Finding Jabba: Rediscovering Star Wars, Space Opera, and Myself

One of my earliest memories is of Jabba the Hutt. I can’t have been more than two years old, playing behind the couch while my parents watched Return of the Jedi on their 13-inch TV. Deep guffaws echoed in the living room. It sounded a little like Santa Claus, only…wrong. Peering around the furniture, I stared transfixed at the vaguely humanoid face on screen. Who was this creature, and where was this world? My passion for science fiction ignited in that moment. Today I’m an award-winning author in the genre, but I started out as a humble Star Wars fan.

I spent the first decade of my life obsessed with Star Wars. Make-believe play frequently took me to a galaxy far, far away. Bike rides turned into speeder chases. Snowstorms invited reenactments of scenes on Planet Hoth. “Nerfherder” was the first expletive I ever unleashed on my sister. Action figures went everywhere from the sandbox (Tatooine) to the bathtub (Dagobah) to sleeping on my pillow, where they probably dreamed of a calmer “mint in box” existence. I watched the films so many times that, to this day, I’m conditioned to expect the opening blast of a John Williams theme after I hear the drumroll of 20th Century Fox.

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The author circa 1997, wearing a Star Wars t-shirt and sketching an Ewok. Thankfully, there is no photographic evidence of the improvised Princess Leia slave bikini I improvised from bandanas and dress-up jewelry.

Forget Cinderella and Snow White: the princess I idolized packed a laser gun. My father, ever indulgent of my imagination, even bought me a toy blaster at the last remaining Woolworths in town. The white and blue plastic casing lit up in red when I squeezed the satisfyingly heavy trigger, firing bursts of obnoxious sound all over the family abode. Dad crafted a holster from cardboard, covered it in duct tape for a chrome finish, and inscribed it with “Princess Leia Organa” in permanent marker. (I still have it.)

This kind of family involvement made Star Wars inextricable from my childhood memories. My parents, fans since the introduction of A New Hope scrolled over movie screens in 1977, regaled us with the original film experience:

“Seeing that destroyer come over our heads in the opening scene…wow!”

“We had to wait two years to find out if Darth Vader was Luke’s father!”

“Until Star Wars, the most high-tech sci-fi we had was ‘beam me up, Scotty’!”

They took us to see the 30th anniversary re-release of the trilogy and even led a family pilgrimage to the Smithsonian Air and Space museum in Washington, DC to venerate the geek relics in the “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” exhibit. But I still longed to experience the excitement of a first-run Star Wars film. It seemed the day had come when The Phantom Menace debuted. I wanted to like it. I really did. But the prequel underwhelmed me and subsequent installments disappointed even further.

Maybe it was all the CGI, or just my penchant for teenaged contempt, but I disengaged from Star Wars. The universe that once felt rich and immersive now seemed like a thin caricature of itself. I lamented the original films’ superiority with the tragic ennui of a culture critic, the same tone I used for statements like “ugh, Jewel was sooooo much better as a folk singer, she totally sold out.” Other epics captured my imagination, namely Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I still loved science fiction, but my tastes shifted toward social dystopias that validated my adolescent disaffection.

Science fiction still dominated my writing, too, but in college I found myself battling an academic “empire” that banned the genre in creative writing workshops and attempted to freeze my rebellious imagination in carbonite. I didn’t think much about Star Wars until 2012, when Lucasfilm sold the franchise to Disney. My initial reaction was utter horror.  My beloved childhood universe would be relegated to puerile Sunday morning television; my former heroine Leia, reimagined with a tiara and an anatomically improbable waistline, would be banished to the pink aisle alongside the other princesses.

The announcement of a new film trilogy only deepened the dread, although my curiosity stirred a bit when I learned they’d entrusted the project to J.J. Abrams. His success with Star Trek had proved him capable of handling cult reboots with an alchemical blend of innovation and homage, while movies like Super 8 demonstrated an even rarer quality: understanding that the heart of good sci-fi lies not in exotic planets and flashy space battles, but in characters’ journeys. With Abrams at the helm, I felt—dare I say it?—a new hope. Still, I found it hard to muster much enthusiasm. The prequel debacle had sorely shaken my faith. It made not only Star Wars but the entire space opera genre a cultural laughingstock. How could I recover from such apostasy?

Devout people often speak of “childlike faith”. I don’t think I ever fully grasped that concept until this fall, when Star Wars merchandise began inundating stores.

“Can I have this for Christmas?” I squealed over a remote control X-Wing fighter in Costco, while my husband loaded cereal into the cart and pretended not to know me.

Anyone who knows me will attest that behind my remorseless pragmatism and cynical snark is a hyperactive kid, and the parade of Star Wars-themed artifacts reawakened this part of my nature. As if toys weren’t enough, the commercial brains behind the franchise were savvy enough to recognize they now had two generations of adult fans with money to burn. Both the inner nine-year-old and the exterior twenty-nine-year-old delighted in a Death Star waffle maker, wookie bathrobes, or Lightsaber chopsticks. Silly material artifacts reactivated all the old neural connections that associated Star Wars with awe and happiness.

So when I take my seat for The Force Awakens this evening, I’ll still be a little apprehensive.  I may never have the same perfect acceptance of its fictions that I had as a child, but I also have a more refined appreciation of all it offers. After all these years, I think I’ve figured out why Jabba’s chortling mug initially captivated me: because it touched the essence of what good science fiction does. It shows us a distorted reflection of ourselves. It challenges us, sometimes mocks us. It takes us out of our world so that we can look back at it from a new vantage. Space opera reminds us there is wonder in the universe and invites us to share it with people we love.

Fandom shouldn’t be a clandestine fixation. It’s a communal joy. Releasing the film a week before Christmas allowed me to incorporate it into the holiday visit with my family: I get to take my parents to see Star Wars. The circle, and the nerd-stalgia, will be complete.  Whatever the movie’s critical reception, I’m enjoying my re-acquaincance with Star Wars. My duct-tape holster may be long-disintegrated, but my space opera fan’s heart beats strong and merry again. And who knows? Maybe there’s even a remote-control Millennium Falcon waiting for me under the tree.

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