Book review: The World According to Star Wars
Author cleverly uses Star Wars universe to describe global politics, how we behave as humans and US constitutional lawmaking
The World According to Star Wars
by Cass Sunstein
Dey Street Books
The Star Wars series is hugely popular, but bestselling author and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein argues in his new book that it’s so much more than just a popular film franchise.
The heart of his book is revealed in the preface: “In his wild fever-dream Auguries of Innocence, William Blake wrote of seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand.’ Star Wars is a grain of sand; it contains a whole world.”
The World According to Star Wars uses the films’ fictional world to tell us about our own world and how it works in many different ways, from the way popular movies and songs become successful and how boys need their mothers to behavioural economics, the rise of resistance fighters, and US constitutional law.
Sunstein is a law professor at Harvard who has served as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and co-authored Nudge, a bestselling book on behavioural economics with the economist Richard Thaler.
The World According to Star Wars succeeds because it’s a perfect marriage of Sunstein’s love of Star Wars, which he developed after he started this book, and his wide-ranging understanding of how humans behave, global politics and US law. There are plenty of books analysing Star Wars fandom, and how the story relates to religions, science fiction and philosophy – but only Sunstein could have written this.
Star Wars is clearly popular. Sunstein writes about how everyone wanted to talk about Star Wars when he was in Taiwan in late 2015 to give lectures and meet former president Ma Ying-jeou and new president Tsai Ing-wen, and when he was giving speeches about public policy and regulation in Copenhagen.
“If you want to bond with someone you don’t know, try talking about Star Wars,” Sunstein writes. “It’s a lot better than the weather, and it’s likely to work.”
He jumps into a discussion of why Star Wars and hugely popular works of art like the Mona Lisa and the Harry Potter books succeed: is it because they speak to people at the time (such as how people wanted something like Star Wars to give them hope after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jnr, Malcolm X, and two Kennedys), because influential people create a bandwagon effect so more people like something, or because something like Star Wars is so good it would have succeeded anyway?
As the book continues, it addresses topics that are seemingly further and further away from Star Wars itself: whether we can choose our fates or whether it’s determined by destiny; how people become extremists; and how you can use tricks of psychology and behavioural economics to guide people to do whatever you want.
These discussions are easy to digest because it’s all tied to Star Wars, and you don’t even need to be a fan of the franchise to get it. Sunstein explains enough of the plot details that his analyses will make sense to “those who like Star Wars, and those who neither love nor like Star Wars”. The latter group includes Sunstein’s wife Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations.
This book is intended for those two groups of people, but if you want to enjoy this book to the fullest, check out the seven films. There’s even a chapter discussing the best order to watch them in.
Sunstein explains how George Lucas did not plan out important plot twists like the famed “I am your father” scene, or Luke and Leia being twins (hence it’s a little creepy now when seeing Luke kissing Leia on screen) when he created the Star Wars universe.
That idea of the planning fallacy is revisited much later in the book in the engaging chapter where Sunstein talks about how the creation of Star Wars films (especially The Force Awakens and future instalments) is a little like the development of constitutional law in the US.
“Constitutional law is full of ‘I am your father’ moments – twists and turns, reversals, unanticipated choices, seeds and kernels and whole new narratives,” Sunstein writes. “Judges are the authors of episodes, facing a background that they are powerless to change. But they are nonetheless able to exercise a lot of creativity.”
In landmark decisions deciding freedom of speech, same-sex marriage, and other timely topics, “the Supreme Court built on an existing narrative. It did not start one. It couldn’t! It’s not allowed to do that.”
The narrative structure and personal anecdotes about how Sunstein’s children enjoy Star Wars make the book uniquely his.
Before I started this book, I was reading Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, a 1997 companion book to a Star Wars exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. That book has the advantage of stunning visuals, including concept art and stills from the first three films, but it doesn’t have much of a narrative thread. That’s why Sunstein’s book should be a joy to read for Star Wars fans and non-fans alike.