Was the Death Star the Atomic Bomb of the Star Wars Galaxy?

Did the original Star Wars trilogy kick off an arms race that we’ll be seeing the results of in The Force Awakens?

I am so pumped up about the new Star Wars movie that I’m having dreams about it, but even as excited as I am, I still have to admit that the villains having a “Starkiller” weapon feels absolutely silly. The name brings me back to recess on the elementary school playground, and the kind of playfully impossible escalation that occurs between children playing make believe. “I shoot my mega laser at you!” “Yeah, well, I shoot my INFINITY laser at you!”*

*This always works.

I mean…come on, First Order. Wasn’t a planet-destroying Death Star bad-ass enough for you? It was certainly good enough for Darth Vader, and at least one of you quietly strokes his fire-gnarled mask as a form of stress relief. I promise I’ll still take you seriously if you build a Super Death Star. There’s no need for all these overblown star-killing theatrics.

Then I thought…actually, there probably is.

The Force Awakens takes place thirty years after Return of the Jedi, which means that the galaxy has had plenty of time to get accustomed to the idea of a moon-sized space station that can blow up planets. The fact that the Rebellion blew up not one, but two of these “Death Stars” in the span of five years has most likely left the impression that making Death Stars is a really stupid idea. They take so much work to build, and are always taken down by one hot shot in an X-Wing. Sure, the idea of a weapon capable of destroying a planet is fearsome, but thanks to Luke and His Rowdy Friends, that fearsomeness is tempered with just how ridiculously useless such a weapon has historically been in practice. Even when you take into account the tragedy of Alderaan’s demise.

In our own history, the development, use, and symbolic threat of the atomic bomb shares a few of the Death Star’s historical characteristics. Atomic bombs are a really stupid idea; not because they’re so hard to build and easy to thwart, but because the destruction they wreak is so indiscriminate and final. Atomic bombs are fearsome, but decades under their shadow has tempered that fearsomeness in our day to day lives. As individuals there’s nothing we can do to survive or stop a nuclear exchange, so any worry that we carry eventually exhausts itself. Even when you take into account the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I imagine that the ordinary citizens of the Star Wars galaxy feel that way about Death Stars after a while. There’s nothing they can do to stop or survive a Death Star, so any worry or fear regarding them eventually exhausts itself. After a few decades, Death Stars probably even seem quaint, a symbol of a previous age of insanity, before the galaxy became tired of overblown, resource-intensive, wars.

This shot from the first real Force Awakens trailer says it all, really. The days when Star Destroyers soared effortlessly through the skies are gone.

Star Destroyer Jakku

Perhaps Kylo Ren and the First Order constructed a star-killing weapon in an attempt to pierce this jadedness, escalating to the next thing that seems impossible, now that planet-destroying lasers are almost rote.

There are some tactical benefits to a star-killing weapon versus a planet-killing weapon, as well. For example, an interplanetary civilization is more likely to have its resources scattered throughout a star system, instead of centered on one planet. Alderaan may have been destroyed by the Death Star, but that would still miss settlements on other stellar bodies within Alderaan’s solar system. It would also miss any shipyards or mining facilities that aren’t directly orbiting the main planet. For star-faring civilizations, destroying one planet in a star system doesn’t entirely eliminate that civilization’s ability to strike back. It certainly didn’t for the Rebellion.

Destroying a star in a way that makes it go nova takes care of this problem, though. A star’s destruction would eliminate almost everything in that system in a single shot. There are ancillary benefits to creating such a wide swath of destruction, too. The communication relays and hyperspace routes that the galaxy depends on undoubtedly rely on accurate location data for all known star systems. Blowing up those star systems pokes holes in those hyperspace lanes and communication relays, forcing reroutes and disconnecting not just the destroyed star system, but its surrounding systems from the galaxy at large. Considering the natural complexity of any galaxy-wide networks, it probably wouldn’t take too many attacks to snarl traffic and communication within an entire quadrant of the galaxy.

It’s also possible that nobody remembers Death Stars, and that the First Order is simply repeating the mistakes of history in constructing their Starkiller Base. Rey and Finn only seem to know about the Empire and the Rebellion as myth, after all, and the Death Stars were only a small part of that myth.

Han Solo it's true

There’s another, more insidious, reason behind why the First Order would feel the need to construct a “Starkiller” weapon, though, and it mirrors our own experiences with the invention of the atomic bomb. Starkiller Base is the result of an arms race that has been ongoing since the first Death Star was completed.

We don’t know the finer details of the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, but we know that the Empire dissolved over the following decade and the similar-but-smaller First Order formed out of that dissolution. We also know that while the Rebellion began to grow into a governing body, it hasn’t re-formed into the mighty Republic we saw in the prequel trilogy. The fighting continues between the two sides, leaving wreckage scattered across the galaxy. Princess Leia hasn’t become President Leia or Chancellor Leia, she’s General Leia, and she’s been fighting for a long time.

We see that Leia’s Resistance has continued developing its star fighter technology–there are newer, shinier X-Wings–but did the Resistance stop there? Or did it also develop its own Death Star after the events of the Return of the Jedi?

The idea of the Rebellion/Resistance using Death Star planet-destroying technology is anathema to their ideals. But atomic bombs are anathema to our own ideals, too, yet we still develop and build them as deterrents. As the Rebellion whittled the Empire down, post-Jedi, it’s possible that they built their own planet-destroying laser as a deterrent. The Empire could try to build another Death Star, but if the Rebellion has one, too, then that approach becomes kind of pointless.

This kind of arms race could feature heavily in the story of The Force Awakens, actually, as one of the characters is intimately tied to the ravages of the Death Star superweapon. In fact, the very first time we see her, she’s holding the plans for it in her hand.

Leia A New Hope Death Star plans


General Leia.

Did Leia create her own Death Star laser in the decades between Jedi and Force Awakens? Her arguing for its creation as a deterrent wouldn’t seem out of character, for one. It also brings up a whole host of interesting questions for her character. You can imagine the huge argument Leia and Luke would have over this kind of action, with Leia arguing tactics and Luke arguing over their legacy as Skywalkers. Luke would point out that the last Skywalker who built the superweapon fell to the Dark Side. Leia would take a more nuanced view, arguing that not everything automatically equates to Dark or Light, and further, she’s not their dad. That temptation doesn’t exist for her as it does for Luke.

Leia would also probably argue that the spread of planet-destroying technology isn’t an “if,” but a “when,” so it’s possibly more responsible to take control of that process and focus it on deterrence rather than offense, as the Empire did. And who is more qualified to take up this responsibility than her? Luke, after all, wasn’t there to see the Death Star being used on his home planet. It’s not like Leia isn’t aware of the evil inherent in a superweapon. She is in fact, the only person in the entire galaxy capable of building a superweapon and using it responsibly.

General Leia Force Awakens

Is this why Luke is gone from The Force Awakens? Did Leia go ahead with building a planet-destroying laser, driving Luke away? If so, is Luke coming back because Leia’s plan to use the Resistance’s laser as a deterrent simply lead to the development of a planet-laser-trumping Starkiller superweapon?

Is it then the duty of this new generation of heroes–Rey, Finn, Poe, and whatever Kylo is–to not repeat the mistakes of their previous generation? To toss superweapons aside? To truly be a new hope?

Chris Lough was a new hope once, but then he got lame. He writes other things on Tor.com.


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