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Archive for September, 2009

Sins of the Children: Caprica

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

by Calvin W. Johnson

Today I have the pleasure of hosting my friend Calvin W. Johnson, who will give us his thoughts on Battlestar Galactica and Caprica.  Dr. Johnson is Professor of Physics in San Diego State University where he does research in computational quantum mechanics.  He’s also an author with poems and SF stories in many venues, including Analog and Asimov’s.  You can find some of them at his home page, http://www.physics.sdsu.edu/~johnson/writing/.

Galactica Fleet 2One of the earliest and most lasting narrative models in science fiction is Frankenstein.  The recent SciFi channel reboot of Battlestar Galactica owes itself as much to Mary Shelley as to the original 1978 television series. In the original, the robotic Cylons are creations and inheritors of a now-extinct reptilian race; in the 2003 reboot, the Cylons are our own creation. Like Frankenstein’s creature (in the novel), the reimagined Cylons are as capable of tormented philosophical reasoning as they are of homicidal rage.

It is the Cylons’ self-doubt that saves the human race from extinction, which is lucky considering the forty thousand surviving humans are so flawed and back-biting that a brace of ambitious bonobos armed with a bottle of window cleaner and some lead-tainted Mexican candy could have wiped them out. In current parlance Battlestar Galactica was “dark,” a quality currently all the rage  (see also: Christopher Nolan’s two Batman movies).  The first two seasons frequently had brilliakara starbuck thrace1nt writing and acting, but by the final season Battlestar Galactica (or BSG to its friends) deteriorated into a self-parodying soap opera. We were told at the beginning of episodes that the Cylons “have a plan,” but it became increasingly clear that creator Ron Moore was making it up as he went along; by the series finale he had written the reboot’s most compelling creation, Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, into such a corner that he could only end her story by having her melt into the wind like an bad odor.

But Battlestar Galactica was the best thing going on the SciFi channel. Ominously, and not in a good way, the Powers That Be agreed to a prequel, Caprica, set 58 years “before the fall.” Caprica details the story of how the Cylons were created and how humanity sowed the seeds of its own destruction. (Warning: mild spoilers ahead).

Caprica takes us back to a shinier, happier time to meet Zoe Greystone, the 16-year-old scion of a cybernetics corporation. Part genius, part whiny goth girl, part secret religious fanatic (a monotheist in a world of polytheists), she is killed off in the first few minutes. Eventually, she is resurrected cybernetically, much to the regret of everyone, herself included.

If this sounds familiar, why yes it is, even more so than Frankenstein. When one thinks of a prequel written in response to a successful, gritty science fiction phenomenon, one can only invoke…

Star Wars.

The parallels are uncanny.

Recall: in the Star Wars prequels, Lucas takes us back to a shinier, happier time, to meet Anakin Skywalker, a technologically brilliant yet whiny child who secretly falls in with the sinister cult of the Sith, is nearly killed, then resurrected in a cyborg body to terrorize the galaxy.

Wow. I get goosebumps just thinking about the parallels, and not in a good way.

Zoe capricaCaprica is far better than The Phantom Menace, but that is a low bar, and neither is Caprica as compelling as the opening Battlestar Galactica miniseries. We are supposed to sympathize with Zoe’s grieving father, a Bill Gates-like character, but his distance from wife and work also distances him from the audience. Much more intriguing is Joseph Adams, a well-dressed lawyer who lost his wife and daughter in the same bombing that killed Zoe, and who is attempting to reconnect with his young son William, all the while in a dangerous dance with a Mafia-like gang from his Tauron homeworld. Young William, of course, grows up to be Bill Adama, who helps to save the human race 58 years later as captain of the Galactica. The Adama drama is much more compelling than the dull Frankenstein, I mean Greystone, family but is curiously underplayed here despite a few dramatic scenes.

The technology of Caprica is not only flashier but also significantly more advanced than in Battlestar Galactica; I suppose the First Cylon War seriously knocked civilization back on its heels. Among the advance is a kind of virtual reality; I tend to despise virtual reality stories on principle, although here the stupid factor is significantly less than Star Trek holodecks or The Matrix, again low bars (I realize such a statement is hate-mail bait).  Oddly enough, the tech I liked the best was a kind of smart paper; less dramatic but much more realistic.

BSG, as does all science fiction, provided a platform to play out current anxieties: terrorism, genocide, abortion, religion. It’s clear that Caprica will touch upon at least two major themes: the tension between heritage and assimilation among immigrants facing bigotry, and religion. Most discussions about religion in science fiction are ill-informed and inane, and have none of the critical depth or insight found in, say, Life of Brian or South Park. In both BSG and Caprica, however, the religion proxy discussion is more intriguing, mostly because the writers allow the characters the sincerity of their beliefs or, better yet, realize the insincerity of all our beliefs and non-beliefs.

06-Caprica-City

Watching Caprica I was struck when one character, questioning the monotheism of another, asks: do you really want to believe in a universe run by a single God who gets to decide what is right and what is wrong, with no recourse, no appeal? In other words: polytheism as the ultimate checks-and-balances for governing the universe. For science fiction, this counts as a deep insight.

The pilot for Caprica was released as a DVD and download in April; it is set to premiere as a series in early 2010. It’s unlikely to be as awful as spinoffs often are — for example, I couldn’t even bear to try the Stargate: Atlantis spinoff from SG-1 — but I am not holding my breath. In fact, I’ll probably wait for the DVD.

When It Rains, It Pours!

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

catsaxTwo articles of mine appeared today in very different venues.

The first article of my Eldorado Desperadoes series was Of Mice and Men.  The second Desperadoes essay, The Quantum Choice: You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality, is now live on H+ Magazine.

And the Huffington Post reprinted the essay …Shall not Perish from the Earth,  with the title America, Then and Now.

Image: Cool Cat, Ali Spagnola

Update: Another article just appeared at the Huffington Post.  In it, I sing the praises of left-handers who include Alexander the Great, Jeanne d’Arc, Barack Obama… and yours truly.  If anyone feels motivated to comment at the Huffington site, please consider also clicking the Fan button!

Southpaws: The Hops in Humanity’s Beer?

Some of you may recall seeing this essay on this blog with the title The Left Hand of Light.  The Huffington article is an expanded, updated version.

“…and that Government of the People, by the People, for the People, Shall not Perish from the Earth.”

Monday, September 14th, 2009

– Abraham Lincoln, the ending of the Gettysburg address

Note: this article has now been reprinted at the Huffington Post, with the title America, Then and Now.

Three and a half decades ago, I chose to come to this country to attend Harvard, then MIT, a journey made possible by perfect test scores and full scholarships.  Though my father was a top-flight engineer, our income could never have afforded the astronomical (for Greeks) fees.  I was well aware that the US was far from perfect and saw more warts while I lived and traveled here – although, as I tell European friends who ask me how I endure it, I live in Cambridge, not the US.  Yet this nation was still a beacon for those of us who were hopeful romantics, who dreamed of achieving and contributing in an accepting meritocracy.

Apollo-1

When I first came, the prevailing attitude in the US was that of an engineer.  Failure was not an option.  Competence and problem solving were gods.  The infrastructure was superb, along with the civic attitudes and shared goals that go with such a context. The society was generous, curious, friendly, outward-looking.  I encountered other cultures mingling in the not-quite-melting pot, other ways of thinking that I would have never discovered in the homogeneous culture of my birth.

Then came the Republican interregnum, culminating in the eight nightmarish years of the Bush administration.  During those years, this country and its people turned into something sickeningly reminiscent of imperial Rome in its dotage.  Persons and institutions became incurious, willfully ignorant, sanctimonious, petulant, small-minded, small-hearted, irrational, inhumane.  They turned inward, stopped thinking of the future and the world – even as US corporations and armies laid waste to much of it – and concentrated exclusively on narrowly defined individual concerns with an attitude of “I got mine, Jack, and the devil take the rest”.  Efficiency and acountability gave way to ass-covering policies (from religiosity to convenient memory lapses) and “gotcha” economics; exploration yielded to forms in quintuplicate and small print.  Empathy, compassion, finesse, courtesy, eloquence, reasoning, learning became suspect.  Plans for great advances in knowledge and social justice dwindled to the tunnel vision of making enough money to escape to a Tyvek Macmansion with a 50-inch plasma TV in a gated community.

The facts around the Challenger explosion of January 1986 illustrate the beginning of the mindset that led to what we have become now.  The launch didn’t serve science but politics: it was meant to serve as a triumphal exclamation point to Reagan’s state of address; the civilian in the mission was deliberately chosen for mediocrity and in fact failed most of the NASA routine tests (the overriding criterion was that s/he should be a complacent, unquestioning Republican – a criterion later expanded for choices of key people, including the position of president); the administrators and contractors bullied the scientists into a risky launch, reversing the traditional decision policy; after the disaster, every involved party pointed at each other in a circle instead of taking responsibility or proposing useful solutions; and during the investigation, the opinions of qualified scientists were ignored – in fact, denigrated – in favor of an amorphous miasma of fake piety and indignation.  In the thirty years following, the Overton window steadily moved to the right and the bottom, resulting in today’s baboon shrieks from talk show hosts, financiers and politicians who use fear, hatred and ignorance as banners and prodding sticks.

Angry-mob

In short, a nation that once was at least trying to be progressive devolved into a horde of atomized, disenfranchised people who behave like spoiled children and allow their financial and political institutions to treat them like serfs – except that, individually and collectively, this country has an excess of “lawyers, guns and money”.  In a frightening parallel to the Weimar Republic of the thirties, people are encouraged to collude in their own enslavement and to vent unfocused anger on any convenient target – from the non-existent threat in Iraq to people who point out that anthropogenic global warming is with us or that healthcare in today’s US is an abject (though preventable) moral, financial, political and scientific failure.

Now, this nation has been granted another chance – perhaps the last chance to arrest the decline before it becomes irreversible.  Its people elected someone who embodies the signature outstanding qualities of this society: a mixed-race, multicultural, pragmatic meritocrat, a flexible and principled doer who, in political fact, is about as socialist as Eisenhower.  But one swallow doesn’t bring the spring.  And the tendency to put Others belatedly and grudgingly in positions of power during crises is a common ploy of those who want to maintain the status quo without consequences to themselves.  The unprecedented, unreasoning hatred and disrespect towards Obama is emblematic of the country trampling on its own best principles and representatives.

I chose this country as my home – and as a cultural half-breed I’m profoundly aware of its unique makeup and its still great potential.  As an immigrant, a citizen, a cosmopolitan, a scientist, a writer, a human being, I won’t give up the vision that brought me here and made me who I am. And I call upon all who dream and think likewise to join me:

Statue_of_Liberty

Let’s dig her out and rekindle her light!

Images: Top, Apollo 1 ready for launch. Center, a still from The Simpsons. Bottom, the famous closing image from Planet of the Apes (1968).