Saturday, March 21, 2009

BSG musings: "Daybreak, Part 2"

[NB: This post started as a liveblog of the encore showing of the finale, but I kept writing long after the finale was over. If you want to skip to the analysis of my predictions, scroll down to item number 24.

NB2, 12/31/09: The contents of this post were refined into a long essay specifically about the nature of the "deity" in BSG. See here: BSG's deity: not loving, and possibly insane.

I'm re-watching the BSG finale, "Daybreak, Part 2," and still processing the experience, which was a generally satisfying mixture of thrills and disappointments. What follows, then, is simply a list of random thoughts.

1. Holy smokes! Baltar got away with it! His dirty secret-- that he betrayed the human race-- died with Laura Roslin. Lucky bastard. Lucky, lucky bastard.

2. The old "BSG" theme, in minor key, during Adama's final flyby of the Galactica. Nice touch. And the special effects in this episode are among the most gorgeous of the series, which has upheld a high standard in that area, especially compared to the various "Stargate" shows and whatever other sci-fi is out there. By the way-- is "Stargate" the Sci Fi Channel's version of "CSI" or "Law and Order"? It's been mutating into a gazillion spinoffs. "Stargate: Universe"?? Good Lord.

3. Old-school Cylon centurions during the final battle. Cool.

4. So... the opera house = the Galactica. We still don't know exactly why Laura Roslin and Baltar-- ostensibly human-- shared those visions. Hera's Cylon blood seems to explain the Hera-Roslin connection, but the "angels" (Head Baltar and Head Six) seem to explain the connection between all the relevant characters even better.

5. I re-watched the end of the episode "Revelations" to see whether we had a clear shot of the thirteenth colony when the fleet arrived at Earth. Sure enough, no: the clouds covered the planet too thoroughly for us to make out the shape of the land masses. Hats off to Ron Moore for pulling the wool over our eyes with that one: that nuked-out planet was indeed Earth-- just not our Earth. Our Earth, as the characters note, isn't the "real" Earth. We are, however, the Earth to which Kara Thrace had been trying to guide the fleet to all along. One potentially serious problem, though: when the fleet arrives at the Cylon Earth, the bridge crew confirms that the constellations from that vantage are "a match." How is this possible if the Cylon Earth is many solar systems away from our Earth?

6. So it seems Hera is Mitochondrial Eve. I admit I love this. It tickles me. Seeing as she's half-Cylon, that means we-- here on our Earth-- are all part-Cylon (or, from a certain point of view, entirely Cylon). And if this story has been repeating itself on all earthlike worlds, with the story always ending with an extrasolar colonization, that means that all of those worlds have hosted hominids that are part-Cylon. Which in turn means that Hera herself is more than half-Cylon, and always was.

7. There's a real case to be made, at the very end of the show, that the divine power is specifically the Cylon God, which is referred to (unless I misheard) as "It" by the angelic Baltar who appears with the angelic Six in Manhattan at the very end of the episode. What we don't know, though, is whether this deity truly is an all-powerful deity or something along the lines of the unseen aliens in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 universe. If you've read Clarke's 2061 (see here), you know that the mysterious, monolith-dropping alien powers that have overseen the evolution of life on Earth have also been using Europa as a lab for experiments in accelerated evolution, trying over and over to grow... something. Whatever this power in the BSG universe is, its purpose appears to be to keep trying the human/Cylon experiment over and over again until something "surprising" occurs. I found it strange to think that God's plan would include something surprising: plans and surprises don't normally go together in my mind. Far from "plan," I think the proper term here would be "experiment." And "experiment" implies non-omniscience.

8. A bit disappointing to think that human parallel evolution is part of the divine plan. Moore's cosmology here strikes me as muddled. Kobol had Earthlife; the Cylon Earth had Earthlife (we see this in the Final Five's reminiscences, especially when Tyrol passed by the fresh produce market before that nuclear explosion). All that Earthlife couldn't have been brought on ships from world to world, and it couldn't have evolved the same way in every instance, not without constant micromanagement at the subatomic level. At the same time, the notion that humanity started in many different places responds to BSG viewers' earlier confusion about which planet should be thought of as humanity's planet of origin. The inescapable conclusion is that God (or some immense alien power) did this-- seeding many worlds with the reagents of life, and closely guiding life's evolution.

9. But you still see the old problem: human/Cylon history's progression is rigidly the same on all the worlds where this happens. The names of the cities might be different, the cultural details might vary slightly here and there, but the dominant cultures-- the planetary civilization that exists whenever a Fall happens-- remain anglophone North American in nature (sorry, Quebec). The only way to make sense of this is to think that, with all that Cylon-ness seeded into the population, rigid repetition is inevitable. A deity that can't figure out this problem is probably part-machine itself: truly a Cylon god, and dumb on a cosmic scale. Looked at microscopically, the act of banging one's head against a wall is also a complex process (Angelic Six talked about God's repetition of complex processes), but only a fool would think that repeated head-banging will eventually lead to a surprising result.

10. Kara Thrace as Christ: disanalogies first. (a) Unlike Jesus, Kara was female. Before you get offended, before you tell me that Jesus' maleness is an irrelevancy, you should know that a very large sector of Christianity (I met many such folks at Catholic University) views Jesus' maleness as constitutive of his divinity. I'm not saying I agree with this, but believe me, it's important to a great number of people. (b) Kara was generally a ho' and, later, an adulteress; as far as we can tell from the admittedly scant evidence of scripture, Jesus was no playboy. (c) Kara wasn't interested in imparting any teachings related to moral conduct. (d) Kara had no disciples, unless we stretch things and say that her lovers were all, in some sense, her disciples. (e) There was no empty tomb: her Viper had a body in it. You might counter by claiming that that corpse was the empty tomb, but I'd reply that you're reaching. Empty-tomb analogies don't usually use the body itself as a stand-in for the tomb. (f) Her life-arc doesn't fit the standard messianic paradigm, which culminates in a leader of a new, pacific regime-- a peaceable kingdom or something of the sort, usually temporal in nature, not spiritual. Kara obviously felt her work was done when the fleet reached our Earth, so she simply blinked out of existence.

11. Kara Thrace as Christ: analogies. (a) She died, she rose again, she disappeared-- hinting at ascension. It was all very much like Neo in "The Matrix," who jumped through all the same christic hoops. (b) Post-resurrection Kara was capable of disappearance and some form of clairvoyance, just as the post-resurrection Jesus was now truly the "Christ of faith"-- a being with transcendent properties-- and no longer merely the "Jesus of history." (c) Kara was interested in leading humanity to what might be called a redeemed end. (d) Kara had a special destiny; her life was the stuff of prophecy. (e) Kara did display certain moral virtues, like loyalty, dedication, and love. Whether her love extended to all humanity is debatable. In a sense, yes, she was intimately concerned with the survival of the human race, but whether this qualifies as a form of agape is a matter for discussion.

12. When you think about it, the story of the Cylons who spent "forty years in the wilderness" after the First Cylon War (with the Twelve Colonies) has some uncomfortable parallels with the story of the Hebrew people. With humanity (whatever that word means in the BSG universe) in both the creator and Pharaonic roles, the Cylons were the Creator's chosen people. But those chosen people were also enslaved, and they yearned for freedom. They finally did break free, and ended up wandering in the wilderness (an asteroid field doing a toilet-swirl around a black hole) for forty years. They returned "home" (to the colonies... a promised land?) to establish, per the messianic paradigm, a new order, and did so in the awareness of some higher purpose, using militaristic means, guided by a sense of justice and righteousness. But who was the Cylon messiah?

13. The end isn't the end by any means: not only have we got the theological panspermia project going on, but we've got remnants of the deity's previous experiments on the loose: the destruction of the Cylon colony didn't imply the destruction of all Cylons everywhere, and there may be billions of them. As I mentioned in a different post, those Cylons have exactly one Cylon lifetime to figure out resurrection or other forms of self-perpetuation. They might be able to do it. Or they might all die out together.

14. We never learn what regenerated both Kara and her Viper. This nags at me, though not in an entirely bad way. It's a puzzle, and I'd like to figure it out. Simply saying "God did it" isn't an explanation.

15. I may have been wrong when I predicted that the Creator wouldn't make an appearance in the form of a new character. Ron Moore himself, BSG's creator, appears in that Manhattan scene: he's the one reading the magazine article about Mitochondrial Eve.

16. Baltar, when confessing his guilt to Laura Roslin several episodes back, alluded to a flood story. Whatever powers are at work in the BSG universe must work along those same lines, using mass destruction (nukes instead of water) as a way of starting over. I sympathize with the atheist who thinks that this is a terrible way of hitting the reset button.

17. Is Hera supposed to represent God's emergency plan? When God's experiment doesn't work on a certain world or group of worlds, does God manipulate events so that a Hera comes into existence and is flung out of the solar system like a sperm to find another earthlike world (the egg) where she will breed with the local humans who've already evolved there?

18. "All Along the Watchtower" is cosmically significant, eh?

19. Eastern religion angle: in the tense CIC confrontation scene, Baltar babbles somewhat incoherently about God, who is "beyond good and evil" and "a force of nature," but he notes (as other characters have) that the goal for everyone is to break free of the painful cycle of existence-- a theme familiar to Hindus and Buddhists. And consistent with Hindu and Buddhist thinking, Baltar contends that the means to breaking free of this cycle lies within ourselves, that it's by our own choices that we'll achieve moksha. Somehow, the solution involves self-transcendence, the recognition and mastery both of our nature, and of the chain of causation that binds us constantly to this fate.

20. I'm sorry, but I laughed when Cavil shouted "Frak!" and killed himself on the bridge. That probably wasn't supposed to be funny, but his suicide really made no sense to me-- especially after all his scheming. Perhaps Cavil had forgotten that, this time, he wouldn't be resurrecting. Or perhaps he knew full well that this would be the end, and he'd finally had enough. Whatever his motivation was, I simply didn't-- and still don't-- get it. It wasn't the most stellar ending for a rather complicated BSG character. If anything explains Cavil's suicide, though, perhaps it's his deep-seated nihilism. Cavil was a bitterly cynical atheist, after all, but he also had Lucifer-like yearnings-- wanting, in his own way, to be like God (remember his rant to Ellen Tigh about how frustrated he was at his own physical limitations?). Having failed in his quest for apotheosis and/or immortality, Cavil finally gave in to the sin of suicide. I feel sorry for the character, but having seen that suicide twice now, I still think it plays out comically.

21. We never really learn what "12" signifies. It does seem, though, that the 2003 miniseries' contention that "there are only twelve Cylon models" has been shown to be incorrect. We know now that there are probably millions of Cylon models, and that "model" might not be the best term for them.

22. It occurs to me that my old 2006 prediction about the fleet finding Earth was right. It's our Earth, but not the present-day Earth. But Moore did a great job of throwing me for a loop on this one; I was sure that the mid-season finding of Earth meant that the fleet had found our beloved Terra/Gaia/Erde. As we now know, this wasn't the case.

23. The members of the fleet are planning to scatter, leaving clumps of humanity that will likely be too small to produce generations with direct lineages that survive to our present day. Hera will have to mate with the locals, but I assume the locals are fully homo sapiens, even 150,000 years ago.

24. So how'd I do, overall, on my most recent, "final" predictions?

a. The BSG universe is theistic, but only arguably so. The theophany, when it happens, won't involve new or extra characters; it'll happen with the cast we know. I'd say I was on the money here, mainly because the cosmic powers we learn about could merely be Arthur C. Clarke-style aliens, not deities. Taken literally, the Baltar and Six who make it 150,000 years into the future are angels. But they might also be technologized manifestations of energy akin to those beings produced by the USS Enterprise-D's holodeck (but in free-roaming form, unlike holodeck characters), or they might be incorporeal forms of alien life.

b. By the end of the episode, humanity's population will be nonzero. Again, I got this right, but it wasn't hard to predict. During "The Last Frakkin' Special," a recent behind-the-scenes show about BSG, several actors and writers talked about how the show's creators had to wrestle constantly with the network regarding how dark the series would be. I assume Moore had to cave, offering us an ending that could legitimately be termed hopeful in a "the story goes on" way. However, with Hera being Mitochondrial Eve, Moore does manage to slip in a measure of darkness: we modern Earthlings are all at least partly Cylon, and this holds true for world after world, where the same story has repeated itself almost exactly.

Come to think of it, then, it's possible that I got this prediction completely wrong. "Humanity" is something of an empty term if we're all Cylon. Also, it occurs to me that the end of the episode takes place 150,000 years into the future. That means everyone we've been following for four years is dead.

c. Human or Cylon or whatever her basic nature might be, Kara Thrace is somehow a weakly flickering symbol of hope, the Aurora, perhaps the human answer to whatever Hera is. Right. Kara safely brought humanity to a peaceful Earth. Most of that humanity will quietly die off ("You will bring humanity to its end," as the prophecy went), but this will happen peacefully, and in the knowledge that the planet already has its own stock of humans.

Note, too, that Hera, who was described by Six as "the hope for both our people," is indeed the genetic gateway to the survival of both humans and Cylons on the new Earth. The humans in the fleet (we'll talk more about them in a bit) might die out, but Hera is as much Helo's daughter as she is Athena's.

d. The series will, whatever its ending, have a decidedly "And the cycle continues" feel to it. Absolutely correct, but I have to admit this was a no-brainer of a prediction to make.

e. It's been nothing but Cylons since the beginning. Humanity is long gone, and the Cylons have been replaying this drama for thousands, maybe millions, of years. You know, I think Moore has left this open to interpretation, but he may have revealed his hand (or written himself into an unintended corner). We're given to believe that the deity has been repeating its experiment on many worlds, and the first impression we get when Bill Adama and Doc Cottle are talking about the African natives they see is that those natives are truly, purely human. So up to a certain point in a planet's history, life is allowed by the deity to evolve until true humans appear, after which a Mitochondrial Eve is inserted into the populace, lacing humanity with Cylon DNA. This leaves us with a complicated scenario, making it hard simply to claim that "it's been nothing but Cylons." At the very least, we can say that all modern populations are to some degree Cylon. If that's the case, it's not so much that the Cylons have been replaying this drama, as that the drama is being repeatedly kickstarted, always on different worlds, by whoever's doing the panspermia experiment.

But hold on: there's more. Think about the further implications. If the people of the Twelve Colonies also trace back to a Mitochondrial Eve, as seems to be the case, then everyone currently alive on those colonies at the time of the Fall is already partly Cylon. Hera comes along, the product of a Caprican father and fully Cylon mother. If Helo is fundamentally Cylon at the mitochondrial level, then Hera is more than half-Cylon (a point I made earlier in this post). Given enough time and enough inter-solar jumping around, the overall proportion of Cylon-ness in the various "human" populations all over the galaxy could conceivably increase. Once the deity runs out of empty earthlike worlds on which to plant and cultivate non-Cylon life, the galaxy becomes a massive den of Cylon incest as all the legitimately human DNA disappears, forever subsumed into Cylon DNA. So, given enough time, the ultimate result of the deity's experiments is likely to be the Cylonization of all anthropic life in the galaxy. What happens after that? Move the lab to another galaxy (or is that happening already)? Anyway, what we can't know is whether, at this point in the galaxy's history, total Cylonization has already taken place. My own feeling is that it has-- based, as mentioned, on the rigid repetition of human history, language, culture, etc., which is not explicable by a collective unconscious or "racial memory." The repetitions show too high a fidelity to the same basic template.

So the evidence still inclines heavily toward an "it's all Cylons" scenario, especially as we move further forward in time. And if God creates people in his image, then we're back to the idea that this deity (or alien) is itself fundamentally Cylon in nature.

25. I love that Tory Foster got her comeuppance.

26. Excellent (though comparatively brief) BSG commentary here. Equally excellent (and longer!) commentary here, though I strongly disagree with this passage:

The idea that our Earth would get its name -- as well as certain concepts of language and other bits of race memory that would take 150,000 years to resurface -- from these familiar-looking visitors from another star system feels right. It makes the similarity in dress and idiom between Colonial society and 21st century Earth society feel less like a cheat (so the show could more easily comment on current events) than a passing of the torch down through the generations.

27. Reader John points to this TV Guide interview with Ron Moore.

28. How well does the "deity" of BSG match up to the God of process theology? That God, based as it is on Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy, is also a God that interacts actively with the universe with the goal of producing something (Catholic thinker Teilhard de Chardin, though not a Whiteheadian, per se, saw God as trying to move humanity toward an Omega Point). Key ideas in process theology are creativity, novelty, and freedom. God is part of the cosmos, evolving with it, reacting to it, but is also outside the cosmos, supplying a constantly generative and creative force. Some critics of process theology see it as providing a morally unsavory theodicy: everything bad that happens fits into the greater purpose, which is the constant creation of novelty through the exercise of divine and creaturely freedom. This seems to imply either (1) that most of us are merely grist in a mill that is attempting to produce an eventual crème de la crème., or (2) that the wavefront of creativity is its only important part. Either way, the picture looks grim for most of bumbling creation (for an interesting critique of process thought from an African perspective, see here).

But that unsavory strategy seems to be at the heart of the BSG deity's experimentation. It wishes to run the cycle over and over-- a cycle that involves the exercise of creaturely freedom (though apparently reinforced with prophecy and "angelic" guidance)-- until something new (or as they say in the finale, "surprising") happens. The process God isn't necessarily omniscient or omnipotent, and thus is a good match for the deity we glimpse in the BSG finale. How this can be reconciled with the deity's supposed "love" for all of us has not been explained, and is perhaps best left to mystery.

29. BSG finale cupcakes!?

30. How churlish of me not to say "Hats off!" to the cast and crew of BSG for putting on an amazing show. Best of luck with "The Plan" and with "Caprica."

31. Something I wrote in an email:

[Hera] ended up being kinda the punchline of the series, what with her being Mitochondrial Eve for our Earth. I ultimately thought that was a cool thing to do for her character (since she otherwise spent her on-screen time doing little except being discussed by all the other main characters), but you're right about pregnant pauses. It's a subplot that dragged on and on, and became less interesting-- to the point that I began to wonder whether Hera was just some sort of MacGuffin, like the contents of Marsellus Wallace's briefcase in "Pulp Fiction."


Now that we know what Hera is and how significant she was in the "deity's" plan, her presence in the show makes a lot more sense. But I still think it was a long, unnecessarily tortuous road to get to that revelation. Perhaps she should have been born later in the series.

Ronald Moore admitted in interviews that he and his writing crew were making stuff up as they went along, as opposed to planning the story arc in detail. They apparently had a general idea of where they were headed, but it was also obvious by late in season 2 that they were kind of throwing ideas around without knowing which idea was worthy of follow-up. I think the entire notion of a plan-- whether it's the supposed Cylon plan (I'm still not sure I know what that plan was supposed to be) or God's plan or whoever's plan-- should have been handled with greater care, not with post hoc abandon. Going back to watch Season 1 (which I'll do at some point, when I have the money to get the DVD sets) is going to be awkward in that respect.


I'm not so sure about how sane the BSG deity is, given that its instruments are moral fuck-ups like Baltar, Starbuck, and the always-hot-to-trot Caprica Six, who often seemed to confuse sex with love.


The BSG ending has a hell of a lot in common with the ending of "The Matrix Revolutions," the word "revolution" itself implying, among other things, a circling/cycling. In "Revolutions," we see the beginning of a new human/machine paradigm for peace, but the conclusion leaves open the possibility that the cycle will simply continue, and that it's up to the humans not to allow that to happen. When little Sati asks the Oracle whether they'll ever see Neo again, the Oracle smiles and answers in the affirmative. The line is delivered as if it's supposed to be comforting, but when you think about it, what the Oracle is really saying is that Neo will be NEEDED again someday, i.e., the cycle of violence will continue.

BSG ends on a similarly quasi-optimistic note, with the two "angels" speculating on whether, this time, on this planet, humanity will break free of the pattern. Angelic Six is uncharacteristically optimistic, as Angelic Baltar observes, but Six is also the one who expresses disappointment at the direction that modern humanity has taken ("Commercialism? decadence? where have we seen all this before?" she says while staring around Times Square). The series ends with everything being up to humanity. (Though, interestingly, it gives us a humanity that is already part-Cylon, and I'm convinced that Cylon-ness simply binds one more tightly to the cycle of violence since machines in the BSG universe have less free will than humans do.)

[More to come.]


Friday, March 20, 2009

and the BSG outcome is...

Theological panspermia and we here on Earth are all part-Cylon!

Hee hee! I'll have more to say later; am still processing what I just saw.


it has to be said

I don't know how the weather is where you are, but it's close to a perfect day here in Alexandria, Virginia.

Hope you're enjoying the first official day of spring.


BSG: final predictions

After all the heavy-duty speculation about how "Battlestar Galactica" will end, we now find ourselves within hours of knowing the truth. It's time for me to lay it on the line, then, and offer my final predictions about the BSG questions that matter most to me.

1. Is the BSG universe theistic? I'm going to go on record as saying, Yes, but only arguably so. I'm sorry if that sounds like a hedge, but I think this answer is most in line with series creator Ronald D. Moore's apparent love of ambiguity. If we think of the matter from a writer's perspective-- especially when we're talking about the creator of a series that has turned out to be quite a hit for the Sci Fi Channel, a hit that will be discussed for years-- a clear, pat conclusion would both undo the prevailing tone of the series, and would leave fans with almost nothing to discuss afterward. The power of ambiguity cannot be underestimated: it's what keeps us coming back to stories like "The Lady or the Tiger," and attracts people to poetry and scripture. Moore knows this. As I noted before, he wrote about his admiration for the way "The Sopranos" ended.

You see, if Moore gives in completely to the theism angle, he betrays a large part of his audience, a part that appreciates the bleak, "empty" universe in which the BSG plot unfolds. We've seen no aliens, no heavenly powers-- and the beings that might be divine might also just be potent hallucinations. Moore has crafted a story that allows secularists and naturalists to take Bill Adama's side and declare that religion is crap.

At the same time, if Moore gives in to the atheism angle, he betrays the set of fans who are betting that all the prophecies, all the creepy coincidences, all the talk of "higher powers" and "plans" and "purposes" and "destinies"-- that all these things are pointing to something beyond normal sight, to a divine reality that has undergirded the series from the beginning. BSG may even have provided us with its own symbol for that reality: the great mandala, a cyclic rainbow, symbolizing eternal recurrence and colored in a way that reassures us that the divine is a loving reality. Is this ultimate reality monotheistic or polytheistic? Who knows? There are many colors, but just one mandala, churning* around and around itself.

I foresee the theophany, when it happens, occurring in such a way that BSG's atheistic and theistic viewers will be able to interpret the visual data however they want. As my buddy Mike pointed out, even Head Six's public-but-invisible heaving-up of Baltar might have a plausibly naturalistic explanation (psychokinesis, not angelic might).

So the series will end with a sci-fi version of that "Pulp Fiction" scene where Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega survive a barrage of bullets. The BSG audience is already neatly divided into Jules and Vincent camps, and like Jules and Vincent, they'll argue for years over what really went down, and what sort of universe BSG was showing us.

One final note before I move on to the next burning question. I think Moore realizes that suddenly adding an extra character-- like God Himself-- at the tail-end of the story would be a cheap, deus ex machina ploy. Such a narrative tactic might have worked (sort of) for Tolkien and those damn Eagles of his, and it might have been fun to watch Sean Connery dismount and regally face the camera during the final moments of "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," but Moore's audience is composed mainly of people who lack a black-and-white, swords-and-sorcery moral sensibility. BSG appeals to a grimmer crowd, I think, and those people won't take kindly to a bright, happy angel popping out of that black hole, chirping show tunes, slapping skin cream onto Admiral Adama's face, healing Roslin's cancer with a merry pink cloud of fart gas, and squealing like an animé chick for everyone to just chill. Not gonna happen. I will, in short, be very surprised to see God reveal Himself in the form of an extra character. Whatever theological answers there are, they'll be found among the cast we know.

2. What will be humanity's fate? Let me tell you how it's not going to end. It's not going to end with "...and then they all died." But before I get to my actual prediction, I'd like to talk about my hopes for how this will end.

What I hope happens is that Moore gives us the full darkness. Either there have never been any humans in this entire drama-- we've been watching robots or simulacra all along-- or so many humans will be wiped out in that final battle that humanity will have too few members to survive. If that's the case, humanity can only hope for rebirth either through some twisted form of Cylon cloning or through billions of years of parallel evolution-- from self-replicating proteins to full-on sapient hominids-- on some distant, earthlike world. I concede that there's a slim chance that humanity will be totally wiped out, but I have a hard time seeing Moore going for such an ending. As I noted in question (1) above, Moore loves ambiguity. An ending in which the human race is definitively wiped out would be decidedly unambiguous. While it might be fun to speculate on what the Cylons might do after the last human is gone, I just don't see Moore showing us this scenario.

My prediction, then? I'm betting on humanity taking heavy losses, with the clear implication that it won't be able to survive without some form of benign or malign Cylon intervention. The human population will be nonzero by the end of the episode.

3. What is Starbuck? This particular question fascinates me mainly because the series has made such a big deal over Kara Thrace's special destiny, and its insistence that she is not-- not, godsdammit!-- a Cylon.

Personally, I think she's either a special type of Cylon (Moore has been known to lie to audiences in his podcasts and interviews in order to preserve the element of surprise), or she's a product of a spooky technology that can create exact replicas of both abiotic objects (like Starbuck's Viper) and living beings (like Starbuck herself), engrams and all.

Let's focus for a moment on Starbuck's destiny, about which much has been made. She has been called both "the harbinger of death"-- a phrase that can be taken literally or metaphorically-- and the one who "will lead humanity to its end."

The term "end" can mean a literal ending, a stoppage. It can also mean "purpose," as when the old Baltimore Catechism asks, "What is the chief end of Man?" (Answer: To glorify God.) So Starbuck, far from representing true, literal death for the human race, might represent a beginning or a fulfillment. Something about her might actually be salvific (or represent something salvific), as Baltar seemed to think when he ranted about how Starbuck was living proof that regular human beings can indeed "cross over" and come back. (But can regular humans do this? Wouldn't this detract from the specialness of Starbuck's nature?)

Of course, if we're talking about a technology that can resurrect (or at least reincarnate) human beings, we're once again left to wonder whether there's anything really divine about this. Perhaps the tech comes from an alien race (as happened in the movie "Stargate," which features a preening, forever youthful alien slave driver whose fountain of youth is, paradoxically, a teched-up coffin). Perhaps it's the same sort of down-to-the-quarks tech that brought Dr. McCoy back to life in "Shore Leave." If Starbuck is truly human, and if she truly was brought back by alien (or billion-year-old Cylon) technology, then humanity's hope might lie in finding and using that tech to perpetuate itself. The humans would need to build it in a way that creates imperfect copies, of course, to simulate genetic mutation and the combination of monoploids into diploids. Genetic variation is key to humanity's survival, otherwise all you've got is an eternal procession of Adamas and Roslins and so on. But again... would this tech work for anyone other than Starbuck? And how might it relate to humanity's "end"?

So, what is Starbuck? My prediction: human or Cylon or whatever her basic nature might be, Kara Thrace is somehow a weakly flickering symbol of hope, the Aurora,** perhaps the human answer to whatever Hera is. (For some reason, I find myself completely uninterested in exploring Hera's nature and significance.)

4. Will we see clear evidence of an eternal return? To me, the question of whether the BSG universe's metaphysics includes the concept of eternal return hinges very much on whether we have been watching nothing but machines that are caught in a sad loop. A rigid eternal return-- one that manifests itself as cultures and languages that do not vary over time and space-- is understandable from a machine's point of view, and we seem to have evidence of this on the show, what with the exact resemblance of 2000-year-old Cylon/Earth culture to present-day, prelapsarian Colonial culture. I've gone over this before, so I won't belabor the point here. Instead, I'll cut right to my prediction: YES. Big yes. The series will, whatever its ending, have a decidedly "And the cycle continues" feel to it. There's simply no other way. The only two religious doctrines that have been hammered into us (aside from the annoyingly trite references to a "dying leader") are these: (1) "Life here began out there," and (2) "All this has happened before; all this will happen again." While I think such an ending makes the most sense if it's Nothing But Cylons, I can see the eternal return making sense even if the BSG universe really does include humans.

5. (Question added 12 hours later) Have we been watching nothing but Cylons? I danced around the issue in the above questions, then after publishing my answers to those questions, I realized I hadn't tackled this one directly. My prediction (which is almost sure to be wrong): Yes-- it's been nothing but Cylons since the beginning. Humanity is long gone, and the Cylons have been replaying this drama for thousands, maybe millions, of years. As stated above, constant readers have all heard my arguments for this viewpoint before, so I won't repeat them here. I'll simply say that this view makes the most sense and has the greatest explanatory power. And even though I'm sticking to my guns with this one, I'll note that the reason I'm likely to be wrong is-- as we've already agreed-- Ron Moore likes ambiguity. Declaring, "at the end of all things," that we've been watching nothing but Cylons would severely depress future DVD sales.****

And those, my friends, are the only questions that deeply concern me-- the only ones I feel are worthy of predictions. Other questions, like what the opera house signifies, or whether Bill Adama and Laura Roslin survive, or what Baltar's going to do, or what makes Hera so important,*** or whether Tyrol will find out that Tory killed his wife, just aren't as compelling to me.

In a few hours, we'll see whether my predictions hold any water.

*The notion of "churning" is important in Hindu thought. It's one reason why the confluence of certain rivers can become a pilgrimage site, as happens for the Kumbh Mela.

**Think associatively: Aurora, dawn, daybreak: the title of the final episode.

***When I contemplate Hera, I keep thinking of that little girl, Elizabeth, in the 1980s TV miniseries "V" who kept saying "preh-tay-lah-mah," which turned out to be lizardese for "peace."

****You might counterargue that knowing the ending of a story doesn't kill DVD sales-- after all, people buy DVD copies of movies they've seen, despite knowing how those movies end. True; I concede this. But a TV series is a huge time investment compared to a movie, which in two hours rushes you to its conclusion. If you know that a series will end in a certain undesirable way, knowledge of that ending will hang over you as you re-watch the series from the beginning. Some people might be gluttons for that sort of self-punishment, but others might decide that the DVD purchase just isn't worth the time and money, considering the already-foreknown payoff.


Thursday, March 19, 2009


It's that end-of-the-month crunch at BK, so I've been busy. My sleep schedule is completely shot, and BK wasn't too helpful despite my protestations about my eyes. I had asked them to keep the workload at their normal "2-3 documents per day" level, but BK has been shoveling 6-8 documents per day onto me this week. My eyes are getting better (I still wear a borrowed pair of glasses*), but I'd rather give the poor orbs a chance to recuperate. After this week, things might be better.

In fact, there's a chance that I'll have to beg off from any further work with BK once the walk starts up again. Some legs of my journey promise nothing but barrenness-- no place to recharge the cell or the laptop, no place to get a decent cell or WiFi signal. Oy.

I hope to continue with BK, though, both once the walk is done and once I'm back in Korea. They might be a great source of extra income.

*Not to worry. As the eye doctor grudgingly confirmed, my vision is nearly perfect with them: 20/20 in one eye and 20/30 in the other.


where I live... revealed!

Every once in a while, curious people ask me where I really live, so I thought I'd finally point the place out to you via Google Earth.

[scroll down]

I hope you'll come and visit sometime.


up for discussion

Here's a quote from the book Star Wars and Philosophy, a nifty tome given to me by my buddy Mike not long ago. The excerpt comes from a chapter that examines the Force through the lens of the Hegelian concept of Geist (Spirit). The contention is, as I understand it from the larger context of the chapter, the author's (though perhaps not unique to the author):

As the civilizations of our own time clash over rival theologies inherited from the past, mankind is in need of an empowering belief for our time, one that provides a unifying distillation of all the world's religions.

You'll have noted that the statement contains certain assumptions. I can spot five right away:

1. Belief-systems need to be up to date ("for our time").

2. Humanity is currently disempowered.

3. There is a need for some sort of unification.

4. The source for that unification is not found outside of the world's many religions, but is to be distilled from (all of?) them.

5. Humanity's disempowerment is connected to the clash of rival, inherited theologies.

And with that, I leave the comments area open for discussion.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

a-theos discourse

Reader and blogger Brian emails me a link to a blog called The Friendly Atheist, which has a post about Ellery Schempp, who "played a major role in getting forced prayer out of public schools." Schempp is on a speaking tour in the "Virginia/DC" area.

If anyone in the area is interested in checking this out, I might be motivated to go, too. In looking at Schempp's lecture schedule, I'm thinking that my best bet is the talk to be given at George Mason University on April 2. GMU is both easier to park at than George Washington University (a DC campus without any actual grounds of its own; it's basically a clump of buildings, and students have to dodge traffic like everyone else), and more pleasant to drive to. The other problem with the GWU lecture is that it's on April 6, my parents' anniversary. I plan to be home that day, or doing something with the folks.

The George Mason U. talk on April 2 will be happening from 7PM to 9PM at JC Meeting Room F (JC = Jesus Christ?). The April 1 talk at American U. (a DC university that does have its own campus grounds) also looks interesting, as the topic will be on "Patriotism and Separation of Church and State."

If you're in the area and interested in attending one of Schempp's talks, gimme a holler.


not Dolph Lundgren

My brother David links to a neat YouTube video of a strange and fascinating dolphin behavior. Go have a look.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

time once again for that reminder

Remuneration, not renumeration.

Enmity, not emnity.

That is all.


back from the doc (and a nap)

The eye problem seems to be going away, only to be replaced by fever, achy joints, and the runs. The eye doctor says the corneal abrasion is completely healed, and the redness has gone way down, but I should still lay off the contacts for another week. Sounds like good advice to me. I still need to take those eye drops, but the frequency's been reduced to four times a day, instead of every two hours.

I came home and took a two-hour nap, making up for the previous night's lack of sleep. There's a stack of proofing for me to do; it promises to keep me busy a while.

So how have you been spending your Saint Patrick's Day? Did you chase the snakes off your property? Are you chugging green beer? Searching your genome for any trace of Irishness?


Costco eye clinic torture devices

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T


I'm off to the eye doctor again in the morning. My eyes don't hurt anymore, and I'm no longer light-sensitive, but the eyeballs themselves remain red. No itch to speak of. I expect the appointment to go fairly smoothly; things seem to be improving, overall.


Monday, March 16, 2009

I take it back

I made a remark, previously, about how trans-America bikers are a dime a dozen. While it may be factually true that the number of bikers far exceeds the number of trans-America walkers, this isn't to imply that biking across the country is easy. It takes time and effort, too, and can be dangerous, especially if you're disabled. Hats off, then, to this fallen biker, who was a lot tougher than I'll ever be.


if I were Bill Adama

My endgame, were I Admiral William Adama, would be this:

Given Galactica's structural weakness and the fact that it won't survive more than a few jumps, I'd jump the battlestar so that it was sitting just about on top of the Cylon colony, exactly opposite the black hole. Then I'd arm all nukes. If possible, I'd send out Vipers or Raptors to try and damage the colony's FTL.

This move ought to get the Cylons' attention. I'd be sure that the Galactica's nukes were rigged with some sort of dead man's switch, such that if any of the Galactica's crew were to be killed, the ship would go out in a blaze of glory.

Assuming we're able to execute this much of the plan successfully, I'd open a channel and start the negotiation process for Hera. Anything less than Hera's transfer-- unharmed-- to Galactica, would mean the activation of all nukes.

Because I'd have positioned Galactica opposite the black hole, I'd simply be letting Newton's Laws of Motion take over. Detonating Galactica would mean pushing the colony irreversibly into the black hole's gravity well; with no FTL drive, the colony would have no means of escape, and the Cylon homeworld would be lost, along with the Final Five and all knowledge of resurrection technology.

And that, I think, is about the best endgame I could muster under the circumstances. It wouldn't ensure the death of all Cylons everywhere, nor would it seal humanity's fate: the humans who hadn't volunteered for the mission would still be alive, as would the many millions (or billions) of Cylons who would have exactly one lifetime-- however long a Cylon lifetime is-- to try to reinvent resurrection technology or figure out sexual reproduction.

BSG geeks: what would your endgame be? What would it be from Cavil's point of view?


Sunday, March 15, 2009

BSG and "Terminator: Salvation"

The most recent episode of BSG, "Daybreak, Part One," played out in the most frustrating way possible. Now, at the end, it's become obvious that the series creators have wanted to play things close to the vest, revealing everything (or at least a few major secrets) at the very end. I'm not sure this was the best strategy, firstly because this means the final episode will feel overstuffed instead of like a true dénouement; and secondly, because this strategy sacrifices most of the episodes that come before it: those episodes are reduced to stringing us along, feeding us ambiguity after ambiguity with no deeper purpose than to get us to the end. It's an unfortunate narrative choice, given the sheer number of questions that have been left unanswered up to now, but which could have been answered along the way. A quick review of those questions, off the top of my head:

1. What is the ontological status of Baltar's Head Six? (This Head Six seems to be the strongest argument that the series will come to some sort of theistic conclusion, as she has proven capable of acting as an invisible force in front of witnesses.)

2. What is the significance of Hera?

3. What is the significance of the funky music that activated the Final Five?

4. Which planet is truly the planet of humanity's origins?

5. Who or what is Baltar?

6. Who or what is Kara Thrace?

7. Which religion is correct-- Cylon monotheism or Colonial polytheism?

8. Are there really any humans in this drama at all?

9. Will humanity survive? (Granted, this question is rightly left to the final episode.)

10. Are the twelve Cylon models somehow related to the Colonials' twelve major gods and the twelve colonies? I suppose the larger question here is: what significance, if any, does the number 12 have?

11. What is the significance of the opera house?

12. Will we really see an eternal return?

About the only major plot points that occurred in "Daybreak, Part One" were these: (1) Sam Anders revealed the location of the Cylon homeworld, which is actually a "colony." That term sounds significant to me. The colony hovers close to a rock-crushing black hole that seems to have only one gravitationally friendly window. (2) Volunteers from the Galactica will attempt a rescue of Hera, which will involve jumping into the space right next to the colony, where all the Cylon guns are already pointed.

Aside from that, little else occurred during the episode. We get some background on President Roslin, but we don't learn anything we couldn't have guessed: she lost her sisters and father even before the Cylon attack, but this simply puts her among the bereaved. We learn a bit about Baltar's loathing for his father, but this was already covered in the episode ("Dirty Hands") where Baltar and Tyrol talk about Baltar's childhood as an Arelonian farmer. Baltar confessed to Tyrol his wish to be a Caprican, and to change his accent to something that didn't reflect his low-class roots. (Of course, whether these memories are real, or whether we're looking at more Cylon memory-tweaking, is yet to be determined.) Perhaps the most touching moment was Laura Roslin's appearance on deck to volunteer for the suicide mission. The story has always done a good job of showing that she remains stout of heart despite being frail of body.

One interesting thing the episode does, though, is begin differently: not only do the opening credits lack the usual "preview" mashup segment, but the episode itself also begins more cosmically than normal, starting with what appears to be a god's-eye view of the galaxy before moving in to a 2001-esque shot of Caprica "before the Fall." Our first hint of the great deity? Or maybe our second: viewers will recall the way the final episode of the third season ended-- with a godlike camera leap from the fleet's position to a screeching halt at Earth's doorstep.

So at this point, we've gone through four seasons of BSG, which has been, in part, a long meditation on the questions "Who am I?" and "Who are we?" The question can be broken down into sub-questions, such as whether Cylons are really sentient and deserving of rights, which leads to the question of whether treating them as "frakkin' toasters" is a form of racism. These aren't new questions in sci-fi; they've been dealt with in other storylines, such as those found in "The Matrix" or in "Blade Runner."

Which brings me to "Terminator: Salvation," for which a truly amazing preview trailer has just come out (see Trailer 3 here; you need Quicktime to view it). The Terminator series has also dealt with the revolt of machines once they achieve sentience. It's enough to make you wonder whether the authors of such scenarios ultimately side with the machines, who by the authors' lights are sentient and therefore slaves in need of liberation. The Matrix series muddies this question by showing you machines that, with a ruthless sense of justice, enslave the humans who had enslaved them. BSG does something similar when it shows that the Cylons are, at least at first, mostly intent on eradicating the human race.

What worries me about the new "Terminator: Salvation" (hereinafter "TS" for short), though, is that a person who has just gone through four seasons of BSG is going to view TS as merely rehashing the same questions covered in BSG. You see, Trailer 3 of TS shows us an enfleshed Terminator that thinks it's human. Ever heard that scenario before? True: this is a departure from all the previous Terminator films, in which the good guys and bad guys were each clear about their respective roles. But it's not a departure from what's been happening on BSG since 2003, and it's a reminder of even older sci-fi scenarios that covered the same ground, such as Rachel's belief that she's human in 1982's "Blade Runner."

So my own anticipation of TS has little to do with whatever Big Questions it might (or might not) be trying to explore. Instead, I'm looking forward to a dizzying variety of killing machines that have been promised by the TS trailers: driverless motorbikes, house-crushing robots, sinister hovercraft, and yes, a Terminator that cries out in self-hatred when it looks down at its open torso and discovers it's not human.

I suppose one reason why we're constantly fascinated by the whole man/machine question is that the question arises and is sustained by multiple streams of thought. One stream questions whether there is, fundamentally, any difference between people and machines. Quite a few scientists openly contend that that's essentially what human beings are-- extremely complex, well-honed machines, operating according to purely natural laws of causation. By this reckoning, humans aren't perfect or perfectly efficient; they have no divine spark. They may be amazing in terms of processing power and creativity, but they remain machines.

A second stream of thought is occupied with the ethical question of what counts as real. If something isn't real to you, whatever "real" might mean, it's hard for you to care about it. Throughout the ages, warring factions have justified their wars by dehumanizing the other side, making them somehow less real and therefore easier to kill. BSG has tried to show how complicated this is by posing its version of the "zombie problem," since Cylons replicate humans down to the molecular level. If a Cylon is just a toaster, you can kill it and sleep well at night. If, however, it falls in love with you, you fall in love with it, and then you get it pregnant, what's your view of that same entity?

Humanity's creation of and dependence on technology represents an evolving relationship. Sci-fi is one of the ways in which we attempt to explore and anticipate how that evolution will progress. Perhaps because it's entertaining, or perhaps because it really does reflect our instincts, most sci-fi portrayals of that relationship seem overwhelmingly negative. Will BSG take the plunge and show us its version of that negativity? We've got a week to find out.

ADDENDUM: You might enjoy this essay at Conscious Entities about computers and minds.