Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bragging about a sub-parsec performance

Recent posts over at Q-Majin? have me thinking about astronomy. So...

I'm not a fan of the Star Wars movies. I've only seen episodes 4 5 and 6 and I was thoroughly bored.

But I will call off one judgment that I've held against the writing for about 15 years. Knowing how fans of sci-fi run along the bleeding edge of detailed criticism I never assumed to be the only person to notice the line.

Here's the line that bothered me.

It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

A lot has been written about this line. And there are several claims. Some of the more common observations:

  1. A parsec is a unit of distance not space--so the Lucas made a mistake.

  2. Distance is the correct measurement
    • Han Solo is bragging about doing a treacherous run in the shortest distance (distance vs linear displacement)--so Han Solo is a skilled pilot maneuvering an agile ship most efficiently (and speed isn't so relevant).

    • The speed is relevant because the run requires "catching" other ships and delivering cargo over the shortest distance.

  3. The line shows that Han Solo is a bigmouth--not an astronomer.

  4. Space and time are the same thing. Einstein said so.

Even those who defend the line commonly admit that the explanations in later books are retcons: retroactive continuities. Those are explanations that are provided after the fact because a storyline is otherwise illogical.

I haven't heard the commentary track on Episode IV So I'm relying on Wikipedia for the the citation. According to the article George Lucas explains on the DVD that hyperspace cannot be traveled in a straight line but the pilot that can maneuver his ship closest to black holes and obstacles is fastest. The question remains: did he have that in mind when he wrote the line?

I say it doesn't matter. We don't need to rely on an author's argument (outside the work proper) to accept the cohesion and coherence of a plot.

My favorite defense of the line is #3. It's the most elegant. Most online scripts make a point of providing stage directions for Obi Wan Kenobi to give Han Solo a knowing look (in fact almost all the scripts I found are obviously based on a common source--the stage directions are repeated verbatim). Perhaps Alec Guinness just saved the scene. If Lucas had written that "look" into the stage directions he would not have needed the retcon explanation. In this case (if the report regarding Lucas' commentary is accurate) the readers and critics have succeeded in proving that an author often does well to keep quiet for the sake of the work.


  1. Next you're going to start complaining about the stereotypical representation of Jawas.

    I do agree with you about point 3, though being no astronomer myself, I had been happily ignorant of Han's error. I also admit that I have no idea what the Kessel Run is.

    Welcome back. Sorry you couldn't get any drug money.

  2. By the way, it is absolutely hysterical that someone who is "not a fan" of the series would devote an entire post to this discussion.

  3. Good to be back. Though no richer than before. You guys took a little break from town. Are you back?

    Yes I felt a little guilty about posting this. First--I have just barely broken the surface of the discussion about Han Solo's line. Second--since I'm not a fan the only possible explanation is that I'm a nitpicker.

    I think I remember the line only because I saw the movie after having taken some astronomy classes as an undergrad.

  4. We're back--battered, but back. Give a call if you'd like to meet up. We have many more games (or repeats of Die Siedler von Catan) to tempt you and Buffy with.

    If your post only touches the surface of the parsec discussion, then I am terrified when I think of what the whole discussion might entail. But I am equally terrified when I see what scholars do to "serious" literature. I suppose I am poor scholar and, apparently, not a very thorough Star Wars fan.

  5. I HATE Star's nice to know there are other people out there who don't care for it...

    You guys are back now??? If so, tell Buffy I have Monday off work!


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