April 17, 2011

So Say Most of Us. I guess. I'll get back to you.

Spoilers for Battlestar Galactica may be present.
If you've ever interacted with science-fiction in any way you've encountered robots who don't know they're robots, robots who do know, and hate humans, and humans who might be robots, and hate robots. Phillip K. Dick started it (probably) with "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", which was made into Blade Runner (a more dramatic and catchy title), which inspired stuff like Battlestar Galactica. The good one, not the original. Satan inspired the original.
There's a reason it gets used so often; identity issues seem to go hand-in-hand with being human. It also gets to couch sensitive subjects (like: slavery, war, murder, etc.) in more comfortable terms. It's okay if your coworker is one of those dickbeards who call Cylons toasters, and thinks they should all be killed; your toaster won't rise up anytime soon, and he's not saying anything bad about anyone who actually exists. Hooray for all!
But sci-fi rarely answers these issues, in part because there are no ready answers. A hundred years after the Civil War, Alabama was just getting around to admitting African Americans might be people. Today, we still have organizations like the KKK, "Southern Heritage" is used as a thin veneer to celebrate racism in some places (and in others to actually promote the good things about a state), and Huckleberry Finn is being watered down at the same time some organizations are trying to pretend slavery didn't happen (in addition to other abuses of non-white people). How can a fictional book/show/movie say for certain if we will ever get along with our robot overlords, when most of us can't get along with one another?
This naturally brings up more disturbing questions. This'un is asked in the miniseries of the new BSG, by Commander William Adama, at what was supposed to be his retirement speech.
"You know, when we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question "Why?" Why are we as a people worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed and spite, jealousy, and we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we've done, like we did with the Cylons. We decided to play God, create life. And when that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn't our fault, not really."
If you wondered, that question is never answered. throughout 4.5 seasons, the characters, main, support, and enemy, are unable to provide a definite answer as to why humanity deserves to survive. This is after the Cylons nuke a several trillion population down to 50,000.
Throughout the show, the characters seem determined to prove why they shouldn't survive. Not that they're stupid; humanity wins at evolution. But Adama asks why we should survive, when another life form - the Cylons - are just as advanced as we are, just as intelligent. But robots. A distinction that, in the show, matters as much as the color of skin. Not that the characters see it that way. For most of the show, the majority of humans and Cylons despise each other, and in the end, though some reconciliation is made, the two groups are separated.
The writers of this show had 4.5 seasons to answer a fairly basic question: why are we, as a species, worth saving? During the show the humans fight, kill, and betray one another. They also love, forgive, and try to be better. The president tries to force an abortion on a captured Cylon, then later kidnaps the baby and gives it to someone else to raise. The doctor (there's basically only one left) objects, but obeys. They leave a ship behind that had a tracking device on it, and it is destroyed by the Cylons. They almost commit genocide, and fail. They don't decide genocide is bad, one of the characters particularly sympathetic to Cylons stops them before they can unleash a plague. By "them" I mean the main characters, the leaders. The support also fucks up royally, and mention is made of the people we don't see behaving... well, like people. Murderous, thieving, lying, cheating, people. These are the protagonists, trying to prove humanity deserves a second chance.
Do we?


  1. I'm interested in engaging with this topic. Do you believe that the justification for humanity's survival is the writers' central thesis throughout the series? I feel that there are a lot more things going on than this single issue. If I may, I actually think a better way of looking at it is that most of the characters (good, bad, ugly, human, Cylon) eventually reach the conclusion that all sentient life is, in some small way, sacred and should be protected if for no other reason than its seeming rarity in the BSG universe. If you look at it that way, you have a few small human groups that have to literally create an Other for themselves to despise--the Cylons, in all their incarnations. In this way, BSG is, as you pointed out, a decent allegory for racism and the habit of warring powers to dehumanize each other to make the killing easier. I'll pause for now, and await your reply.

  2. Going to propose something weird, see how it fits.
    In the first season Starbuck is lost, for a while. She crashes on an uninhabitable planet, with little oxygen, but escapes thanks to the Cylon raider she finds and repairs. That's the basic plot.
    The hook is that, just before she crashes, she and Bill Adama have a falling out. Starbuck reveals that Zach, Adama's other son, never passed basic flight, but Starbuck allowed him to continue because she loved him. Adama, who has treated her like a daughter, is angry and more or less disowns her. When she returns, he forgives her, realizing while she is gone that he does care for her like family.
    There are two themes throughout this mini-arc: family and survival. Family is just another way of saying Identity. Family tells you who you are. When Starbuck tells Adama that Zach never passed BF, she destroys part of the identity Adama had created for Zach (and therefore himself). In retaliation, he destroys part of her identity: her role as Adama's adopted daughter.
    I think these two themes, identity and survival, are inextricably linked throughout the show. When Starbuck loses her identity she is put in peril; when Adama loses Zach's, and subsequently thinks he has lost Starbuck's (effectively losing two of his children) he puts not only himself, but the remainder of humanity in peril. It is only Roslin, who has not lost any part of her identity, who is able to force him to move on. As Bills says to Lee, "If it were you, we'd never leave"; losing his only remaining blood kin would be too great a loss of identity for Adama to survive (and because he is a leader, it puts the rest of the fleet at risk).
    There are two things that seem to reestablish identity in BSG: hate and forgiveness. The Cylons use hate to establish an identity by wiping out humanity (though later it is shown this doesn't work, none realize it at the time). Adama reestablishes his and Starbuck's identities through forgiveness. This occurs again and again throughout the show, with continued survival linked to a solidly established identity.
    1. Adama is shot by Boomer. He is at loose ends until he is able to forgive her. (Father-daughter)
    2. Roslin betrays Adama. The fleet is split and put in jeopardy until they reconcile. (Compatriots)
    3. Gaius Baltar's uselessness and sinking fortunes, and eventual acceptance of his role as an instrument of God.
    4. Helo and Sharon's affair on Caprica. The Cylons declare that, unless he tries to save Sharon (establishing his identity as her lover) he will die.
    There are more, but this is long enough. A main theme of the show is identity. There are other issues - genocide, forgiveness, hate, love, morality - but they come back to establishing who the characters are. And that is, I think, linked to the central thesis of the show, which is stated only once, at the beginning. Do they deserve to survive? And, since they serve as a reflection of us, do we?