Sunday, December 30, 2007

Battlestar Galactica and
Foundation and Earth

[UPDATE, 6/2/11: You might want to check out my huge essay on BSG's deity over at my other blog.]

While I wouldn't say that the Battlestar Galactica TV series and Isaac Asimov's Foundation series have a lot in common, one plot element they do share is the search for Earth. I was reminded of this as I plowed through Asimov's series during my sickness and convalescence; over the past week or so, I've gone through the first five Foundation novels. The fifth one in order of publication, Foundation and Earth, chronicles the adventures of impetuous Foundation Councilman and ex-Navy man Golan Trevize, rumpalicious Gaian hottie Blissanobiarella (a.k.a. Bliss), and Foundation historian/mythologist Janov Pelorat, resident geek.

In the Foundation series, the Galactic Empire exists roughly twenty thousand years in the future; the first five Foundation books chronicle the fall of this empire and the rise of Hari Seldon's two Foundations. These Foundations strive, along with a clandestine organization of telepathic robots and robot-created beings called Gaians, to shepherd the human race onto the path of Galaxia, an elevated state in which all humans, animals, plants, and abiotic phenomena are united in a gigantic, harmonious supermind. Trevize ends up being the person who determines the galaxy's fate, for he is known to the Gaians as someone endowed with an intuitive rightness when it comes to making big decisions based on little actual evidence (a distant parallel to Teela Brown's "psychic luck" in Larry Niven's Ringworld universe). But having decided on Galaxia as the course the galaxy should take, a conflicted Trevize, who despises the notion of a non-individuated massmind, is determined to understand what the specific reasons were for his decision. To this end, Trevize sets out with Bliss and Pelorat on a quest for Earth, where Trevize is convinced he will find the answers to his questions. The quest is the subject of Foundation and Earth.

In BSG, we have no idea whether we're in the Asimovian future or in a Star Wars-style past, "a long time ago." We are decidedly not in a galaxy far, far away, however, for Earth is the object of the ragtag fleet's quest. In the original BSG miniseries, it was presumed by both Commander Adama and President Roslin that Earth was a pious myth, and that it did not, in fact, exist. This presumption changed over the course of the series that followed, to the point where the third season of BSG ended on a cliffhanger in which the presumed-dead Kara Thrace/Starbuck returned and told Lee Adama that (1) she had been to Earth and back, and (2) she would lead the fleet to it. It's my understanding that, in the special BSG movie "Razor," there is a Cylon prophecy that Thrace will lead the fleet to ruin, but that's not the topic on which I want to speculate in this post.

Instead, I want to ponder the BSG version of Earth. What will Earth be like? I think we can assume it will exist: the final moment of the season-ender for Season 3 shows us a glimpse of the North American continent. Because the continent is recognizable, we can further assume that, when the ragtag fleet arrives, they won't be seeing Earth during its Pangaea phase, nor during some future time, millions of years hence, when the continents will have drifted and rearranged themselves into something unrecognizable. At the very least, then, we know the fleet will see Earth during a period when it's possible that humans will be there.

Where we get murky is on the question of origins. If I'm not mistaken, BSG's human mythology has it that Earth represents a "thirteenth colony" founded by a thirteenth human tribe-- something of a reflection of the twelve tribes of Israel, plus one wayward group. This would seem to imply that, in the BSG universe, human life did not begin on Earth, but began elsewhere. But nota bene: "Life here began out there" is a tenet accepted by those humans who subscribe to the dominant human religion (has this religion actually been named?) in the BSG universe. And here is the problem: if the humans of the twelve colonies believe this tenet, then by implication, they do not believe that life began on one of the planets of the twelve colonies. If that's so, then neither Earth nor the twelve other colony planets is the cradle of humanity-- some other planet, yet unnamed, is where we came from.*

It's possible that the scriptures of the human religion in BSG have it wrong: perhaps Earth is indeed the cradle of humanity and not the thirteenth colony. It's also possible that Earth is the thirteenth colony but that, instead of striking out into space, it's merely the colony that remained where it was while the other twelve colonies left and settled other worlds.

I'm curious as to how the writers of BSG plan to make sense of all this. In Asimov's Foundation universe, Earth is a planet around which many legends have accreted, but as it turns out, it does exist. Characters in Asimov's series reason backwards in time as to why Earth must exist: quadrillions of humans, all of the same species, could not possibly have originated on multiple worlds: biologically speaking, the odds of such parallel evolution are too remote. Because the human worlds of the Galactic Empire and, later, the Foundation era have all been terraformed to conform to certain congenial parameters, the characters further reason that Earth must be the planet that set the original standards-- the Galactic day, hour, minute, and second must all come from that world; the temperature ranges in which humanity flourishes must all be found on that world. The characters eventually do find Earth, but Earth turns out to be a dead world, long since turned radioactive by various conflicts early in the period of imperial expansion.

What Earth will the characters in BSG find? Will Earth turn out to be a red herring or a MacGuffin? Will we witness the extinguishing of humanity by the Cylons before (or after) the humans reach Earth? Will the Cylons reach Earth before the colonists do? If Earth truly exists in the BSG universe (I assume it does), will it contain human life? Will it be "our" earth, the Earth of the early 2000s? If Earth is indeed the cradle of humanity, what havoc will this play on the BSG insistence on scripture and prophecy?

Quite possibly the most disappointing scenario would be for the BSG characters to find Earth as we know it, and for them to be able to speak in modern English with us. Here, too, the odds of such close parallel cultural evolution would seem to be slim, but as fans of BSG know, the soldiers of BSG are all conversant in US military jargon (the show contains a great deal of obvious and subtle military humor). Not only that, but the series has made a point of the fact that the language we're hearing is English: you'll recall the episode in which Boomer corrects Helo's English after he mistakenly says "further" instead of "farther." It's remotely possible that the English we've been hearing is merely there for dramatic purposes (cf. "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country," in which Klingons begin by speaking in Klingon with subtitles, then switch into English on the tacit assumption that they are still speaking Klingon-- a decision probably made so as not to tax the actors with too much Klingon), but I find this difficult to believe.

I trust that Ron Moore and his team of writers are smarter than the "Galactica 1980" crew, who had the ragtag fleet find Earth and be able to speak with Earthlings in fluent modern English. This makes me all the more curious as to what Earth our characters will find. I'd love for them to find a future, technologically fearsome Earth-- that, or a completely "parallel" Earth, i.e., one whose history has absolutely nothing to do with our own. But that's going to be a major stunt: the culture of the ragtag fleet already mirrors North American culture, which means that North American culture already exists in the BSG universe. Perhaps the best solution is for our intrepid group to find Earth devoid of human life-- an Eden waiting to be colonized.

I mention all this mainly because I'm fascinated by how the BSG writers seem to have written themselves into a corner. I was perfectly content with the original 2003 miniseries' line that Earth was a mythical planet; I thought it made perfect dramatic sense to keep it that way, and it was a pleasing twist on the 1970s series' hunt for a real Earth. Now, though, the writers of the new BSG seem to have committed themselves to an existent, non-mythical Earth; they've played up the fact that the colonists are essentially North Americans (which, for the most part, they are, excepting the odd Brit or Kiwi in the group) who speak 2000s-era English, and they've gone so far as to have Kara/Starbuck visit Earth and return (how this happens, we don't know). How will the writers extricate themselves from this mess? My great fear is that they won't be able to, and that whatever solution they arrive at will involve some degree of lameness, either on the dramatic level or on the conceptual level.

Maybe the colonists should arrive at Earth and find signs from the thirteenth colony: "Earth sucks. Went elsewhere." Or maybe the writers should go with Edward James Olmos's joking scenario:

I personally — this is not [from] any of the writers, but my thing — I wanted to come into [the present day], find Earth, cruise on top of it, see it for what it is, and as we're coming down to it, we're blown up, we're nuked. And then [someone says to] the President of the United States, which is [George W.] Bush, "They've been taken care of. Thank God you saved the world again." And you turn, and you see who told him that, and it's one of the Cylons. [Laughs]

*Whether the planet Kobol counts as the cradle of humanity is uncertain. For true BSG geeks, the Battlestar Wiki has plenty of interesting speculation on whether Earth or Kobol is the true cradle of humanity in the BSG universe. This article in particular leans toward Earth. I saw no article, in today's brief search of the BSG Wiki, supporting the idea that a mysterious third planet might be humanity's cradle, but as I wrote above, this seems to be the implication from what we know of BSG's human cosmology. I'm not sure whether Kobol counts as the "out there" referred to in the colonial scriptures.



Anonymous said...

Loved Asimov's take on Robots, but I love the master, Robert A. Heilein more. His "Stranger in a Strange Land" should be required reading in all high schools across the globe for we all are really strangers in a strange land and should learn how to deal with one another the way Michael Valentine Smith does. Grok?

Elisson said...

You have now established your Nerd-Boy cred beyond the shadow of a doubt. Asimov's Foundation vs BSG? Yeef!

I jest, of course.

I got caught up in the (original three-novel) Foundation series when I was a junior in college. I'd crawl back from the library at 6:00 am and piss away my one hour of sleep time on trying to get through another chunk of Second Foundation. And I can still remember the ecstatic feeling I had as all the pieces fell into place at the very end.

Heinlein, schmeinlein. Bobby was good, but Asimov was the Master.

Anonymous said...

Wow! In researching a decent book of Asimov's to read, I just learned that he died of AIDS from a blood transfusion. Sadly, his family kept this secret to protect themselves.

Still have to say Heinlein's bucket load of Hugo's and nominations for Hugo's rank him as numero uno, or maybe it's because of all the sex that he adds to his stories. Funny that the "Potter" books are banned in many communities for embracing a supposed alternative religion, but I've seen Heilein's near pornography on the shelves of my junior high back home in Texas.