Apr 2 2009 5:40pm

SF 101: Why BSG needed the spaceships and killer robots

The other day I was in the elevator with two women who were talking about Lost. One of them was going on about how the show has remained consistently good for several years. The other agreed—then hedged her own words by saying, “Oh, but I don’t like the, you know, the supernatural stuff. I don’t like science fiction or anything.” The other responds: “Oh, me neither! I don’t like that kind of thing. But Lost isn’t about that. It’s about the characters.”

Over at io9 Annalee Newitz has written a piece called “Battlestar Galactica Didn’t Need Outer Space,” a look at the sociopolitical themes that Battlestar dealt with over the course of the series. I was struck by the opening line, which echoes a sentiment that I have been seeing much too often, even in otherwise smart looks at the show: “Critically-acclaimed TV series Battlestar Galactica broke one of the cardinal rules of hard science fiction: It wasn’t really about science. Instead it was hard social fiction, a realistic look at the future of human culture.” It’s not hard science fiction. It’s about the characters.

I’ve got news, folks: most science fiction isn’t really about the science.

I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but hear me out. Sometimes works of fiction—even science fiction—explore deeper philosophical issues beyond the literal reality presented.

Of Mice and Men? Not just a slice of life story about the Depression. The Tempest? Not just about some big storm. Science fiction is no different: The Time Machine isn’t just a story about a man who built a time machine, in precisely the same way that BSG isn’t just about outer space and robots. Books are more than their Book-A-Minute summaries, and good stories, including science fictional ones, have depth and complexity beyond simply “what happens.” Even the hardest SF usually gives more than a passing glance to the impact of its science or technology on people and the human experience.

Science fiction is a literature of ideas, using propositions and scenarios of possible futures (or pasts or presents or whatever) to say or explore something about the world we live in today. That’s what makes science fiction special, and that element is absolutely necessary to BSG. Battlestar deals with issues of the human condition precisely because it’s science fiction. You can appreciate and enjoy the just-plain-drama aspects of it, but to ignore the science fictional elements as purely decorative or non-essential does a great disservice not only to BSG but to the genre itself.

By looking to (seemingly) unfamiliar worlds, genre fiction is the gate through which we can explore ideas that would be challenging, unfathomable, or even threatening in our own. Science fiction can put a comfortable distance between the audience and uncomfortable issues. Books about aliens can be a subtle way to discuss race; stories about space exploration can be a way to talk about cultural imperialism. TV shows about the near-destruction of the human race can be a way to talk about what happens when you push people to their absolute limits of survival. These things are so very basic (and to the readers of, obvious) to what science fiction is all about, and yet we have to keep saying them.

Ms. Newitz says, “But BSG was not about space and robots. It was about what set of circumstances could rid humans of their cravings for war, hierarchy, and slaves.” I disagree—it’s as much about space and robots as it is about war, hierarchy, and slavery. One of the central dilemmas of the show is how to incorporate into our society (or not) sentient robots indistinguishable from humans. It forces the characters to contemplate what it means to be human, but, come on, it’s also about sentient robots. Most importantly, though, the “set of circumstances” necessary to pull off what Ms. Newitz suggests isn’t possible except through science fiction. It doesn’t matter if it’s killer robots or the hanta virus—to create a scenario in which most of humanity dies off is a science fictional idea. To dismiss the science fictional framework is to toss aside not only the motivations and catalysts for all action in that world, but the world itself.

As a thought experiment, let’s get rid of the science fictional scenario altogether and just look at the themes it explores. Did BSG need outer space? Could it have taken place on Earth, without the robots and spaceships, and still dealt with the same issues of responsibility, slavery, and humanity’s self-destructive nature?1 Perhaps. But it wouldn’t have been Battlestar Galactica. Ideas and themes aren’t explored in a vacuum. You could set To Kill A Mockingbird today, and it would still be about racism, personal courage, and standing up for what’s right even when what’s right is personally and socially dangerous. But without the context of Alabama in 1936, without setting it in a time of unquestioned racial injustice, it loses something—and it becomes something else, too. Think of La Boheme—you can take the exact same story and place it in 1990s New York City. Is it still about a carpe diem approach to life, and about love in the face of poverty and death? Sure. But it’s not La Boheme anymore, it’s Rent, and a whole new set of issues and baggage emerge from the new context.

The specifics matter. Divorcing speculative works from their speculative elements means losing the space in which to explore challenging (and sometimes threatening) topics.  Kirk and Uhura could break taboos and kiss on television because it was set far into the future, in space, so anything could happen. For the same reasons, BSG can tackles issues like religious war, military dictatorship, and genocide. The show’s third season on New Caprica tackled a host of very real current events no other show (and hell, few news organizations) would touch with a ten-foot-pole: terrorism, suicide bombings, and torture. Couching these topics in the science fictional gave the writers the ability to deal bluntly with such powerful (and frankly, terrifying) issues.  Battlestar Galactica needed the spaceships and the killer robots because they created the atmosphere necessary to discuss the deeper issues.

1 Moreover, the absurd anti-robot montage at the conclusion of the series finale made it very clear that the moral message of the show was “Don’t create sentient robots because they might rise up and kill us all.” There’s a theme you couldn’t even re-situate into a non-SFnal realm.

David Siegel
1. bigscary
I have the germ of an idea for something arguing that significant flaws in BSG arise from not being SFnal enough. Lacking the courage of its conventions, if you will.
Torie Atkinson
2. Torie
@ 1

No arguments here--the show was always limited in that respect. I'd even guess that the writers expressly intended to distance themselves, at least in part, from overtly science fictional tropes.

But there's no getting around it: it's still science fiction.
3. EricRosenfield
I donno, I kind of feel like the ignorance that you're talking about of what Science Fiction IS has been actually caused by the SF Ghetto's separation from mainstream culture more than anything else.
Ian Tregillis
4. ITregillis
Thanks for writing this. I'm going to point people to this essay the next time I hear a version of that elevator conversation. (It drives me crazy when I hear stuff like that.)

Eric, @3:
I tend to agree, in the sense that the SF/"real literature" divide is a false division that makes it easier to categorize books for sale or shelving or whatever. As Torie points out about Lost, people will often happily read or watch science fiction as long as they don't know it's science fiction.
Dayle McClintock
5. trinityvixen
@1: Which is exactly why the last half season felt so bizarrely disconnected from what came before it--they leaned too heavily on sci-fi tropes that they didn't seem to have any talent for using. (That includes "God did it!")

@3: So you're arguing that it's not that sci-fi has been spurned so much as sci-fi ran away in the first place? I don't think so. I think fans of sci-fi have made very purposeful, uncompromising inroads into pop culture. It's just that when those projects aren't driven carefully to those ends, they end up mocking and belittling sci-fi or using it to comic relief with no reverence (see: Heroes and its merciless abuse of the sorts of geeks who make up its fucking audience).
Constance Cochran
6. ccochran
Well put. Sounds like the same kind of misguided thinking that resulted in the Scifi Channel rebranding.

You don't often hear too much of people trying to deny non-sf/fantasy elements. It's like they're worried about being caught *gasp* watching science fiction.
7. EricRosenfield
All I'm saying is that there's a reason that ABC doesn't brand Lost as "the #1 Speculative Fiction Show on Television", and that's because of people like the ladies in Torie's elevator. Because Lost IS the #1 Speculative Fiction show on television.

I think a lot of people would enjoy a lot more science fiction authors if they weren't sold as science fiction. Which is what, in fact, has happened with authors like Susanna Clarke and Jonathan Lethem, among many others.
Bill Siegel
8. ubxs113
Excellent article and comments.

Let's not forget though, not all sci-fi is created equal. Some, like space operas, are just bubble gum. While others, like Philip k. Dick, try to dig a little deeper. And shows like Star Trek and BSG often go back and forth across that line. Sometimes it's hard sci-fi, sometimes social commentary, sometimes space opera, and sometimes it's a combination.

The "science" is merely a plot device in order to carry the story forward. Sometimes it's intrinsic to the story and sometimes it's merely incidental. And correspondingly, some people have to have the science, some people hate it, and some people can go either way depending on the content.
Torie Atkinson
9. Torie
@ 7
I think a lot of people would enjoy a lot more science fiction authors if they weren't sold as science fiction.

But like you said, people aren't sold shows like Lost as science fiction. On the contrary, I think people would like science fiction a lot more if they knew that the stories they loved reading/watching were science fiction.

@ 8

Touche, there's plenty of crappy stuff out there, just like with anything. And in defense of space opera: much of what I've read deals with issues of military and cultural imperialism.
Ian Tregillis
10. ITregillis
There are also authors who bend over backwards to make the case that they're not writing science fiction even when they very clearly are. I seem to recall that Margaret Atwood has done this in the past, but I don't remember specifics so I could be mistaken. And then there's the related problem that when a known non-genre writer tackles a well-known (tired) SF trope, they get credited with doing something daring and innovative (I'm thinking of P. D. James's novel Children of Men here).
Dayle McClintock
11. trinityvixen
@7: I disagree. I think people being sold "stealth" sci-fi get really annoying when you try to point out to them that they're watching sci-fi. They don't get more amenable to it, they get less, and that's because sci-fi is defined as being "less than" or a genre for a specific, less popular (less cool) group of people.

And yeah, you can win some people over with LOST, but most people will deny that the sci-fi elements are what draw them in. I think we need more sci-fi that is unapologetic, not less. The more we make inroads of "his has robots/lazers/genetic mutations in it, deal" the better.
12. EricRosenfield
Philip Roth's The Plot Against America is probably a more egregious example than Children of Men. Which gets to my point. If it wasn't called Science Fiction Roth or James might have read it.
nat ward
13. smonkey
This said, it is interesting to note that of the top 100 grossing movies of all time, ( ) only 11 are not sci-fi or fantasy (12 if you don't consider The Passion of Christ fantasy).

So 89% of the top grossing movies of all time!!!
14. mjw
The show’s third season on New Caprica tackled a host of very real current events no other show (and hell, few news organizations) would touch with a ten-foot-pole: terrorism, suicide bombings, and torture.

Srsly? 24, at least, leaps to mind, and I feel reasonably confident that the crime dramas go there every so often (usually in re someone who's come back crazed from Iraq). And surely the reason BSG dealt with terrorism, suicide bombings, and torture is that they were big topics in the news -- it's not as though the writers went and found this stuff out for themselves. Not to mention that novels and film are happy to cover them. I wouldn't deny that sf can alter our relationship to these topics in an interesting and useful way, but let's not pat ourselves on the back too much.

Also, as a mostly unrelated riff on an earlier point in the article -- sf can allow us to deal with topics that are uncomfortable in realistic settings, but there's also value in its ability to deal with topics that are *too* comfortable.
Pablo Defendini
15. pablodefendini

And surely the reason BSG dealt with terrorism, suicide bombings, and torture is that they were big topics in the news

The remarkable thing about BSG's treatment of these issues isn't necessarily that it was the only show that dealt with them, but that its portrayal of the issues was much more challenging that its contemporaries'. The webisodes between seasons two and three, and the New Caprica/Exodus episodes in particular cast humans (our 'good guys') in the roles normally reserved for 'bad guys', ie. terrorists, suicide bombers, military juntas, rule by fiat, etc.

Doubly remarkable is that it originally aired in the political climate in which it did. I don't think a regular, non-SF prime-time drama would have gotten away with the kind of thought-provoking, morally ambiguous portrayal of such hot-button issues.
16. RyanA1084
"I’ve got news, folks: most science fiction isn’t really about the science."

Thank you for posting this! That's exactly what I thought when I read the io9 post! And I'm a frakking scientist!
rick gregory
17. rickg
@14... but 24 doesn't really examine terrorism, torture etc. It's mostly a fantasy/wish fulfillment show. Jack Bauer tortures the bad guys, but we always KNOW that they are bad guys, we KNOW that they have the information that Bauer wants and that it's big... a nuke etc. That makes the issue of torture easy - would you torture one person KNOWING you'd save millions (an offshoot of the would you kill Hitler to stop the camps cliche)? Most people will answer that yes. But the real issue is far more shadowy... Do we know that the person has information at all? Do we know it's something on the scale of a nuke? What about the mass of other information pointing in 13 different directions? 24 ignores all of this. It's shallow and banal... there's no moral ambiguity.

BSG did a decent job of trying to get at this ambiguity and make us, as an audience, ask ourselves questions rather than giving us pat answers.

What's odd to me is how many people disdain SF despite the fact that they are mostly living in an SF world. Think about it... a dozen years ago people were just starting to use email and the web and few companies had web addresses on their cards. Now I can be walking around in a city hundreds of miles from home, pull out a phone and let it tell me the nearest movie theater or restaurant and get directions from where I am to there. I can do that because fricking satellites orbiting the earth know exactly where I am and trade that information with my phone.

While I'm waiting I can IM with a friend in Shanghai, talk to another in LA and watch live sports from somewhere else - on a device that fits in my hand.

We debate whether an athlete like Oscar Pistorius has artificial legs that are *better* than real legs and yesterday scientists figured out how to manipulate stem cells so that they grow into the tiny hair-like cells that help you hear... in a few years we might be able to cure some kinds of deafness.

Poor Charlie Stross keeps seeing his near future fiction turn into reality (as he noted recently, someone just licensed a bank that only exists in a virtual world... a key point to his last novel).

SF might not predict reality - that's not really its job - but someone should tell the women in the elevator to open their eyes and look around.
18. zornhau
+1 to more unapologetic TV Sci Fi. Let's have Atwoods (a race of talking squids) locked in combat with space shark-riding robots with laser eyes while star systems explode around them.
Torie Atkinson
19. Torie
@ 18

You've been watching the SciFi Original Movies, too?! :)
20. clovis
After years of working in a bookshop, the answer is very simple. If non-SF readers like a novel, it is not SF. If SF readers like a novel it is SF. So '1984' and 'Brave New World' were always placed in the general fiction section, while Philip K Dick was in SF. The other rule of course, if it has a spaceship, ray-gun, monster or scantily glad young woman (unless artistically photographed) then it is SF. Also, as Kingsley Amis pointed out, authors are normally taken at their own estimation which is why Michael Moorcock and J G Ballard are serious British novelists while are not.
21. galaraf
I no longer apologize for having been a F/SF "addict" since I learned to read. If someone chooses to believe that reading anything other than so-called "legitimate fiction" indicates the "inferior mind" of the reader, I find that no different than someone who holds a grudge against someone who wrongs them (intentionally or not). The subject of the grudge either does not know or care that someone has a grudge against them and is not affected in the least. So who's "hurting" who? Likewise, it doesn't bother me for someone to believe there's something wrong with me because I enjoy reading F/SF. I know that as long as I'm reading virtually anything, I am thinking and learning SOMETHING. That's far better to me than remaining close-minded and/or ignorant of things that may allow me to recognize something that either enhances my perception of the world(s) around me or even motivates me to do what I can to make it (them) a better place (or at least help from making it worse).

It seems to me that "young" minds (not always literally in years), stimulated by concepts or things that do not currently exist, have caused things to happen that may not have happened without that outside stimulus. If watching the folks in Star Trek use a "transporter" to traverse distance leads someone to seriously pursue the concept and actually make one that works, maybe THAT would change some attitudes. Somebody had to figure out that humans could eat oysters. I bet they had a pretty good imagination!
Andrew Mason
22. AnotherAndrew
Clovis: I largely agree (though presumably there are some books which both groups like; what would you say about them?) Genres, much of the time, have to do with audiences and communities; a book belongs to a genre if it's addressed to the community of readers of that genre. After all, 'mainstream' fiction is not at all homogeneous; it includes 'highbrow' works and popular works, serious works and humorous works, works with historical settings and works with contemporary settings. All these sit happily on the same shelves. Science fiction/fantasy has its own shelves because it has a specific community of dedicated readers. Likewise crime, romance, etc. Strangely, although (in the UK, at least) science fiction and fantasy are normally shelved together, horror, which has obvious overlaps with fantasy, tends to have its own shelves, I guess because it has a distinctive readership.

This makes me wonder whether, if more people came to appreciate science fiction (other than a few works which have made the jump) it would still be science fiction. Would it not just be part of mainstream fiction, the part which happens to have otherwordly settings? It also occurs to me that something like this is true in children's literature; because it's seen as normal that children will like fantasy, children's fantasy is just treated as 'children's books', not separated from the rest; authors can write some books which are fantastic and others which are not, and no one will think of them as having double careers or anything like that.
Torie Atkinson
23. Torie
@ 22

That's a fascinating question! I think it would still be science fiction. While genre labels are good ways to point readers to things they'd like, they also have histories that set up a certain set of tropes, cliches, and expectations. It's precisely because of those tropes and expectations that science fiction can do a lot of things with ideas that other genres can't. In that sense I think SF would still be set apart in some way.
David Spiller
24. scifidavid
It never ceases to amaze me how many people will tell me that they would never watch science fiction, then tell me that Lost is one of their favorites shows on TV now and that Thw Twilight Zone is one of their favorite all-time shows. It also always rankled me when reviewers would urge people to try BSG even though it "has science fiction trappings" as if science fiction were something unseemly.
25. clovis
As a rule of thumb, I would say that if an SF book had a readership outside of SF then it tended to drift into the general section. Did you have any specific titles in mind, just out of interest? I noticed that Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell' is now to found in the SF/F section at Waterstones, whereas it used to be in the general section when it was listed for the Booker Prize. You're spot on about children's fiction. As a mildly interesting note, my local library recently put all its SF/F into general fiction along with all the crime. Crime has reclaimed its own section, SF/F and Horror have not. On enquiry I was told that not enough people were borrowing SF/F and Horror to warrant letting them have their own sections while with crime the problem apparently was the difficulty in differentiating between crime and general fiction and also as an attempt to encourage borrowers to read outside their normal preferences. It seems however that crime readers are more numerous and/or vociferous, at least in North East of England, anyway.
Torie Atkinson
26. Torie
@ 24

And that's precisely my point--the science fiction elements of BSG aren't just "trappings," they're an inextricable part of the specific, unique story being told. It's really a shame that the SF in it gets obscured by both marketing and reviewers trying to pretend it's something "better" than SF.

Wake up, marketing types & reviewers! SF can be that good.


Interesting. I'd love to see data on the way genre trends (as they apply to booksellers) work.
C.D. Thomas
27. cdthomas
This is like Michael Chabon having to defend his work from good-intentioned folk saying "why label your excellent prose as genre? It's good enough for the mainstream."


In the book I'm trying to get through (but it's good, and dense, and requiring the whole of my book learnin' to read), The Secret Life of Puppets, the separation of religious contemplation from Western literature and the replacement of science for religion in the zeitgeist has led to such contemplation's sublimation into genre work -- romance, SF, fantasy, horror.

The mad scientist has always been a powerful image since science's emergence as a dominant force in Western society. That's why critics saying BSG's doesn't need SF is silly. The mainstream kicked most of these topics to the curb, to focus on minaturism and K-Mart details; why the hell should SF give it back?
David Lev
28. davidlev
Thank you for this article. Another thing about this that bothers me: technically speaking, all fiction is fantasy, in that it is NOT REAL. it didn't happen. Why should our genres be punished because they play around with the "rules" of what can happen in the world of the story? And, by the way, that actually makes it EASIER to make the story significant, as you can use the changed situation in the story from real life to illuminate a point your making. And if not,y ou can always tell a more interesting story.

Another irrating thing I've noticed is taking a work of fiction that is fantastical or science fictional from before the genres of fantasy or science fiction were created that isn't for cgildren and republishing it as a children's book. I'm thinking of Gulliver's Travels or Jules Verne novels here. It seems to vaguely be implying that such conceits lower the age bracket of the reader.
Torie Atkinson
29. Torie
@ 28
It seems to vaguely be implying that such conceits lower the age bracket of the reader.

I think those novels are pretty accessible to kids (so I don't inherently object to that packaging), but it definitely reflects the sentiment that fantasy is somehow only "kids' stuff." How absurd. Thank goodness we have Tolkien on our side.

I'd say that culturally in the US we are pretty solidly anti-imagination. When we think of an adult--someone mature, successful, and confident--we think of someone who makes a lot of money and works really hard. There's no room there for big dreams and fantasy. How many people here were told at one point or another to get their heads "out of the clouds" or something similar? The ability to imagine isn't an asset as an adult, and I think that's reflected in the way we treat our literature.
30. AllAdamB
I see your point, but I count 17 movies on that list as not F/SF. Though I don't count movies like Jaws as SF when many might. (The first one isn't that unrealistic). Still an overwhelming majority are some form of science fiction or fantasy. Although honestly before now I never really thought of cartoons as being science fiction even though that's pretty much what they are. If you told most people that "Cars" was SF I think they'd disagree.
31. clovis
Thanks. I've been making that point since I was a student.
It's not just the States, believe me. You should have heard the fury from the literati when 'Lord of the Rings' won firstly a best novel of the 20th century contest and then a best novel ever contest a few years later here in the UK. Both these contests were decided on popular votes. And we've had the 'even though its SF it's still good' comments from critics about Battlestar Galactica and Dr Who (though not so much the latter as that is a much loved British institution).

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