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In Honor of Rad Bradbury: A Dedication to Sci-Fi

June 10, 2012

Ray Bradbury has held a special place in my heart ever since I became a Bruin, when I was told over and over that he wrote Fahrenheit 451, the title he was best known for, in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library. Having spent some time in that basement studying for exams, I find it hard to imagine how it could have been inspired him to write such a riveting science fiction novel. Maybe he just looked around one day and wondered, “What would happen if I just lit a match to this whole thing?”

So his passing on Tuesday was sad to hear. But it’s rather fitting that we should celebrate his life and wonderful works when we’re at a time when science fiction is picking up in popularity at a rapid pace. Anyone see Prometheus this weekend? Or Men in Black 3 in the last couple weeks? Or how about read or watch The Hunger Games in the last couple months? Maybe some of you even read the latest New Yorker, which dedicated an entire issue to science fiction this very week. (Also, one of my favorite podcasts – Pop Culture Happy Hour – dedicated this week’s show to aliens.)

I’ve been a fan of science fiction ever since I took a course on it at UCLA (yes, we read 451). While not a die-hard sci-fi fan, what I like about the genre is its ability to comment on current society often through the lens of the future looking in hindsight. Or they portray an alternate reality that is eerily similar to ours in principle but that somewhere went horribly wrong. Finally, they can give us some new ways to think about gender, race, or class by offering some “advanced” version of how these should play out. These methods highlight what authors think is troublesome about the society they live in.

At the request of a friend of mine who wanted to my take on the show Battlestar Galactica, I’ll use that as my example (with as few spoilers as possible).

Battlestar Galactica first aired as a tv show in 1978. It was revamped in 2003 and ran as a weekly series until 2009. I’ve only watched two full seasons so far. The basic premise is that humans that live on 12 colonies (in a different part of the galaxy than ours) created cylons – robots to do the hard and dirty labor. Cylons ended up rebelling and leaving the human world. The series picks up after we learn that cylons have evolved, creating human-like clones that infiltrate the colonies and attempt to exterminate the human race, with the few survivors attempting to find the planet Earth, a mythical 13th human colony. An intergalactic war ensues with the focus of the show being Battlestar Galactica, a remaining military ship headed by Captain Adama (played by the Latino actor Edward James Olmos – woot!).

One of my favorite characters on the show is Kara Thrace, a fierce military pilot whose call name is “Starbuck.” It’s important to note that the original Starbuck was a male character, but was changed to a female character for the revamp. She is awesomely masculine: she is easily the best pilot in the bunch, and proves herself to be a superb military strategist as well. She can hang with the guys, often smoking cigars and drinking while playing cards to pass the time. She even has sex for the hell of it. But she’s also incredibly sensitive, often revealing how hard it is to repair friendships when something goes awry and that she is capable of falling in love. One of my favorite scenes is of her giddy with love. I’ve never seen an actress be able to capture that moment quite so well, likely because her masculinity makes her vulnerability that much more striking.

Sci-fi is a fantastic ways to offer different representations of gender and or race, but you have to be careful. If you include too many new representations, the show can be too difficult to grasp and the audience won’t be able to follow. For instance, there is no main male character who has primarily feminine traits but who combines them with strong masculine traits when the time is right. At least as far as the first two seasons are concerned, the only character I can think of who fits this description is Billy, and he’s more of a bumbling idiot who we don’t really care for all that much. While the representation of a strong, masculine female with ultimate, feminine vulnerability is somewhat refreshing it still serves to remind us that masculinity is the superior way of being, but not so much so that you lose your femininity.

The overall plot of BG is not so new when it comes to this genre. It’s a retelling of attempted genocide and colonization. I think this theme might be popular with westerners because that is how Western Europe and later the U.S. would take control over many other countries (especially with the one god vs. many gods thing). It has happened on almost every continent Europeans have stepped foot on. So that’s how war is generally thought of. We see this in Avatar, The Matrix, District 9 and countless others with either humans or the aliens being the victims. And sometimes “aliens” are just a subset of human beings (as in The Hunger Games).

(Personally, I find it baffling that these themes are so popular but Americans aren’t nearly as interested in these actions as historical or present fact. Many people will go to see Prometheus, and from the reviews it seems we will hope that humans end up on top but at the same time have no compassion for indigenous peoples who have been ousted from their native lands. If we’re cheering for the group most like us, most Americans should be rooting for the aliens. Just sayin’.)

So Battlestar Galactica seems to be making at least two critiques: we need to be careful how far we go with our technology, and never lose sight of our humanity when it comes to those who do our hard labor. (There is also a series called Caprica that precedes BG in time, and likely these themes will be played out even more in that series.) I think another point being made is that war is never simple, there are not simply two sides where one is right and one is wrong. In the show there are cylons that show true human emotion, and humans that act robotic when it comes their emotion and their dedication to rigid rules.

I’m really liking the show and looking forward to watching the rest of the seasons (read: I’m addicted). It’s frackin’ amazing!

So, in honor of Ray Bradbury, I hope we all think a little bit deeper about the social commentary in the science fiction that is taking over our movie theatres and television screens. And maybe, you’ll even pick up a real book and turn the pages with a quick lick of your finger, just like Ray would have wanted you to.

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