Escaping the Cycle: Battlestar Galactica vs. Mass Effect

I’ve talked in the past about my love-hate relationship with SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica. I decided to give it another change and did a full re-watch through the four seasons. The overall verdict is that I liked the series even more, including the last season, than I did the first time, with the exception of the last episode. The last episode, I hated even more than I did before. Common complaints with the ending had to do with the whole “I see angels” and deciding for the viewer how God was supposed to be seen in the show. This time around, however, my complaints take a different angle.

This got me to thinking about another epic sci-fi story with a controversial ending: Mass Effect. Both stories are essentially the same: a repeating cycle of machines rising up against the organic life that created them. Across the galaxy, civilization after civilization rises up and falls to the same fate: the machines destroy their creators. In both stories, a key theme is: how do we break the cycle? It’s a sci-fi version of the wheel of karma, the cycle of rebirth and death. In other words, how do we achieve moksha, a future where organic life can survive past technological singularity?

People complained about both endings. For Mass Effect, folks complained that the choices didn’t matter in the end. I disagree with this interpretation of the Mass Effect ending, and I’m going to contrast it with Battlestar Galactica (BSG) to make an argument that Mass Effect’s (ME) ending was, in fact, quite good. And the final choice in the game has substantially different implications.

(SPOILERS to follow)

At the end of BSG, the last episode does pose the question: how do we break the cycle? They find a new planet (our Earth) on which to colonize and survive, and they make the decision to blend in with the natives, scatter themselves over the planet, and eschew their technology by launching their fleet into the sun. The choose to start over with a stone age existence.

The end of ME also has a loss of technology: the network of jump gates get destroyed, presumably making interstellar travel either impossible, or much more difficult. In the case of ME, this loss of advanced civilization is a side effect, not deliberately chosen. Also, each solar system still has space age technology. Two of the three choices made at the end of ME carries the lessons learned into the future and truly breaks the cycle. One choice is ambiguous. More on this in a minute.

Coming back to BSG, the only thing they accomplish is to accept humans and cylons living together and procreating together, and the implication that they’ll interbreed with the indigenous human population. But they also make a deliberate choice to “start over” and “wipe the slate clean”. There’s one problem with that: the entire series has established “all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.” If they don’t carry any lessons learned forward, why would they expect different results.

To add insult to injury, in the final scene of the series has the Baltar and Six angels talking together in modern-day Earth. Baltar-angel asks Six-angel if the cycle will repeat, and she’s optimistic this time. Why? No fracking good reason whatsoever. She says, “law of averages. If we do this enough, we’ll eventually be surprised.” Well, why didn’t that apply before? This sounds insane: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” My biggest gripe is this: I felt BSG was, in the end, an utter tragedy. No lessons were carried forward, and my takeaway is that they’re doomed to repeat the cycle. To amplify my point, the fact that they chose to link their story to present-day Earth was self defeating. If they wanted to make the argument that lessons were remembered and carried forward, even at a genetic level, they would have had to show how humans were fundamentally different… but they didn’t. One of the strengths of the show was how human and relatable their characters were. Caprica before the fall is very much like modern day Earth. So, the cycle repeats itself.

The second big gripe I have that adds to the tragic feel of the show. They talk about how love (with familial love being as or more important than romantic love) was key to their breaking the cycle (because apparently procreation was key somehow… that’s never explained), but then they scatter. The hardest part for me was Lee’s father going off to be alone, and Lee seemingly alone at the end. All those talks about family, and bonds… it’s like they all abandoned their hearths with each other (excepting some characters like Helo and Athena, and Caprica and Baltar). I guess the solitude of the Adamas was hard to swallow, and frankly I found it somewhat unbelievable after the way the series built their characters.

The failure of the final episode, I believe, is in the writing. The entire series was brilliant, and my impression is that the writers weren’t consciously trying to make it a tragedy. All in all, the BSG finale just seems like a tragic accident.

Turning to ME, the player is given three choices at the end, when presented a somewhat similar problem: how to break the cycle. Any choice he makes will have the side effect of destroying the jump gates. To not choose is to allow the machines to continue the cycle and harvest/destroy all advanced organic life. People complained that the three choices were superficial, involving a “blue-green-red” palette swap for the end scenes. This, however, isn’t true. The choices are fundamentally different (and this was more apparent in the revised endings). The choices presented are:

  1. Blue (control): Become one with the reapers (the machines in question). Your consciousness gets uploaded into the reapers and you become a reaper yourself, transforming their consciousness with yours. You then have the power to choose to stop the cycle, because you control the other reapers. You become, in essence, a god, and watch over the galaxy to prevent the cycle from happening again.
  2. Green (synthesis): You have the choice to blend synthetic and organic life… and through the reaction during the jump gates destruction, this effect is carried to all aspects of the galaxy. You die, but every other living being becomes a synthetic-organic hybrid, removing the distinction between synthetic and organic life.
  3. Red (destruction): You die, but you destroy all synthetic life and artificial intelligence throughout the galaxy. The cycle may or may not repeat itself, but organic life continues past the point of singularity, knowing and remembering what happened. This is the most uncertain of all fates, but it’s not a “start again and hope for different results.”

In order to not repeat the past, the starting conditions have to be different. The biggest thing is: what’s changed, what’s different from the last time we started this cycle? In ME, each choice offers a different set of starting conditions. BSG did not.

The BSG writers effectively made no choice… they wanted their cake and ate it too, essentially mapping their ending on the “no choice” ME ending (which was also available: if you choose to not choose, the final AI kills you and the cycle continues… the reapers harvest and wipe out humanity and all the other space faring races).

If the blue/green/red choices were mapped on to BSG, this is how it could have happened:

  1. Blue (control): Kara Thrace (or other suitable character, but I pick Starbuck in an effort to undo the stupid “she’s an angel” thread) becomes a cylon and merges consciousness with the base ship. She transcends consciousness and guides the base ships away, watching humanity’s development from afar. Some cylons live with humans and interbreed, and human civilization continues, with technological and philosophical lessons learned. Maybe it becomes possible for human consciousness to be uploaded into synthetic brains, transcending mortality and blurring the lines between synthetic and organic. There’s a fundamental recognition that machines are just as conscious as organics.
  2. Green (synthesis): I’m… gonna go with Kara again. But maybe Hera could have worked as well. One of them accomplishes something that causes all synthetics to share organic properties (although one could already argue they do) and that all humans get cylon bio tech as part of them (just like they did with the ship itself towards the end). Or a simpler way to achieve this would have been to have them settle in peace and intermarry, with they implication that in time, all their descendants were hybrids. They almost achieved this in the series, excepting that they decided to forget everything.
  3. Red (destruction): This was the ending I was hoping for, because I thought it would have been bold. The humans come to the conclusion that software is just software in the end, convincing simulations of personality but not actually sentient. They find a way to destroy all cylons, and there is no continuation of the hybrid line. The humans settle on the new world. They remember the sins of the past. In some ways, they’d already learned this lesson in the colonies by abandoning AI, and networked computer technology. That solves the problem of singularity. Only this time, they don’t have the threat of the cylons coming home to destroy them, because they’re all dead. In other words, it’s a purely simple military victory.

So, after the second watch through (which had the benefit of having played the full ME trilogy by that point), I feel like the writers of BSG and ME were trying to address the same problem: how to solve the cycle of technological singularity and escape the doom of machines rising up to destroy the organics. It feels like the BSG writers ran out of time to parse through the options, present them distinctly to the viewers, and have their characters choose one. ME did a better job of this.

Until next week,


Gods’ Landscape: The Transcendent

Part 2 of 3

BLUF:  4 parts to this essay: an expansion of the definition of fantasy as it relates to the transcendent, what does transcendent mean in the fantasy context, how your approach to the transcendent fundamentally shapes your audience, and different methods of implementing the transcendental concepts.

1. Transition into the Transcendent

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on gods and religion in fantasy.  In the first part, we considered whether the inclusion of spirituality as an active agent in the world pushed a story into the realm of fantasy.  Some readers have posted that the distinction between sci-fi and fantasy is largely an artificial distinction, or the engine of marketing divisions of various publishing houses.  I concede that where the edges lie between the genres is largely an academic debate with somewhat artificial resolution; however, I’m going to continue along this line and talk about fantasy or sci-fi, in the larger realm of speculative fiction, is distinguished by the presence or absence of the supernatural.  I recognize that there are cross-genre examples, or sub-genres.  Largely, high-fantasy (epic fantasy) is considered different from horror.  I think of both as flavors of fantasy.  Kinda like ice-cream and sherbet.  Sherbet has no cream, but there are many flavors.  Ice-cream has cream, and also has many flavors.  Fantasy is ice-cream, with all the fatty creamy goodness being elements of the supernatural.  Moving on…

We talked about spirituality and what is commonly experienced in the world, across faith lines.  I want to refine this definition a little bit.  If we consider the real-world, we have what is observable (the natural world as described by all kinds of physics), and what is not (any belief in the supernatural, in any form).  For the purposes of this series, I’ll loosely equate transcendent and supernatural (I’ll admit up front there is a nuanced difference between the two words–I’ll come back to this).

More specifically, the transcendent is anything that acts upon the world outside the natural rules of the world.  It’s transcendent.  It acts from “above”.  It is not bound by the rules of the world in which it acts.  In Judeo-Christian religion, God and the angels are considered transcendent, not bound by physical time and space.  By definition, it makes these agents super-natural (outside the natural world).

Some world religions consider magic and spiritual “powers” (maybe the word “effects” is better for a more connotation-neutral term) to be part of the natural world.  New Age beliefs, neo-pagan and neo-druidic thought, and Native-American spiritualism (I’m making a somewhat uninformed assumption here) fall into this category.   Some forms of Hinduism, with various strains of Yoga, are also a prime example where magic and mysticism (with producible mystical effects) is part of the natural world.  From that view-point, there may not be a clear separation between the natural and supernatural, but it flows continuously on a spectrum.

I need to take a moment to acknowledge that some religion, particularly the Abrahamic faiths, would take exception to equating magic with mysticism.  I understand this, and I understand the difference from within the context of the worldview (faith is mystical, magic unnaturally usurps the power of God).  This is also a viable model for fantasy world-building.  However, it’s not the intent of this article to critically analyze world theologies.  They are mentioned only as examples, and to acknowledge that you should, in no way, take what I’m saying about magic, mysticism and the supernatural as building blocks for fantasy as declarative statements about your particular faith.  For this discussion, let’s consider experiential claims that any religion makes as exceptional or particular to practitioners of that religion as transcendent or supernatural… recognizing we all have different ideas of what the transcendent is.

Finally, I want to recognize that the world “transcendent” also carries another meaning with it.  It is not only what is supernatural, but it can also refer to what is the “highest” power, the uncaused-cause, that-which-cannot-be-overcome.  In computer lingo,  “Transcendent” is a user of root-level privileges with powers of source code altering and recompiling in the world.  (Still speaking within the story, though–not referring to the actual author).

The key idea I’m driving at:  When you take what would be considered transcendent or supernatural in the real-world and make it part of the fictional world’s “natural worldly order”, it becomes fantasy.

2.  The Transcendent within Fantasy

This sets the stage for the actual topic at hand: how to handle the transcendent within the fantasy world.  Once you take elements of the supernatural (all these ideas of magic, spirits, ghosts, immortality, and even gods) and move them into the natural world, what remains behind in the transcendental realm? When gods are active characters, are they bound by rules? If so, who or what sets the rules?  How transcendent are the gods?  (What makes them definable as gods?–We’ll table that for part 3 of this series).

One example of this was early Dragonlance.  The series had the usual pantheon of good, evil, and neutral gods.  The series purported the need for balance between all three.  However, it was hinted that there was a greater being, the High God which existed over and beyond all the lesser gods.  This provided an elusive, transcendent backdrop (that and the concept of a need for balance) against which the gods played their drama.  (Later in the series, the High God was made a somewhat disappointing character, and they violated the concepts transcendence).  The same authors (Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman) had another series called Rose of the Prophet,

Rose of the Prophet Book 1: The Will of the Wanderer

which blew my mind as a kid.  It was probably the first fantasy book that really challenged how I look at the world, for the simple fact it used a capital “G” for all its twenty Gods.  The story that unfolded ended up being a campaign of one of the twenty Gods to become the one and only God.  However, all twenty Gods were ruled by a shining light in the middle called Truth.  Truth became the transcendent thing that drove the world, and the Gods were just individual reflections of Truth.  (Great series, BTW.  I must consider rereading it).

This leads me to the third part of this article:

3.  How to Write to a Mixed Audience

As a writer, I want people of faith and skeptics alike to be able to enjoy my stories.  As a reader, I want a book that can grow with me as I grow.  How does one accomplish this?  The first rule is: don’t make the Big Decisions for your readers.  Let’s consider two examples that don’t do this:  “Battlestar Galactica“, and The Chronicles of Narnia.

In “Battlestar Galactica”, we get a science fiction war-story that starts not as a religious show, but as a show about refugees trying to survive with people of faith and skeptics alike.  It wasn’t a religious show, but it had characters who were religious.  There’s a big difference.  Then, in the last episode, we have the lame conversion “I see angels” speech, the Deus Ex Machina, and oh yeah.  Starbuck’s an angel too.  In one fell swoop, the integrity of the series is betrayed by the writers themselves jumping in and saying it was God’s plan all along (because the writer’s certainly seem to have a plan), and that these possible hallucinations are, in fact, God’s angels.  They decide how the viewers must interpret the entire series of what were previously brilliantly layered scenes with multiple levels of death.  In one fell swoop of the pen, the collapsed the series from multidimensional engagement to a flat, one-dimensional experience.  This, in my opinion, is bad writing.

I loved the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a kid.  Of course, Narnia is an explicitly Christian series, and it reinforced my strong Catholic worldview at the time.  What was not to like?  As an adult, I no longer hold to the Christian worldview.  I watched the first Narnia movie when it came out, expecting to walk down the nostalgic paths of youth, and I was struck by how overtly Christian the movie felt.  C.S. Lewis may have included pagan myths in the inspiration for his world, but his intent towards Christianity seems clear.  (Apparently, however, some Christians felt the books were blasphemous for depicting Christ as a Lion.  Jeez.)  There is one scene in the Narnia series that particularly bothers me, and that comes from the book The Silver Chair.  There’s a scene in it where the Green Lady (the evil witch) tries to convince the protagonists that Narnia and the good world that they came from was just a dream, and her underground horrible world was the only real world.  At one point, Moonglum tells her that if Narnia isn’t real, and her world is the only real world, then he would still gladly choose Narnia and live in a fantasy.  This seems to be an allegory of choosing blind faith and loyalty to the idea of God (C.S. Lewis’s god) over all reason, over all possibility of evidence-based learning, which bothers me.  Through it, the writer tells me that no matter what evidence I’m presented with, no matter what reason dictates, I must abandon evidence, reason, and critical thought in favor of belief.  In the book, of course, this makes sense, because Narnia is the real world in the book.  The author shapes the world to conform to his intended message.  Now, this is not necessarily bad writing.  Unlike Battlestar Galactica, Narnia is what it is from the beginning.  C.S. Lewis is consistent in his vision and intent.  He had a plan, and he executed it well.  The takeaway I have from this experience, however, is that I grew and my own views on the transcendent evolved, C.S. Lewis’s stories could not grow with me.  I had no place in his audience.

When I wrote fantasy in high school and college, it was pretty preachy.  I projected my beliefs into my work, and it was clearly pro-God, pro Higher Power, pro theist, to the point where I had gods showing up and heavy handedly validating the characters’ worldviews that I agreed with and wanted validated, making it clear for the reader that if they sympathized with someone else, they were just “Wrong!(tm)”.  I think this was bad writing.

Now, when I write I deliberately try not to decide for the reader what the transcendent must be.  If there were to be gods in scenes, the reader always has room to either distrust them or accept what they are saying.

Certainly I can’t go around having materialist skeptic and atheist characters who don’t believe that magic and gods exist (well, I suppose I could but then they would be delusional).  The story involves a mystical world, and magic and gods clearly exist within its context.  The question become whether they are what people think they are, and if their word can or should be trusted.  In short, they become characters just like everyone else.

The concept of a Higher Power is an interesting one in a fantasy world.  In most real-world religions, the Higher Power is transcendent… existing outside of the confines of the world, and able to act upon it unbound by physical laws.  So instead of “is there gods/magic or not?”, the real underlying question that: “Is there a transcendent power acting upon the world from outside?”… when the world includes magic and mysticism already within it.

Even Tolkien skirts on this question in the movie in the scene where Gandalf makes a statement of faith, admonishing Frodo not to be eager to deal out death (to Gollum), and saying to consider that Bilbo was “meant” to find the ring, and so Frodo was “meant” to have it.

The question then becomes, in a world where magic is part of the world’s rational metaphysics, what then is supernatural?  Perhaps under this view, magic is no longer supernatural.  Are there supernatural/transcendent agents acting in the world?  Are these the gods?  If the gods are not transcendent, but subject to the same laws of magic as mortal wizards, then is there a higher power beyond them?

As I stated before, Narnia seems very clearly a Christian allegory, and I would argue that his audience is largely Christian.  Tolkien doesn’t quite fall the same way–he used Catholic theology as the scaffolding upon which he built his world (along with many pagan/celtic elements), but he also explicitly and deliberately chose not to write an allegory (he wanted to write like history–from his own words–and that, like history, people can interpret multiple meanings into his story).  My impression of Tolkien is that he hated deliberate allegory, at least in his own writing (he got frustrated with constant questions of “what does this mean?”, “what does this stand for”, and “the ring is a symbol for Nuclear Bombs, right?  Sauron is Hitler, right?”).  For the most part, I do too.

I think a writer needs decide which audience for whom he intends to write.  If he expects that his audience shares the same world-view as himself (whether it is religious or not), then that will shape the story–something like a contract in advance.  If the writer wants to engage and audience of diverse religious, or non-religious beliefs, then in the matter of faith and a belief in the transcendent (or absence thereof), the author has to leave statements about such open that different people will come away with a different experience.  I tend to make declarative statements from characters’ mouths, leaving the reader free to agree or disagree with the character.  I try very carefully to not have the narrator accidentally validate the character’s opinions–unless that is my deliberate intent. As such, an element of ambiguity is important to maintain, with the recognition that doing so in a satisfying way is a balancing act.

Furthermore, writing stories in this way not only allows a diverse audience, but also allows the world to grow with me as its author.  In the past, I’ve been forced to “reboot” my world over and over whenever I tie it down to my evolving worldview at the time.  I’m tired of rebooting my world, and this time I hope its flexible enough to survive my own growth as a person.

My current project has three main protagonists.  By the end of the series, each will have a different understanding of the transcendent.  Even though I know where the larger world/adventure plot ends in the trilogy’s climax, I have no idea at this time how they will end on this fundamental question, or on their attitudes towards each other because of their different perspectives.

Which is why I find writing so damned fun.

4. Layers of Transcendence.

Getting back to world-crafting in general, the idea of defining transcendence in relationship to the natural (transcended) world can be applied in various ways.  You can go with a straightforward model where there’s the world, some sort of magic, and then a higher power that trumps all worldly magic.

More interestingly, perhaps, is the concept of multiple planes of existence, as we see in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and many other esoteric systems.  The thought here is that a higher plane of existence is transcendent relative to the lower plane of existence.  A being of the Astral plane may be able to trump any action or overcome any force posed from a physical creature, but may be powerless against a being from the Mental plane (in other words, Archangels are as beyond Angels as Angels are beyond mortals).  Or, to put it yet another way, who is God’s god?  Is there a stop/ultimate source to that progression, or is the series an infinite progression?  Is there an Ultimate for all practical purposes, but only because we can conceive so far, or is there something else beyond Ein Sof, a whole other vista of reality beyond the veil that is so transcendent it isn’t even real to mortal life in the natural world?  Or is it the end, the ultimate beyond which there is no being?  Or, are planes of existence circular, with a rock-paper-scissors effect of transcendence going on?  And if the planes of existence are the backdrop of a world, is there a higher power, a “True Transcendence” that is beyond all the Planes (such as God is to the Tree of Life)?

Only the writer can decide this for his world, but I appreciate the writer who allows the audience some flexibility to decide this for themselves.  In real life, we each come to our own understanding of the nature of the divine and transcendent (or lack thereof).  I find it refreshing when I can experience a story that allows this same, realistic experience in a world of magic.

Next week we’ll wrap up with part 3 of the series and talk about the gods themselves, and pantheon-crafting in the fantasy world.