I had just finished writing the first scene of my new novel when I heard the news about Carrie Fisher. I’d dared to imagine she might read my story someday, or see it adapted for the big screen. After all, without her, I might not be writing science fiction today.
I was 6 years old when “Star Wars: A New Hope” premiered, in 1977. I saw it in the theater, the first movie I remember seeing there. The space battles were great, the lightsabers ditto, and Darth Vader was frankly terrifying, but it was Princess Leia who stole my heart.
Up until then, all the princesses I’d met were Disney ones, old-school types who lay in glass caskets waiting to be rescued or sang piteous songs to the birds and squirrels. Leia was formed in a different mode altogether. She withstood Vader’s torture, which had broken so many lesser men. From the moment Luke and Han arrived to rescue her, Leia was ready to take charge of her own rescue: “Into the garbage chute, flyboy!” Blaster confidently in hand, she hit everything she aimed at (unlike some), and when Leia finally reached the Millenium Falcon, she gleefully snarked, “You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.”
Leia was strong, confident, capable and driven. I loved her. I wanted to be her.
A few years later, I started watching “Star Trek” reruns on TV and fell for that universe. While my friends were having lightsaber battles with sticks, I was more likely to be off exploring strange new worlds. As a Sri Lankan-American immigrant, I particularly empathized with Spock, caught between two worlds, stranger in a strange land. Star Trek was frustrating, though, for as much as I appreciated its sunny dream of diverse people coming together as friends and teammates, the women portrayed were still sadly lacking. Oh, it was undoubtedly groundbreaking to have Lieutenant Uhura as part of the bridge crew, but for far too long, she was relegated to opening and closing hailing frequencies.
Soon, though, we got to see more of Leia. A lot more, in her revealing gold bikini in “Return of the Jedi” – and while there’s plenty to critique in the choice to dress her that way, what impressed me at the time and stayed in my mind was the moment when Leia seized her chance and used her own chains to strangle Jabba the Hutt. The theater erupted in cheers. I was 12 in 1983, still a sheltered, fairly ignorant girl, but Leia’s actions in that moment opened up a range of possibility. Terrible things might happen to you, as a woman, but you could also fight back.
That, perhaps, is Carrie Fisher’s greatest legacy. As princess and general, in one movie after another, she portrayed someone who was always ready to fight back against the darkest of forces. It was a role Fisher was viscerally suited to bring to life as a woman who spent years fighting her own hard battles against mental illness, and who was remarkably brave in chronicling them honestly.
As I followed my path to writing, editing, publishing and teaching science fiction, Leia has been a figure who has continued to inspire me. And now, as I turn toward a new chapter in my life, entering local politics and running for the library board, I like to think that General Leia, rebel leader, would approve.
So to hear that Carrie Fisher has died today, I grieve. But I refuse to give in to despair. After all, she never did.
2016 has been a difficult year in many ways, especially for those of us who dream of a future that looks freer than the past. It has gotten a little harder to imagine building a society, a world, where all people are able to pursue their own happiness without fears of dark empires and shadowy forces crushing their spirits and their hopes. Often, the odds seem overwhelmingly stacked against us, but if there’s one thing that both Leia and Carrie Fisher have taught us, it is that one must never give up.
This holiday break, I’m planning to curl up with my 9-year-old daughter and introduce her to “Star Wars.” If there are to be more dark times ahead, I want her to have Leia to inspire her. Everyone deserves a fighting princess. All of us need hope.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is the founder of the Speculative Literature Foundation, the author of “The Stars Change,” and a writer for George R.R. Martin’s “Wild Cards” series and Ellen Kushner’s “Tremontaine” series.