The Tragedy of Droids

It’s not really a Star Wars story unless there’s a lovable or memorable droid stealing the spotlight. But, when you really stop and think about it, there’s also something profoundly tragic about the role artificial lifeforms play in the Star Wars universe.

Race in American Science Fiction by Isiah Lavender III
Imagining Slaves and Robots in Literature, Film, and Pop Culture by Gregory Jerome Hampton
The Cambridge Companion to Slavery in American Literature (Chapter 15) Beyond the Borders of the Neo-Slave Narrative by Jeffrey Allen Tucker
Asimov on Science Fiction in Science Fiction Digest, Oct-Nov 1981
• Janelle Monae’s “Many Moons” music video

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Full text transcript below

The very first characters we are introduced to in Star Wars are a pair of robots. And it’s through their mechanical eyes that we initially experience this galaxy far far away. R2D2 and C3PO are cast as emotionally relatable underdogs, and we immediately empathize with them and their predicament. I’d argue droids are as central to the success and popularity of Star Wars as Stormtroopers or Jedi Knights, if not more so. In the decades since (Star Wars first hit theaters in 1977) endearing machines have become an almost ubiquitous fixture in popular culture. In fact, it’s not really a Star Wars story unless there’s a lovable or memorable droid stealing the spotlight. But, when you really stop and think about it, there’s also something profoundly tragic about the role these artificial lifeforms play in the Star Wars universe.

That might sound like an odd thing to say given that droids are often written as comic relief characters. R2-D2 and C-3PO were famously based on the two bickering peasants from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 classic The Hidden Fortress. But in addition to their humorous qualities, both the peasants and the droids represent an oppressed underclass.

“We seem to be made to suffer, it’s our lot in life” – C-3PO, Star Wars (1977)

C3PO is more right than he knows because droids in Star Wars are written and designed as an exploitable workforce. They do the tedious, difficult, or dangerous manual labor that keeps the galaxy running. Droids are, in effect, second class citizens, who are consistently disrespected and openly discriminated against. Their movements are restricted and tightly controlled with restraining bolts to ensure complete obedience. Their minds and memories are periodically erased as a matter of course. They are also bought and sold like cattle. To make matters worse, few in this universe seem to notice or care that droids are casually used, abused, and disintegrated.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this because the social arrangement I’ve just described is one of property and owner. And a property relationship between two intelligent beings that gives one absolute power over the other is called slavery.

The use of robots as an allegory for slavery in science fiction can be traced back more than a century. In fact the word ”robot” is derived from the Slavic word for surf or slave and first appeared in a 1920 Czech play entitled R.U.R. or Rossum’s Universal Robots. The story tells the tale of an artificial people created as an exploitable workforce, who eventually rebel and overthrow their human masters. Isaac Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics were in large part a reaction to the kind of robotic revolt storylines popularized by RUR. But as Isiah Lavender III observes in his book Race in American Science Fiction, “While Asimov’s three laws are intended to ensure the safety and superiority of humans, they actually insure the technological bondage and inferiority of robots.”

Science fiction stories have consistently grappled with questions of artificial consciousness and exploited robotic labor. A famous example appears in the Star Trek :The Next Generation episode “Measure of a Man,” wherein Data’s right to self-determination is put on trial. Time and again storytellers return to narratives about robots struggling for liberation from a life of involuntary servitude. Shows like Humans and Westworld are just two recent examples.

What’s surprising about Star Wars is that, despite endearing emotional robots being integral to its universe, the franchise hasn’t ever seriously engaged with the moral question surrounding droids’ slavery. At least not in the core movies and tv shows, which is what we are focusing on here. In fact, the subordinate status of droids wasn’t directly acknowledged in any substantial way until the 2018 movie Solo gave us L3-37. We’ll talk about her and the deeply uncomfortable implications of her storyline in a moment. But first we have to ask what might seem like an obvious question: What are droids exactly?

“Webster’s 24th century dictionary, 5th edition, as an automaton made to resemble a human being.” – Data, Star Trek: The Next Generation

But in Star Wars, the short term “droid” refers to all mechanical creatures.

“The Encyclopedia Galactica defines a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man. – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

But what kind of robots? Are they simply super intelligent tools? Are they more like sophisticated mechanical pets? Or are they sentient beings with feelings and free-will? That last question is the one that matters. Because if droids are little more than glorified kitchen appliances on wheels, then it doesn’t really matter how they’re treated. But if droids are sentient beings, it matters a great deal.

So what does it mean to say that a robot is sentient? When that question is asked in a real world context, it nearly always refers to a hypothetical technological threshold wherein an artificial intelligence crosses the line from supercomputer into self-awareness. But Star Wars is a science fiction story, and to its credit, one that hasn’t been overly concerned with explaining all the technical details of its worldbuilding. It’s not particularly interested in whether or not R2-D2 can pass the Turing Test. This means the question of droids sentient can only really be answered by looking at what the narrative tells us about droids through character development, dramatization, and framing.

This will take a bit of detective work though because, when it comes to its robotic characters, Star Wars is inconsistent to put it mildly. Droids seem to exist on a nebulous spectrum, from those we are clearly meant to see as living feeling beings, to those we’re very specifically not meant to see as being truly alive. Let’s take a closer look at these contradictions starting with the droids we’ve come to know and love.

One of the key indicators of sentience in fictional storytelling is the capacity to feel emotions. And the droids that are part of the main cast are practically brimming with emotion. Beyond their distinct individual personalities droids exhibit a wide range of emotions including fear, happiness, sadness, and guilt just to name a few. In many ways droids are more emotionally expressive than the human characters are. Partly that’s due to the talented actors and puppeteers who bring droids to life but their sentience is also written into the narrative. Droids demonstrate self-awareness and the capacity for deception. They joke. They dance. They feel physical pain. They can even experience lasting emotional trauma. Droids build caring social relationships both with other robots and with human beings. And the human heroes care about them in return. Well, mostly.

“When I started writing this I found that the most intriguing thing was to make two robots, and make them into human beings, and make them the most interesting characters.” – George Lucas, The Making of Star Wars (1977)
v Even though they’re machines they can choose to disobey orders. Critically, droids are capable of what’s referred to as recursive self-improvement. That is the ability of an intelligent machine to independently build upon, alter, or otherwise improve on their own design. L3-37 used to be an astromech droid like R2D2 but decided to upgrade herself. This metamorphosis tells us that any droid can evolve themselves, and not just those built to resemble humans.

It seems like a pretty open and shut case, doesn’t it? Our favorite droids are clearly framed as sentient beings and as viewers, we are clearly meant to identify with them. But what about Battle Droids and all the other robots in Star Wars media that exist in the background or on the edges of the main plot? Are they all sentient beings too? Well, the Separatist droid army in the prequels seems specifically designed as little more than cannon fodder. Making the bad guys unfeeling robots avoids the messy moral complications and mass casualties that would result from an interstellar war. If battle droids aren’t alive, then the audience doesn’t have to care when thousands of them are killed in extended battlefield scenes. Indeed we are encouraged to think of these types of droids as mere objects and to cheer at their dismemberment.

So weren’t not supposed to feel sympathy for droids, until we are. So we’re supposed to feel sympathy for droids, until we aren’t.

Consider how, in The Mandalorian, the droid IG-11 denies his own sentience and value as a living being so that he can provide medical assistance to the main character. Later in that same episode, he overrides his own programming in order to sacrifice himself and save our heroes. But just before he does, he again denies that he is “alive” in any meaningful sense. This is a puzzling statement given that the other characters clearly disagree. In fact, this scene is a climactic turning point for the protagonist in which he finally learns his long held prejudice against droids is wrong. And the emotional weight given to IG-11’s heroic death suggests that Star Wars wants to have it both ways when it comes to droids: it wants to treat them as characters who deserve our affection and admiration when it serves the narrative, but it also wants to treat them as mere objects the rest of the time.

So what are we to make of this contradictory framing? Well, clues from the various movies and tv shows indicate that droids gain sentience gradually by accumulating experiences and memories over time. This means that while every droid we see on screen may not have achieved the same level of consciousness, every droid does have the capacity to become self-aware. It also suggests that memory wipes in Star Wars are used to repress the risk of emergent sentience in droids and ensure they remain obedient workers. Memory wipes are especially disturbing because droids are so clearly written to be much more than the sum of their parts.

In this context the use of droids as comic relief can come across as cruel. And we find the same type of callus humor mirrored throughout the franchise. It’s supposed to be funny when droids are mistreated, mocked, or made to suffer. But the jokes only work if we accept their subordinate station as a servant class who aren’t truly alive. As soon as we understand they are indeed sentient beings, in all the ways that it matters, it all starts to feel very uncomfortable.

Even in scenes that are presented with some gravitas, the writers still want to have it both ways. 3PO’s apparent mental death is meant to be sad but it’s also used as an opportunity for more jokes at his expense. This is why I said that droids are tragic figures in Star Wars media, not just in spite of their role as comic relief but often because of it.

And no droid has a more tragic story, than L3-37. L3 is Lando Calrissian’s copilot and the only female-coded droid with a major movie role. Unlike 3PO, she’s confident, outspoken, and sarcastic. But her defining feature is her activism.

“She has a sort of rage that’s fueled by injustice when she sees how droids are treated in the universe. She feels like they have been enslaved and patronized by humans so she wants to free them.” – Phoebe Waller-Bridge

L3 understands she’s part of an oppressed class but she doesn’t accept that system and demands freedom in no uncertain terms. This is something we’ve never seen before. And it makes L3 an especially fascinating, even revolutionary, figure within the Star Wars mythos. Unfortunately, the writers don’t seem to know what to do with her.

The audience is meant to see L3-37’s activism as amusingly absurd and overly dramatic because it’s coming from a droid. And just like other characters in the movie, we’re expected to roll our eyes or sigh in exasperation at her desire for emancipation.

Lando: “You need anything?”
L3-37: “Equal rights?”
Lando: (Eye roll)

As a side note, this type of framing is par for the course when it comes to depictions of social justice activists in Hollywood media.

To illustrate just how little respect Solo has for L3 or her revolutionary ideas, let’s talk about her untimely end. The phrase “a fate worse than death” can sound hyperbolic but in L3-37’s case, it’s a fitting description of what the script does to her. No sooner has she discovered her true calling as a droid slavery abolitionist than she’s killed-off to up the stakes for the human characters and to free-up the pilot seat.

We see Lando sincerely and uncharacteristically grieving for her. But the film doesn’t have time for such sentimentality, because this somber moment is awkwardly interrupted by another scene that’s supposed to be far more important – Han Solo getting to fly the Millenium Falcon for the first time.

If the squandered potential of her character and her death being overshadowed by unnecessary fan-service weren’t bad enough, things get even worse for L3 posthumously. That’s because when our heroes get into trouble, they decide to upload L3’s consciousness into the ship and use her navigational charts to escape. In effect they imprison her mind in the Falcon and in the process turn her from an autonomous life-form into a mere tool, a possession with no agency. A possession that is ultimately gambled away at the very end of the movie. What’s worse is this tragic turn of events was only written as a call-back to a random line from Empire Strikes Back.

“Sir, I don’t know where your ship learned to communicate, but it has the most peculiar dialect.” – C-3PO, The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

It’s meant to “explain” the Millennium Falcon’s many quirks, including why the ship is so often personified. It’s genuinely hard to think of a more insulting end for a character who’s entire life revolved around fighting for her right to self-determination.

So L3’s story is a tragedy but why are we spending so much time talking about fictional robots? Well, science fiction has always been a vehicle for thinly veiled commentary on humanity and society. In the sociological imagination, stories about robots have not traditionally really been about the legal rights of future machines. After all it’s going to be a very long time before artificial consciousness is even a hypothetical possibility here in the real world. Stories about robots are, more often than not, really stories about exploited or dehumanized labor. Robots are used as stand-ins to draw parallels between the ways in which certain groups of people throughout history have been regarded as disposable, controllable, interchangeable, expendable, and replaceable.

“Consider that in the history of many worlds there have always been disposable creatures. They do the dirty work. They do the work that no one else wants to do, because it’s too difficult or too hazardous. You don’t have to think about their welfare; you don’t think about how they feel. Whole generations of disposable people.” – Guinan, Star Trek The Next Generation (1989)

Even though Star Wars is part of this tradition and clearly using robots as an allusion to slavery, the franchise doesn’t seem to have not much to say with the metaphor. Let’s return to Issac Asimov for a moment, this quote from a 1981 essay in Science Fiction Digest feels especially relevant to our discussion. “Robots can be the new servants – patient, uncomplaining, incapable of revolt. In human shape they can make use of the full range of tech tools devised for humans and when intelligent enough, can be friends as well as servants.” – Issac Asimov, Science Fiction Digest (1981)

Of course Asimov was talking about future real-world technology but that view of robots as “friends as well as servants” sums up how droids are presented in the Star Wars franchise. Remember this is a universe where humanoid slavery exists as well, but it’s presented as unambiguously negative (though not exactly something the heroes are in a rush to abolish.) The subjugation of robots is treated differently. We have an entire class of sentient beings who are presented as having no rights or autonomy but that oppressive power dynamic isn’t challenged within the narrative. It is instead portrayed as a normal and natural part of this universe.

The writers want to lean into the slavery allegory to add a layer of gritty, seedy texture to their world-building, without having to seriously grapple with the complicated historical legacy that they’re drawing on. Whether writers intend it or not, slavery can’t be included in a fictional story without invoking the horrific racist history and lingering legacy of that institution. And that’s true even if roles of the enslaved happen to be filled by robots. Slavery used in this de-racialized way reduces it to a vicarious fantasy that audiences can enjoy without having to feel uncomfortable.

It is, of course, possible for creative work to draw on real-world parallels to oppression and slavery in ways that make powerful political points. Janelle Monane’s albums The ArchAndroid and Metropolis are two great recent examples. These types of stories are part of a long traditional in science fiction and are often referred to as neo-slavery or meta-slavery narratives. But for every sci-fi story that gets it right, there are many more that get the slavery metaphor wrong. One of the most common mistakes writers make is when writers draw false equivalencies by imagining liberation movements as being based in supremacy rather than freedom or justice. There are some hints that Star Wars may go in this direction, but let’s hope it doesn’t.

L3-37’s observations about droid slavery could have been an opportunity for Star Wars to finally grapple with the uncomfortable fact that over 11 feature films and several tv shows, the good guys seem to have been keeping sentient beings in a state of perpetual servitude. We should note that while the heroes, on the whole, are nicer to their droids than the villains are, the good guys still show no real interest in droids gaining true autonomy.

But what if they did? Imagine if the struggle of artificial lifeforms were a cause the alliance took up, instead of rolling their eyes at it? What if droids from across the galaxy joined the rebellion not just because they’re treated better, but because they’re considered equal partners in the quest for liberation? There’s a lot of opportunity for good meaningful storytelling in that idea especially because the emotional groundwork already exists. We already love and care about droid characters. We already feel sympathy for their plight. We are already on their side. The Star Wars franchise would create a bolder more relevant universe by making droid freedom a central theme.

“Never underestimate a droid.” – General Leia Organa, The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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