A Comet for Utopia

[Wrote this with Laura King, for Stimulus Respond - out in the next issue: the piece is called: A Comet for Utopia].

“One cannot imagine any fundamental change in our social existence which has not first thrown off Utopian visions like so many sparks from a comet”
Jameson 2005: xii

Earthlings experience dystopia in a variety of ways. Yet we all have visions of a utopia which is in some way designed or designated as ours and for us. Fear and hope. Hope and fear. No doubt, we get such things from TV. One way of understanding the constellation of the dystopic, and therefore the utopic, is to go searching among the stars – a projected vision launched from the living room, blasting up up and away towards science fiction (SF) futures.

The fantastic future as utopia/dystopia is an old routine, but nowhere in popular culture do we find the recurring (neo-colonial) atrocities of today, and the subsequent escape to paradise, explored in such depth as in the re-imagined version of the television show Battlestar Galactica (2003, USA). This series delves into the need for refuge and redemption, conjuring the idea and ideal of a safe home, the Earth as sanctuary. The basic premise of the show is that the robot creations of humanity evolve and return to destroy their creators, who in classic SF fashion, had tried to restrict the autonomy and rights of the previously servile machines (called Cylons). After the Cylon revenge attack, the few survivors take flight in a rag-tag fleet of space ships and are hunted through the galaxy. Among the refugee survivors a flawed genius-scientist battles for political leadership with a former Government functionary of the now destroyed home worlds. The military commander, of course, remains ostensibly neutral but plays his part in both political intrigue and the family-narrative that drives each episode – heroic soldiers/viper pilots Starbuck and Lee Adama (the Admiral’s son) play out the conflict as last ditch heroic defenders again and again. The Cylons’ mission is to destroy. The human mission is to find the 13th Colony of Kobul, which is, of course, the mythical rumoured but unknown planet called ‘Earth’. Amidst the fleet, fear, anxiety and paranoia reign – the escape is threatened from within, the search for home, safety and the future-perfect family hang in the balance (sit-com style relationship dramas and the commander’s marital redemption also anticipate the ‘utopia’ of a reunited humanity). But its not on this show that we’ll find a harmonious Borg-like vista of all people joining together in one struggle, Galactica takes us further and projects a unity in fear that strives for its opposite. The utopic is defined by and thrives upon its antithesis, and is thereby unachievable. The search for Earth as a refuge from terror reproduces terror itself.

In such intergalactic dreamscapes as this, utopia exists as a reverse-tooled set of vampires and villains; slaying one leaves a void in which new enemies must be invented. Rather than an attained, liveable, realisable utopia, utopia itself dwells only in its own imagining. No-place. It is this that we find particularly evident in Galactica; unachievable goals are the prime drive for the human fleet, and it is this same drive that keeps the Cylons at the chase. The robotic ‘bad guys’ do not give up because they fully recognise that humans are no good, they must be redeemed and restored to the machinic-digital ideal, and so because of their destructive ways, they must be destroyed. This impeccable but contradictory logic justifies human efforts not only to escape and survive, but through a dialectical embrace, to return and fight again.

The first premise of Galactica – that Cylons rebel against their creators – is born of the same concern that drives science fiction utopianism from its earliest beginnings, and perhaps its highest point of articulation is found in the work of Isaac Asimov and his three laws of robotics. Thus we remember Asimov would have robots always help humans without complaint:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
(Asimov 1940 I, Robot)

Helpful robot heroes of SF begin with The False Maria of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. We might also think of Roy in Bladerunner, more human that Deckard by some distance. And the character Bishop in Aliens, played by Lance Henrikson; or Cal in Alien Resurrection, played by Winona Ryder. Think again of the Borg (go team), willing to improve humanity by way of assimilation. We may wonder why these beings are given such a hard time. Is it because our concern is that as artificial intelligence exceeds human thought we are doomed as obsolete and redundant? Or is it guilt at the residual slavery narrative that lurks behind these future space-scapes? We suspect something more sinister is really behind the fear of manchines. The future cleansed of all danger and threat, the dark misogynism that quakes at the idea of human-machine intercourse, the Cylon baby, the new evolutionism, are all symptomatic.

Isn’t it also perhaps a worry that there might be something about machine knowledge (collective intelligence, techne, logic, wisdom) that extends the organisational capacities of an individual mind, and thus suggests the collective rules. This might also be taken as the utopian drive buried within the circuitry of A.I – the design society, the sleek sharp curves of both a Centurion or a Sharon (the first Cylon to switch sides). The planned economy is targeted here also. If we allow that science fiction is a fantasy projection of real world concerns into space, one other consequence is that the collective might be a potential brake on rampant individual profiteering. If so, isn’t it the case that fear of robotics is merely the distorted manifestation of fear of an organisation of life and labour that would harness the general intellect for the good of all? To worry about this is a bourgeois anxiety, but to actively fear it and project it off-world is perhaps already an ideological concession that abandons both individualist and hierarchical thinking: and so no longer promotes the good of one over the well-being of all. Admiral Adama leads the fleet in the chant: ‘And So Say We All, So Say We All’.

Thus the Cylon quest also questions what it is to be human even as it is the humans who are searching for Earth. It is never a precise search – the human utopia exists only as an oblique reference in an obscure religious text, and is fuelled by the rallying hype and lies of the pragmatically wise military leader, Adama. Utopia here is by definition unreachable, uncertain and false. The effort to find the new non-hierarchical terror free terra firma is, however, tangible, and it provides the humans with an abstract but motivating goal. We are intrigued by this new fold in the survivalist text; and we suggest that it is rare in SF for utopia to present this as possible only in the imagination. Ever since Things to Come (William Menzies, 1936, UK) utopia has been posed as a spectacular achievement which must be defended; it has been realized, but it is under threat. Here it is an aspiration.

Yet the promise of Galactica is dark. Utopia cannot be achieved, it alienates. Utopia becomes viable merely as an appearance of coherence and wholeness that is to come only after a violent resolution that will destroy the motivation of all. This repetition recurs throughout the (ongoing) series of Galactica. Appeasing all politics, all morals and all desires is the never-ending impossibility of our protagonists. Earth as destination becomes a fetish, it is the mirage of a united front. Thus, there is also a certain dystopian pleasure in this for us as viewers who ‘already’ live on Earth since we know that the Earth we have now cannot ever offer the fleeing Galactica fleet sanctuary (the State would build a detention centre somewhere in Kent perhaps…). That this planet can be (re)imagined as a place of asylum is cleverly knowing – we are fully aware that this neo-colonial war-ridden, pollution-choked, automotive-industrial-psychologically unstable, inhospitable planet cannot provide anyone with the utopia they desire, and therefore the show underlines for the viewer the prospect of their own impossible utopias….

Our politics are thereby deferred, as in episode after episode we see the good guys and bad guys change sides with alarming frequency. Our heroic leaders may turn out to be Cylons in the end, our president of the colonies bans abortion, and just as we begin to find hope and heroism in the military, they go and shoot into an unarmed crowd. The Cylons also share such schizophrenia; we should hate them for their destruction, their violence, their cold calculus, but then they surprise us with philosophical interjections that demand a rethink. The Cylon vision of utopia lies both in the annihilation of the human race, and the creation of a hybrid human/Cylon child who can lead them towards another version of this same denouement. Such an obvious dystopia to the humans, a prospective resolution that cannot be countenanced, a hybridity too far, it seems the only solution. Yet both Cylon and human visions drive each other on exponentially and Earth remains out of reach (at least as of series three; the final series screens in 2008). The blue planet does not appear on ‘dradus’ (radar) and we have a sneaking feeling that if the Cylons in the end prevail, this would not be all that bad…

Fear and revenge animate televised ideals. Galactica’s search for Earth would not exist without a dystopic threat that includes the destruction of civilization; the path to freedom must pass by way of violent death for most, breeding farms for the rest (the population must grow). Conversely, the Cylons are concerned that the possibility of the fleet reaching Earth would mean a disruption of their well-made plans for human destruction, in turn spurring them towards a more comprehensive terror. The imbrications of dystopia and utopia find their places within each other, both becoming unachievable as the one cancels out its opponent. As the series themes it: ‘This has happened before, it will happen again’.

References:
Asimov, I. 1968 I,Robot, London: Grafton Books (short story ‘Runaround’ from 1940).
Jameson, F, 2005, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Verso Press: London

And if your so frakked up must needs want Galactica Slash, try here.

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  • By BSG Razor « trinketization on 15/03/2008 at 1:43 pm

    [...] the second – but perhaps that’s my preference. Laura K and I have been commissioned to write still more on the entire thing when the final series is aired in 2008 – we get a whole month to polish our [...]

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  • By Laura « trinketization on 26/08/2008 at 4:48 pm

    [...] Goldsmiths staff newspaper noticed Laura King’s, and my, article on BSG in Stimulus Respond. Click on the image to read the story. (it has a little item on the nursery ‘expansion’ [...]

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