Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dune Roamin'

OK. Ploughing through the fourth season DVDs of Battlestar Galactica.

Not bad. But the jury is still out in my mind.

The series is rotten with religion. Prophecies, dreams, temples, voices in the head, the clash of civilizations, yattayatta.

SF writers are reluctant to drag religion into the picture for a very good reason. It ain't the fear of God's vengeance. It ain't the fear of the vengeance of God's pointy headed followers. Religion, to an SF writer, is like duct tape. You can fix anything with this stuff.

And that's what's wrong with it.

If you take the Voices in the Head seriously, it's Deus Ex Machina time. Yes, everyone's favorite SF cliche -- the God in the machine!!! "I, RoboChrist, command you to settle on Alpha Centauri!" Yes, Lawd! What other response is there?

Ya gotta any plot holes, problems with the character arc, logical contradictions, violations of the laws of physics — no problem! Just drag the Voice of Gawd into it. God said it, the readers believe it, that settles it, amen.

On the other hand ...

If you're fixing to whack the Old Time Religion with a crowbar, it's Gene Roddenbery time. Y'know. Star Trek's original producer had one basic plot: God from the machine, literally. Deus ex Mechanoman. God is a robot that eats pineapples. God is a robot that thinks like a fundamentalist. God is a robot that did the nasty with another robot and turned into V'Ger.

So, simplistically put, simple-minded SF writers have two options:
A simplistic hallelujah for religion. In space.
A simplistic attack on religion. In space.

The harder, more complicated, more ambiguous, less rabble-rousing, less feel-good (for either atheists or Bible-thumpers) approach is to take religion seriously — as a force in its own right — and seriously consider the implications of a wave of religious hysteria in the universe. And to do so — regardless of the implication of whether it's true or not.

And we're basically kneeling before Frank Herbert's Dune.

Like the new iteration of Battlestar Galactica, Dune was also rotten with religion — primarily as a form of manipulation and social control, but also as a form of social adaptation. So, to the Zen-Sunnis of Dune, their religion (which centered on the life cycle of the sandworm and its hallucinatory byproducts) was an adaptation to harsh living conditions on a desert planet. The Bene Geserit, meanwhile, have been engaged in a covert genetics program and spreading religious bullshit as a cover story. Paul Atreides messes up their plan. He's a sport Messiah, arriving ahead of schedule. In Herbert's universe (as Herbert has said in many interviews) a Messiah is a tsunami; a natural disaster that wrecks civilizations. (This is somewhat clear in the SciFi channel mini series adaptations, not at all in David Lynch's Eraserhead in Space version.)

Battlestar Galactica walks the razor's edge between Religion-is-Crap and Religion-is-Dead-Serious. The Cylon skinjobs believe in the One True God; the freaking humans (or, let's say, the frakking humans) are polytheists. Go figure. Give them a light and they'll follow it anywhere.

The core concept, of course, is an exodus to the promised land. Jews in Space, as Mel Brooks would say.

Everyone's running around with sugarplum visions in their heads and disembodied songs in their ears. Dylan's All Along the Watchtower pops into the minds of four Cylons who figured they were all-too-human. Gaius Balthar, the quisling, sumbitch, self-centered, narcissistic, hetero Dr. Smith, becomes a bloody Christ figure. Starbuck comes back from the dead.

Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ.

Herbert suckered us into a Messianic vision of grandiose religiosity — only to undercut it with Dune's sequels. Ultimately, the force behind it all ain't God, it's human beings (however changed and evolved) playing God. And the result is disaster. Herbert, ecologist that he was, would probably also say that result was inevitable. Playing God is what our species does.

I'm seriously hoping Battlestar has the same honesty when dealing with its core concept.

Lord forgive me, but I'm seriously hoping that, at journey's end, all this religion shit turns out to be a scam. Having scoped ahead to the convenient Episode Guides, I know that — at the cliffhanger midpoint of season 4 — both Cylons and humans all come back to Earth and it's been, apparently, blown to hell. The interpretation I would like to see: all this God shit is a mental implant by some Unknown Force manipulating both sides — perhaps the entity responsible for the hallucinatory Cylon babe in Balthar's head — as a means to get them all back to the ruined earth to clean up the mess. The man behind the curtain reveals himself and says: Wake up. The truth is, in this world, you're on your own, and that applies to humans and Cylons alike.

It's been a long strange trip.

I'm expecting a big fucking hat and a big fucking rabbit when we get to the end.

So say we all.

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