented their legacy, Hilma af Klint was trained to paint portraits, botanicals, and landscapes.

The naturalist works of her early adulthood depict bourgeois, late-19th century Swedish life, and, by association, the sort of subject matter and approach that were deemed most fitting for a female artist, even in a society where women were allowed to work alongside men.

But something else was afoot with Hilma, as artist and educator Paul Priestley points out in the above episode from his Art History School series.




Her 10-year-old sister’s death from the flu may have caused her to lean into an existing interest in spiritualism, but as Iris Müller-Westermann, director of Moderna Museet Malmö told The Guardian’s Kate Kellaway, the “mathematical, scientific, musical, curious” teen was likely motivated by her own thirst for knowledge as by this family tragedy:

 You have to understand this was the age when natural sciences went beyond the visible: Heinrich Hertz discovered electromagnetic waves [1886], Wilhelm Röntgen invented the x-ray [1895]…Hilma is like Leonardo – she wanted to understand who we are as human beings in the cosmos.

Her interest in the occult did not make her an outsider. Spiritualism was considered a respectable intellectual preoccupation. Abstract painters Vasily KandinskyPiet MondrianKasimir Malevich and Frantisek Kupka were also using their art to try and get at that which the eye could not see.

All but Hilma were hailed as pioneers.

The New York Times review of Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1986 exhibit The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, mentions some of their spiritual bona fides:

They were generated by such ventures into mysticism as Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Rosicrucianism, Eastern philosophy, and various Eastern and Western religions. Spiritual ideas were not peripheral to these artists’ lives, not something that happened to pop into their minds as they stood by their canvas. Kupka participated in seances and was a practicing medium. Kandinsky attended private fetes involved with magic, black masses and pagan rituals. Mondrian was a member of the Dutch Theosophical Society and lived briefly in the quarters of the French Theosophical Society in Paris. He said once that he ”got everything from the Secret Doctrine” of Theosophy, which was an attempt by its founder Helena Petrovna Blavatsky to do nothing less than read, digest and synthesize all religions. It has been known for some time how much of Mondrian’s symbolism – including the ubiquitous vertical and horizontal lines – and how much of his utopianism, was shaped by Theosophical doctrine.

Reviewer Michael Brenson devotes one sentence to Hilma, “a previously unknown Swedish artist whose somewhat mechanical abstract paintings and drawings of organic, geometrical forms were marked by Theosophy and Anthroposophy.”

Thirty-five years later, she’s receiving much more credit. As Priestley says in his video biography, Hilma, and not Kandinsky, is now hailed as the first painter to experiment with abstraction.

Would Hilma have welcomed such a distinction?

She maintained that she was but a receiving instrument for Amaliel, a “high master” from another dimension, who made contact during the séances she participated in regularly with four friends who met weekly to practice automatic drawing and writing.

Amaliel charged her with creating the artwork for the interior of a temple that was part of the high masters’ vision. The Guggenheim’s classroom materials for The Paintings for the Temple note that her friends warned Hilma against accepting this otherworldly commission, “that the intensity of this kind of spiritual engagement could drive her into madness.”

But Hilma threw herself into the assignment, producing 111 paintings during a one-and-a-half year period, claiming:

The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke.

For whatever reason, the paintings proved too much for Rudolph Steiner, the founder of the Anthroposophical Society, whom she had invited to view them, paying his travel expenses in hope that he would provide a detailed analysis and interpretation of the images. Instead, he counseled her that no one would understand them, and that the only course of action would be to keep the paintings out of sight and out of mind for fifty years. To do otherwise might endanger her health.

A disappointing response that ultimately led to the paintings being socked away for an even longer period.

Good news for Kandinsky… and possibly for Steiner.

At any rate, the competition was coerced into eliminating herself, inadvertently planting the seeds for some major, if delayed art world excitement. Hilma, who died more than forty years before the L.A. County Museum show, was not able to bask in the attention on any earthly plane.

For those curious in a take that is not entirely rooted in the art world, Lightforms Art Center in Hudson, New York hosted a recent Hilma Af Klint exhibit. Their strong ties to the Anthroposophical community make for some interesting exhibit commentary.

Related Content: 

The Complete Works of Hilma af Klint Are Getting Published for the First Time in a Beautiful, Seven-Volume Collection

New Hilma af Klint Documentary Explores the Life & Art of the Trailblazing Abstract Artist

Discover Hilma af Klint: Pioneering Mystical Painter and Perhaps the First Abstract Artist

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #95 Considers Joss Whedon’s The Nevers

Mark, Erica, and Brian discuss the HBO Max show out Victorian-era super-powered feminine outcasts, helmed and now abandoned by the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, etc. It’s jam packed with steampunk gadgets, fisticuffs, social injustice, and far too many characters and plot threads to keep track of. Given that the season was reduced to a half season in light of the pandemic, does it still work? Does knowing the complaints about Joss Whedon affect our consumption of the show? Is this a faux feminism where women must undergo torture to gain strength?

Here are a few articles we considered:

Hear more of this podcast at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Why Do Tech Billionaires Make for Good TV Villains? Pretty Much Pop #93 Considers “Made for Love,” et al.

The tech genius has become the go-to bad guy in recent films: They’re our modern mad scientists with all imaginable resources and science at their command, able to release dystopic technology to surveil, control, and possibly murder us. Even Lex Luthor was made into a “tech bro” in Batman v. Superman.

Your Pretty Much Pop hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian discuss the HBO Max series Made for Love starring Cristin Milioti, as well as Alex Garland’s Devs, Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley, and Jed Rothestein’s documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn. How does this trope work in comedy vs. serious media? How does it relate to real-life tech moguls? Can women be villains of this sort, or is a critique of toxic masculinity part of this sort of depiction?

To learn more, read what we read:

Hear more of this podcast at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Do We Need Yet More Films About Time Loops? A Pretty Much Pop Discussion (#80) of Groundhog Day and its Descendents

Tine looping, where a character is doomed to repeat the same day (or hour, or longer period) is a sci-fi trope dating back more than a century, but really entered American consciousness with the 1993 Bill Murray film Groundhog Day. Since then, and especially in the last five years, there have been numerous iterations of this idea in various genres from racial police-shooting drama to teen sex comedy. But do we need more of this? What are the philosophical ideas involved, and how do these change with tweaks to the scenario?

Mark, Erica, Brian, and returning guest Ken Gerber discuss not only the very recent and popular forays into this genre with Hulu’s Palm Springs and Netflix’s Russian Doll, but also touch on Edge of Tomorrow, Repeaters, 12:01 PM, Before I Fall, The Fare, and episodes of The Twilight Zone, Star Trek: Discovery, The X-Files, and Rick & Morty.

There are of course other film and TV uses of this trope. For a relatively full list, you can see this wiki page listing time loop films and this other wiki page discussing literary antecedents. Also see the “Groundhog Day” Loop page on tvtropes.org, and here’s a relevant reddit thread.

Here are more articles:

Watch the 12:01 PM 1990 short film. This bonus episode of the 11.22.63 podcast had a great discussion of time loop media including the Ken Grimwood novel Replay and the short story “12:01 P.M.” and its sequels. You can read the 1941 Malcolm Jameson story “Doubled and Redoubled” online. As a forerunner to the time loop idea, check out the very short 1892 children’s story “Christmas Every Day” by William Dean Howells, where time does move forward with its consequences, but it’s always Christmas!

We talked a little about Happy Death Day with its costume designer in our ep. 38 and got into time travel more generally with Ken in ep. 22 and into “weird situations” in our Twilight Zone ep. 52. You may also enjoy Wes Alwan’s (sub)Text podcast discussing the psychological implications of Groundhog Day.

Check out the time loop movie bingo card that Brian put together (with groundhog picture by Ken):

Hear more of this podcast at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

 

The CIA Has Declassified 2,780 Pages of UFO-Related Documents, and They’re Now Free to Download

Everybody knows that UFO stands for “unidentified flying object.” Coined by the United States Air Force in 1953, the term has come to stand for a wide range of phenomena that suggest we’ve been contacted by alien civilizations — and in fact has even spawned the field of ufology, dedicated to the investigation of such phenomena. But times change, and with them the approved terminology. These days the U.S. government seems to prefer the abbreviation UAP, which stands for “unidentified aerial phenomenon.” Those three words may sound more precisely descriptive, but they also provide some distance from the decades of not entirely desirable cultural associations built up around the concept of the UFO.

Yet this is hardly a bad time to be a ufologist. “Buried in the latest federal omnibus spending bill signed into law on December 27, 2020 — notable for its inclusion of coronavirus relief — is a mandate that may bring UFO watchers one step closer to finding out whether the government has been watching the skies,” writes Mental Floss’ Jake Rossen.




That same site’s Ellen Gutoskey followed up with an announcement that the CIA’s entire collection of declassified UFO documents is now available to download. You can do so at The Black Vault, a clearing house for UFO related-information run by ufologist John Greenewald Jr. These documents come to 2,780 pages in total, the release of which necessitated the filing of more than 10,000 Freedom of Information Act reports.

Samir Ferdowsi at Vice’s Motherboard quotes Greenewald describing the process as “like pulling teeth,” with results more impressive in quantity than quality. “The CIA has made it INCREDIBLY difficult to use their records in a reasonable manner,” Greenewals writes. “They offer a format that is very outdated (multi page .tif) and offer text file outputs, largely unusable,” all of which “makes it very difficult for people to see the documents, and use them, for any research purpose.” He’s thus also made available a version of the CIA’s declassified UFO documents converted into 713 PDFs. The Black Vault advises downloaders to bear in mind that “many of these documents are poorly photocopied, so the computer can only ‘see’ so much to convert for searching.”

But even with these difficulties, UFO enthusiasts have already turned up material of interest: “From a dispute with a Bosnian fugitive with alleged E.T. contact to mysterious midnight explosions in a small Russian town, the reports definitely take readers for a wild ride,” writes Ferdowsi. “One of the most interesting documents in the drop, Greenewald said, involved the Assistant Deputy Director for Science & Technology being hand-delivered some piece of information on a UFO in the 1970s.” This document, like most of the others, comes with many parts blacked out, but as Greenewald recently tweeted, “I have an open ‘Mandatory Declassification Review’ request to HOPEFULLY get some of these redactions lifted, so we can see what was hand delivered, and what his advice may be.” Ufology demands a great deal of curiosity, but an even greater deal of patience. Enter the Black Vault here.

Related Content:

The CIA Puts Hundreds of Declassified Documents About UFO Sightings Online, Plus 10 Tips for Investigating Flying Saucers

12 Million Declassified CIA Documents Now Free Online: Secret Tunnels, UFOs, Psychic Experiments & More

What Do Aliens Look Like? Oxford Astrobiologists Draw a Picture, Based on Darwinian Theories of Evolution

The Appeal of UFO Narratives: Investigative Journalist Paul Beban Visits Pretty Much Pop #14

Richard Feynman: The Likelihood of Flying Saucers

Carl Jung’s Fascinating 1957 Letter on UFOs

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Octavia Butler’s Four Rules for Predicting the Future

Image by Nikolas Coukouma, via Wikimedia Commons

If you, like me, often turn to science fiction to get more clarity about the present, past, and future, then you know you’re in good company with multiple-award-winning sci-fi author Octavia Butler. The novelist cast her gaze over it all, looking into the dark corners of American life and human behavior and drawing out stories that feel both shockingly new and familiar and true.

Sometimes Butler’s truths are hard to hear, especially when we’re living in the midst of a time she foresaw with such seeming accuracy thirty years ago in her Parable novels, two books meant to be the first parts of a trilogy about America’s greed, cruelty, and racism swallowing up its good intentions and inflated self-image.




Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are, as Butler described them, “novels that take place in a near future of increasing drug addiction and illiteracy, marked by the popularity of prisons and the unpopularity of public schools, the vast and growing gap between the rich and everyone else, and the whole nasty family of problems brought on by global warming.”

These problems include the return of debt slavery, a particularly nasty strain of Christian nationalism, and a vague but devastating environmental collapse from which there is no return. But these are also novels about hope: about survival and adaptation and empathy. Butler may have invented the plots of her post-apocalyptic future, but “I didn’t make up the problems,” she once told a student.

Science fiction writers aren’t clairvoyant, they’re just better at making observations and speculations. “All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters,” said Butler. A perspective that doesn’t also include the whole of human history is bound to miss the mark, she suggested:

Writing novels about the future doesn’t give me any special ability to foretell the future. But it does encourage me to use our past and present behaviors as guides to the kind of world we seem to be creating. The past, for example, is filled with repeating cycles of strength and weakness, wisdom and stupidity, empire and ashes. To study history is to study humanity. And to try to foretell the future without studying history is like trying to learn to read without bothering to learn the alphabet.

Butler goes on to discuss her method for predicting the future—so to speak—which anyone can learn to do with enough study and insight (that’s the hard part). Thom Dunn at Boing Boing has helpfully broken down her essay’s main points into four concise rules:

  • Learn from the past
  • Respect the law of consequences
  • Be aware of your perspective
  • Count on the surprises

You can read the full essay here and get to work on your own forecasting abilities. But in order to fully understand Butler’s project, it is essential never to despair. “The one thing that I and my main characters never do when contemplating the future is give up hope,” she writes. In answer to her student’s anguished question, if things are going to get so bad “what’s the answer?” Butler sagely replied, “there isn’t one…. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

via Boing Boing

Related Content: 

Behold Octavia Butler’s Motivational Notes to Self

Why Should We Read Pioneering Sci-Fi Writer Octavia Butler? An Animated Video Makes the Case

Octavia Butler’s 1998 Dystopian Novel Features a Fascistic Presidential Candidate Who Promises to “Make America Great Again”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Dune Graphic Novel: Experience Frank Herbert’s Epic Sci-Fi Saga as You’ve Never Seen It Before

Like so many major motion pictures slated for a 2020 release, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune has been bumped into 2021. But fans of Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction saga haven’t had to go entirely without adaptations this year, since last month saw the release of the first Dune graphic novel. Written by Kevin J. Anderson and Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert, co-authors of twelve Dune prequel and sequel novels, this 160-page volume constitutes just the first part of a trilogy intended to visually retell the story of the first Dune book. This tripartite breakdown seems to have been a wise move: the many adaptors (and would-be) adaptors of the linguistically, mythologically, and technologically complex novel have found out over the decades, it’s easy to bite off more Dune than you can chew.

Audiences, too, can only digest so much Dune at a sitting themselves. “The particular challenge to adapting Dune, especially the early part, is that there is so much information to be conveyed — and in the novel it is done in prose and dialog, rather than action — we found it challenging to portray visually,” says Anderson in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter.




“Fortunately, the landscape is so sweeping, we could show breathtaking images as a way to convey that background.” This is the landscape of the desert planet Arrakis, source of a substance known as “spice.” Used as a fuel for space travel, spice has become the most precious substance in the galaxy, and its control is bitterly struggled over by numerous royal houses. (Any resemblance to Earth’s petroleum is, of course, entirely coincidental.)

The main narrative thread of the many running through Dune follows Paul Atreides, scion of the House Atreides. With his family sent to run Arrakis, Paul finds himself at the center of political intrigue, planetary revolution, and even a clandestine scheme to create a superhuman savior. Though Herbert and Anderson have produced a faithful adaptation, the graphic novel “trims the story down to its most iconic touchstone scenes,” as Thom Dunn puts it in his Boing Boing review (adding that it happens to focus in “a lot of the same scenes as David Lynch did with his gloriously messy film adaptation”). This streamlining also employs techniques unique to graphic novels: to retain the book‘s shifting omniscient narration, for example, “differently colored caption boxes present inner monologues from different characters like voiceovers so as not to interrupt the scene.”

As if telling the story of Dune at a graphic novel’s pace wasn’t task enough, Anderson, Herbert and their collaborators also have to convey its unusual and richly imagined world — in not just words, of course, but images. “Dune has had a lot of visual interpretations over the years, from Lynch’s bizarre pseudo-period piece treatment to the modern televised mini-series’ more gritty interpretation,” writes Polygon’s Charlie Hall. While “Villeneuve’s vibe appears to take its inspiration from more futuristic science fiction — all angles and chunky armor,” the graphic novel’s artists Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín “opt for something a bit more steampunk.” These choices all further what Brian Herbert describes as a mission to “bring a young demographic to Frank Herbert’s incredible series.” Such readers have shown great enthusiasm for stories of teenage protagonists who grow to assume a central role in the struggle between good and evil — not that, in the world of Dune, any conflict is quite so simple.

Related Content:

Watch the First Trailer for Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s Adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Classic Sci-Fi Novel

A Side-by-Side, Shot-by-Shot Comparison of Denis Villeneuve’s 2020 Dune and David Lynch’s 1984 Dune

Why You Should Read Dune: An Animated Introduction to Frank Herbert’s Ecological, Psychological Sci-Fi Epic

The 14-Hour Epic Film, Dune, That Alejandro Jodorowsky, Pink Floyd, Salvador Dalí, Moebius, Orson Welles & Mick Jagger Never Made

Moebius’ Storyboards & Concept Art for Jodorowsky’s Dune

The Dune Coloring & Activity Books: When David Lynch’s 1984 Film Created Countless Hours of Peculiar Fun for Kids

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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