U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Science Fiction as Political Criticism

BSGI’m glad that we at the USIH Blog are once again participating in the For the Love of Film Blogathan—always a good cause. In fact, now is your chance to donate! This year’s focus on science fiction is exciting because I have always been a sci-fi fan and have wanted an excuse to write about one of my favorite recent sci-fi productions, the 21st century remake of Battlestar Galactica (BSG).

One of the reasons I love sci-fi is because I am a sucker for both utopian and dystopian depictions and sci-fi is the genre most adept at such imaginings. But along with the utopian and dystopian imagination, sci-fi is also often best suited at hard-hitting political criticism. Perhaps this is because when the setting is in some far off future (or past) such criticism seems less threatening—even, perhaps, when the target of such criticism is blatantly obvious, as is the case in BSG’s acclaimed opening episode to Season 3: “Occupation,” which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel on October 6, 2006.

For the uninitiated: BSG is a show about the 50,000 humans who survived the cataclysmic attack on humanity by the Cylons, a civilization of cybernetics originally created by humans. As the Cylons seek to hunt down and kill them, the remaining humans follow the lead of Admiral William “Bill” Adama, played by James Edward Olmos, who commands the only remaining military vessel—the Battlestar Galactica—and President Laura Roslin, played by Mary McDonnell. Adama and Roslin seek to lead the humans to the mythical, edenic planet they call “Earth.”

Towards the end of Season 2, the surviving humans, weary of constant space travel under perpetual Cylon harrassment, had settled on a barely inhabitable planet they called “New Caprica”—the original Caprica being one of the planets nuked by the Cylons. But at the conclusion of Season 2, the Cylons conquer New Caprica, setting the stage for “Occupation.”

In the first two seasons of BSG, there were many allusions to the so-called War on Terror. The Cylons had “sleeper cells” aboard the Battlestar that committed acts of terrorism, and in response the humans let their ethical codes slip as they resorted to torture—some decent if typical commentary about the thin line between civilization and barbarism. But none of that came close to the critical political commentary of “Occupation,” when the closest real life approximation of the “good guys” were Iraqis resisting the American occupation of their homeland.

occupation“Occupation” depicts the humans on New Caprica resisting the Cylon occupation by any means necessary, including bombing a police training camp that resulted in the deaths of many humans who by the logic of resistance had been Cylon collaborators. I remain convinced that that episode is the single best critique of the American occupation of Iraq that was on offer from Hollywood during the war. Here’s Spencer Ackerman, writing at the time in Slate:

There is little end to BSG‘s Iraq parallels. In the first episode, after the insurgency begins, the Cylon council debates how to respond. One Cylon, disgusted with his colleagues’ sentimental fears about losing hearts and minds, bellows, “How did you think the humans would greet us? With—oh, never mind.” We know, from Dick Cheney, how to fill in the blank: “With sweets and flowers.” The cameras record Cylon occupation raids on unsuspecting human civilians with the night-vision green familiar to any CNN viewer. And the reasoning of the Cylons is horrifically familiar: They would prefer not to be brutal, but they won’t accept the failure of a glorious mission.

Not all sci-fi is so politically hard-hitting. But perhaps only sci-fi can get away with such commentary while also entertaining? What are some other examples of sci-fi as political criticism?

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “What are some other examples of sci-fi as political criticism?”

    Recent: The Star Wars prequels.

    Not so recent: the 1972 Doctor Who serial “The Curse of Peladon,” which is about the UK’s admission to the then European Economic Community.

    And after that, the litany is nigh on endless.

  2. If you date the origins of sci-fi from Wells, as I do, then it’s been political criticism from the beginning. It’s been there since The Time Machine. I’m not sure you can really separate the utopian/dystopian aspects from a discussion of sci-fi, mostly since sci-fi is the descendant of utopian literature. It follows the same form: discussing contemporary issues in an imaginary setting. “Perhaps this is because when the setting is in some far off future (or past) such criticism seems less threatening.” I’d say it’s more because this frees you from the restraints that would be imposed by the actual circumstances. If you make up your world and story, you can tell it however you want. If it’s set in the real world, not so much. That’s why it works so well for this, and will continue to.

    • I would take sci-fi back all the way to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. She certainly explored the dangers of manipulating nature, but just as much she criticized the notion that new family structures could be embraced without consequences.

  3. Andrew – Thanks for this great addition to the blogathon. I think BSG was a brilliant television series, and you highlight for me why such works seem to spring up when they do – repression of free speech. We saw it in the 50s, where scifi/horror responded to the nuking of Japan and the subsequent Red scare. With Iraq, politicos refused to make the same “mistake” they did with Vietnam – allowing television to beam back the real war. It was up to science fiction to show us the truth, and BSG did that beautifully.

  4. Excellent post to get us kicked off! I’ve got to run but I can’t help but think of the “Planet of the Apes” series as a good example of science fiction that held thinly veiled allusions to political problems. I nearly used my post this coming Sunday to write about “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” Now, all the “Planet of the Apes” films from the 1960s and 70s make political points about nuclear war, racism, etc., but “Conquest” is especially fascinating to think about. A film about the rise of gorillas, chimps, etc. against humanity after years of subjugation as pets and servants, “Conquest” makes some links between this and the (for those audiences) recent “long, hot summers” of 1960s rioting. Arguments about who should rise up, and when, permeate the film–ESPECIALLY once the uprising begins, and Caesar gives a passionate speech about fighting tyranny.

    Here’s a trailer to give a sense of the imagery the film was working with: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eau3RoxGN8E

  5. True story: at University of Washington, I taught a course on “Religion and Conflict in Battlestar Galactica,” in which my students watched an episode of the show every week and then discussed readings related to a theme presented in the episode. We covered a wide variety of topics including wartime collaboration, truth and reconciliation committees, religious exemption from medical procedures, and apocalyptic political ethics.

    Two of the most interesting themes, though, were abortion rights and torture. BSG presented an interesting thought experiment in “The Captain’s Hand” (season 2, episode 17), in which the ethics of abortion were debated in the context of a critically endangered human race. With a forced pragmatic ethic complicating the issue, my students had to dig a bit deeper to rationally justify their positions on the right of a woman to choose, and not just rely on a political stance they may never have really interrogated.

    The torture theme was a little disturbing. I taught the class three times over the course of two years, and each time I found the students to be more willing to justify torture in the service of national security. In “Flesh and Bone” (season 1, episode 8), BSG had its human characters torture a non-human to get information about a ticking time-bomb scenario, the fanciful situation that most easily convinces people that torture has its place. I was teaching the class right around the time of the “surge” in Iraq, which was also a time of frequent television depictions of easy, successful torture. Even though BSG showed torture failing to get the desired information–while humanizing an inhuman victim and dehumanizing the human torturer–my students had become so accustomed to the notion of torture working in certain circumstances that they went to great lengths to justify its use.

    • One of the many things I found fascinating about BSG was having the (Good Guy) humans be polytheists and the (Bad Guy) cylons be monotheists. Indeed, the cylons’ monotheism was part of what made them so convinced of their own righteousness and hence, so ruthlessly evil. Though there are plenty of sci fi (and other fictional) narratives that criticize religion, singling monotheism out for criticism is a very unusual and interesting move.

  6. Though not explicitly “political commentary” (and perhaps a little heavy handed at times) Neill Blomkamp is the best example of a director currently producing science fiction as social commentary. With a filmography including District 9, Elysium, and Chappie Blomkamp loves to discuss social stratification, racial inequality, and the commonalities shared by sentient beings.

  7. Alex Rivera’s sci-fi cult film Sleep Dealer (2008) is definitely political, it touches on US-Mexican border matters, from immigration to the militarization of the frontier. Joss Whedon’s TV sci-fi series Firefly are set in a dystopic world, it’s interesting how he describes his vision there: “how politics affect people personally. And the personal politics are the only politics that really interest me. I’m not going to make this big, didactic polemic—I’m just going to say, ‘When there are shifts in a planet, those tiny little guys are the ones who are affected. So let’s hang out with them—not the Federation heads or the Jedi Council.'”

    There’s of course the X-Men series, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the recent Snowpiercer, Brazil, Children of Men, District 9, The Hunger Games, Gattaca, Minority Report, all of these movies and a bunch of others can be read as sociopolitical allegories.

    Now, besides The Hunger Games, none of these movies have a central female character, which leaves me wondering about that complicated issue in the sci-fi genre: gender politics.

  8. Andrew, I really enjoyed the post.

    One of the interesting ideas that I have been exploring in my examination of Star Trek’s Prime Directive is how the failures to achieve a futuristic vision illuminate the shortcomings of the present. Notions of imperialism, Orientalism, sexism, etc. in stories of a future Utopia help identify the social pressures that influence script writers and authors.

    In both instances of utopian/dystopian visions, science fiction has proven an effective vehicle for discussing social issues. I’m looking forward to reading the subsequent posts.

    “What is important in good SF, and what makes SF that lasts, is how it talks to us of our present.” — Neil Gaiman in the Foreward to Delany’s Einstein Intersection

  9. Thanks, everyone, for all the smart comments–I knew you all would have things to say about this topic!

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