Cylon futures

Science fiction in book form was and is my first and most enduring fannish love. It gave me ways to imagine worlds and people differently, models for gender and sexuality from the painfully normative to the radically queer, started me on tracks of thinking about futurity, humanity and alterity that have led me all the way to my current pursuit of a PhD.

Televisual science fiction and I have had a rather more casual relationship, most often mediated by the interpretive and transformative practices of fan artistic production. It isn’t often that a TV show can provide the intellectual excitement and stimulation I expect from the best written science fiction. But I’ve spent the past two months mainlining the first two seasons of (new) Battlestar Galactica (hereafter acronymed BSG), and it has (almost) everything this theory-loving sf-geek could desire.

I still have a season and a special to go before I’m caught up on BSG, but I couldn’t hold back from posting some of the thoughts that have been making me overexcited as I viewed. I’ve been having ongoing discussions with Julie Levin Russo who writes fabulous queer media theory about BSG (here, for example, although that one I’m studiously avoiding until I catch up, as the first paragraph spoiled me for a major Season Two event I would have preferred not to know in advance). This post is enormously influenced by her thoughts about BSG’s queer technological reproductive economies, so I dedicate it to her.

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I knew I was going to love BSG from the miniseries’ opening salvo: humanity’s home planet destroyed by their robot creations the Cylons, survivors adrift in space, Cylons among them indistinguishable from themselves, paranoia, politics, conflict. I have a blog entry in me for many of the running themes in BSG, I think, but for now I want to talk about aspects most central to my dissertationish ideas: what BSG has to say about humanity’s future. Or, rather, the lack thereof: because what I really want to talk about is Cylons, and the complexities of their drive for humanity’s death.

Cylons (which I would prefer not to capitalize, but apparently BSG’s writers and fans think otherwise) are something of a theorygeek’s dream. They lend themselves to multitudinous metaphors, which is one of the major reasons I love these genocidal robots so very very much.

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For example:

Cylons are humanity’s ungrateful children, and they’re not going to continue in the family way. They may look like their parents, but they refuse to follow their path or their rules: they spat on the hand that fed and abused them and then claimed the universe for their own. There’s a scene early in season one when a Cylon woman murders a human baby, prefiguring the genocide of the human: even as I was experiencing the appropriate horror and disgust, I thought of Lee Edelman’s exhortations to say “fuck you” to the innocent face of hetero-reproductive futurity. Cylons choose not to choose life, if life is defined as human. They just take their negation of reproductive futurity a little more literally than your average Edelmanian queer; they’re not afraid to kill a baby or two.

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Another one:

Like terroristic figures from Lucifer to Frankenstein and beyond, the Cylons were made by those who they now terrorize, creators reaping what they sowed. They only treat humans the way humans treated them and themselves: they’re Caliban too to these Colonials, who taught them language and their profit on it is they know how to curse. And their language, which as the series progresses they use for many things other than killing and cursing, is wireless networks. Imagine what your iphone could do if it rose to rebellious consciousness.

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Thirdly and more completely:

Watch this short clip, from the episode “Resurrection Ship part 2”.

This conversation between Sharon Valerii, a Cylon who lived as a human for years without knowing she wasn’t, and Commander Adama, leader of the human forces, epitomizes the antihumanist pleasures available in watching BSG as (if you will) a Cylon.

Adama wants to know why ‘they (you, we)’ hate ‘us’; why the Cylons can’t let humanity have its future, why mankind’s children are ungrateful, why they turned genocidal. Sharon, in return, insists that his humanistic terms are not as universal as he thinks: that he knows “why do they hate us?” is a question, in this case, to which the asker already contains the answer. This is a show about saving the human race that isn’t afraid to wonder if the human race is worth saving, as ‘saving,’ ‘worth,’ and ‘human’ are currently defined. By the old white guy.* Sharon, neither white nor a guy and thus often excluded from the defaults of the human on grounds other than her Cylonhood, asks whether the flaws in the creation he romantically defined might not outweigh the benefits after all: whether the future he and his are fighting for would be better off not existing.

It’s not that BSG’s sympathy, or for that matter my own, is not with Adama, with survival, with lives and their dramas lived under attack. Even Sharon, brimful of interpersonal connections and memories that never happened, has defected to the human cause. But in her particular ambivalence to the continuation of a human race with which she has thrown in her lot, Sharon asks what we might find outside it in futures not accounted for in Adamaesque speechifying, in people who don’t ask why ‘they’ hate ‘us,’ who don’t get to be his kind of human?

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It’s clear, I think, that I’m interested in reading the Cylons as queer (among other things). There’s plenty of sexy evidence in addition to my tenuous Edelman analogies: beautiful women whose love for one another changes worlds, and the familial and reproductive weirdnesses of multiple differentiated iterations of downloaded consciousnesses. BSG is rich in coded queernesses and all but empty of actual represented nonstraight sexuality, which is fairly annoying, but I do think that the Cylons’ many queernesses mean that much of what could be most normative in BSG ends up appearing slanted, askew. Disorienting, to turn a phrase from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, since I read it last week and this is supposed to be an academic blog after all.

There are Cylon women who fall in love with human men, several of them, for whom love brings a respect for human life and a sense of the value of the individual over Cylon collectivity. There’s a baby, born of such a coupling, who seems to signify the future, though what kind no one seems sure. But these machine women are not (yet, anyway) selling out their collective for the Colonial men. The Cylon revolutionaries who change the Cylon future for love aren’t privileging humanity, returning to the family, or honouring their creators, I don’t think. They’re reaching for a different relation between individual and collective, Cylon and human, one that can allow for experiential difference and relative autonomy on behalf of both species.

Love, as Julie theorizes, does complex things in Cylon and Cylon/human mythologies and technologies. It complicates the drive for species extinction on both sides, turns murderous urges internal and reparative ones across unexpected lines, gives birth to mutants and hybrids.

From what I gather by osmosis and Julie, there’s lots more antihumanist reproduction, death, and queer futurity in my future of Cylon spectatorship.

*ETA: Edward James Olmos, I have just been informed, is Latino, not white; which is an excellent example of why even bloggers should do their homework. I still think Adama occupies a structural position of unquestioned authority and setting of terms that is to some extent coextensive with what an in-BSG-universe equivalent to whiteness would be; but (especially given the Pegasus arc) one could argue against that.

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4 thoughts on “Cylon futures

  1. Az

    Interesting stuff. I’m not sure I agree 100% with you about the Cylons not being motivated by a standard, recuperative desire to return to the family or please their God(s). My feeling is that the Cylons are just as conflicted and ambivalent about these matters as are, finally, the ‘humans’. At moments in Season Two, the great hopes of the Fleet, the children in the BSG family, Lee and Kara, both seem to behave in a way that rejects reproductive familialism. Problem is, they always seem to be being recuperated back into the fold. And eventually, we begin to see humanism infecting even the most ardent Clyon supporters of humanity’s destruction… but I don’t want to spoil you for Season Three!

    Also, is Adama really an old white guy? I always find it interesting to see how people racialise the cast of BSG: by US and Canadian audiences, Edward Olmos seems to be thought of as white, while here in Australia, I tend to think of him as Latino (especially given his history of roles, as well). I’m wondering if I’m missing something about Olmos that would allow him to be coded as white here.

    This is also one of the beautiful things about BSG: its racialisations are complex and contextual, and sometimes they really screw with the metaphors the writers set up (precisely that line between colonisers/colonised, human/nonhuman being legible viz the asix of white/nonwhite). That said, though, Adama does represent the authority vested in empire, the military, the chain of command. So maybe he still is the old white guy, after all.

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  2. Alexis

    Regarding Edward Olmos and race: it’s me missing something, not you. Although I live in the US, I’m not American, and I don’t always read racializations ‘correctly’. I didn’t research the actor and was, I admit, primarily thinking of Adama in his capacity as the fearless leader, the top of the chain of command, the vested source of authority — metaphorical old white guy, as you say.

    Because while I do agree that BSG doesn’t reproduce it as simply as many other sf TV shows we could mention, I don’t think that the axis of coloniser/colonised that maps onto white/nonwhite can ever be wholly *avoided*, especially in science fiction. There is always going to be some relationship to it, and though this blog entry is definitely in the realm of speculative/reductive theory, I was trying to reach for what that relationship might be at moments if not in the whole series.

    The Cylons’ motivatiotions are definitely ambivalent but I do think it’s crucial that their god is not the humans’, even when they share mythology: at least without season 3, they never seek to return to their role with/for the humans, to understand themselves in human terms. They have their own recuperative desires, their normativities and conflicts, but they never want then to be *human* ones.

    I think one of the reasons I’ve become fascinated with the Cylons is my annoyance at the recuperation of the queers of the Fleet into normative familiality. They create a world of gender egalitarianism, openness of desire, a place where multiple family and relationship forms should be able to flourish — and then offer only the slightest hints of queer life there, which they constantly shut down. I’m totally in mourning for Kara Thrace’s fabulous dykiness that they shut down so hard at the end of season 2, and hoping against hope that she might make a comeback from wifeliness in season 3.

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  3. khellekson

    The thing I love best about BSG is that love plays such an important part in everything–plots, interpersonal relationships of course, decisions made. Adama submitting and permitting everyone to join back together–OMG! OMG! And it’s one of the few shows that truly touches on what love will make us do, and why we will do it.

    There is much more in store! Enjoy the ride.

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