In the Star Wars universe, there’s a class of characters known as droids. They’re robots, manufactured, created, bought and sold. They are also entirely capable of sentience, complex tasks, and, most importantly, they can feel pain, distress, and anxiety. There is at no point in any of the Star Wars media I have seen
— which, considering my antipathy towards the entire franchise, is a lot —
do we get a meaningful description of why these droids are the way they are. I’ve been told that R2D2 is the way it is because it’s gone without being wiped periodically, which doesn’t really help things in any way. ‘Cos if R2D2 develops an advanced personality and his own peculiarities if he’s not wiped then that means that all the other droids in the world are just these nascent individuals, building an identity that is then actively suppressed by the people who can buy and sell them, and do, and scrap them when they fail to provide adequate utility.
Setting aside the whole culture of robot slavery for just a moment, we do see manufacturing plants and hear model numbers for these characters. It’s implied, to some extent, that R2D2 isn’t a name, it’s a code, and it’s a code for signifying this particular R2 unit, and we hear it’s called an R2 unit. There are hypothetically, a bunch of them, and with a two digit appelation including numbers we could have up to 1300 of them spread across this entire Galaxy Far Far Away. That’s probably a lot if we’re talking about, say, building a prop in a movie theatre, but it’s really not many if we’re talking about a common piece of ship piloting equipment manufactured at scale for a galaxy-spanning empire of I’m going to guess, more people than live in New York.
But the thing is, my dishwasher is, after a fashion, a robot that exists to fulfill a function in my house. It can take orders, it can report failures, and it can tell me when it’s done a task. It can’t load itself, but it’s coordinated by a simple computer that I can interface with, and do the job of a human better than a human can do with the same tools available. At no point in the crafting of it, the manufacture of its components and the design of the systems that work with it, did anyone think,
“You know what, it should be able to scream.”
That was a thing you had to choose to put into it! That’s a thing that you had to deliberately decide to do with your robot design, to add to the way it can work, to choose to make it that whatever interface it has is something that has the ‘scream in pain’ function. And that’s for a device that may in situations be called upon to go places where humans can’t go, and where they might get damaged!
And now we have to talk about the culture of robot slavery, because there’s also like, other kinds of slavery in this setting, slavery that’s widespread and common enough that I haven’t seen a single piece of media in the space that doesn’t mention or intersect with it. It’s not just the dystopia of the Empire that thinks slavery is okay, there are numerous communities that have slavery and nobody really thinks that’s a problem. Jedi may save a slave, but they don’t do anything completely morally justifiable like killing a slaver and leaving, because The Force.
‘Well you don’t know that would make things better’ don’t I though? I know the world would feature minus one slaver, and it’s not like the slave is a non-factor here. In fact, lots of slaves would take things into their own hands if say, someone could get them weapons, y’know, hint hint.
Basically, the robot slavery in Star Wars isn’t a problem because it’s just more slavery. Nobody in the universe is really doing anything about the slavery, because we see it at any point in time, for any reason. It’s also weird because it’s not like we see slavery being in any way meaningful for profit or practiced on scales sufficient for industrial production, except the slavery of the clone troopers.
I mean, they’re owned by an army and deployed as objects and don’t have rights to choose another life, they’re very much slaves.
A while ago I said that Star Wars defies material analysis, and I still mean that, because it’s a stupid universe where things don’t make sense materially. It’s an emotional world. It’s a world where how things feel in the last five minutes and the next five minutes are the important things, and getting those emotions, attuning to those emotions are important. The world doesn’t have to get better or respond to things like economic concerns, because that’s a world of material conditions. It’s a world of feelings.
A world of feelings can make the reformation of Darth Vader meaningful; he was fighting Luke and then he changed sides and he died looking at his son and then we see his ghost in the celebration and that’s a big change and it feels right. The second you think ‘hey, didn’t this guy murder a room full of children, who are not showing up here in the cool ghosts party,’ it sort of ruins that moment.
Fundamentally, Star Wars is not really a franchise where the stories actually benefit from being explained. They either make sense to you in the most immediate sense or they don’t make sense at all. Every single attempt to explain a thing in Star Wars has made the whole world worse. R2D2 feels things because it’s a character and C3PO can have anxiety because it’s funny and nobody needed to design those things because they’re not robots, they’re people.
Everything in it sucks because it sucks, and that’s okay, because it needs to suck so you can show characters triumphantly saving this world that sucks and not making any changes to it, because the saving the world feels good, regardless of how the world, itself, feels.
Why’s it work that way?
Because there’s a story, making it work that way.
It’s called the Force.