Archive | May, 2009

PULP Prophets: Philip K. Dick, Battlestar Galactica & Sci-Fi

3 May

“Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.” – Rod Serling

In flashback to a much unchanged Edward James Olmos, wires and suckers taped to Bill Adama’s body send unreliable responses to a polygraph machine. The operator asks “are you a Cylon?” In the context of the audience’s chronology not a ridiculous question: we are on the other side of what Battlestar Galactica began calling ‘The Fall’ and know that Adama could indeed be a frakking Toaster. In fact, anyone could be a Cylon and—what is more—it doesn’t really matter.

Edward James Olmos as Bill Adama

Edward James Olmos as Bill Adama

Much to TV critics’ and science fiction fans’ glee, Ronald D. Moore and David Eick’s update of 1970s kitsch dropped the show definitively in a 21st Century, post-September 11th world. Debates or at least flickerings of interest in torture, abortion, suicide bombings, religious war and out-and-out nuclear decimation reflected the political climate in the real world. But the real question was: how would you come to terms with your own identity—and that of the society you fit into—if you were uncontrollably drawn into these kinds of situations? In posing that question whilst throwing in space opera, sci-fi dogfights and ungraspable religious ruminations, BSG struck a chord with seasoned pulp viewers and with those who had never had the inclination to watch science fiction before.

But sci-fi has grown always and most successfully during times of identity crisis. Throughout the 19th Century certainties were slowly being stripped away from the public consciousness, politically, socially and scientifically, and people’s inclination for fantasy and escapism grew in proportion. H.G. Wells and his near-namesake Orson Welles provide a case-in-point: as surety shrank so speculative fiction like Wells’ War of the Worlds increased in popularity; but the decentring of people’s beliefs coupled with actual scientific growth from the 19th into the 20th Centuries meant that Welles’ radioplay of the same story led to mass hysteria in 1938 as the public believed that Martians had indeed invaded the planet.

Speculative (or science) fiction came to be a literature all about the problems of (self-)identity. Mass media scattered cultural yardsticks further and wider than ever before and technological advances—many the result of two world wars—expanded the imaginations of budding sci-fi authors such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, L. Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein. Without true, modern ‘science’, speculative fiction had been mere fantasy—Verne’s romance and adventure stories, Wells’ social criticism, Poe’s horror and Twain’s fantastical Connecticut Yankee.

In some manner, modernism took what sci-fi wrote about and applied this thinking to how authors wrote, mixing up time frames, perceptions and being ferociously counter-realistic. Just as the Modernist creed preached that there needed to be a break from the ‘realism’ of the 19th Century in favour of a new way forward, so sci-fi preached that, to say something important about the real world one did not require a realistic milieu. Modernist protagonists were alienated, science fiction protagonists were simply alien. Somewhere in the middle of those extremes the more literary-minded sci-fi authors grew up.

“In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real,” wrote Philip K. Dick.

Dick breathed a certain amount of psychological intrigue into the Pulp world during the 1950s, hitting science-fiction fame with The Man in the High Castle in 1963. A Hugo-award winning novel, it posited many of the questions which went on to permeate Dick’s fiction. Not only the thin line between counterfeit and genuine but also the meaninglessness of those who attempt to qualify ‘reality’: “Who, and what, are the agents behind this interpenetration of true and false realities?” he asks. Dr Gaius Baltar might also want to know the answer to that one.

But he came of age in a time when science-fiction was splitting into two subsets. On the one hand, authors filmmakers and artists were taking the tropes and concerns of sci-fi and using them in a less narrow, more critical way. Clarke and Asimov wrote of the benefits science could bring against the backdrop of cultural anxieties about such progress; Aldous Huxley, Orwell and Ray Bradbury focused on the anxieties against their dystopian futures; space opera such as Dune and surrealism by Samuel R. Delany graced the bookshelves, and Stanley Kubrick went off to make auteur sci-fi a la mode. On the other hand pure entertainment—aliens for the sake of it—hit the airwaves.

Dick’s personal life had always affected his writing. The loss as a child of an identical twin sister, Jan Charlotte, alongside a diagnosis of schizophrenia at an early age can only have doubled, then shattered and dispersed, a young man’s sense of identity. External forces were also at work. Dick was within living memory of World War II but also saw the upheavals of 1960s American culture, the Vietnam conflict and the extension of the Cold War first hand. The nation, as much as the author, was experiencing a form of identity crisis. Writers such as Robert Heinlein espoused a libertarian philosophy during those years; Dick on the other hand was exploring the Jungian concepts of the collective unconsciousness and group perception.

Dick wrote of fellow author Heinlein: “Robert Heinlein is a fine-looking man, very impressive and very military in stance…He knows I’m a flipped-out freak and still he helped me and my wife when we were in trouble. That is the best in humanity, there; that is who and what I love.” Dick’s characters similarly follow the notion that their personal actions and interactions are what determine their moral core. Although characters such as Arctor in A Scanner Darkly do use drugs, it is their perception, the ground shifting beneath their feet, which we follow with most interest. And the collective delusion rather than the illusion of personal freedoms was what interested Dick.

Whilst Dick’s claims later in life that he experienced visions of—and then received the transmissions from—some greater power seemed genuine, they only added to his personal mythical status. These visions extended over time and eventually he claimed that he experienced a double life himself, as both Philip and as a Roman

An R Crumb illustration of Philip K. Dick

An R Crumb illustration of Philip K. Dick

peasant named Thomas. These personal identity crises exacerbated those that Dick lived through as a member of society, but in his fiction he almost exclusively explored the greater crisis through the eyes of a single protagonist—Bob Arctor, Rick Deckard, John Anderton to name but three.

With the advent of the 21st Century the issue of identifying the crisis has become just as, if not more, important than the crisis itself. Battlestar Galactica initially presented its audience with the most basic points around which to orient themselves: humankind (or a variation thereof) are the Good Guys, the Cylons (a human creation gone bad) are the Bad Guys, and after the nuclear holocaust at the beginning of the show, the human race is near-extinct and on the run.

So far, so-so. But we begin to realise as the show continues that everything we view has only a surface meaning, and that getting at the truth is harder than we might imagine. With the advent of Cylons that appear human and act with human emotions and motivations, the lines between counterfeit and genuine, real and fake are blurred to the point that (eventually) they have no bearing on the morality of the characters or their actions. The audience is as unsure as the characters themselves where they are headed and how they fit into this decimated future. Actions and words simply reflect the identity crisis that the characters are experiencing and whenever they attempt to grasp at the truth behind these actions, they come away empty-handed.

It would be too easy, too simplistic and ascribing too much to BSG to call it a direct allegory for a (Western) identity crisis post-September 11th. Where the difficulty of determining identity, finding a place in the grand scheme of things, had been portrayed by Dick through the eyes of his protagonists, Ronald D. Moore and David Eick focused on how the universe affected its inhabitants.

The polygraph scene I mentioned at the top of this article, featured in a flashback during the show’s finale, sums up a great deal of what the show was about—or at least a great deal of the things that it had been gnostically considering for four seasons. The personal choices that took Bill Adama from a soon to be retired Commander of a defunct military vessel to a father figure for the entire human race. The crescendoing question of identity—who is human and who is Cylon?—and whether that really matters. And most mystically, BSG dared to ask whether personal choices are truly personal or the result of some indeterminate god, fate or greater plan.

Edward James Olmos: Gaff, Replicant or Cylon?

Edward James Olmos: Gaff, Replicant or Cylon?

Imagine if you will Edward James Olmos’ voice: “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?” These words close out Blade Runner. The movie abounds with superficial similarities to Moore and Eick’s show: polygraph tests to determine identity; Detective Bryant’s use of the term ‘skinjobs’; a character named Tyrell creating humanoid ‘Nexus Sixes’; Replicants who believe they are human. But Dick’s tale is as obsessed as BSG with identity and the question of free will. By the end of the movie the audience is not sure whether Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a Replicant or a human and nor is Deckard. Olmos’ character Gaff seems to have some of the answers, but communicates with Deckard only in street language and through origami figures.

This latter motif plants the strongest suggestion at the end of the movie that Deckard may indeed be a ‘skinjob’ himself. Whether he is—and whether Adama could perhaps be a Cylon—are not really the point. We will never be able to pass the polygraph test with 100% certainty, no matter how advanced our technology might become or how certain we might be about the universe; we might not know it, but sooner or later the world might shift under our feet and we might all turn out to be frakking Toasters.

DLR, May 3rd 2009