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 Tor.com, 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.