When we first asked, Geoff Ryman wasn’t able to write us a response about Battlestar Galactica in time for that week’s Mind Meld. But he didn’t forget about us! Without further ado, here is his response to the question:
Have you ever been proved right in a nightmare?
The last episode of Battlestar Galactica proved me right in a way that dismayed me. I loved BSG for its characters. I could accept the bad science because the show did such a good job of showing me America as it now is. Out of genre habit, I accepted the preposterous setting in order to see such characters as an effective female President. Roslin is everything a politician needs to be including ruthless — she tries to rig and election and suggests assassination as a political tool. I loved the ambiguity of Balthar, the way the fate of the characters kept evolving. Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck took a character that was essentially a contraption, and made her live. (Until that is, they turned her into an Angel.)
But boy did I have doubts. I expressed these in a speech at ICFA (the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts) in 2007. I wondered about the cramped palette of roles offered to black characters, the same basic palette of preachers, comely communication officers, or isolated black heroes that SF TV always seems to offer. I criticised its use of the Honorary Man, a female character who is there to do men’s dirty work for them.
But above all I expressed my fear that the spaceship with its Greek Gods would end up on our Earth in the past, founding civilization as we know it out of the Western tradition. I felt that it was symptomatic of a wider malaise that so much SF turned out to be fantasy set in the past rather than the future.
The edited version of the speech (Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts , vol 18, no 2) skips over much of that argument because everybody told me so many things I’d said were clangers. I was an idiot for compromising. I won’t do it again.
The improvised and shoddy end of Battlestar Galactica did exactly what I most feared it would do. It shows me that civilisation on Earth was essentially founded by us, the West.
In this unintentionally racist mythology, the Greek Gods and our classical Greek inheritance arrived with Galactica before any other civilization. Forget the gods of Sumer, or of the Indus valley. The West came first.
Americans are monotheists, so Galactica came bearing the One God as well. In this respect it went even further than I feared. Monotheism didn’t come out of Africa, Egypt, Akhenaten, or the Middle East, no no no.
Not even mitochondrial Eve was African. One of humanity’s universal ancestors wasn’t black. Heaven forefend. We’re all descended from a token Asian robot and a nice white man. (Thank heavens there is more than just one universal ancestor.)
The only coherent brown culture in Galactica is the line of cave people migrating across the plain. They are about to be severely colonized and civilized. The Caprican Burden, I suppose.
In a weird duplication of manifest destiny, the white folks (plus assimilates without a culture of their own) are now going to educate, civilize, interbreed with, and take control of the indigenes. So did Galactica also bring slavery?
Another grave disappointment was the deus-ex-machina plot. I wish they’d listened to their Greek tradition in the form of Aristotle. It’s not good drama if God solves all your character’s problems.
This deus-ex-machina solution, God sending angels to lead the humans to a replacement Earth, reinforces the notion that God is on America’s side. Americans and maybe their Brit allies are somehow are the chosen people. Hallelujah. The Others are not, but they can tote the water for us.
Evil is what happens when you choose not think. Working in a team, the designers of Galactica have given us the perfect expression of the structural racism that has baked into the Western tradition.
I’m not positioning myself as a white ally, I don’t believe in political correctness in fiction. I’m not a politician. But I’ve learned my lesson. That will be the last time I fail to fully and frankly call it as I see it.