Interpreting Science Fiction: Authorial Intention

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College

To settle issues of meaning, it’s common to appeal to authorial intent. If the author could just tell us, we could know how to view or interpret a work of fiction. But there are a number of problems with applying this approach to many works of science fiction.

Quill feather on the desk in a library.
Authorial intention is often seen as the definitive interpretation of a work of fiction. (Image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock)

The Ambiguity of Authorial Intent

When appealing to authorial intent, we may be faced with issues with locating authors , in the first place. Indeed, the intentions of the authors of many works are unknown; often the author is unknown. So on authorial intent, the correct interpretation of many works must necessarily remain a mystery.

Another problem with asking the author for his intention is that the authors sometimes refuse to play ball. For example, the author may not want to tell others what their intention was. So, when asked about the meaning of the film, Inception, Christopher Nolan made it abundantly clear that he intentionally made the film ambiguous and that he would never reveal his intentions.

And what if the author declares that the work has no meaning, like J. R. R. Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings? “As for ‘message’,” he wrote, “I have none really, if by that is meant the conscious purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, of preaching, or of delivering myself of a vision of truth specially revealed to me! I was primarily writing an exciting story in an atmosphere and background, such as I find personally attractive.” In other words: “Here’s a story, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.” Does that mean that Lord of the Rings has no meaning? Of course not. Although it’s not sci-fi, it contains clear morals about friendship and the conflict between good and evil. Many consider it to be a commentary on the European politics of its time.

Learn more about literature’s most fantastic works.

The Shifting of Meaning

Second, intentionalism makes the meaning of art static, locked into place by the author’s intentions. But art can take on new meaning as society changes around it, right?

In the Twilight Zone episode ‘A World of His Own’, for example, a man is able to create his ideal woman by merely describing her into a tape recorder. In the 1960s, this likely conveyed a message about being happy in one’s marriage. Today, it would likely serve as a commentary on misogyny. And if people one day start falling in love with robots, it will take on an entirely new meaning. Indeed, the meaning of a piece of art can change as other art is developed around it.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Change of Authorial Intent

Consider the original Star Wars film. Although it is staple of science fiction, it suffered from a major flaw for almost 40 years. The Empire’s mighty Death Star having a design flaw that allowed Luke Skywalker to take it out by simply shooting two proton torpedoes in an “exhaust port” just seemed silly. But in 2016, a prequel to the original called Star Wars: Rogue One was released, and it established that the design flaw was actually an act of sabotage by the Death Star’s designer, who had plotted in secret for years against the Empire. Many consider the fix brilliant, and will never look at the original Star Wars the same again.

Star station. Space illustration.
In the Star Wars universe, many things changed as the films went by, including how George Lucas intended them to be. (Image: Antikwar/Shutterstock)

Star Wars, in fact, reveals many problems with thinking that the meaning of art is determined by authorial intent. Its original creator, George Lucas, changed his mind about the meaning of the first Star Wars film too many times to count. He didn’t originally intend for Vader to be Luke’s father, or for Luke and Leia to be siblings, yet they turned out to be in the sequels.

Early on George Lucas changed Aunt Beru’s voice and the sound of Obi-Wan’s Krayt dragon call. Later, in the 1990s, he released a “special edition” that added new scenes and changed others. So which edition of Lucas’ intention is supposed to determine what really happened in the film? His original, subsequent, or final intentions?

What About the Audience?

Intentionalism also seems to neglect the importance of audience interaction. The most famous scene Lucas changed was the one in which the bounty hunter Greedo tracks down Han Solo. In the original, Han took him out by shooting him in the face.

But in the special edition, Greedo shoots a lazy shot first, and then Han shoots back. But contrary to Lucas’ intentions, the fans rejected this change and insisted that “Han shot first.” That’s what made him so awesome. And that is what most fans consider to be canon—to be the “official version” of what really happened.

To ignore the fan’s reaction would be to ignore what philosopher George Dickie says makes art, art. Art is art, he says, because of the way it is presented to an audience: to be appreciated and interpreted. To say Lucas’ intention alone settles the matter of “who shot first,” would turn Star Wars from a work of art into a mere collection of images and sound Lucas created for himself.

Things get even worse when you realize that the entire Star Wars saga has multiple authors. Lucas had legions of people helping him make the films; many underappreciate the role of his ex-wife Marcia played in the film’s success. In addition, many different authors wrote books and comics to fill out the story, and Lucas considered them canon.

Learn more about mastering the art of story.

Rebooting the Canon

But then, when Disney acquired the rights in 2012, they rebooted the franchise and revised the canon, declaring everything but the first 6 movies and the Clone Wars cartoon to be merely legend. So which ‘author’ is right? What really happened in the Star Wars universe? On the basis of authorial intent, it’s hard to tell.

Of course, questions about canon are slightly different from questions about the meaning of a film, but the same objections apply when one insists that authorial intentions are the ultimate authority of meaning too. So when it comes to interpretation, it will be most useful to reject intentionalism.

Common Questions about Authorial Intention

Q. When is looking for authorial intention not helpful?

If the author does not wish to reveal what he wants, then looking for authorial intention is not going to help in interpreting science fiction.

Q. Does the meaning of a work of art remain static?

The idea of authorial intention limits the meaning of a work of fiction. But the meaning of a work of art can change with changes to the social context.

Q. In the case of Star Wars, why does the concept of authorial intention not help?

In the case of Star Wars, the author George Lucas himself changed his intention over the years, releasing different versions of the film, so the idea of a fixed authorial intention does not work.

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