Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Cylon God

This post now linked by the "So say we all" Galactica blog carnival. Submit your own entries here.

I loved this last episode, "Escape Velocity," not because it was a great episode but rather because it finally answered some questions that had been nagging me since the series started and also because there was lots of Baltar, my favorite character played by the most strangely talented actor I've ever seen.

As episodes go, this was just a small, character driven, open ended and sometimes weirdly incoherent part of an on going story. There were no big events, just little events threatening to grow into serious problems. There was no closure on any of the stories started and continued, just promises of dire consequences to come. And those promises meet the expectations I had when I wrote my first Galactica post on this blog, "Why the new Battlestar Galactica is more important than "Expelled!" or Vox Day's writings." The show's 4th and final season looked to be a rich vein of speculation on religion, morality and society.

One of the questions that had been nagging me for awhile was why Caprica Six, head Six, and some other Cylons were using such familiar Christian terminology. Caprica Six told Baltar that God created the Cylons (yet it was a matter of history that men had created the Cylons), Head-six told Baltar that she was an "angel" of god. They've used phrases like "one true God," and Cavil said the Sixes believed God would "save their souls." The way Baltar prayed with his hands folded and kneeling (I don't think Jews and Muslims do it that way). The way that Baltar's cult sets up his shrine, like a Catholic saint. Even praying for miracles and asking similar questions about God's will; "Does God want my son to die?" It says they believe this God is all powerful and everything that happens that they can't comprehend is God's will. It's not the kind of a God that a scientist would normally believe in.

We don't know why the Sixes believe in God. Does she have some artificial memory of someone telling her so when she was a child? Is it part of some artificial and programmed memory for a creature that was born as an adult and who never had a childhood? It suggests that whatever thing did program her is ready to play the role of God, at least for the Sixes. (Then why not Brother Cavil? Why is he programmed differently? If they are programmed.)

How long have Cavil and Caprica Six been "alive" to collect experiences and form their own opinions? Could she have come to such a conclusion on her own? If she did so, why did she? Was her belief unplanned for by those who made and programmed her to be humanoid?

Then there are some episode titles that play with biblical phrases, like "He That Believeth In Me," "The Hand of God," "Valley of Darkness," "Epiphanies," "Exodus," "A Measure of Salvation" and "Rapture," and they've been using that "clue" stuffed riddle of a picture that resembles Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" to promote the show. Then add to that how people have been having mystical experiences, following visions and getting miraculous messages in temples and what not. Is that really the supernatural or is it some unknown technology?

Throwing out the word "God" is no big deal, there could be all kinds of gods, but then "angel," "one true God," "saving souls," and it all starts to sound very Christian. Those terms and concepts are too familiar for a foreign culture so distant in time and space from our own. We don't have to go but half way around this planet in our present time to find ourselves surrounded by more exotic forms of religion where those concepts don't fit. In India you might see Hindus offering flowers and fruits to pictures of strange looking gods. In Japan you might see odd Shinto rituals where they dance with a broom to keep evil spirits away. It's an exotic touch that makes us feel far from home. But I don't ever feel that far from home watching Galactica.

If Six had been using terms like "The Designer" for God and "memory patterns" for soul then we would have picked up on the religious parallels and understood how god-like Cylon technology was without needing all the extra assumptions that come with the Judeo-Christian concepts. The Christian terms and concepts carry too much cultural baggage. And worse, they actually obscure the issue because there are so many different interpretations of Christianity in our culture.

These days I don't know what Christians believe when they babble on about theology. Do they literally believe in talking snakes? Do they think they'll go to heaven and do more duck hunting there? One time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee actually expressed that belief not too long ago.

Christian beliefs, all using similar terminology, can run the gamut from Pat Robertson to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from pope Ratzinger to John Shelby Spong. They've all got their own personal Jesus, made in their own image.

Some people on the forums I've visited have been assuming, until recently, that when Cylons talk of "God" they're referring to something like a legendary figure from the past, possibly an early designer of robotic Cylons or the first human/cylon hybrid. They may be, but using culturally loaded terminology is not the usual way that's done. In Star Trek, and some of these Galactica people worked on Deep Space Nine, they didn't have Christians or get that close to Christian-like concepts with their alien religions. In the Stargate series you get a lot of "gods" too, usually high-tech aliens, but not such direct use of Christian terminology.

Later Star Trek incarnations even suffered a tiny bit in the credibility department for not including Christians. There were no sky-pilots in space, no military chaplins in Starfleet that we knew of. I mean, even after a few hundred years you'd think there might at least be a few Unitarian Universalists left who still talked about the Bible and had a little chapel set aside for services. Okay, maybe the fundamentalists and evangelicals might have gone extinct, but evolution accepting methodists too? It's likely that standard fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity has too narrow a view of man and the universe to survive solid proof of evolution and Turing testable artificial intelligence. It's not, however, necessarily true of the thousands of other variants of Christianity.

Yet, even with this variety of Christian options all the religions in the later Trek series were alien religions, humanity seemed to have gone entirely humanist in Starfleet, and the terminology they used for alien religions was carefully chosen for an exotic flavor and not to sound too Christian even while commenting on either the positive or negative aspects of modern religion.

But now, here we are light years from Earth, without Earth's history, in who knows what time period, and we've got Roman gods and some form of pseudo-Christianity with Baltar in the role of Jesus. The fact that they're using concepts and terminology borrowed from Judeo-Christian monotheism suggests they are either trying to draw some parallel or were lazy about inventing this originally Cylon religion.

I don't think they were lazy.

This episode finally made some more direct parallels to New Testament events (and I expect more parallels to come). After Baltar's cult was attacked by another religious group, Baltar stormed into one of the services to honor Zeus. He called Zeus a serial rapist and started throwing religious icons to the ground. It recalled the story, in Matthew 21:12, where Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple. Jesus's crucifiction would soon follow.

They aren't trying to be "realistic." They're trying to make a comment about religion in our very own culture. This is science fiction as metaphor. This is more slipstream than sci-fi. I don't think there is any good way to rationalize how Roman religions, religions from pretty much the middle of the evolution of humanity's religious concepts, got out into space. We don't even know if the events in Galactica are in our past or our future yet.

I've suspected for awhile that, at least in part, this show has been a warning about what might happen if we approach the technological singularity described by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge with our current political and religious structures as they are.

For one thing the humans in the show did the absolute worst thing you can do when approaching such a technological shift, they outlawed artificial intelligence while the Cylons held on to it (in fact are it). Thus Cylon technology accelerated and passed through the "technological singularity" while humanity became technologically stagnated.

Artificial intelligence is suppose to be the key driver for the singularity. The humans out-lawed it. The Cylons were it. And now the Cylons live in a god-like post-technological singularity world.

There may be something akin to a Cylon "mainframe" that is fairly god-like in its powers. It apparently wasn't any of the 7 humanoid models that decided to make 12 humanoid models and then hide who exactly the final 5 were from the 7 we originally knew of. Some unknown entity on the Cylon side seems to be calling the shots for some mysterious reason.

In "Escape Velocity" we may have gotten a glimpse into that god-like entity's motives and it's another parallel to the biblical story of Jesus. It happened when Tigh was visiting the Six in her prison cell and Six told Tigh about "becoming human" and then learning through pain and changing because of it. She didn't know what guilt felt like until she felt it. She didn't know what love was until she feel in love with Baltar. She didn't understand death until she realized Baltar wouldn't always be there. Jesus also "became flesh and dwelt among us" perhaps to experience such things himself. Of course, I don't believe that biblical story, but it's an interesting idea.

I like the Galactica version of this "god became flesh" concept better than the biblical story and I'm not even sure Six is being honest in telling it. She may be saying it so Tigh will accept her. The Bible story never really explored Jesus's emotional state much or told us what exactly he learned from his suffering and pain. Jesus didn't seem to change and grow like Six has. Jesus wasn't really one of us, just another stranger on the bus trying to find his way home. He was always other worldly, unlike our poor lost, and final, Cylons.

However, telling this human side of the story that never actually happened to Jesus seems to be a big influence on a lot of creative types who have converted to Christianity. Anne Rice converted and wrote such a story of Jesus; "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt."

Six, getting back to the point, also might be growing in ways her original programmer didn't want. One thing about the Sixes is that all of them we've seen, Head Six, Caprica Six, Natalie, and Gina, seem to be out to cause and gather pain. They are always putting themselves in situations where they either wind up dishing it out or getting pain. So while Head Six talks Baltar into being a punching bag martyr in front of his followers, Caprica Six is in the brig hammering on Tigh's face and then kissing him. And Gina got herself tortured and raped.

And if the Cylons became flesh to learn about humanity, consider the things that ex-Chief Tyrol is learning. Back at Tyrol's apartment Tory had told Tyrol that he was made to be perfect and that he can turn off his guilt over Cally's death. Tyrol reminds Tigh that he planned to be the same man he always was. Tigh says yea, "...feel what you gotta feel, but don't risk us."

But Tyrol can't be the man he was. He starts to fall apart, he yells at Adama, saying how he hates his life and he didn't really like Cally all that much... she was just "the best of limited options." Tyrol even reminded Adama of his threat to kill Cally during the workers' strike and said he felt like killing her himself. (If there's ever a murder investigation into Cally's death he's going to be the primary suspect now.) His relationship with Cally was dysfunctional and he wasn't over his affair with Boomer either. He once said he didn't think about Sharon anymore, but how could he not now that he knows he is, like Boomer, a Cylon.

Adama demotes him after he spews all this poisonous emotion. Now his life is going to be even worse. Well, Jesus and Buddha never learned those life lessons, did they? There's a hell of a personal Jesus for you, fired, dysfunctional marriage, then widower and terrified of his dangerous secret. Such a cross to bear.

A lot more happened in this episode, but I'll pick up those threads later when the story lines reach some more closure.


Nicholas said...

Your Galactica reviews are always a really good read.
I tried to comment about more but you pretty much covered all the interesting stuff.
I kind of want to know your thoughts on that last sermon Baltar gave. I might have misunderstood but it sounded like he was saying that the one true God was really people rather than a singular entity.

Norman Doering said...

Nick, your request inspired a new blog post.