Friday, February 27, 2009

The 2009 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot

The deadline for submitting Hugo nominations is this Saturday, and at this point my ballot is more or less complete. I'm hoping to get the chance to finish reading Matter before I have to send in my nominations, though at this point that seems unlikely, and of course any short fiction that suddenly gains great acclaim (and is available online) will warrant a glance (so by all means make your suggestions if you have any). These aren't all the categories I plan to nominate in--for example, I've only read one book that qualifies for Best Related Work this year, Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy, and though I do plan to nominate it I hardly think a field I'm so poorly read in is worth talking about much.

Still, in the major fiction and A/V categories, my nominees are:

Best Novel:

I've only read a few of the novels eligible for this category, and of them only one, Anathem, excites me and feels worthy of the Hugo. Which in itself is unexciting as this is probably the most unoriginal choice this year, and I sincerely doubt that Neal Stephenson's place on the ballot hinges on my vote. Still, Anathem is a good novel and worth acknowledging. As for the rest of my nominating slots, I may end up using them to nominate some or all of a group of novels--Nation, Tender Morsels, The Other Side of the Island--that I found problematic but interesting.

Best Novella:
  • "True Names" by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum (Fast Forward 2)
  • "Gunpowder" by Joe Hill (PS Publishing)
  • "Arkfall" by Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF, September 2008)
  • "Truth" by Robert Reed (Asimov's, October/November 2008)
Because of their length, novellas are relatively thin on the ground in genre publishing--none of the online fiction sources, for example, publish them. Which is why I'm short one nominee in this category, and why, though I like each of the stories on it very much, I have reservations about most of them--"Arkfall" is very engaging when it describes the joy its characters take in exploring the unknown, but those characters are flat, verging on stereotypes; "Gunpowder" has a tense and intriguing premise, but its ending is weak and slightly muddled; "Truth" held me spellbound while I was reading it, but left very little residue, and only a week or two after finishing it I couldn't remember a single detail of its plot. Still, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend any of these stories, and most especially "True Names", which combines its authors' strengths and their distinctive voices and favorite themes to create an utterly engrossing and completely original work. I am sorry, though, not to have been able to track down copies of either Kelly Link's "The Surfer" or Ian McDonald's "The Tear", which were both extremely well-received.

Best Novelette:
  • "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" by Daryl Gregory (Eclipse 2)
  • "How the Day Runs Down" by John Langan (F&SF, December 2008)
  • "Legolas Does the Dishes" by Justina Robson (Postscripts 15)
  • "Days of Wonder" by Geoff Ryman (F&SF, October/November 2008)
  • "Lester Young and the Jupiter's Moons' Blues" by Gord Sellar (Asimov's, July 2008)
As usual, the strongest stories showed up in this category, and it's the one in which I had the hardest time narrowing down the field of potential nominees to five. I've spoken warmly about the Ryman and Gregory stories already. Robson's piece is a pitch-perfect Shirley Jackson homage; Langan's a shocking twist on the zombie story; Sellar's combines music, aliens, and a really great period voice into an eerie, unforgettable story. I wish I could also have given nods to Stephen Baxter's "The Ice War", Elizabeth Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom", John Kessel's "Pride and Prometheus" (available here) and Meghan McCarron's "The Magician's House", but this is a fantastic bunch of stories.

Best Short Story:
  • "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang (Eclipse 2)
  • "Running" by Benjamin Crowell (Strange Horizons)
  • "Tokyo Rising" by Lynne Hawkinson (Strange Horizons)
  • "The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan (The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy)
  • "Linkworlds" by Will McIntosh (Strange Horizons)
I tend to get less excited about short stories than I do about novelettes and novellas because it's a rare author who manages to spin a story in only a couple thousand words. Most stories of this length are mood pieces or vignettes. The Chiang and Lanagan stories on my ballot are these kinds of stories, but exceptionally good examples of them--Lanagan's a terrifying glimpse into the mind of an abuse victim and Chiang's the kind of mind-bending thought experiment that only Ted Chiang can write. The other stories, however, got their spots because they managed the arguably tougher job of building a world, peopling it with characters, and, most importantly, spinning a tale on a very small canvas.

Putting these three ballots together has been an interesting experience, one which required me, for the very first time, to read through entire runs of print magazines and entire archives of online fiction sites, and allowed me to develop a broader understanding of the genre short fiction scene and a greater appreciation of the differences in tone, topic, and, of course, quality that characterize the different venues within it. The most intriguing observation I made during this process was that whereas online fiction sites like Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld reliably published likable, well-written stories, the standout pieces--for better and worse--came from print magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction or Asimov's (the latter made for an almost schizophrenic reading experience--without fail, every issue I read contained one story I loved and a whole bunch I could barely stand to finish). I think that this is once again an issue of length. For what I assume are reasons tied to their precarious financial model, sites that offer free online fiction tend to publish stories that, at best, tickle the underside of the novelette category, and though as I've said it's possible for a short story to be more than an exercise in tone, generally that is exactly what they are. It's in the print magazines--and in the original story anthologies, which are well-represented on my ballot--that longer, more engaging pieces tend to appear.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
  • Wall-E by Pete Docter, Jim Reardon and Andrew Stanton
This isn't the only genre film I was excited by in 2008, but as I'm already and preemptively annoyed by the debate over whether The Dark Knight is a science fiction film and belongs on this ballot, I can't bring myself to vote for it.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:
  • Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog by Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, Joss Whedon and Zack Whedon
  • Doctor Who, "Midnight" by Russell T. Davies
  • Pushing Daisies, "Oh Oh Oh... It's Magic" by Kath Lingenfelter
  • The Middleman, "The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown" by Tracey Stern
  • The Sarah Connor Chronicles, "Samson & Delilah" by Josh Friedman
Pushing Daisies, Middleman and Sarah Connor are tough series to nominate in this category. In the latter case, I chose "Samson & Delilah" because, though it stresses the characters' angst and their strained relationships, it also has a well-paced, exciting plot. "Oh Oh Oh... It's Magic" was the first episode in Pushing Daisies's second season in which the show seemed to regain the indefinable combination of wit and sweetness that made it so irresistible in its first season, and also features some immortal one-liners and great moments for all of the main cast (except for the aunts, unfortunately). "The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown" isn't actually my favorite Middleman episode--that would be the vampire puppet one--but it's a close second, and to my mind more accessible to newbies (I should know, as it was the first episode I watched and it completely won me over to the series). The problem with all three of these series is that they don't have true standout episodes, in the vein of "Company Man" or "Once More With Feeling", and I suspect that in each of their cases fans will split their votes between different episodes and make way for things like Lost's "The Constant". I'm also guessing that my Doctor Who choice will prove unpopular, but Stephen Moffat has three Hugos already and delivered something of a dud this year, whereas "Midnight" was completely different from anything either Davies or Who have done before. At any rate, these are all academic quibbles--Dr. Horrible has had the Hugo sewn up for months.

So, that is (part of) my Hugo ballot. It's been a lot of fun putting it together, though I'm glad this isn't something I do every year. If you'd like to argue with my choices or make alternate suggestions, you have until midnight on Saturday to do so.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

What a Difference a Script Makes

Via Micole, what's rumored to be the original script for the Dollhouse pilot.  As several scenes and lines of dialogue within it appeared in the first Dollhouse trailer, I think this is the genuine article.  Unsurprisingly, it's a massive improvement on "Ghost," not only because it dives right into the arc elements of the show, stressing Agent Ballard's investigation of the Dollhouse and Echo's potential awakening, but because it's engaging--unlike the by-the-numbers kidnapping story in "Ghost" the plot here is interesting and entertainingly twisty, taking me by surprise with its turns on several occasions.  The secondary characters--Boyd, Topher, Dr. Saunders--are also more believably sketched and and more intriguing, and there's some interaction between Echo and Ballard.  Perhaps most importantly, the episode suggests believable uses for the actives that go beyond the jumped-up prostitution the show has thus far concentrated on.

As depressing as it is that someone in Fox preferred "Ghost" to this episode, this script gives me hope--that Whedon has a firmer grip on the show than I'd previously dared believe, and that he'll work elements from this script into future episodes.  The second Dollhouse episode was an improvement on the first, if still depressingly self-contained and slow to build up the arc storyline, but both it and this script suggest that the show might soon find its legs.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Three Links Make a Post

Some of my recent online reading.
  • Hal Duncan writes about Battlestar Galactica, and, as on most topics, does so intelligently, forcefully, and at great length.  Lots of interesting ideas here: some more exploration of what it means that the show's premise maps more accurately to the Holocaust than to 9/11 (I hadn't, for example, thought of Gaeta as embodying the cliché of the victim made monstrous by his victimhood, mainly because I was too busy being aggravated by the fact that the show's one and only acknowledged homosexual character was being depicted as a villain who kept seeking out powerful, charismatic men to follow), some provocative meditations on just how telling it is that its writers have favored the 9/11 parallel, and mainly a lot of insights into the kind of story the writers produced as opposed to the one they thought they were telling.

  • Dan Hartland is rereading the Sherlock Holmes stories in order of publication.  I read these stories, and the Holmes novels, in junior high, and for years I assumed that this was a rite of passage for people growing up in Western countries.  Again and again, however, I've met people who knew Holmes as a character and cultural icon but had never read a single one of Conan Doyle's works, and eventually I realized that they were the vast majority.  Dan's series is a great opportunity to disentangle the iconic image of Holmes we all (including those of us who read the stories and novels) suck down from the aether from the actual fiction in which he appeared, and reevaluate them as works of fiction (thus far, to no great acclaim).

  • Richard Morgan writes about The Lord of the Rings, and argues that the only emotionally honest moment in the whole gargantuan work comes during a conversation between two orcs.  I'm beginning to wonder if there's a clause written into the contract of every author who sells a potentially paradigm-shifting work of epic fantasy obliging them to publicly excoriate Tolkien, because it happens quite often.  Moorcock did it.  China Miéville did it (sadly, the essay is no longer online.  There's an excerpt here, but all you really need to know is that he calls Tolkien "a wen on the arse of fantasy literature").  Now it's Morgan's turn.  What always gets to me about these essays is their blistering certainty that they're saying something new as opposed to something that the community of fantasy readers has been debating for decades (OK, "Epic Pooh" was first published in 1978, but I find it hard to believe that Moorcock was the first person to express those specific reservations more than a decade after The Lord of the Rings' popularity exploded).

    Most fantasy readers go through a phase where they realize that The Lord of the Rings is conservative, reactionary and, by certain very real yardsticks such as, to take Morgan's example, realistic characterization, not very good.  It's like figuring out that Narnia is a Christian allegory.  You take a deep breath, pick your jaw up from the floor, and decide if you can go on liking the book in spite of these flaws--because it has other qualities that you value, and because a genuinely good work of fiction is one that you can enjoy even if you disagree with the attitudes it expresses.  I really don't know who it is that Morgan and the other writers like him think is going to be blown away by their regurgitated criticisms, and I have an unpleasant suspicion that essays like this one are actually written for people who have already decided that they don't like Tolkien, and are looking for ammunition to lob at his fans.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Saturday Afternoon Sci Fi

What is it with TV scheduling?  It was bad enough that something like half of the shows I follow air new episodes on Monday, but now Friday's become a hot spot as well.  On the other hand, maybe it was a good idea to suddenly supersize the quantity of shows I watch on this night, because quality-wise nobody brought their A-game this week.
  • Battlestar Galactica, "No Exit": This episode was trying to be one part "Downloaded" and one part "quick!  There's only six episodes left in the series and we still haven't tied our wildly self-contradictory backstory in a satisfying bow!"  It's kind of a dud on both counts.  I liked seeing Ellen again, and liked even more that in her present incarnation she has both a spine and self-respect, since in the past it's seemed like she could only muster up one at a time.  I also liked that the episode made some vague gestures towards some of the issues I raised in my most recent Galactica post, including the question of ultimate guilt in the ongoing Cylon/human dispute, and one possible reason for the most recent chapter--by which I mean not Cavil's moaning about how horrible it is to be human or how horrible humans are in general, but confirmation, if any was needed, that he's a raging psycho.  Sometimes, 'the guy in charge is a raging psycho' is the most satisfying explanation you can give for atrocious acts.

    On the other hand, it was an absurdly talky episode in both its halves--Ellen trying to justify herself to Cavil and Sam recalling his and the other four Earth Cylons' history.  Like the architect scene in The Matrix Reloaded, it smacked of the writers' inability to organically set up their backstory in the body of their ongoing plot, and not a little bit of desperation--of their realization that they had too little time to pay off too many debts of their audience's indulgence, while hastily laying the groundwork for the next chapter in the story.  I was too concerned with the very real possibility that Sam is going to be killed off to make way for a Kara/Lee finale (especially given the rather blatant scene-setting for a Boomer/Tyrol reunion) to pay too much attention to the potted history he was spewing, but what I caught had none of the sizzle of genuinely clever writing.  It was convoluted and obviously straining to tie together too many disparate elements for me to expend much energy trying to follow it.  I'm mostly annoyed by the revelation that there's yet another final Cylon (he's Starbuck's father.  The timeline doesn't work at all but he's Starbuck's father, and for the record we were saying it right after "Maelstrom" aired) though thankfully the number of episodes the writers can draw out the mystery of his identity is severely limited.

  • The Sarah Connor Chronicles, "The Good Wound": Once again, the show goes for contemplative and moody rather than plotty, and we're long past the point where it can skate by on strong performances and appealing guest characters (especially considering that this episode's empowered-woman-of-the-week was quite flat).  There's constantly a sense on this series that something huge is about to go down--Sarah (or John, or Derek) will find out about Riley and Jesse, Jesse will make an overt move against Cameron, Weaver will tip her hand to either Sarah or Ellison--but every week turns out to be just more buildup.  I sort of liked the use of head!Kyle, and most especially the irony of him being Sarah's voice of reason and compassion when the real Kyle was a violent, damaged fighting machine who made Derek seem well-adjusted in comparison.  It was a nice way of drawing attention to the kind of person Sarah was when she met Kyle and acted as his voice of reason, and how much she's changed (though once again we got this point ten or fifteen episodes ago and it is seriously time to move on to new things).

    On the other hand, I'm not sure how I feel about the episode's deliberate (and rather ham-fisted, since Sarah's never called either Kyle or Derek 'Reese') attempts to merge Kyle and Derek into a single person.  If the point was to get to the final scene where the doctor spills the beans about Kyle being John's father, then it was sadly misjudged, since Derek's known about John for months and we've known that he knows since the end of the first season (in fact until this week I had assumed that Sarah knew that he knew).  What I'm really afraid of, though, is that Derek is being groomed to take Kyle's place emotionally and perhaps even romantically, especially once Jesse is out of the way as she surely will be by the end of the season.  One of the things I've most liked about his character is that there's been zero romantic tension between him and Sarah, and I would hate for that to change.

  • Dollhouse, "Ghost": As Niall points out, what's most notable about this episode is its tone, and that tone's departure from the more punchy, more funny kind of writing we've been used to seeing from Joss Whedon.  Unlike Niall, though, I find the tone less successful.  Though "Ghost" is effectively creepy in certain scenes, most of the time it just feels slack.  None of Whedon's series have had especially good pilots, but all of them have been more distinctive than this episode.  I'm hoping that we're seeing another "Train Job" scenario, where a more interesting, better written pilot episode was yanked in exchange for something the network felt would have a better chance of pulling in viewers.  If that's the case then it was, once again, a really stupid move, and also highlights what seems to me like Dollhouse's core conceptual problem (besides, as Niall says, having a main character with no consistent personality).

    "Ghost" is a pilot episode for an adventure of the week series about a person who becomes something new and exciting every week, but the creepiness of its premise demands that there be more to the series than that, and I don't doubt that the story Whedon is interested in is more complicated.  The question is, which show will dominate--is Dollhouse a formula series with an overarching mystery storyline, in which case I probably won't bother watching (for one thing, because it'll mean that for all the blatant negative commentary about what's going on in the dollhouse, the chief appeal of the series will be the very thing it sanctimoniously shakes its head at), or is it a creepy, novelistic mystery/thriller that rewards audience loyalty and patience, in which case it'll quickly shed just those viewers this pilot was trying to capture and die a quick death?  Either way, it's frankly a relief to get past the hysteria that's surrounded this series since its announcement--it's misogynistic!  It's being screwed over by Fox!  Let's start a letter-writing campaign before the pilot's even aired!--and talk about the actual series, for however long it lasts.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Out of Focus: Thoughts on Battlestar Galactica's Mutiny Arc

Here's a hypothetical scenario for you: imagine that several years after the September 11th attacks there was a violent split in Al Qaeda, and some of its top members had been forced to flee for their lives. Imagine that in their desperation, they turned to the US, offering crucial intelligence in exchange for, not asylum, not immunity from prosecution, not the right to live and move freely in the US, but American citizenship.

Or, you know what, that's not bad enough. Imagine that the people in question are members of the SS Einsatzgruppen, the ones who used to walk into Eastern European villages, march the local Jews to a freshly dug pit, and start firing. Imagine that the citizenship they were demanding was Israeli. How would you feel if your government decided to acquiesce to such a demand? Appalled? Offended? Like you wanted to take to the streets, and vote the people who supported this decision out of office?

Neither of these scenarios even approach the awfulness of the proposition that sparks the recently concluded mutiny arc on Battlestar Galactica, because neither the Holocaust, which the series has never attempted to recall, nor 9/11, which it recalls constantly, approach the awfulness of what happens in its opening episodes. It's one of the show's core failings that it insists on drawing on equivalence between a terrorist attack that, though vicious and unconscionable, claimed the lives of only a tiny fraction of its target nation's citizens and left the rest free to live their lives much as they had before, and a genocidal attack that kills billions and destroys an entire civilization. This is just about the only positive thing I'll ever say about that show, but at least Enterprise managed to keep some perspective when it launched its 9/11 allegory arc in its third season--it posited a brutal and deadly assault on Earth, but one which the overwhelming majority of humanity survived, in the wake of which human society, politics, and culture carried on mostly unaffected.

That's not the situation on Galactica. The people in the fleet have lost everything. Everyone they loved, everyone they knew, everyone they ever met, is dead. Everywhere they lived, everywhere they visited, everywhere they ever thought of going has been reduced to radioactive ashes. Their own survival is a statistical anomaly, and growing more and more unlikely by the second, mostly due to the actions of the very people now asking to take the place of their victims as citizens of the society they destroyed, people who, because of the destruction and loss of life they caused, might now represent a meaningful voting bloc, and be able to affect issues of government and social policy. I would mutiny if my government tried to force such a move on me. So would you. So would everyone you know.

To be fair, another difference between the situation on Battlestar Galactica and the two hypothetical scenarios I suggested is that the Colonial government needs the Cylons a great deal more than the US needs Al Qaeda defectors or Israel needs SS informants. There are compelling practical reasons to agree to an alliance with the Cylons, however risible their demand for citizenship. Some very fine television could be wrought out of a debate, and eventually a violent split, between factions who supported each of these understandable and valid points of view, but that's not really what the mutiny arc amounted to. This is a sad thing to say, because I genuinely enjoyed this storyline, and "The Oath" in particular is one of the best episodes the show has produced in a long time (albeit in a way that demonstrates that Galactica's one true strength is action scenes), but like so many of Galactica's plotlines over the last three and a half seasons, it amounts to a missed opportunity.

"A Disquiet Follows My Soul" builds up to the mutiny by showing us Gaeta and Zarek stepping into the leadership vacuum created by Roslin, who is understandably worn out by the failure of the bid for Earth and by her looming death, and Adama, who once again fails to realize that leadership is more than just flat declarations and a stern manner[1]. Implicit in this depiction, however, is the assumption that, had Adama and Roslin been in fighting form, the mutiny would have been prevented. That had the two of them spoken instead of leaving the job to their less qualified lieutenants[2] the fleet would naturally have swung in their direction. I'm not convinced that's true. I'm not convinced that it is possible, much less inevitable, that people who have endured what the citizens of the fleet have suffered at the Cylons' hands for the last few years could ever be persuaded to accept them as fellow citizens, even if their survival depended on that acceptance. I would have been interested in seeing a story in which Roslin and both of the Adamas did their best to sell the alliance to the fleet and, once they'd failed, decided to act anyway and sparked the mutiny.

I think the writers must have realized they'd gone too far with the Cylons' demand for citizenship, because that aspect is downplayed once the mutiny gets going in "The Oath." The previouslys in that episode cut Tyrol's dialogue from "A Disquiet Follows My Soul" in such a way as to leave out the citizenship demand (and given this writing room's history it's hard not to suspect some attempt at retroactive editing) and thus reduce the proposition to an alliance. By the time "Blood on the Scales" comes along, Adama's crime is merely that he's not going to fight the Cylons anymore--that he doesn't, like Narcho, desire war without end. More importantly, the issue at stake is no longer truly the wisdom or folly of allying with a former enemy, but the legitimacy of Gaeta and Zarek's coup. Just in case we're not clear on who the bad guys are, the episode has Zarek massacre the Quorum and unilaterally claim the presidency for himself. When Roslin addresses the fleet she doesn't even talk about the Cylon alliance, and the mere sound of her voice is enough to sway a third of the fleet despite the fact that she's transmitting from aboard a Cylon basestar. Adama's victory and Gaeta and Zarek's execution at the end of "Blood on the Scales" don't merely signal the end of the mutiny but the end of the debate that sparked it--it's now a given that the alliance will happen (after all, with the entire Quorum dead, who's left to oppose Adama and Roslin?) despite the fact that the discussion of this thorny dilemma was never settled, merely replaced by an action-heavy storyline.

As Battlestar Galactica's ending draws near, I've found myself thinking about the show as a whole, trying to articulate to myself the core reasons why it went wrong. I think a major contributor has been the issue of focus: the writers' tendency to take their story to places it doesn't want to go, because their interest lies in topics that aren't supported by their worldbuilding or the simple facts of human nature. It's easiest to observe this tendency in the show's 'issue' episodes--Roslin outlaws abortion in order to ensure the survival of the human race, even though she can't afford to feed or care for helpless infants, and anyway it's the natural human response to catastrophe to breed like crazy; the fleet, two years after the Cylon attack and a year after settling on New Caprica, prizes accountants and lawyers over manual laborers and skilled technicians, even though the former contribute little or nothing to the survival of the species and the latter are worth their weight in gold--but it also infects the show's more organic storylines.

Almost from day one, Galactica has treated Cylon and human politics as two discrete realms with virtually no effect on one another. The two sides responded to one another tactically, but never politically. We've seen little or no debate on either side of what their opponents are like, what they want, and why they're evil. It's as though both humans and Cylons have a fixed image of one another that they're neither interested nor, it sometimes seems, capable of revisiting[3]. On one level, this makes sense--especially in times of war people have a tendency to think of their enemies as an undifferentiated block of otherness, and certainly the humans could be forgiven for pointing to the many and terrible crimes committed against them and saying that look, the Cylons are clearly pure evil. The thing is, though, that hardly anyone in the Colonial fleet ever says this. It's more common to find humans accusing Cylons of being soulless machines than it is for them to accuse Cylons of being evil. When Helo discovers that Sharon is a Cylon at the end of the first season, he's not angry because she's an enemy combatant, complicit in the destruction of his species, but because she's not human. Though far be it from me to discount the role of blind prejudice in perpetuating armed conflicts, it often feels as though the writers are making things easier on themselves by insisting that prejudice is the main or perhaps sole reason for the humans' hatred of the Cylons--making it easier to focus on the humans' flaws, and to equate the humans' excesses against Cylons with the crimes committed against them.

The problem, however, with trying to denounce anti-Cylon sentiment as mere prejudice, is that when it comes to Cylons a blanket prejudice might very well be the only correct and moral response. There was a twisted sort of sense in Helo focusing on Sharon's race rather than her individual guilt back at the end of the first season, because at the time we were still thinking in human terms. To accuse Sharon of genocide made as much sense as holding a single Wehrmacht soldier responsible for the Final Solution. In the intervening two and a half seasons, however, we've learned that there's no such thing as a Cylon non-combatant or even a foot soldier. Their decisions, we've seen, are made en masse, with each model voting unanimously (Caprica breaking with the other sixes on the question of whether to nuke New Caprica was unprecedented and shocking). Unless the writers make a last minute revelation that the eights opposed the decision to attack the colonies, there's no other conclusion to draw but that when polled, Sharon said that yes, billions upon billions of dead humans sounded to her like a good start.

Terrifyingly, Sharon is actually the closest thing the Cylon race comes to a moral thinker. Unlike the other Cylons, she's formulated an ethical code. It's on the level a five year old could grasp--pick your side and stick with it--and it's based entirely on personal connections rather than ideals or beliefs--Sharon's loyalty is to her husband, her daughter, her commander--but it's leagues beyond what the other, opportunistic, self-involved Cylons are capable of. The only Cylons ever to contemplate the possibility that destroying humanity might have been wrong translated that conclusion into the occupation of New Caprica[4]. The rest of the Cylons still don't get it. Even after New Caprica. Even in the face of the fleet's desperation. They don't understand what they've done, the suffering they've caused. Caprica--of all the Cylons the one who shoulders the most responsibility for the destruction of humanity--actually has the gall to look hurt when Nurse Ishay's face crumples at the realization that the Cylon race might survive while her own is probably doomed.

As they've been presented in three and a half seasons of Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons are, if not pure evil, then at least so completely lacking in morality or even its basic building blocks as makes no difference. Even the worst monsters, tyrants, and mass murderers in human history had some infinitesimal fraction of themselves that told them they'd done something they'd be expected to feel shame for, and so they made excuses, or covered up their crimes, or blamed their victims. The Cylons, who with no meaningful provocation[5] snuffed out the lives of, at a conservative estimate, forty or fifty billion people, don't even realize they've done something shameful. I don't know if soulless is the right word to describe such a deep dysfunction, but it's certainly not far off the mark, and though it's clearly as wrong to torture Cylons as it is to torture anything capable of suffering, I understand, and in fact support, the point of view that you wouldn't want Cylons living next door or dating your sister.

The mutiny arc makes a vague gesture towards acknowledging the legitimacy of the anti-Cylon position with Lee's speech in "The Oath." The problem is, that speech is directed to Tigh, who is one of only five Cylons who don't share direct responsibility for the genocide of humanity. By making Tigh the recipient of his rage, Lee, and the writers, buy into the fallacy that anti-Cylon sentiment is a prejudice, and like the hostility towards Germans that was still floating around in my early childhood, something understandable but irrational in its broadness. This when we know for a fact that with the exception of Tigh, Ellen, Tyrol, Tory and Anders, every Cylon in the fleet is an Eichmann. By tying the anti-Cylon position, on the one hand, to Gaeta and Zarek's violent and criminal actions, and on the other hand to Lee's undiscriminating prejudice, the mutiny arc deligitimizes it, and bolsters the view that letting go of anger and hatred of the Cylons is the correct course of action.

It takes a crucial failure of the imagination, of the muscles of empathy and moral outrage, to blandly insist that humans need to get past their anger at the Cylons, as the mutiny arc seems to conclude. I'm reminded of Fred Clarke's monumental, years-in-the-making takedown of the first Left Behind novel, and his oft-repeated complaint that this book posits the disappearance of a third of the planet's population, including every single child, as nothing but a starting point for its plot, with almost no acknowledgment of the awfulness of this event or the scale of grief and rage that should follow it. Battlestar Galactica isn't quite as bad as that, but its depictions of the reactions to the destruction of humanity are on too small a scale. People miss their spouses, their children, their dogs. They're angry at the discomfort and danger they live in every day. There's no sense of the magnitude of what they've lost--not just family and friends but culture, history, art, society--nothing on the level of this passage, from just a few chapters into The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

Nelson's Column had gone! Nelson's Column had gone and there would be no outcry, because there was no one left to make an outcry. From now on Nelson's Column only existed in his mind. England only existed in his mind--his mind, stuck here in this dank, smelly steel-lined spaceship. A wave of claustrophobia closed in on him.

England no longer existed. He'd got that--somehow he'd got it. He tried again. America, he thought, had gone. He couldn't grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York was gone. No reaction. He'd never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, has sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonalds, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald's hamburger.

He passed out. When he came round a second time he found he was sobbing for his mother.

This is a comedy. It's played for laughs, and yet Douglas Adams comes closer in this passage to what it means to lose your entire world than Battlestar Galactica has done in three and a half seasons of misery and torment. When I went on the March of Life at sixteen many of our stops were not in concentration camps or memorial sites but ordinary Polish towns. There we'd be taken to see the cemeteries, the dilapidated husks of synagogues, the houses with mezuzah holes still in the doorjambs. It wasn't just people that the Nazis destroyed in those places. It was a world, a society of European Jewry that has been wiped from the face of the Earth. The writers of Battlestar Galactica have never tried to depict this tragedy because, once again, they're not interested in going where their premise demands that they go[6], and because they won't acknowledge the magnitude of what the Cylons destroyed and the justness of the rage humans should feel towards them, much less the complicity of every single Cylon in this crime, they get to pretend that the choice between granting the Cylons Colonial citizenship and a more dangerous, more uncertain future has an obvious right answer.

It's an undeniable truth that the past is the past, and that we'd all--individuals and nations--be better off if we let go of our pain and anger and tried to start afresh, but to be capable of putting aside our losses so easily is inhuman, and maybe not something to be desired--what sort of person is willing to break bread with the destroyers of their civilization merely for the sake of their own survival? It's easy to say 'you need to move on', but it's also the sort of thing that a conqueror says. The victors have the privilege of letting go of the past because doing so doesn't hurt them, and because they've got what they wanted. For the victims, sometimes pain and anger are all that's left. It is the ultimate expression of Battlestar Galactica's skewed perspective, of its incorrect focus, that it tells a story from the point of view of those who have been beaten and robbed and expects us to believe that these people, or at least their leaders, are willing and able to put their grief and grievances aside so easily, and that this is the right choice. It's a show told from the perspective of the conquered, but its writers are thinking like conquerors.



[1] If you haven't done so already, check out SelenaK's running commentary on the series; in her post about this episode she writes very cogently about Adama's many failings and the massive contribution they make to the destabilization of the fleet.

[2] And this is once again the time to lament the inconsistent treatment of Lee. Catapulting him to the position of president in the first half of the season was bad enough, but if you're going to do so, and especially if you're going to do so by claiming that he possesses the integrity, vision and charisma of a born leader, then why is he so ineffective in the buildup to the mutiny, and why is his role in this story strictly military?

[3] Though what, exactly, the Cylons believe about humans--much less what they believe about them that justified their wholesale extermination--is something that the show has yet to articulate.

[4] I'm still waiting for an explanation of why Boomer, the most human of all the Cylons we met, thought this was a good idea.

[5] Don't talk to me about "Hero." Even the writers are trying to pretend that episode never happened.

[6] For one thing, it would require actually constructing a Colonial culture, as opposed to pretending that the Colonies were 21st century America with spaceships.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Quick, Before the Rest of the Internet Links to It

The inimitable Adam Roberts hits on the perfect approach to reviewing Anathem:
it is surely beside the point to object to the tell-don't-show styless, or to the myriad annoylogisms, which are amongst the showiest elements in S.’s worldbling. My problem with the tekst can be boiled down to one focus: its monstrous and inflated infodumping. Of course I appreciate that for some ridders, and perhaps for many ridders, this 'problem' will be the whole point of the book. The entirety of the tekst is one gigantic Infodump, and that’s that.
The review itself, however, is merely a backdrop to a glossary that simultaneously parodies Stephenson and, for people like myself who found the wordplay in Anathem surprisingly enjoyable, gives him a run for his money, all while supplying genre reviewers with a wealth of apt and much needed terms such as 'worldbling', 'narractor', and 
HARI-PARTER. Committing a form of tekstual suicide by increasingly expanding the parts of an ongoing tale until they reach such size that the guts of the story split open and spill all over the ground (see Rowmbling). Painful and grisly.
I can't wait to use these in a review.