My younger son and I have ongoing and endless discussions about Star Wars, the principal folktale in which he finds meaning. When his brother was around the same age, he demanded that I tell him and re-tell him the story of the Three Little Pigs. This one waits for a pause in the dinner conversation every day, then turns to me and says, “Daddy, talk to me about Star Wars.”
I have retold the plot of Star Wars (aka “Episode IV: A New Hope”) so much that I have started switching POVs to stay sane. Well, I say, once upon a time, there was a pilot named Han Solo... Or: Once upon a time, there was a politician and spy named Leia...
But lately, playing around with his toys, he’s been asking me a question I can’t really answer. He has raised, semi-inadvertently, a crucial problem with the entire techno-cosmology of the universe. He wants to know where the pilot goes in his little plastic Vulture Droid. I tell him there is no pilot, that the Vulture Droid flies itself. Oh, he says. Why do pilots go in the other spaceships?
There is no logical answer. This is a challenge far beyond the dumb discontinuities introduced through the overreach of the prequel trilogy (such as R2-D2’s rocket-boosted flying ability, which would have come in handy if he’d had it in the “later” events of the earlier movies). The Vulture Droid does not represent some technology unimaginable in Episodes “IV” through “VI”; it simply naturally extends the technology that was already there.
If a rolling canister the size of R2-D2 can be sentient, who does need a space pilot? Nothing should stop the spaceships from having built-in sentient technology of their own. What sense does it make to have an astromech droid serve as a plug-in copilot and mechanic, rather than integrating that technology directly into the space fighter? It can’t be that sentient-robot technology is too rarefied and expensive, not if you can buy an R unit at a Jawa flea market to help out around your farm.
So why do the characters ever have to struggle with dumb machines? Why can’t Luke’s X-wing fire the proton torpedo* all by itself? Why can’t the Falcon just tell Han that the hyperdrive is broken? Or repair it on its own? It took me 37 years to figure out that this makes no sense. It took my kid three.