John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, Manchester Art Gallery, and Contextualizing Art

2006-11-25 - P1000543

As reported on the Manchester Evening NewsBBC, Guardian, and ABC, the Manchester Art Gallery removed John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs with the stated intent that its removal (a supposed artistic act itself) would encourage discussion about how to display such art in the future. Instead, the removal of Waterhouse’s painting seems at best ham-fisted and at worst censorship. While I wholeheartedly agree with artistic criticism and contextualization, the removal of artwork deemed in need of recontextualization is wrongheaded. While Hylas and the Nymphs is well known and available in print and online, the original work itself should remain in place while inviting feedback from its varied audiences and critics. The Manchester Art Gallery’s approach places the work of art in the dark and out of reach for any such debate.

Considering this drastic step by the Manchester Art Gallery, I feel extremely lucky to have seen Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs on a visit to the gallery in 2006 while I was a graduate student at the University of Liverpool. It was during that visit that I took the photo included above. A higher resolution image of the painting is available on the Wikimedia Commons here.

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Dissertation, Post-Cold War American Identities in Battlestar Galactica, Summer 2007 (16,376 Words, Long Read)

This is the twentieth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This is a milestone Recovered Writing post. I build on the ideas that I explored in my undergraduate thesis at Georgia Tech (which you can read here): Cold War identities, authenticity, humanity, machines, and artificial intelligence. Later, at Kent State University, I took only one nugget from these ideas to further explore human and machine experiences through neuroscience and the cognitive sciences.

To develop my MA dissertation, Dr. David Seed agreed to work with me on my project. We would meet in his office every few weeks. We would talk about my project and he would assign me readings and books that we would then discuss in further detail at our next meeting. The process of working with Dr. Seed–meetings, discussions, writing, revising, and further discussions–was intellectually exciting and incredibly productive. The intensity of the work due to the constraints of time and moving back to the United States to begin the PhD program at Kent State University added impetus to its eventual completion during the Summer 2007. I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with Dr. Seed on this project and I am glad to share my research here on my blog.

Below, I am including my dissertation’s abstract, research questions, and the dissertation itself. My dissertation is 16,376 words long including Works Cited list and end notes. If you take the time to read it all or in part, please drop me a line (contact info to the right) or leave a comment.



Jason W. Ellis

Post-Cold War American Identities in Battlestar Galactica

In this dissertation, Ellis argues that there is a shift in SF to more directly engage contemporary issues, and I describe how the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica goes further than its 1978 source material in this regard.  He approaches this shift from several different yet interrelated vectors including an analysis of the enemy-other Cylon threat and its destabilization of Western democratic identity, which reflects the reboot of Tom Engelhardt’s cycle of American triumphalism following the Second World War.  He analyzes the portrayal of human and alien/enemy-other identities in the two BSG series and the development of human and Cylon identities across time and the way in which they begin to blur and merge in the re-imagined series.  This involves analyzing identities in each series separately and then exploring the way those identities are in dialog with the other series as well as culture at large.  Then, he uses those conclusions to answer if and to what extent there is an identity shift in SF from the Cold War to the Post-Cold War era and how that shift is connected to and represents cultural and historical developments.


Research Questions (note the earlier title for the project)

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer and Dr. David Seed

ENG 602: Dissertation

Spring 2007

Dissertation Planning: Subversion of the Self in the Re-Imagined Battlestar Galactica

General Questions

Does SF change following the end of the Cold War?  Is Post 9/11 SF significantly or subtly different than Cold War SF?  How is personal identity dealt with in Cold War SF?  What differences are there between identity for the good guys versus the bad guys?

Specific Questions

Does the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (BSG) represent a shift in SF from a Cold War mode to a new, Post 9/11 mode?  How is identity portrayed differently in the Post 9/11 re-imagined BSG than in the Cold War era original BSG?  How are enemy identities portrayed in these two series?  Are there significant differences between the two series, or is the new BSG merely a continuation of Cold War narrative?


Using the re-imagined BSG as a test case, I want to answer the question:  Does the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica represent a shift in SF from a Cold War mode to a new, Post 9/11 mode?  BSG is a unique example to study, because it’s original “text” comes from the Glen A. Larson 1978 movie and subsequent ABC television series, which is deeply embedded within the Cold War temporally as well as narratively.  The new BSG, even with Larson attached as a “consulting producer,” is a very different story than the original.  Whereas the original BSG presents simplified characters in a dualistic struggle between humanity and machine mapped over the Cold War ideologies of West/democracy and East/communism, the new BSG is a loosely veiled retelling of the conflict in Iraq and the Global War on Terrorism.  However, the new BSG also relies on Cold War narrative influences such as those pointed out by Tom Engelhardt in The End of Victory Culture:  Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation.  For example, both series rely on the sneak attack on democracy that was born out of World War II with the Nazi blitzkrieg and their disregard for non-aggression pacts, and more specifically, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  In BSG, humanity is attacked by Cylon/machine invaders–during a peace conference in the original series and during years of cease fire in the re-imagining.  Additionally, Engelhardt makes a connection between the merging of self and the enemy following the use of atomic bombs at the end of WWII:

The atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima also blasted openings into a netherworld of consciousness where victory and defeat, enemy and self, threatened to merge.  Shadowed by the bomb, victory became conceivable only under the most limited of conditions, and an enemy too diffuse to be comfortably located beyond national borders had to be confronted in an un-American spirit of doubt (6).

The original BSG follows this trajectory in part, because the machine Cylons resemble humanity, and in the latter part of the series, they develop uncanny human Cylons.  However, the re-imagined BSG literally takes this much further by merging the “enemy and self” with the human doppelganger Cylon clones (“skinjobs”).  Additionally, the overwhelming odds of the Cylon forces to humanity’s approximately 48,000 survivors reinforces the Cold War framework of overcoming staggering odds following the treacherous sneak attack.

Where the new BSG differs from the original specifically has to do with self and enemy identities.  Characters in the new BSG are much more developed and are decidedly not archetypes as in the original series.  Also, the human appearing Cylons have their own motivations and characteristics that place them above the status as targets as in much other SF.  However, the truly interesting element of the new BSG is the fact that identities of both humans and Cylons is that they are both dealing with an identity crisis.  Humans worry that they may be sleeper Cylons acting out their lives, unknowing about their “true” selves until the signal or time lapse occurs to activate their hidden programming.  The Cylons are worried about internal dissention and individualistic concerns that run counter to the anarchistic commune ideology promoted by group consensus.  Also, there is the threat of the final five Cylons, five unknown human-like Cylons hidden amongst humanity.  Who are these Cylons, and what will their presence mean for the existing Cylons?  Other identity issues that concern both humans and Cylons are psychological issues with the human Gaius Baltar and the Cylon “Caprica Six.”

I will utilize the original BSG and re-imagined BSG series as primary sources, but I will also refer to ancillary materials such as DVD extras as well as sourcebooks and official guides.  Several useful secondary critical sources are Englehardt’s The End of Victory Culture, Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity:  The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, David Seed’s American Science Fiction and the Cold War, and J.P. Telotte’s Replications.



Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer and Dr. David Seed

ENG 602: Dissertation

Summer 2007

Post-Cold War American Identities in Battlestar Galactica

The atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima also blasted openings into a netherworld of consciousness where victory and defeat, enemy and self, threatened to merge.

Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture

The fission reactions of Fat Man and Little Boy over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were meant to be divisive reactions releasing energy from the breaking apart of atomic nuclei.  However, those bombs began the first fission initiated cultural fusion reaction of merging “victory and defeat, [and] enemy and self” (Engelhardt 6).[i]  This results in a crisis for the American consciousness, because, “with the end of the Cold War and the ‘loss of the enemy,’ American culture has entered a period of crisis that raises profound questions about national purpose and identity” (Engelhardt 10).  He constructs his argument around examples including war narratives and popular culture including Science Fiction (SF).  Engelhardt’s cycle of sneak attack, triumphalism, and identity crisis is repeating itself today.  The 9/11 sneak attacks heralded the beginning of a new wave of fourth generation warfare brought to bear by Al-Qaeda on the secular Western democracies.  The era of the Global War on Terrorism is even more problematic both ideologically and strategically than the Cold War, because of the following issues:  Who is the enemy?  Where is the enemy engaged?  Is the enemy amongst us?  How do we identify the enemy from ourselves?  Metaphorical and explicit engagement of these issues is integral to the development of Post-Cold War SF including the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.[ii]

Battlestar Galactica is uniquely situated to connect the Cold War and Post-Cold War eras.  Also, its transformative engagement of identity and the enemy-other makes it well suited to exploring the shifts resulting from the crisis that Engelhardt describes.  The original 1978 Battlestar Galactica and the 2003 re-imagined series are very different in scope, narrative, and confrontation with the paradigm crisis resulting from the shift from the Cold War to the Post-Cold War era.[iii]  Their relationship provides points of reference embedded historically and culturally within these two eras.  Additionally, Martin McGrath’s description of the original series is telling about its Cold War connections:

Comparisons between Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica from the 1970s and this modern incarnation are revealing.  Larson, a conservative and Mormon, also filled the show with religious and political allegory, but it was one-dimensional.  The original Battlestar Galactica transposed the writings of Mormon faith to a futuristic setting but the politics remained firmly rooted in the Cold War.  His Cylons were militaristic “communists” in shiny armor and the battle was simply good versus evil.  His human community was wholesome and, apart from a pantomime villain, united (McGrath 16).[iv]

It’s the “one-dimensionality,” or more accurately two-dimensionality, of the original series that labels it as a Cold War narrative based on conflicting political ideologies mapped over an “us versus them” narrative.  Additionally, they were not actually called “militaristic communists,” but they behaved in Western perceived stereotypical ways, which include almighty top-down hierarchy, militaristic existence, expansionist tendencies, and lack free will.  This kind of story is what Engelhardt calls “the American war story,” in which, “you had no choice.  Either you pulled the trigger or you died, for war was invariably portrayed as a series of reactive incidents rather than organized and invasive campaigns” (Engelhardt 4-5).  The original Battlestar Galactica series is by-and-large such an “American war story.”  However, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica goes beyond mere reflection and directly challenges Susan Sontag’s claim that, “there is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films” (Sontag 223).[v]  Social commentary and confrontation of real world issues are built into the story rather than as mere metaphor or tangent.

I argue that there is a shift in SF to more directly engage contemporary issues, and I describe how the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica goes further than its 1978 source material in this regard.  In this paper, I approach this shift from several different yet interrelated vectors including an analysis of the enemy-other Cylon threat and its destabilization of Western democratic identity, which reflects the reboot of Engelhardt’s cycle.  I analyze the portrayal of human and alien/enemy-other identities in the two BSG series and the development of human and Cylon identities across time and the way in which they begin to blur and merge in the re-imagined series.  This involves analyzing identities in each series separately and then exploring the way those identities are in dialog with the other series as well as culture at large.  Then, I use those conclusions to answer if and to what extent there is an identity shift in SF from the Cold War to the Post-Cold War era and how that shift is connected to and represents cultural and historical developments.

Glen A. Larson’s 1978 Battlestar Galactica is a two-dimensional version of Engelhardt’s cycle by incorporating mythology, technological renaissance, and Cold War ideology.  It’s set in another part of the galaxy, possibly in another time, where humans are nearly eradicated by a powerful race of robots known as Cylons.  The human survivors form a convoy of spaceships, protected by the battlestar Galactica, and set off in search of the mythical planet Earth.  At its core, it’s a biblically inspired exodus story about fathers and sons, but the explicit visual threat arrives via the communistic Cylon robots.

The first episode, “Saga of a Star World” was originally interrupted for the televised signing of the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel on September 17, 1978, which was in the middle of the optimistic and arguably idealistic Carter presidency.[vi]  Furthermore, Battlestar Galactica builds on space opera successes such as George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars[vii] and the even earlier “wagon train” to the stars television series, Gene Roddenberry’s 1966-1969 Star Trek.[viii]  Its connection with Star Wars is further embedded in the Cold War power/political structure thanks to the media aping the phrase for Ronald Reagan’s proposed next generation military hardware and weaponry designed to lie in wait over the Earth in the vacuum of space.  Reagan revealed the United States’ new plans in a March 23, 1983 speech that outlined the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)–what was often called “Star Wars” in the news.  Reagan set out to use lasers and missiles to defend America from a preemptive attack by what he later termed the “Evil Empire.”  

According to critics Michael Rogin and Frances Fitzgerald, Reagan’s SDI inspiration came from two likely sources:  Murder in the Air (1940)[ix] and Torn Curtain (1966).[x]  Rogin first points out that Reagan starred in Murder in the Air as the protector of a super weapon that brings down enemy aircraft with “electric currents.”[xi]  Fitzgerald finds another filmic source for Reagan’s pet project in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, which is about a defensive anti-missile system. [xii]  Fitzgerald, building on Rogin’s work,  shows that Reagan used stories and lines from these and other films without attribution.  His film background and integration of these lines encouraged Reagan to describe the world in a polarized way–the good American homeland versus the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union (Fitzgerald par. 13).   Additionally, these films as well as Reagan’s own ideas about the dichotomy between what is simplistically delineated as the Western democracies and Eastern communist bloc is an oversimplification of a much more complex power and political matrix within which the United States and the USSR were situated.

The 1978 Battlestar Galactica, as a precursor to the Reagan administration and existing within the Cold War ideology reasserted by Reagan on his bully pulpit, is a reflection on culturally held beliefs in the United States at that time as well as an indicator of the shift from an idealistic Carter to the fear mongering Reagan.[xiii]  SDI, like BSG, was a production revealing Reagan’s plan for the future of the Cold War through a protective shield.  The shield itself could be thought of as a screen upon which the movie about this new technology is projected.  Wills describes it best when he writes:

What is Star Wars but another, more complex projector meant to trace, in lasers and benign nuclear “searchlights,” the image of America itself across the widest screen of all?  It is another premiere, a cosmic opening night (Reagan’s America 361).[xiv]

“The image of America itself” is also projected in SF works such as BSG.  The original and re-imagined series reflect shifts in the way that image is projected as well as whether it should be accepted or reconsidered.

Despite the cultural web in which the 1978 BSG was created, Larson is very explicit about the things that he was thinking about in bringing the series to life.  On the recent Battlestar Galactica:  The Complete Epic Series DVD,[xv] he says in an interview:

I guess I was influenced by a number of things growing up, you know, I have Mormon origins, but [sic] always fascinated by the theories of things, for example, Greek mythology and the pyramids.  I love von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?  I got fascinated by all those themes and what emerged was Battlestar Galactica (“Creation”).

It’s clear in watching the original series that it owes much to mythology and religion.  One key example is the democratic Quorum of Twelve, which consists of the leaders of the Twelve Colonies of Man.  This is borrowed from Judeo-Christian belief and carried down through Mormonism based on the Twelve Tribes of Israel.  Additionally, Earth represents a thirteen, lost tribe, and could be said to correspond to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  Another obvious connection is the insistent naming characters with the names of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses such as Apollo and Athena.  Larson’s choice to mention Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (1968)[xvi] is both fantastic and interesting.  Von Däniken’s claims that many of the triumphs of the past seem improbable without the intervention of aliens or superior technology from a lost (tribe) civilization.  Larson incorporates this in BSG by displacing time and space from our contemporary Earth to a far past or far future with the surviving humans of Galatica’s fleet existing in their own here-and-now.  However, BSG’s look and feel, reconnecting to where this discussion began, is related to that of Star Wars. Larson brought on John Dykstra, the lead of George Lucas’ Special Visual Effects department for Star Wars to create the special effects for BSG, but to much less visual impact.  Larson himself probably won’t admit to any connection to Star Wars, because of the dismissed litigation initiated by 20th Century Fox against Universal Studios following the original release of BSG.

BSG was on the air for one season, before it was canceled by ABC.  There are a variety of reasons for BSG’s cancellation including a ratings decline following the pilot and the staggering cost of each episode despite recycling special effects footage.  Some sources point to ABC misinterpreting BSG’s ratings in the Sunday time slot in order to cancel the show rather than give the true reason, which was to drop such a costly show (Larocque G7).[xvii]  Whatever the reason, there was a follow-up movie based on re-edited material from the television series, and a half-season run of a continuation of BSG called Galactica 1980, which is about the fleet protecting a contemporary Earth from Cylons.  This second failed attempt at BSG on television illustrated the producers and writer’s misconception that historicity and power/political matrices are transposable and easily remapped to other settings in time-and-space merely by a change of costume.

The Battlestar Galactica – Character, Technology Mediation, or Both?

You’ll see things here that look odd, even antiquated to modern eyes.  Phones with cords.  Awkward manual valves.  Computers that unfairly deserve the name.  It was all designed to operate against an enemy who could infiltrate, even disrupt, the most basic computer systems.  Galactica is a reminder of a time when we were so frightened by our enemies that we literally looked backward for protection.

Aaron Doral/Cylon Number Five (Matthew Bennett) in the 2003 BSG Mini-Series

In the original and re-imagined BSG series, the Cylons are humanity’s enemy-other.  The original Cylons are armor clad robots, and the re-imagined Cylons include suped-up versions of their original warriors as well as humanity’s doppelganger embodied in infiltrating cyborgs that are nearly indistinguishable from humanity.  One such human-like Cylon is Aaron Doral, an undercover Cylon operative who performs himself as a public relations specialist.  He’s attached to the decommissioning ceremony of the battlestar Galactica, and he gives the above description of the Galactica to a troop of press reporters.  This early scene from the Mini-Series is terribly ironic that the hiding-in-plain-sight Cylon operative, Doral, is relating the history of this throwback from the Cylon Wars.  Additionally, he is the pinnacle of computer development as a living, thinking machine, and he tells the reporters that Galactica’s “computers…unfairly deserve the name.”  He is also quite aware how effective the Cylon enemy is at infiltration and disruption.  Most importantly, he makes the point that “we,” meaning humanity, “looked backward for protection,” which has the double meaning of looking back twenty-five years from the re-imagined series to the original BSG and relying on older and paradoxically less vulnerable technology.  However, there is a third meaning, which is that Doral, as a Cylon, could implicitly mean that the machine Cylon race looks backward to its parents, humanity, and the human body as a means for infiltration and disruption thereby effecting protection from humanity by undermining it through doppelganger mirroring of it.

The Galactica and humanity’s quest for Earth in both BSG series is a retelling of the return to the Earthly Garden and a pastoral existence as argued by Leo Marx and later, Sharona Ben-Tov. Marx writes about the tension between technology and the pastoral in his 1964 work, The Machine in the Garden. [xviii]  He discusses the contradictory conclusion in Industrial Era American literature that the non-technological pastoral garden may be recreated through the use and embrace of technology.  BSG is a high tech narrative that is explicitly about humanity’s return to the mythical good place–Earth.  Ben-Tov extends Marx’s critique to SF and the Earthly Garden myth when she writes:

Unlike the texts that Marx surveys, however, science fiction does not try to temper hopefulness with history.  Instead, it tries to create immunity from history.  It reveals a curious dynamic:  the greater our yearning for a return to the garden, the more we invest in technology as the purveyor of the unconstrained existence that we associate with the garden.  Science fiction’s national mode of thinking boils down to a paradox:  the American imagination seeks to replace nature with a technological, made-made world in order to return to the garden of American nature” (Ben-Tov 9) .[xix]

Both of Ben-Tov’s points are mediated by the Galactica in the re-imagined series.  It serves as the stage and backdrop against which “contemporary themes” play out amongst the characters on both sides of the human-Cylon divide.  Furthermore, the Earthly Paradise is the mythical planet known to the BSG characters as Earth.  It is both a real and an imaginary place, but for them, it’s only achievable through the technology of spaceflight.  Therefore, Galactica is the technology and science fiction that “reinforces American ideologies,” and it’s the technological means to arrive at the Earthly Paradise or as Leo Marx called it, the pastoral existence.

Science fiction, including BSG, “continually adapts contemporary themes…to an older, invariant ideological structure, in which nature’s “death” and the Cartensian re-definition of self are the central drama” (Ben-Tov 8).  The “re-definition of self” is integral to the overall plot of the re-imagined BSG where personal anxieties about the self and true identity are continually bantered about.  SF and BSG also, “actively reinforces American ideologies,” which are reinforced on-board the Galactica through military power and command structures, efficiency, democracy, and individuality epitomized by the stereotypical Navy/Air Force “Top Gun,” who is both anti-command and the best pilot. These ideals further integrate into the mode of production and the fulfillment of the needs of the fleet with consumables such as water, food, and Tylium “rocket fuel.”  These are exacerbated by the collective needs of the fleet inhabitants and the labor making those things possible, which includes prisoner workers in “Bastille Day” (21 January 2005), and union organization in “Dirty Hands” (25 February 2007).  Through all this, the Galactica holds true maintaining its course towards Earth and the Eastern seaboard of North America as shown at the end of “Crossroads, Part II” (25 March 2007).

The re-imagined BSG recycles American tropes as its “national mode of thinking.”  The ultimate goal of humanity may be Earth, but implicitly it’s the North American frontier via their technological “wagon train.”  Ben-Tov connects this to the pastoral garden by saying, “Science fiction’s national mode of thinking boils down to a paradox:  the American imagination seeks to replace nature with a technological, man-made world in order to return to the garden of American nature” [author’s emphasis] (Ben-Tov 9).  The re-imagined Galactica, relying on antiquated technology, is the means to return to “the garden of American nature.”  As implied by the title of the season three episode, finding Earth and evading the advanced technological threat embodied in the Cylons, will allow humanity to “[Take] a Break From All [Their] Worries.”[xx]

The new Galactica is more Nostromo from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979)[xxi] than the original’s immaculate Starship Enterprise-like spit and polish of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (1966-1969).  As the re-imagined series progresses, the Galactica reflects a history embedded in grime, scarring, and damage.  It’s appearance is a sort of memory and record of humanity’s exodus in search of Earth.  This physical recording and recall of events are also reflected in other SF space vehicles such as the Millennium Falcon from the original Star Wars trilogy and Serenity from Firefly.[xxii]  Antithetical examples include the anonymous Star Destroyers from George Lucas’ universe and Discovery One from Kubrick’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey.[xxiii]  The original battlestar Galactica reflects these latter examples.  In many regards, Larson’s Galactica resembles a safe environment on a sound stage.  It’s not fully integrated and whole.  It’s built up from a floor in the way one would frame a house (albeit a far future one).  One can imagine high-tech drywallers at work in the 1978 Galactica as envisioned by Dante and Randal in the movie Clerks.[xxiv]  This more basic, yet advanced spaceship, reflects humanity’s embracing technology following the Caprician renaissance.  A great deal of money was spent on the state of the art special effects and Core Command, Galactica’s bridge, features half-a-million dollars worth of Tektronics computer hardware to simulate a real starship bridge.  This Cold War investment and reliance on technology is emblematized by Reagan’s SDI/Star Wars missile defense system.  Technology is the way to creating a safe and pastoral existence in the future.  The re-imagined Galactica relies on the contemporary language of computer networks, viruses, and programming backdoors to challenge the perception that newer technology is inherently better, safer, and more secure.  Viewers identify with this verbiage in the wake of computer worms crippling ATM networks and increasing reportage of cyberwarfare in the Post-Cold War era.  Therefore, the re-imagined BSG questions the Cold War belief and wholesale investment in new technology to return humanity to the Earthly Garden, whereas the original Galactica epitomized the state-of-the-art and its ability to take humanity safely to the promised paradise.

The Cylon Sneak Attack and American Triumphalism

Both versions or visions of Battlestar Galactica begin with what Larson calls, “That big sneak attack,” which he describes as a “sort of Pearl Harbor in space,” and those persons who survive, “figured they had to get away and fight another day” (“Created”).  What Engelhardt says about films following the Pearl Harbor attack, “defeat was only a spring board for victory,” may also be applied to the two Battlestar Galactica series ( Engelhardt 3).  The Cylon sneak attack in both series establishes their identity as the enemy-other along with aligning them with treachery and deception.  Additionally, the new Cylon threat is significantly different than the one in which humanity fought forty years prior to the events taking place in the 2003 series.  The past involved strategic military engagements between Cylon warriors and the human military.  Cylon war making changes in both series–a Japanese-inspired sneak attack in the original series and an infiltrative disabling of humanity’s defenses prior to an armistice ending near-annihilation.  This mirrors the objectification and “othering” of the Japanese during World War II.  Furthermore, Engelhardt describes the rise of triumphalism and the call for absolute victory following the beginning of World War II.  However, the American triumphal identity falters in the Cold War due to stalemates and losses in Korea and Vietnam.  This is reflected in both series when they cut and run in the original, and President Roslin convincing Commander Adama the war was over from the beginning in the latter.  However, identity crisis isn’t explored among the “wholesome” community of humans in the 1978 series, but it is a very important and dramatic issue in the 2003 series.  Underlying the threat to humanity in both series are the Cylon invaders.  In both cases, Cylons provide an enemy-other from which humanity defines itself, but its in the 2003 series that human identity is challenged and destabilized by a new and unexpected Cylon threat.

In the original Battlestar Galactica, Cylons were created by a then extinct reptilian race for labor.  The other Cylons were created by the other reptilians.  On the one hand this makes the Cylons doubly other, because they were created by bug eyed monsters that the audience never sees, but is decidedly different than humanity.  Another way of looking at this is the oddity that Cylons resemble humans in many respects.  They literally appear to be men walking around in shining armor.  To what extent do humans resemble the Cylon’s reptilian creators or vice versa?  Are we meant to identify with these original Cylons in some way, because they fit into our own historical and mythic story past about knights in armor?   These questions are not directly engaged in the original BSG series.  Another reading of the Cylons’ creators is the association of the reptilian race and the devil as he appears in the Eden Garden as a snake tempting Eve with the fruit of knowledge.  This directly challenges the American impulse to use technology to return to Paradise, because the Cylons are the ultimate technology and that technology is an explicit threat to humanity.  On the other hand, that’s assuming an anti-evolutionary stance in that the Cylon-human conflict is the inevitable showdown between evolutionary competitors.  In this light, the original Cylon-human conflict is less Oedipal than the re-imagined Cylon-human conflict in that it’s humanity’s children, the Cylons, returning to kill their parents (i.e., all humanity, but specifically the male scientist).

Humans and Cylons are at odds with one another after humanity fights alongside another galactic race threatened by the marauding Cylons.  Viewing humanity as a threat to their galactic expansion, the Cylons decide to obliterate the biologically weak humans with their superior machine strength and efficiency.  The otherness of the machine Cylons is utilized in order to create a two-dimensional conflict between them and humanity.  Thus, the conflict is delineated between the apparent, but later problematized, opposites of machines and flesh.

The Cylon Centurion or warrior is the most often seen Cylon in the original series.  The sameness of the Centurions defines them as a single role.  They look like a person wearing a suit of armor, and they serve as good targets for the Galactica crew.  Along with their armor, they don a laser blaster as well as a sword.  Their armor features an immaculate shine like polished chrome and their helmets are reminiscent of Darth Vader’s mask–wide trapezoidal shape covering the nose and mouth areas and their “eye” is a wide bar extending from one side of the face to the other with a red pulse intently and steadily gliding from one side to the other.  The red eye, being the window to the soul, could imply a communist threat.  Other implications of the glowing red “eye” include warning, danger, and even blood.  Alternatively, the sliding red light acts as a mask to hide their eyes, which has its own sinister connotations.  Red is a popular color in films of the Cold War era and one eminently well-known example is the 1953 George Pal production of The War of the Worlds.[xxv]  The film and its original movie poster both literally bleed red.  Red film references include the Martian heat-ray, the color of the Martians’ skin, and even the red planet, Mars.  Red serves as a warning to the viewer, and it serves a double meaning as a reflection of the Cold War threat and enemy to democracy–communism.

Another connection between the 1978 Cylons and communism has to do with their command structure and social organization.  They blindly follow top-down orders from their supreme ruler with the acknowledgement, “By your command.”  Orders are handed down by  special IL, or Imperious Leader, models.  One such IL model is called Lucifer, and its assigned to observe and work with the villainous human, Lord Baltar, whose name is tellingly an anagram for “lab rat.”  Lucifer’s head has a generally human shape, and a basaltic-blue color with two red eye slits.  Its robotic body is covered by a long red robe, and the character was voiced by Jonathan Harris who is most recognized as the cowardly bad guy from Lost in Space.[xxvi]  Additionally, there are similarities between Wellsian ideas about the evolution of humanity such that the brain grows to occult the body.  One example of this is the Morlocks in The Time Machine.[xxvii]  This is illustrated in the original BSG through the creative use of camera angle and framing to enlarge the Imperious Leader on a tall dais waiting to dispense orders to the drone/worker/warrior Cylon Centurions.

Consider the etymological significance to the name, Cylon.  Larson more than likely appropriated the name from Cylon (or Kylon) of Athens.  Cylon of Athens was an Olympic games winner, who attempted to take control of the city of Athens and establish a tyranny in 632 BC.  He and his followers failed, but his attempt revealed that those persons who had recently acquired wealth wanted greater political recognition and power.  This in itself is interesting considering that the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica are essentially a working class that gained (political) consciousness following the extinction of their reptilian overlords and creators.  Unfettered by their former masters, the Cylons acquired new resources by force.  Additionally, their expansionist nature belies their voracious capacity and need for resources to continue their existence as well as empire.  Another obvious connection with the name is cyborg and cybernetics.  The original Cylons are machine, but have an anthropomorphized appearance, but the new Cylons are flesh and machine are more deserving earn the distinction of being cyborgs.

Fast-forward twenty-five years to Ronald D. Moore’s re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, which was introduced in 2003.  Unlike Larson prior to the original series, Moore has an established record in SF through his prior screenwriting and producing credits on several Star Trek series.  On the re-imagined series Larson is credited as a “creative consultant,” but Gary Westfahl writes that, “although new producer Ronald D. Moore, who demonstrated his skills in science fiction with work for the Star Trek franchise, has thankfully displayed no inclination to consult with Larson about anything” (Westfahl par. 7).[xxviii]

The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica first aired on December 8, 2003 two years in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States and subsequent war with Afghanistan, and nine months after the United States’ invasion of Iraq.  The US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp of “enemy combatants” in the Global War on Terrorism feature into the new series, particularly the second and third seasons.  The earlier first and second seasons follow Cold War lines of political friction between the Executive Branch of the US government and the military as laid out by President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech to the nation[xxix] that warned the American public of the “military-industrial complex” (17 January 1961) and Bailey and Knebel’s Cold War political thriller from 1962, Seven Days in May, which describes an attempted coup.[xxx]

Interestingly (and coincidentally) for the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, there were several key events that took place in 1978, the same year that the original Battlestar Galactica series was released, that were prescient for the new series.  The year BSG was first released was also the year that David Rorvik published his fraudulent, but poignant book about human cloning, In His Image:  The Cloning of a Man.[xxxi]  The controversy surrounding this book reflects the anxiety American’s feel about the technological appropriation of reproduction and the artificial construction of humanity’s doppelganger via that technology.[xxxii]  Cloning and copying of human-like individuals is a powerful and integral part of the re-imagined BSG, particularly involving the identity of the enemy-other.  On July 25, Louise Brown is born–the first in vitro fertilization birth, which is connected to the growing artificiality of reproduction.  Also, President Jimmy Carter decided on April 7, 1978 to end development on the neutron bomb, which was intended to kill people with radiation but leave structures in tact.  This kind of weapon was arguably used by the Cylons in addition to traditional thermonuclear weapons to kill the human inhabitants of the Twelve Colonies due to the visual evidence that many buildings, unlike the inhabitants, survive the attack.

Moore incorporated Larson’s idea of a Cylon sneak attack and the resulting human exodus, which initially galvanized humanity as virtuous and the Cylon threat as insidious.  However, he changed the story in several significant ways.  These include the important change that the Cylons were created by man as slave labor, they rebel, and fight a protracted war that ends in an armistice forty years prior to the series’ beginning.  Most importantly, there is a group of twelve Cylon models that appear and act human for all practical intents and purposes, but were unknown to humanity until after the opening sneak attack.  These human-like Cylons serve as the face and voice for the Cylons instead of the chrome robot killing machines of the earlier series.  These twelve human-like Cylon models are the basis for many copies, and each copy has its own experiences and identity that is shared with all of the other Cylons.  Initially, it’s revealed that there are seven known human-like Cylons as well as the unknown “Final Five.”  The Cylon network on-board their large basestar ships is represented by falling red-colored glyphs in streams of water and biological goo in which Cylons immerse their hands to interface the network.  At this interstice, a Cylon communes with what could be considered a hive mind, but a more accurate analogy might be a market of many voices that often shout everything, but may also chose to keep some things to themselves.  It’s this act, which serves as one aspect of their individuality.  The hive mind requires total openness and an unrestricted sharing–a communism of the soul.  The new Cylon models are hybrid creatures masquerading as human and exist in an anarchistic collective.  This affords these new Cylons a certain autonomy and individuality within certain bounds that can be crossed as in the case of the Number Three/D’Anna model’s deactivation or “boxing.”  This may sound mutually exclusive, but their existence as hybrid creatures (i.e., cyborgs), visually as well as virtually in thought and mind, is the bringing together of two different things–humanity and machine.  These advanced human-like Cylons withhold some aspects of their life and make choices that may be diametrically opposed to the will of the collective in order to evince change.  A final noteworthy difference between the two series is that the Cylons in the original Battlestar Galactica operated within a communistic top-down hierarchy, whereas the re-imagined Cylons administer collectively by consensus following an anarchistic model.[xxxiii]

One troubling aspect of these new Cylons is that there are sleeper Cylons, which live amongst humanity not knowing their true identity until the receipt of a special signal or a timer goes off.  This troubling development is reminiscent of replicants’ implanted memories in Blade Runner[xxxiv] and the secret Communist programming of individuals in The Manchurian Candidate.[xxxv]  This culminates in the season one finale when the number eight Cylon sleeper agent known as Sharon “Boomer” Valerii attempts to assassinate Commander Adama.

Even more disturbing are the Final Five Cylons, because their identity is unknown to both humanity and the Cylons.  The Final Five raise important questions such as:  Whose side are they on?  When revealed, how will this revelation affect their accepted identity?  The Final Five destabilize human as well as Cylon identities.  In the season three finale, “Crossroads, Part II” (25 March 2007), four of the final five Cylons are revealed as integral characters to the Galactica.  As the klaxons blast out warning of an imminent Cylon ambush (which is another connection with Engelhardt), one of the four final five takes a personal stand regarding what this revelation means.  Colonel Tigh tells the other three newly revealed Cylons, “The ship is under attack.  We do our jobs.  Report to your stations.”  When Tyrol questions the order, Tigh goes on to say, “My name is Saul Tigh.  I’m an officer in the Colonial Fleet.  Whatever else I am, whatever else that means, that’s the man I want to be.  And if I die today, that’s the man I’ll be.”  Tigh chooses to perform the identity he believes himself to be.  What else does it mean to be someone or something different than what you believe yourself to be?  This is the central problem of identity.  Labels and identities are meted out by others as well as by ourselves.  Threats to one’s identity come from within and without, and this is ever more present in the amorphousness in today’s world of ideological battlefields spanning continents and individuals everywhere.

The Cylon enemy-other identity is established at the beginning of the 2003 series.  However, humanity’s actions prior to the war and after the sneak attack destabilize the understood “right” and “good” of humanity.  These identity issues connect to the here-and-now in that the Cylons become us, and we, them.  Moore and his writers have been cognizant to muddy the waters on both sides of the human-Cylon conflict in order to further break down the barriers of our accepted beliefs about who is really good or evil.  Furthermore, the lines between us in the Western democracies blur with those persons challenging us with fourth generational warfare.  To better understand our conception of the enemy-other and the connection between Cylons and our here-and-now it’s important to reflect on the words of Philip K. Dick from his 1973 “The Android and the Human.”.  He said, “rather than learning about ourselves by studying our constructs, perhaps we should make the attempt to comprehend what our constructs are up to by looking into what we ourselves are up to” (Dick 5).[xxxvi]

Commander Adama – Wholesome to Ethical Pragmatist

Humanity is the target of the Cylons in both Larson’s BSG and Moore’s re-imagined BSG.  In Larson’s original BSG, McGrath points out, they are “wholesome” and “united” (16).  Humanity’s leader is Commander Adama (Lorne Greene).  Before the Cylon sneak attack, he was as much a political leader as a military leader.  He served on the Council of the Twelve, which governs the Twelve Colonies, and he commands the military space faring battleship Galactica.  Adama’s name obviously has connections with Adam, or one could go so far as to say it’s an anagram of “a(n) Adam” or a new beginning or founder of the future for humanity.  However, Adama’s role is more like Moses leading his people to the promised land away from a powerful and persecuting kingdom.  Much like the Israelites, these distant Twelve Colonies of Man mirror the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and as such, Adama unites the people with himself serving as their political, military, and spiritual leader.  Like the Israelites, humanity in BSG are always traveling in order to avoid persecution by the Cylons and seek refuge in the “promised land” of Earth.  Adama relies on religious scriptures that also serve as a roadmap to the fabled planet Earth.  The religious texts serve as both a personal guide for spiritual fulfillment as well a literal map leading the way through the stars to the forgotten planet Earth.  Adama assumes his position as gifted leader in much the same way as he was the de facto authority figure in Bonanza as Ben Cartwright.[xxxvii]  BSG is very much a show about fathers and sons as was Bonanza.  Adama/Ben Cartwright is the patriarchal father figure for his own children as well as the people/children of the fleet.  Also, consider the name, Ben, which is short for Benjamin and one of the tribes of Israel.  He takes it upon himself to be their guide through life (what is commonly referred to as the “episode of the week”) as well as on their journey to a refuge prophesied in their ancient religious texts.  Adama also appears to be a feminized version of Adam, which suggests another kind of origin story–i.e., the origin of humanity in Judeo-Christian belief.

The 2003 BSG maintains a modicum of wholesomeness while injecting a shot of nitrous oxide infused reality that colors humanity’s survivors less than innocent yet more believable as archetype breaking fully integrated individuals.  Roles are reversed, some characters added, and gender reassigned.  These shifts are direct evidence that the re-imagined BSG producers and writers are willing to go beyond the original source material to completely engage the cultural changes and historical developments following the end of the Cold War.

The producers’ choice to have Edward James Olmos take the role of Commander William “Husher” Adama in the re-imagined BSG is very telling about the cultural changes since the original series.  Olmos is an American actor of Mexican descent and he’s also one-quarter Hungarian Jewish (Olmos was originally spelt Olmosh).[xxxviii]  Like the characters played by Lorne Greene, Olmos has portrayed several fatherly figures in his other productions.  He played Jamie Escalante in Stand and Deliver (1988).[xxxix]  In that role, based on the real-life math teacher by the same name, he became a mentor to a class of impoverished youth in Los Angeles.  In 1995, he assumed the role of Paco in the film My Family, which is about three generations of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles.[xl]  Later, he played a widowed father in the 2002-2004 PBS drama, American Family:  Journey of Dreams.[xli]  His character in this film is Jess Gonzalez, a widower, patriarch of his family, and veteran of the Korean War.  The loss of his wife connects him to Adama’s role as divorcee and virtual widow when his ex-wife and mother of his children is killed in the Cylon sneak attack.  Also, the Cylon wars in BSG are like the Korean War in that they are both considered forgotten, and it’s Adama’s charge to remind people that, “the day comes when you can’t hide from the things you’ve done anymore” (Mini-series).  Unlike Greene, Olmos has a history in SF that firmly presages his involvement in the BSG re-imagining.  He played the enigmatic, origami folding Los Angeles cop, Gaff, in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner,[xlii] based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?[xliii]  Gaff’s role is primarily that of an emissary sent to retrieve and maintain contact with the story’s blade runner, or replicant hunter, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).  Despite his minimal screen time, it’s his character that plants the hint in the minds of Deckard and the audience that Deckard is a replicant with false, implanted memories.  His character destabilizes the assumption one makes about their humanity, history, and memories.  In this way, his character plays a crucial role in the philosophical problemization developed in the film.  Additionally, he’s primarily the only Chicano character in the film even though it takes place in a future Los Angeles.  This doubly makes him an alien within the context of his own home, which in this future-scape is inhabited by android replicants, white sergeants and blade runners, and Asian business owners and bystanders.  In addition to his patriarchal and future police roles, his arguably most recognized television character prior to his involvement with BSG is as the character Lieutenant Martin Castillo on the 1984-1990 television show Miami Vice.[xliv]  He commanded the rogue vice squad cops Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), often berating their zealous immersion and extra-police tactics while guiding them to the successful apprehension of Miami’s worst criminals.  These roles point to a possible double meaning for his call-sign, “Husher.”  One meaning is one that hushes or silences.  This reflects the fact that he’s often an authority figure and deserving a certain respect and silence when he’s speaking.  Another meaning could be the archaic “to usher.”  He guides those under his command or in his family through trials and tribulations to a better place past their troubles.

Olmos’ portrayal of Adama draws on this past work, and audiences of the new BSG are more than likely aware of his filmography.  That being said, he goes beyond that work in the character of Adama.  Like much else in the series, he’s a hybrid character.  His Adama is best labeled a seemingly mutually exclusive liberal conservative.  Most of his initial reactions are firmly established in his military training as a good soldier and strategist.  However, he is a worldly individual who reads books and entertains other opinions and options.  The re-imagined Adama may not be as wholesome as his predecessor, but he makes his final decision on any given issue after careful consideration within or through deliberation and debate with those persons he most trusts.

Olmos has strong convictions in his personal life that compliments the kinds of characters he portrays.  He is a well-known Latino activist who founded and chairs Latino Public Broadcasting.  Also, he is a political activist.  He spent twenty days in jail following his arrest protesting the United States Navy bombing practice on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico.

Olmos, like Greene, announces to the fleet at the end of the mini-series that he knows the way to Earth, but he does not usurp religion or assume a prophet status in the same way that Greene’s Adama does so.  That role in the re-imagined series is handled by the “school teacher” turned President, Laura Roslin.

President Roslin and a Politics Infusion in the Re-Imagined Series

Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) rises to the occasion as the new President of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol following the Cylon sneak attack.  Halfway through the 2003 Mini-Series, an automated radio announcement tells all government personnel to follow “Case Orange,” which is a protocol to determine who of the government’s cabinet is still alive and who succeeds to the presidency.  Roslin is forty-third in line (as Secretary of Education), and her number comes up.  She’s sworn into the Presidency in a scene reminiscent of the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and she immediately uses her new powers to effect what she believes the best hope for humanity–a rescue operation.  This is antithetical to Adama’s rush to enter the fight with the Galactica.  This conflict is not the only time Adama and Roslin come to loggerheads over an issue, but it’s also certainly not the only time that they ultimately cooperate for the greater good of the fleet.

Roslin’s history as a teacher and former Secretary of Education for the Twelve Colonies, it’s possible that the producers were expanding on the original series’ Athena character.  Athena was a Viper pilot turned teacher.  The wholesomeness of the show necessitated a rounded family environment in the wagon train to the stars.  Roslin comes from a difference vector as a teacher turned political cabinet member turned president.  That, along with her being female, it’s interesting that they chose to make her character apparently rise in power and status rather than the other way around for Athena in the original series.

During her tenure as president, she’s employed illicit drugs procured by Dr. Cottle (Donnelly Rhodes), attempted to rig an election, and her first cancer remission was brought about by an infusion of human-Cylon hybrid blood provided by Athena and Helo’s child, Hera (who Roslin orchestrated to be hidden in the fleet after Cottle lied to the parents that the child had died).  She has proven herself to be pragmatic and deceptive when necessary such as extracting information from the Cylon, Leoben Conoy (Callum Keith Rennie) in “Flesh and Bone” (20 September 2005) before flushing him out the airlock.  She’s kind to those close to her, and she lives down betrayal very hard.

There is no clear-cut opposite of her character in the original BSG series other than the patriarchal leader and prophet, Adama.  In a sense, the new Adama and Roslin are archetypal characters taken from the conflict envisioned by Eisenhower in his naming of the military-industrial complex.  Adama represents the military and Roslin represents the last vestiges of a near-broken democracy.  Coincidentally, this kind of power sharing or conflict is epitomized by an earlier television film that both McDonnell and Olmos appear.  In 1997, McDonnell played the judge and Olmos played a juror in the remake of 12 Angry Men.[xlv]  Judges and jurors are not necessarily at odds with one another, but a judge in most situations is meant to be held to the determination of the collective jury.  In the 2003 BSG, this arrangement is inverted and expanded to the point where they agree to split their powers.  Roslin is in charge of fleet affairs and Adama reserves all military decisions to himself.  This strenuous relationship is challenged at times, particularly following the reappearance of the battlestar Pegasus with Adama’s superior officer, Rear Admiral Helena Cain (Michelle Forbes).  Forbes’ character originates from the original series with Commander Cain (Lloyd Bridges) and his battlestar Pegasus. Cain’s name is probably inspired by Herman Wouk’s 1951 novel, The Caine Mutiny,[xlvi] and it’s subsequent 1954 film[xlvii] starring Humphrey Bogart as Queeg.[xlviii]  This is an interesting role for Bridges who previously played as the competent Col. Floyd Graham in the early anti-nuclear SF film, Rocketship X-M (1950), [xlix] and as Mike Nelson, an ex-Navy diver turned independent scuba diver in the television series Sea Hunt (1958-1961).[l] Another conflict arose during the first democratic election of the fleet, in which Roslin’s supporters attempted to rig the election after realizing that Baltar had a good chance at winning.  This tactic was eventually withdrawn, but politics, particularly when Roslin knows Baltar to be a liar, becomes very dirty and protracted–a war amongst dueling ideologies and different opinions of justice and truth.

Roslin’s character borrows a great deal from the original BSG and Greene’s Commander Adama.  Instead of saying that her character is an archetype, it’s more accurate to say that the producers of the re-imagined BSG split the original Adama’s roles in the new series.  Originally he was leader and prophet–virtually a Moses in space.  In the re-imagined series, Roslin serves as political leader and prophet over the path to Earth.  She assumes Adama’s foolhardy and deceptive promise of the mythical Earth after her own religious reawakening and visions produced by the illicit drug chamalla administered by Dr. Cottle to treat the pain resulting from cancer.  These experiences coupled with dreams and her interaction with the prophet-like Cylon Leoben Conoy, results in her dedicated search for Earth by relying on the human polytheistic religion handed down by the Lords of Kobol in the “Sacred Texts.”  The President’s identity becomes wedded to the search for Earth, and it’s this alignment that Baltar uses to discredit her ability to lead prior to the first election.  Additionally, Adama believes in science and technology to deliver humanity’s last stand through the exodus, and any religious beliefs he may have are muted or altogether nonexistent.  However, he, as is true for real-life politicians, realizes the utility of religion and he often pragmatically goes along with Roslin regarding the discovery of Earth despite the less than rational explanation for the circuitous path that humanity’s followed thus far in the series.

Top Gun in Space

Stinger–Maverick, you just did an incredibly brave thing. What you should have done was land your plane! You don’t own that plane, the taxpayers do! Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash. You’ve been busted, you’ve lost your qualifications as section leader three times, put in hack twice by me, with a history of high speed passes over five air control towers – and one admiral’s daughter…And let’s not bullshit, Maverick. Your family name ain’t the best in the Navy. You need to be doing it better and cleaner than the other guy. Now what is it with you?

Maverick–Just want to serve my country and be the best fighter pilot in the Navy, sir.

Stinger–Don’t screw around with me Maverick. You’re a hell of an instinctive pilot. Maybe too good. I’d like to bust your butt but I can’t. I got another problem here. I gotta send somebody from this squadron to Miramar. I gotta do something here, I still can’t believe it. I gotta give you your dream shot! I’m gonna send you up against the best. You two characters are going to Top Gun.

Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) and Stinger (James Tolkan)

Top Gun (1986)

The original and re-imagined BSG series are inhabited by a number of hotrod pilots who defend their fictional fleets from the Cylon onslaught.  These soldiers of the future or our future’s past promote and continue an established narrative history about the ace pilot that is firmly established in the late Cold War film, Top Gun.[li]  These soldiers have to be “instinctive” and “too good,” and they have to overcome and beat history such as a bad “family name” to ascend to their vaunted position.  There is also an inevitability in their skill, which means these pilots are meant to be “top gun.”

The two BSG series approach this in different ways, but they are connected by the reliance of the “top gun” myth intertwined with the family social structure.  Both create a large family structure with Command Adama inhabiting the patriarchal position, but the latter differs from the first significantly in the way family status is maintained along with flight status.  There are near-visible lines that if crossed result in the dissolution of the family hierarchy in an already destabilized situation of the human diaspora following the Cylon sneak attack.

The primary cast and crew of the Galactica include Adama’s real and “adopted” children.  His surviving son, Captain Apollo (Richard Hatch), like his namesake is the bearer of truth, and he’s a stickler for following the rules generally, which ultimately leads to the death of his brother, Zac (Rick Springfield) during the first episode after they learn about the impending attack and try to warn Galactica.[lii]  Another obvious reference in Apollo’s name is NASA and America’s third human space flight project of the same name, which began in 1961 with then President John F. Kennedy’s charge, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth.”[liii]  Apollo’s uprightness and pleasure derived from flying in space reflect the space program that may have in part inspired his name.  Apollo’s friend and resident cigar smoking, hotshot pilot is Lieutenant Starbuck (Dirk Benedict).  The roots of his name are apropos for his character–star for a star pilot and buck for a free spirited young man.  However, the name is probably directly from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick by way of the Pequod’s first mate.[liv]  Starbuck and the Pequod both symbolize the journey.  This is epitomized by the Galactica fleet which represents the American wagon train to the stars, and reinforces, “the great urge of the American imagination to light out for the territory” (John Wayne’s America 305).[lv]  Apollo and Zac’s sister, Lieutenant Athena (Maren Jensen) is a bizarre character on the show, because she fulfills the duties of a bridge officer and she’s a teacher for the fleet’s children.  Not to say that this would be an impossible task, but her character serves more as a device to increase the wholesomeness of the show, and her being a schoolteacher can be seen as a mitigation between her roles as a military officer and a woman.  Additionally, her role diminished until she left the show in the next to last episode.  Rounding out the cast is Lieutenant Boomer, played by the African American, Herb Jefferson, Jr.  In the original series, Boomer is an accomplished Viper pilot and a communications expert.  He plays a more reserved character than his close friend Apollo.  Larson does appear to have attempted to bring more people of color to his BSG, and Boomer is not merely a token black character, but one with unique knowledge and insight that serves the crew on more than one occasion.   Rounding out the command crew of Galactica is the Executive Officer (XO), Colonel Tigh (Terry Carter).  Carter, also African American, is second in command of the Galatica, and he commands it during Adama’s absence.  He is more conservative than Adama, shows concern about some of his commander’s choices, and is generally more strict on the pilots under his command.

The re-imagined BSG shifts these character’s identities in several significant ways.  The most obvious change is that some of the originally male characters are now female.  Boomer, originally a black male, is recast as Sharon “Boomer” Valerii, an asian female played by Grace Park.[lvi]  The re-imagined Boomer is a Raptor (reconnaissance and communications ship) pilot, but not communications specialist as is the original Boomer.  Also, she is a sleeper Cylon, which is revealed in the Mini-Series and throughout the first season of BSG.  Starbuck, originally a white male, is recast as Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, a white female played by Katee Sackhoff.  She’s very much the “Maverick,” who is constantly at odds with superior officers and exudes attitude towards others of her superiority in the life or death game of dogfighting or playing cards.  Also, the new Starbuck has many of the original Starbuck’s vices such as having a healthy sexual appetite, smoking cigars, gambling, and insubordination (though much more overt than in the original).  Starbuck’s identity at the end of season three is in question, because of her miraculous reappearance at the end of the finale when she tells Apollo that she’s been to Earth and she will show the fleet the way.  Captain Lee “Apollo” Adama is played by Jamie Bamber, who is a white English-American.  As Adama’s son, this is a curious bit of casting, since Olmos is clearly of Mexican origin.  Nevertheless, his character often stands up for justice in an objective sense and he represents the memory of the deceased Adama patriarch and legal scholar, Joseph Adama.  In fact, it’s Apollo’s impassioned speech during the season three finale, “Crossroads, Part II,” that leads to Baltar’s not guilty verdict by the tribunal.  Apollo’s estrangement from his father is a continual element of the series narrative, but it is tangentially that they often connect such as in the trial of Baltar with Apollo working on Baltar’s defense and Commander Adama sitting on the tribunal.

Another major difference between the two series is racial diversity.  The original was primarily inhabited by white faces with a few token characters of other races thrown in such as at the peace conference in “Saga of a Star World” or the two black characters, Boomer and Tigh, as regulars on Galactica.  The re-imagined BSG has elevated Latino characters through the casting of Olmos as a starring character and his son as a recurring Viper pilot.  The only regularly recurring black character is Lieutenant Anastasia “Dee” Dualla played by Canadian actress Kandyse McClure.  During the course of the series, both of her long term relationships have been with white men, which is progressive, but also revealing, because of the preponderance of white faces.  Her last name, Dualla, implies a duality, which might point to this element of her character’s relationships.  Boomer is the only recurring Asian character, and she also has an interracial relationship with the white Chief Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas).  This relationship ends following her being found out to be a Cylon, but a Number Eight copy falls in love and has a child with the white Karl “Helo” Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett).  There is a black human-like Cylon copy known only as Simon.  He pretended to be a Caprican doctor beginning with the season two episode, “The Farm.”  His character has only shown up in a handful of subsequent episodes.  This kind of lack of color in the new series is troublesome in that if these are the only survivors of a human exodus, what happens to the racial diversity originally found in the colonies?  Does this imply that the primary survivors are predominantly white, which reflects a certain privileged position, because they had the means of spaceflight and are therefore more wealthy than those without.  The producers may be making a commentary on this very subject through this kind of casting, but it could have more innocuous origins such as the fact that the series is produced in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  In 2001, the Canadian census revealed that British Columbia has an only 0.66% black population (“Visible Minority Groups”).[lvii]  This contrasts sharply with the 6.7% black population of California, home to Hollywood, and 12.8% of the entire United States (“California Quick Facts”).[lviii]  This analysis relies on it being a production of the United States, where the promotion of racial equality in different media is a sought after ideal.  For other places such as Canada and the United Kingdom, where BSG has a strong viewer base, the lack of racial others as real subjects in the series may be less of an issue.

Baltar:  Savior or Satanist/Human or Cylon?

But it is not enough to remark that contemporary attitudes–as reflected in science fiction films–remain ambivalent, that the scientist is treated as both satanist and savior.  The proportions have changed, because of the new context in which the old admiration and fear of the scientist are located.  For his sphere of influence is no longer local, himself or his immediate community.  It is planetary, cosmic.[lix]

Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster”

Baltar in the earlier BSG series is not necessarily a scientist, but he is a well educated person of political importance and he’s aligned with technology through his hidden deal with the robot Cylon race.  His character is reinvented in the 2003 BSG series in which he is a “cult figure,” eminent scientist, and politically connected mover and shaker.  In many ways, these two characters are “both satantist and savior,” and their “sphere of influence” is “planetary” and “cosmic” rather than terrestrial.

The pilot episode of BSG, “Saga of a Star World” first aired on ABC on 17 September 1978. It begins with the representatives of the Quorum of Twelve aboard the battlestar Atlantia and President Adar (Lew Ayres) toasts the supposed imminent peace with the machine Cylon race following an extended war.  However, Count Baltar (John Colicos), representative of Picon, conspires with the Cylons to initiate a sneak attack on the gathered fleet of battlestars and the colonies they would normally be defending in return for tyrannical control of Picon for himself.  The Cylon’s desire to win by any means necessary including initiating peace talks under false pretenses in on the one hand an underhanded tactic, but it also recalls Hitler’s worthless non-aggression pacts from World War II.  Therefore, the viewer is presented with images from the beginning of the Cylons as treacherous and evil in their diplomatic practices as well as their invasion and near-annihilation of humanity.

Coincidentally, the three hour long pilot was interrupted by the network to show the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords between Egyptian President Anwar Al Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the White House and witnessed by United States President Jimmy Carter thus resolving many years of animosity and bloodshed between the two countries.  Unlike the subject matter of the interrupted television show, the Camp David Peace Accords brought about positive results and were not part of a conspiratorial sneak attack.

Despite the work of President Carter, the Cold War was still as much a reality after as it was before and during his four-year term.  This is reflected in the way the Cylon threat is constructed in the first (movie length) episode of the 1978 series.  The sneak attack as an emblematic representation of the treacherous and insidious enemy was firmly established in the American consciousness following the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, particularly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a joint session of Congress on December 8 and he proclaimed the now famous words, “yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan” (Roosevelt par. 1).[lx]  He went on to define how the attack was planned well in advance and there was no warning on the part of the Japanese even though the United States had been in talks with their ambassadors.  The Japanese sneak attack shocked the nation and was quickly appropriated by culture producers in Hollywood.  Additionally, the event strengthened the national self-image of honesty and trust in opposition to a distrustful enemy-other.        

Lord Baltar fills the role of the Japanese delegates, which FDR mentions in his short but passionate speech following the Pearl Harbor attacks.  He assumes one face for humanity, while making covert deals with the Cylons behind the scenes for his own aggrandizement.  There’s a great deal of significance to Baltar’s name in both the 1978 series and the 2003 re-imagined series that relates to his duplicitous role.  Lord Baltar’s name may originate from Bhaltair, the Scotish form of the Germanic name Walter, which means “ruler of the army,” and derives from the words:  wald or ruler and heri or army.  Lord Baltar aspires to rule the colony Picon as its supreme dictator.  However, after the human survivors’ escape and exodus, he is drafted by the succeeding Cylon Imperious Leader to command a basestar in pursuit of the survivors.  The Cylons believe his being human will provide insight into the motivations and designs of the more wholesome survivors fleeing the Cylon threat.  To this end, Baltar is assigned the IL model Cylon, Lucifer as second in command as well as objective third-person (or third-machine) observer.  This Cylon scrutiny results in a new double meaning for Lord Baltar.  On the one hand, his name is made a pun of balter, or to tumble about or dance clumsily.  He performs for his Cylon masters who hold his life in the balance.  His running the Cylon created maze most importantly illuminates the anagram of Baltar’s name:  lab rat.

Whereas Lord Baltar played a deceptive role akin to the Japanese ambassadors to the United States in talks with FDR’s government prior to the Pearl Harbor sneak attacks, the re-imagined Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis) inadvertently reigns destruction on humanity through his careless arrogance and egomania by literally sleeping with the enemy, the Number Six Cylon (Tricia Helfer).  The new Baltar is introduced in the Mini-Series by the camera focused on the dual pane television in Baltar’s home on Caprica.  It’s displaying a live interview of the imminent celebrity scientist as Number Six, later called Caprica Six, walks in and smiles, seemingly proud of her lover.  The “Spot Light” interviewer describes Dr. Gaius Baltar as, “winner of three Magnet Awards over the course of his career, media cult figure, and a personal friend of President Adar.  He’s currently working as a top consultant for the Ministry of Defense on computer issues, but he’s perhaps best known for his controversial views on advancing computer technology” (Mini-Series).  He’s well connected and he provides his special access to the Ministry of Defense to Number Six, in return for her favor and assistance on his own projects.  He doesn’t know that she’s anything more than an unnamed defense contractor until just before the Cylon bombs rain down from the skies.  However, his irresponsible and unguarded control of his own access to the Defense mainframe is not what really makes the new Baltar the proverbial bad guy.  It’s his immediate concern of self, self-preservation, and cover-up of his wrongs that mark him as a betrayer lacking any solidarity with his fellow survivors fleeing the Cylon threat.

The 2003 re-imagined series introduced a very different Baltar.  Instead of a political leader, the new character is a computer scientist and heralded as a genius.  Dr. Gaius Baltar earns his credentials as well as a prename, unlike his predecessor.  His first name, Gaius is a common Roman praenomen or given name that is arguably famous by its attribution to the Roman emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar (12 July 100 BC-15 March 44 BC).  The Roman meaning of Gaius or Caius is lost, but its connection to the Caesar line implies ruler or perhaps megalomaniac.  The new Baltar is most certainly a self-interested, arrogant, and opportunist character and its his lack of thinking beyond his own ego that resulted in the Twelve Colonies being compromised and slaughtered during the Cylon sneak attack.  Unlike the explicit cooperation of the original Baltar with the Cylons, the new Baltar’s personal flaws and egocentrism are what elevate him to the duplicitous and sinister role of his original’s namesake.  Furthermore, his actions and conspiring elevate him over the “pantomime villain” of Larson’s original series (McGrath 16).  Also, it’s fascinating how the new Baltar’s character changes over time.  We are first introduced to him as a scientist and celebrity worthy of television interviews regarding the constraints placed on researching artificial intelligence.  Later, hiding his involvement in the attacks, he works with President Roslin and Commander Adama to develop a Cylon detector that he subsequently sabotages.  Then, he comes full circle with his predecessor and establishes himself as a politician–first winning the presidency from Roslin and inadvertently opening the way for the later Cylon occupation on New Caprica and then, his incarceration as a traitor, which he spins as being a political prisoner propounding Marxist ideology.  As Susan Sontag points out about earlier SF films, the scientist may be a “satanist or savior,” but in newer SF, as evidenced by the new BSG, scientists become political figures which shifts the threat from science and technology to politics and ideology (Sontag 218).  However, Baltar’s influence is always greatest in space aboard Galactica or a Cylon basestar in stark contrast with his failed presidency on the surface of New Caprica.  The re-imagined Baltar’s influence is only potent when it’s disconnected from a localized planetary body making his influence truely “planetary, cosmic” (Sontag 218).

Number Six – Cylon, Human, or Construct?

Are you alive? […]  Prove it.

Number Six (Tricia Helfer) in  BSG Mini-Series

Our first glimpse of Number Six takes place at the beginning of the re-imagined BSG mini-series on Armistice Station, a space station designated as a meeting place for humans and Cylons following the war that ended forty years prior.  In the intervening years, no human knowingly sees a Cylon.  Upon her unexpected entrance, she is framed in the doorway by two updated Cylon Centurions, which are larger and more foreboding than their predecessors.  They have clawed hands capable of transforming into guns, and they have the sweeping red eye like their ancestors.  Number Six walks into the long room confidently in high heels wearing a red jacket and matching skirt.  Portrayed by Canadian actress Tricia Helfer, she’s gorgeous and blonde.  She seduces the married with children station diplomat just before a Cylon basestar literally overshadows the station and destroys it with a missile attack.  No escape plans are necessary for Number Six thanks to the new Cylon ability/power to reincarnate.

Soon, a copy of Number Six is shown on Caprica where she says out loud next to a human mother about her baby, “So light, so fragile…It’s okay, you don’t have to cry much longer…It’s amazing how the neck can support that much weight.”  While the mother is distracted by the father who is distanced from this exchange, she reaches down and snaps the baby’s neck.  This Number Six, later identified as Caprica Six is Dr. Gaius Baltar’s sex object and “assistant.”  In fact, her mission is to elicit Baltar’s unwitting cooperation by providing her with access to military secrets via the Navigation Control Program (NCP) that Baltar is developing as well as the Caprica military mainframe computer.  In both cases, she undermines humanity’s defenses.  Hers is a mission of subversion and infiltration in order to effect the subsequent Cylon sneak attack on humanity.

Caprica Six, like the copy on Armistice Station, often wears red, sexy clothing.  She has red lipstick.  She is a sexual object to Baltar, but she’s a sexual subject who uses her bodily attributes and superior intellect to effect “God’s will.”  However, she loves Baltar, or wishes to, and through sex, hopes to win love from him and thus for herself to experience–a Cylon transcendence of human emotion.  Though her desire for the human emotion love should not be equated with any desire on Six’s part to be human.  She, unlike Data (Brent Spiner) from Star Trek:  The Next Generation[lxi] or David (Haley Joel Osment) from Steven Spielberg’s movie Artificial Intelligence:  A.I.,[lxii] does not pine away, longing to be human.  True to her Cylon nature she pragmatically chooses a quality desired from humanity rather than the simplistic and much too often utilized bildungsroman narrative of the machine other imitating or attempting to rise above the machine self and become human.  Her attempt at engaging human emotion goes further than the original series’ Lucifer, who observes humanity through (arguably) its worst example, Lord Baltar.

Further defining Six is that her clothing and modus operandi labels her a sort of machine Mata Hari in a Cold War matrix of Communist spies and infiltrators.  Also, she’s blonde and extremely intelligent, which breaks with the often SF propounded blonde bimbo image.  In her relationship to the scientist Baltar, she exhibits a disconnection between the traditional SF blonde bimbo girlfriend and the damsel in distress.  She gives her physical life, but not soul, to protect Baltar during the thermonuclear Cylon attack on Caprica.

An interesting and as yet unexplained phenomenon occurs following Baltar’s safe escape from Caprica aboard Boomer’s Raptor.  He develops an “Inner Six.”  She dresses more provocatively than the physical/real Six, and she acts in an exaggerated manner compared to the real McCoy–she’s hypersexual, explicitly manipulative, and inspired to provide religious insight and answers beyond Baltar’s memory and experience.  Even more disturbing than Baltar’s Inner Six is that Caprica Six finds that she has an Inner Baltar similarly styled as a caricature of the original.  Both of these developments are inexplicable, but explore a decidedly New Wave, psychological approach to SF that’s often ignored in the mainstream.

Other copies and distinct individuals based on the Number Six model occur in the series.  (footnote that they don’t love Baltar).  There are other copies on Cylon basestars, but two turn up within the human exodus fleet.  The first is “Shelley Godfrey” in the first season episode, “Six Degrees of Separation” (2 February 2005).  The title is a pun on Six’s designation and the interconnectedness of human social networks.  Godfrey is a Number Six copy who attempts to frame Baltar with false evidence for the crimes against humanity he actually perpetrated.  Baltar’s sanity is tested by dealing with his Inner Six as well as Godfrey.  After he evidence is determined to be fabricated, Godfrey disappears.  Another copy is the brutalized Gina who arrives in the fleet onboard the found battlestar Pegasus.  Baltar saves Gina from her captors and ultimately she kills Admiral Cain and later, detonates a nuclear bomb (secured from Baltar and his rigged Cylon detector) on the passenger liner Cloud 9, which allows the Cylons to learn the location of the human settlement on New Caprica.

In all of the manifestations of Number Six, the choice for her name is an interesting one.  A sinister connection has to do with the sign of the anti-Christ, 666, which would be implied by multiple (i.e., copies) Sixes.  This is reinforced by her seductions and wearing red.  Her wearing red doubly identifies her as a Cylon and with a Cold War communist alignment.  In some ways, she’s like Baltar’s observer and second-in-command Cylon, Lucifer.  Another Cold War connection has to do with Patrick McGoohan’s character, Number Six, [lxiii] in The Prisoner (1967-1968).[lxiv]  This is reinforced by Caprica Six’s spy identity and her containment in the “Village” of the Cylon basestar where everyone is identified by number only as is also done in The Prisoner.  In season three, she escapes along with Athena and her baby, Hero, back to Galactica, where she finds herself explicitly imprisoned.  Also, her history is multiplied and vague, much like McGoohan’s secret agent persona that would likewise be an invention of a role for the self.  Thus, Helfer’s Number Six is a hybrid of Cold War intrigue and spying along with an inversion of the accepted Cold War SF role of the buxom blonde.

Number Eight – The Boomer and Athena Matrix

As I mentioned in a previous section, Lieutenant Boomer from the original BSG series is played by a black male named Herb Jefferson, Jr.  His lively yet somewhat restrained character is transformed into the Asian female character first known as Lieutenant Junior Grade Sharon “Boomer” Valerii in the 2003 re-imagined series and who is played by the American-Canadian actress Grace Park.  The Korean-descended actress in the re-imagined BSG has to fill several mutually exclusive roles.  I chose the term mutually exclusive not to mean that these roles cannot exist in the same space or scene, but that they are different identities with dissimilar and unique (though occasionally aligned) motivations, desires, and thoughts.

The audience doesn’t learn where the original Boomer gets his call sign in the original series, nor where Sharon Valerii gets hers.  However, in the first season of the re-imagined BSG in the episode, “Flesh and Bone” (25 February 2005), Baltar’s Inner Six asks him where he thinks she gets the call sign “Boomer,” clearly insinuating a sexual reference from her delivery of the question.  This exchange takes place as Baltar’s “Cylon Detector” analyzes Boomer’s blood sample and reveals her to be a Cylon.  However, Baltar, fearing for his life, changes the results and undermines any further accuracy of the detector’s determinations regarding human or Cylon biological identity.

It’s important that the original series Boomer has only one name, while the re-imagined Boomer, along with her many crewmates, have full names that are alluded to and often integrate into the story through character building.  The original series’ simple character name denies family or a historical genus within which they are located.  It places the character outside of a personal or local history and elevates him or her to a position of “character at large.”  This device is often seen in other SF films, particularly early SF, in which the villain often only goes by one name.  For example, Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) has his Ming (Charles Middleton),[lxv] Buck Rogers (Buster Crabbe, again) has his Kane (Anthony Warde),[lxvi] and Gene Autry has his Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy).[lxvii]  In television series, such as the original BSG, simple naming conventions, often underlie a production issue of character simplification as well as a connection to television’s antecedents–movie series.  The characters react and interact within an environment and story plot rather than the plot rising from the characters and character development.  This pattern shifts to more character driven narratives on television epitomized most recently by J.J. Abrams’ Lost[lxviii] and Moore’s re-imagined BSG.

In the re-imagined BSG, the black male Lieutenant Boomer virtually metamorphosizes into the Asian female Sharon “Boomer” Valerii.  Throughout the BSG Mini-Series, she appears to be one of humanity’s finest Colonial soldiers, but in the final scene it’s revealed that she a Cylon by showing a copy of Boomer among the other human-like Cylons.  Later, it’s revealed that she is a sleeper Cylon when she begins to commit sabotage on Galactica without her remembering her actions.  Also, a Number Eight Cylon copy (Boomer’s Cylon designation) finds the marooned Karl “Helo” Agathon and pretends to be the Galactica Boomer on a rescue mission to save him from Cylon controlled, but nuclear devastated Caprica.  Meanwhile, the sleeper agent Galactica Boomer begins to awaken to her Cylon identity.  However, this awakening leads to identity crisis, because this realization eliminates her past and memories.  She becomes a non-person, the enemy-other, and reduced to a body without a past.  Her subconscious Cylon self battles her conscious self for control, and ultimately she gives up the fight once among the Cylons and the failure of her and Caprica Six’s failed experiment to live with humanity on the Cylon occupied New Caprica.  During Galactica Boomer’s Cylon awakening, Caprica Boomer turns away from the Cylons by orchestrating an escape from Caprica with her lover and the father of her human-Cylon hybrid child in gestation.

The Galactica Boomer becomes a bitter and angry Cylon, giving up what little humanity she had among the Galactica crew/family following her assassination by Cally Henderson (later Cally Tyrol after marrying Chief Tyrol, who was Galactica Boomer’s former lover) and subsequent Cylon resurrection.  That Boomer stands in stark contrast with the Caprica Boomer who endures all manner of hardship for her child, Hera, and husband, Helo.  This split development is another way in which the producers show rather than tell the audience that Cylon identities are not linked to the ubiquitous biology of “many copies.”  Additionally, it reflects a differentiation of Post-World War II American life.  Tyrol and Galactica Boomer never discuss children, and they had not conceived a child during their relationship aboard ship.  The Cylon sneak attack takes place and their relationship is interrupted by the fighting as well as her odd behavior resulting from the subconscious Cylon programming taking over to implement sabotage on the Galactica.  This is a dissolution of the nuclear family, particularly after she attempts to assassinate Command Adama (a patriarchal figure) in the season one finale, “Kobol’s Last Gleaming, Part II” (1 April 2005).  The title first connects the episode to American by it’s play on the line, “By the twilight’s last gleaming” from the United States’ national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (1814).[lxix]  Furthermore, Caprica Boomer attempts to resurrect the nuclear family by bearing a human-Cylon hybrid child (at first at the behest of her Cylon brethren, then for herself and Helo) and creating a nuclear family around herself, Helo, and their child, Hera.  This nuclear family establishment following the very short war encompassed by the Cylon sneak attack is similar to the reinvention of American family life in the Post War (meaning WWII) or Cold War era.

Other significance can be found in the expansion of Boomer’s name in the re-imagined series from its inception and further development.  These changes to herself and those around her advances and reinforces Number Eight’s differing identities in the re-imagined BSG.  Her first and last names situate her within a supposed family hierarchy or family tree.  However, the Galactica Boomer tells the rescued child of the Armistice Station diplomat, Boxy that she lost her parents when she was young just like the boy.  This was a fabrication which she was not aware of until the sleeper programming boots her Cylon code thereby undermining her belief and trust in her own memories and therefore identity.  This ultimately leads to her disillusionment and bitter reintegration as Number Eight in the Cylon anarchistic collective.  The designation Number Eight has its own subtextual significances.  First, Dr. Timothy Leary, a widely known experimenter with consciousness expansion through pharmacology and specifically LSD,  proposed the “8-Circuit Model of Consciousness.”  He utilized the terminology of technology of circuits and gears to describe the construction of consciousness within the human brain.  Mind, for Leary, is a construction of levels of awareness bound into the physical structure of the brain.  Number Eight’s explicit Cylon biology fused with the artificiality of her memories and therefore facsimile identity are tightly bound to Leary’s explanation for mind that by analogy hold for Cylons as much as for human minds.  A racial meaning for the number eight and this character might be that eight is considered lucky in Chinese culture, because the number signifies wealth or prosperity.  However, Park is of Korean descent, but this association underlies the amalgamation of Asian identities in many Americans’ minds going back culturally through the “Yellow Peril” and the comic character “Fu Manchu.”  Number Eight’s human identity has the name “Sharon Valerii.”  Sharon is a Hebrew feminine proper name also representing the fertile costal flatland between Jaffa and Mount Carmel.  Valerii is an interesting last name, because it is the male plural form of Valerius, a Roman nomen (the gens or clan/family name).  The nomen implied family or tribal identity based on a shared ancestor.   Valerius was a “prominent patrician family” that spanned the Roman empire including many consul and emperors throughout Rome’s history (Broughton 88).[lxx]  The choice to give her a noble or aristocratic family name is interesting in that she’s very much of royal, but forgotten, blood/memory/history of the superior “humanity’s children,” the Cylons.  Caprica Boomer on the other hand works hard to win the hearts and minds of the Galactica crew by placing herself in harm’s way, caring for Helo and vice versa, and convincing Commander Adama that she is loyal to the uniform and him.  During the transitional period of Galactica Boomer to Caprica Boomer onboard the battlestar, she eventually earns a new call-sign, which solidifies her own identity as separate from her Cylon sister/copy.  Her new and unique call-sign is Athena after the goddess of wisdom and war.  This reconnects her to the original BSG, because Adama’s daughter and Apollo’s sister was named Athena (Maren Jensen).  Unlike her predecessor, the new Athena assumed Boomer’s former role as Raptor pilot, and she is most certainly not a school teacher.  However, she is a mother, and she recovers her child, Hera from the Cylons with the help of her husband, Helo, who lives up to the one letter off name, Hero.  Hera’s name is noteworthy for nuclear family building, because Hera, as the wife of Zeus, is the goddess of marriage.  The child Hera’s birth marked the union of Athena and Helo.

Caprica Boomer is of the same “blood” as Galactica Boomer and she knows the truth of her biological and experiential identity.  She performs herself as the Galactica Boomer in order to get close to and eventually attempt to have a child with Helo.  Karl Agathon’s call-sign in the real world means “helicopter.”  For the series, his last name probably originates from the Athenian poet of the same name who lived from 448-400 B.C. and was friend of both Euripides and Plato.  This choice of name has some importance, because Agathon was known for his own style of stage writing.  At one point it was requested that he conform his writing to that more widely accepted at that time, and he replied, “

Galactica Boomer’s lover, Chief Galen Tyrol has his own unknown secrets that are revealed to himself and the audience in “Crossroads, Part II.”  It isn’t clear if Tyrol was always selected as one of the Final Five Cylons, but the fact that he and the Galactica Boomer find one another surreptitiously or by design is unmistakable.  Furthermore, Athena and Helo’s child is not the only human-Cylon hybrid, because Tyrol and Cally have a son named Nicolas, but Tyrol’s biological identity was unknown at that time.  In a way, Galactica Boomer’s transferal by death to the side of the Cylons allows for the nuclear family of Tyrol, Cally, and Nicolas to be founded.  Additionally, their nuclear family seems more derivative of the working American experience, because they are both laborers and Tyrol founds the first workers’ union among the fleet.

Conclusion:  Network Terminus

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

President Ronald Reagan, 12 June 1987

Triumphalism, though a cultural vector originating from the U.S. military and government following the Japanese sneak attack of Pearl Harbor, defined the collective American identity throughout the Cold War.  Despite the stalemates of Korea and Vietnam, Ronald Reagan propounded that through superior technology and a public visage of tough action and mediocre diplomacy, American would win the protracted and ideological Cold War.  This was never clearer than when he proclaimed with much bravado and the cameras rolling in front of the Berlin Wall on 12 June 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”[lxxi]

The American rise to the role of Super Power has been and is continually challenged, but never so powerfully or diabolically as during the Al-Qaeda 9/11 Attacks.  This sneak attack was implemented by suicide warriors that appropriated civilian airplane technology in order to strike the symbols of Western democratic hegemony, which included the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., with their repurposing of the airliners as flying bombs.

When those civilian-filled airliners struck the World Trade Center’s twin towers and hours later when the towers plummeted to the ground, the impact left lasting reverberations on American as well as world culture.  As in World War II, America was prodded into reaction to an attack via a threat to the homeland.  Our assistance through materiel sales bound us to our European and Asian allies, but the shadow of isolationism held strong until Pearl Harbor provided a reason or an excuse to act.  Similarly, Afghans in Afghanistan or abroad in exile requested help against the ruling Taliban who took control of the country following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the subsequent civil war that occurred in the resulting power vacuum.  This Cold War battleground led to the Post-Cold War crisis to hit America beginning with the 9/11 Attacks.  America’s similarly positioned isolationist stance during the Clinton presidency to only engage hot spots under United Nations or NATO auspices.  In effect, the Cold War continues on through the reality of this new ideological war between the democratic West and the fundamentalist Islamic Al-Qaeda movement that’s engaging the West in toto with Lind’s “Fourth Generational Warfare.”

The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica’s debut in 2003 heralded SF’s popular engagement of Post-Cold War issues and shifts in American identity.  The cycle of prophecy in the re-imagined BSG narrative reflects the Cold War returning to haunt us.  Additionally, Commander Adama says in a speech prior to the Cylon sneak attack:

We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done. Like we did with the Cylons. We decided to play God, create life. When that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore (BSG Mini-Series).

The super power involvement in other parts of the world during the Cold War return in the Post-Cold War era as in the Global War on Terrorism.  The enemy and ideology behind the conflict has changed, but the seed from which the conflict has grown was planted many years ago and is now beginning to bloom.  American cannot “hide from the things that [it has] done anymore.”  This is the political message of BSG, and its from this that the show derives its power as a cultural touchstone for engaging the here and now through a “cognitively estranging” SF story.

However, BSG is much more complex than that.  The producers and writers have orchestrated Cylon others that we, as humans, should identify with, but we do.  Alternatively, there are humans supposedly worthy of our admiration as fighting off the Cylon threat, but similarly antithetical we cannot side with them.  As in the real world, the situation is deeper and embedded within a network in which we are all subjects, and as Baudrillard writes, “we are here at the controls of a micro-satellite, in orbit, living no longer as an actor or dramaturge but as a terminal of multiple networks” (Baudrillard 128).[lxxii]  As subjects, we are each “a terminal of multiple networks.”  This is dramatized and visually presented through the technologized surroundings of humanity in BSG as well as the cyborg other represented by the organic machine Cylons who join the network by a mere touch.  By extension, we must follow the Cylons’ example and connect to the network created by everything going on around us in the here-and-now.

In order to do this, BSG challenges the viewer to think, unlike many other primetime television programs.  McGrath adds:

BSG doesn’t offer solutions or manifestos–indeed it rarely editorialises–but, at a time when loyalty is demanded and dissent is suspect, this sf show is doing something rather radical–it is encouraging people to think (McGrath 16).

This encouragement is the power of modern SF.  In the case of the new BSG, it dares us to connect to the real life circuit that inspires its production.  Only by engaging the circuit and being more than a passive node will dialog and change come about.  As McGrath points out, the show is largely devoid of manifestos (except literally in the third season), and it presents a complexity of identities and the way those characters’ identities react and interact with one another thereby leaving blood on everyone’s hands and resulting in no innocents.  This is where the new BSG predominantly departs from Larson’s original series.  Wholesomeness and idealized characters are replaced by hard pragmatism and realized, complete characters with integrated identities.

The 2003 BSG is about hybrids and cyborgs.  Cyborgs, broadly defined, are persons or beings whose interaction with the world is mediated through technology.  Relying on this definition, cyborgs are hybrids of the biological and technological worlds.  The Cylons are obviously cyborgs, because they have organic and inorganic parts fused to create their individual consciences via an artificially devised construction.  However, humanity is also a cyborg by this definition, because as a space faring species, their existence is mediated by technology including spaceships, life support, and war materiel.  Though, for political expediency, perhaps Donna Haraway’s definition is more on target:

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.  Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction (Haraway 434).[lxxiii]

The human and Cylon characters in the 2003 BSG are “[creatures] of social reality as well as [creatures] of fiction.”  The “lived social relations” of these characters and the firmly built and elaborated identities form “a world changing fiction.”  Therefore, the fusion of good and evil into a spectrum creates a band on which fictional characters as well as real people exhibit multiple emission lines that represent the good and evil within each of us.  This political construction is destabilized by the fact that, “it has become increasingly difficult to separate the human from the technological, and this is true rhetorically and phenomenologically” (Bukatman 2).[lxxiv]  Humans and Cylons are merging into one with the realization of the Final Five Cylons and the birth of human-Cylon hybrid babies.  President Roslin tells Commander Adama, “they need to start having babies” (Mini-Series).  She means this for the human fleet, but it’s also true for the union of humanity/biology/flesh and Cylon/technology/machine.  Even in that matrix, the distinctions between the two “races” is far from clear and distinct.  Technology is an ever present component of our past, present, and assumedly, our future.  Humanity must embrace it to face the future, but not necessarily to recreate the Earthly Garden.  Instead, we must embrace it, and by extension, those we identify as the other who are in fact ourselves.

Works Cited


Bailey, Charles W. and Fletcher Knebel.  Seven Days in May.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1962.

Bassom, David.  Battlestar Galactica:  The Official Companion.  London:  Titan Books, 2005.

Baudrillard, Jean.  “The Ecstasy of Communication,” The Anti-Aesthetic.  Ed. Hal Foster.  Port Townsend, WA:  Bay Press, 1983.  126-134.

Ben-Tov, Sharona.  The Artificial Paradise:  Science Fiction and American Reality.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Broughton, T. Robert S., “Potitus Valerius Messalla, Consul Suffect 29 B. C.,”  Book Review.  The Phoenix 10.2 (Summer 1956):  88-89.

Bukatman, Scott.  Terminal Identity:  The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction.  Durham, NC:  Duke UP, 1993.

Canada.  Statistics Canada.  “Visible Minority Groups, 2001 Counts, for Canada, Provinces and Territories – 20% Sample Data.”  2001.  14 July 2007 <;.

Dick, Philip K.  “The Android and the Human.”  Vector:  Journal of the British Science Fiction Association 64 (March/April 1973):  5-20.

—.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  New York:  Doubleday, 1968.

Eisenhower, Dwight.  “Eisenhower’s Farewell Address.”  Televised address 17 January 1961.  13 June 2007 <;.

Engelhardt, Tom.  The End of Victory Culture:  Cold War American and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Fitzgerald, Frances.  “The American Everyman.”  Way Out There in the Blue:  Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2000.  19 June 2007 <;.

Haraway, Donna J.  “A Cyborg Manifesto:  Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.”  Sex/Machine:  Readings in Culture, Gender, and Technology.  Ed. Patrick D. Hopkins.  Bloomington, IN:  Indiana UP, 1998.

Kennedy, John F.  “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs.”  Speech before joint session of Congress.  25 May 1961.  30 July 2007 <;.

Key, Frances Scott.  “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Baltimore:  Thomas Carr, 1814.  30 July 2007 <;.

Larocque, John.  “Battlestar Galactica Frequently Asked Questions.”  Battlestar Galactica Costume and Prop Museum.  26 November 2002.  21 July 2007 <;.

Marx, Leo.  The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America.    New York:  Oxford UP, 1964.

McGrath, Martin.  “49,550 and Counting.”  Matrix 181 (Sept/Oct 2006):  16.

Melville, Herman.  Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.  New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1851.

Reagan, Ronald.  “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate.”  Speech.  12 June 1987.  28 July 2007 <;.

Rorvik, David M.  As Man Becomes Machine: the Evolution of the Cyborg.  Garden City, N.Y.:  Doubleday, 1971.

—.  In His Image:  The Cloning of a Man.  Philadelphia:  Lippincott, 1978.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano.  “Pearl Harbor Speech.”  Address to Congress.  8 December 1941.  27 July 2007 <;.

Sontag, Susan.  “The Imagination of Disaster.”  Against Interpretation and Other Essays.  London:  Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967.  209-225.

United States.  U.S. Census Bureau.  “California Quick Facts from the U.S. Census Bureau.”  2005.  14 July 2007 <;.

Von Däniken, Erich.  Chariots of the Gods?:  Unsolved Mysteries of the Past.  New York:  Bantam, 1968.

Wells, H.G.  The Time Machine.  London:  Heinemann, 1895.

Westfahl, Gary.  “Glen A. Larson.”  Gary Westfahl’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film.  2007.  13 June 2007 <;.

Wills, Garry.  John Wayne’s America:  The Politics of Celebrity.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1997.

—.  Reagan’s America:  Innocents at Home.  London:  Heinemann, 1987.

Wouk, Herman.  The Caine Mutiny.  New York:  Doubleday, 1951.


12 Angry Men.  Dir. William Friedkin.  Perf.  Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos.  MGM Television.  1997.

2001:  A Space Odyssey.  Dir.  Stanley Kubrick.  MGM.  1968.

Alien.  Dir. Ridley Scott.  20th Century Fox.  1979.

American Family:  A Journey of Dreams.  Executive Producers Gregory Nava and Barbara Martinez Jitner.  Perf.  Edward James Olmos.  Television Series.  Twentieth-Century Fox.  2002-2004.

Blade Runner.  Dir. Ridley Scott.  Warner Brothers.  1982.

Battlestar Galactica.  Exec. Prod. Glen A. Larson.  Television Series.  ABC.  1978-1979.

—.  Exec. Prod. Ronald D. Moore and David Eick.  Sci Fi Channel.  2003-2007.

Bonanza.  Perf. Lorne Greene.  Television Series.  NBC.  1959-1973.

Buck Rogers.  Perf. Buster Crabbe and Anthony Warde.  Film Serial.  Universal Pictures.  1939.

The Caine Mutiny.  Dir. Stanley Kramer.  Perf. Humphrey Bogart.  Columbia Pictures.  1954.

Clerks.  Dir. Kevin Smith.  Perf.  Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson.  Miramax Films.  1994.

Firefly.  Exec. Prod. Joss Whedon and Tim Minear.  Television Series.  Fox.  2002-2003.

Flash Gordon.  Perf. Buster Crabbe and Charles Middleton.  Film Serial.  Universal Pictures.  1936.

“Glen Larson on the Creation of Battlestar Galactica.”  Glen A. Larson.  Battlestar Galactica:  The Complete Epic Series.  DVD 1, Side 1.  2003.

Lost.  Exec. Prod. J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Damon Lindelof.  Television Series.  ABC.  (2004-2007).

Lost in Space.  Exec. Prod. Irwin Allen.  Perf. Jonathan Harris.  Television Series.  CBS.  1965-1968.

The Manchurian Candidate.  Dir. John Frankenheimer.  MGM.  1962.

Miami Vice.  Exec. Prod.  Michael Mann and Dick Wolf.  Perf. Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, and Edward James Olmos.  Television Series.  NBC.  1984-1990.

Murder in the Air.  Dir. Lewis Seiler.  Perf. Ronald Reagan.  Warner Brothers, 1940.

My Family.  Dir. Gregory Nava.  Perf. Edward James Olmos.  New Line Cinema.  1995.

On the Beach.  Dir. Stanley Kramer.  United Artists.  1959.

“On the Creation of Battlestar Galactica.”  Interview with Glen A. Larson.  Battlestar Galactica:  The Complete Epic Series DVD.  Universal.  DVD 1, Side 2.  2003.

The Phantom Empire.  Perf. Gene Autry and Dorothy Christy.  Film Serial.  Mascot Pictures.  1935.

The Prisoner.  Exec. Prod. Patrick McGoohan.  Perf. Patrick McGoohan.  Television Series.  ITV.  1967-1968.

Rocketship X-M.  Dir. Kurt Neumann.  Perf. Lloyd Bridges.  Lippert Pictures, 1950.

Sea Hunt.  Exec. Prod. Frederic Ziv and Maurice Ziv.  Perf. Lloyd Bridges.  Syndicated Television Series.  1958-1961.

Stand and Deliver.  Perf. Edward James Olmos.  Warner Brothers.  1988.

Star Trek.  Exec. Prod. Gene Roddenberry.  NBC.  1966-1969.

Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  Exec. Prod. Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Gene Roddenberry, NBC.  1987-1994.

Star Wars.  Dir. George Lucas.  20th Century Fox.  1977.

Top Gun.  Perf. Tom Cruise and James Tolkan.  Paramount Pictures.  1986.

Torn Curtain.  Dir. Afred Hitchcock.  Perf. Paul Newman.  Universal Pictures.  1966.

The War of the Worlds.  Prod. George Pal.  Paramount Pictures.  1953.

[i] Engelhardt, Tom.  The End of Victory Culture:  Cold War American and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

[ii] Battlestar Galactica.  Exec. Prod. Ronald D. Moore and David Eick.  Sci Fi Channel.  2003-2007.

[iii] Battlestar Galactica.  Exec. Prod. Glen A. Larson.  Television Series.  ABC.  1978-1979.

[iv] McGrath, Martin.  “49,550 and Counting.”  Matrix 181 (Sept/Oct 2006):  16.

[v] Sontag, Susan.  “The Imagination of Disaster.”  Against Interpretation and Other Essays.  London:  Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967.  209-225.

[vi] Until the Iran hostage crisis, which began on November 4, 1979 and included President Jimmy Carter’s failed Operation Eagle Claw rescue operation.  The crisis ended on January 20, 1981 immediately following Reagan’s ascendancy to U.S. president.

[vii] Star Wars.  Dir. George Lucas.  20th Century Fox.  1977.

[viii] Star Trek.  Exec. Prod. Gene Roddenberry.  NBC.  1966-1969.

[ix] Murder in the Air.  Dir. Lewis Seiler.  Perf. Ronald Reagan.  Warner Brothers, 1940.

[x] Torn Curtain.  Dir. Afred Hitchcock.  Perf. Paul Newman.  Universal Pictures.  1966.

[xi] Rogin, Michael.  Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology.  London:  University of California Press, 1987:  1-3.

[xii] Fitzgerald, Frances.  “The American Everyman.”  Way Out There in the Blue:  Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2000.  19 June 2007 <;.

[xiii] Further linking Reagan with the Battlestar Galactica mythos is the fact that he made a guest appearance on Wagon Train in 1963 in the episode, “The Fort Pierce Story.”  This is significant, because the wagon train analogy applies to much space-oriented SF television series including Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Firefly.

[xiv] Wills, Garry.  Reagan’s America:  Innocents at Home.  London:  Heinemann, 1987.

[xv] “On the Creation of Battlestar Galactica.”  Interview with Glen A. Larson.  Battlestar Galactica:  The Complete Epic Series DVD.  Universal.  DVD 1, Side 2.  2003.

[xvi] Von Däniken, Erich.  Chariots of the Gods?:  Unsolved Mysteries of the Past.  New York:  Bantam, 1968.

[xvii] Larocque, John.  “Battlestar Galactica Frequently Asked Questions.”  Battlestar Galactica Costume and Prop Museum.  26 November 2002.  21 July 2007 <;.

[xviii] Marx, Leo.  The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York:  Oxford UP, 1964.

[xix] Ben-Tov, Sharona.  The Artificial Paradise:  Science Fiction and American Reality.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1995.

[xx] This episode is titled, “Taking a Break From All Your Worries,” and it first aired on 28 January 2007.

[xxi] Alien.  Dir. Ridley Scott.  20th Century Fox.  1979.

[xxii] Firefly.  Exec. Prod. Joss Whedon and Tim Minear.  Television Series.  Fox.  2002-2003.

[xxiii] 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  Dir.  Stanley Kubrick.  MGM.  1968.

[xxiv] Clerks.  Dir. Kevin Smith.  Perf.  Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson.  Miramax Films.  1994.

[xxv] The War of the Worlds.  Prod. George Pal.  Paramount Pictures.  1953.

[xxvi] Lost in Space.  Exec. Prod. Irwin Allen.  Perf. Jonathan Harris.  Television Series.  CBS.  1965-1968.

[xxvii] Wells, H.G.  The Time Machine.  London:  Heinemann, 1895.

[xxviii] Westfahl, Gary.  “Glen A. Larson.”  Gary Westfahl’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film.  2007.  13 June 2007 <;.

[xxix] Eisenhower, Dwight.  “Eisenhower’s Farewell Address.”  Televised address 17 January 1961.  13 June 2007 <;.

[xxx] Bailey, Charles W. and Fletcher Knebel.  Seven Days in May.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1962.

[xxxi] Rorvik, David.  In His Image:  The Cloning of a Man.  Philadelphia:  Lippincott, 1978.

[xxxii] Rorvik has also demonstrated his interest in cyborgs with the publication of his earlier book: As Man Becomes Machine: the Evolution of the Cyborg. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.

[xxxiii] The re-imagined Cylons are not a hive mind in the same sense as the Borg on Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  Cylon cooperation is either given or denied depending on the will of the individual Cylon.

[xxxiv] Blade Runner.  Dir. Ridley Scott.  Warner Brothers.  1982.

[xxxv] The Manchurian Candidate.  Dir. John Frankenheimer.  MGM.  1962.

[xxxvi] Dick, Philip K.  “The Android and the Human.”  Vector:  Journal of the British Science Fiction Association 64 (March/April 1973):  5-20.

[xxxvii] Bonanza.  Perf. Lorne Greene.  Television Series.  NBC.  1959-1973.

[xxxviii] It’s interesting that Olmos’ character’s son, Captain Lee “Apollo” Adama is played by Jamie Bamber, who is an English-American.  One of Olmos’ real-life sons, Bodie Olmos, plays a Galactica pilot, Junior Grade Brendan “Hot Dog” Constanza.  Constanza is widely used as a Hungarian/Romanian name, but it’s also the feminine Spanish form of the Late Roman Constantia.  This has its own associations with constant, perhaps the ever-presence and constancy of family within and without the BSG universe.  It’s also a fusion of Olmos’ own heritage.

[xxxix] Stand and Deliver.  Perf. Edward James Olmos.  Warner Brothers.  1988.

[xl] My Family.  Dir. Gregory Nava.  Perf. Edward James Olmos.  New Line Cinema.  1995.

[xli] American Family:  A Journey of Dreams.  Executive Producers Gregory Nava and Barbara Martinez Jitner.  Perf.  Edward James Olmos.  Television Series.  Twentieth-Century Fox.  2002-2004.

[xlii] Blade Runner.  Dir. Ridley Scott.  Warner Brothers.  1982.

[xliii] Dick, Philip K.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  New York:  Doubleday, 1968.

[xliv] Miami Vice.  Exec. Prod.  Michael Mann and Dick Wolf.  Perf. Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, and Edward James Olmos.  Television Series.  NBC.  1984-1990.

[xlv] 12 Angry Men.  Dir. William Friedkin.  Perf.  Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos.  MGM Television.  1997.

[xlvi] Wouk, Herman.  The Caine Mutiny.  New York:  Doubleday, 1951.

[xlvii] The Caine Mutiny.  Dir. Stanley Kramer.  Perf. Humphrey Bogart.  Columbia Pictures.  1954.

[xlviii] The Caine Mutiny was directed by Stanley Kramer, who also directed the SF classic, On the Beach (1959).

[xlix] Rocketship X-M.  Dir. Kurt Neumann.  Perf. Lloyd Bridges.  Lippert Pictures, 1950.

[l] Sea Hunt.  Exec. Prod. Frederic Ziv and Maurice Ziv.  Perf. Lloyd Bridges.  Syndicated television series.  1958-1961.

[li] Top Gun.  Perf. Tom Cruise and James Tolkan.  Paramount Pictures.  1986.

[lii] In the re-imagined BSG, Richard Hatch plays Tom Zarek, a political agitator and convicted terrorist.  This is a very different character than the Apollo he played earlier in his life, but Zarek’s character becomes politically powerful and eventually saves Laura Roslin’s life and works for the good of the fleet.

[liii] Kennedy, John F.  “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs.”  Speech before joint session of Congress.  25 May 1961.  30 July 2007 <;.

[liv] Melville, Herman.  Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.  New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1851.

[lv] Wills, Garry.  John Wayne’s America:  The Politics of Celebrity.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1997.

[lvi] Much more on Sharon “Boomer” Valerii/Number Eight Cylon in a following section.

[lvii] Canada.  Statistics Canada.  “Visible Minority Groups, 2001 Counts, for Canada, Provinces and Territories – 20% Sample Data.”  2001.  14 July 2007 <;.

[lviii] United States.  U.S. Census Bureau.  “California Quick Facts from the U.S. Census Bureau.”  2005.  14 July 2007 <;.

[lix] Sontag 218.

[lx] Roosevelt, Franklin Delano.  “Infamy Speech.”  Address to Congress.  8 December 1941.  27 July 2007 <;.

[lxi] Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  Exec. Prod. Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Gene Roddenberry.  Perf. Brent Spiner.  NBC.  1987-1994.

[lxii] Artificial Intelligence:  A.I.  Dir. Steven Spielberg.  Perf. Haley Joel Osment.  Warner Brothers.

[lxiii] This is an acknowledged homage in Bassom, David.  Battlestar Galactica:  The Official Companion.  London:  Titan Books, 2005.

[lxiv] The Prisoner.  Exec. Prod. Patrick McGoohan.  Perf. Patrick McGoohan.  Television Series.  ITV.  1967-1968.

[lxv] Flash Gordon.  Perf. Buster Crabbe and Charles Middleton.  Film Serial.  Universal Pictures.  1936.

[lxvi] Buck Rogers.  Perf. Buster Crabbe and Anthony Warde.  Film Serial.  Universal Pictures.  1939.

[lxvii] The Phantom Empire.  Perf. Gene Autry and Dorothy Christy.  Film Serial.  Mascot Pictures.  1935.

[lxviii] Lost.  Exec. Prod. J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Damon Lindelof.  Television Series.  ABC.  (2004-2007).

[lxix] Key, Frances Scott.  “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Baltimore:  Thomas Carr, 1814.  30 July 2007 <;.

[lxx] Broughton, T. Robert S., “Potitus Valerius Messalla, Consul Suffect 29 B. C.,”  Book Review.  The Phoenix 10.2 (Summer 1956):  88-89.

[lxxi] Reagan, Ronald.  “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate.”  Speech.  12 June 1987.  28 July 2007 <;.

[lxxii] Baudrillard, Jean.  “The Ecstasy of Communication,” The Anti-Aesthetic.  Ed. Hal Foster.  Port Townsend, WA:  Bay Press, 1983.  126-134.

[lxxiii] Haraway, Donna J.  “A Cyborg Manifesto:  Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.”  Sex/Machine:  Readings in Culture, Gender, and Technology.  Ed. Patrick D. Hopkins.  Bloomington, IN:  Indiana UP, 1998.

[lxxiv] Bukatman, Scott.  Terminal Identity:  The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction.  Durham, NC:  Duke UP, 1993.

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Module, Notes on Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C+1, Sept 25, 2006

This is the nineteenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Hugo Gernsback looms large at the beginning of the SF genre’s formalization. These notes are about his scientifiction novel, Ralph 124C+1. I began our seminar discussion on Gernsback’s novel in the Genre Definitions Module of the MA in Science Fiction Studies programme at the University of Liverpool.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

Genre Definitions Module

25 September 2006

Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+

Malcolm J. Edwards writes in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that, “While deficient as fiction, [Ralph 124C 41+] clearly shows [Gernsback’s] overriding interest in SF as a vehicle of prediction, being a catalogue of the marvelous technology of the 27th century” (490).  It, much like George Lucas’ recent Star Wars prequels, is more about the technology, than the characters that inhabit his imagined future world.

I haven’t had the chance to read the original twelve-part serial of Ralph 124C 41+, but I would conjecture that Gernsback was already cognizant of his rules for scientifiction, and later, science fiction while he was revising Ralph 124C 41+ for its 1925 publication (one year prior to his founding Amazing Stories).  These rules are important to a reading of his work, as well as other early pulp SF.  Gernsback’s first rule is that the story should be educational.  SF should teach laypeople something about science and technology.  His description of the comet during the aerial carnival is right on the mark when he writes, “While the spectacle was in progress a white ‘comet’ with a long tail traveled across the paths of the planets, turned a sharp corner around the ‘sun,’ its tail always pointing away from that body, recrossed the orbits of the ‘planets’ again on the other side and lost itself in the darkness” (118).  Also, the author goes into copious details about the way in which his imagined inventions work.  Some of his explanation is on the mark (e.g., his extrapolation of what we know as radar), but there are other instances where he refers to outdated or simply incorrect explanations (e.g., his neglect of Einstein’s theory of general relativity in his discussion of the gyroscopic drive system of his spacecraft).  His second rule is that the story should have a specific narrative structure consisting of 75% romance, and 25% science.  You can see that he was playing around with this rule in the accidental love affair between Ralph and Alice.  However, in this novel, I would say that the percentages are switched.  His third and final rule is that the story should contain a “prophetic vision.”  Essentially, the story should imagine new scientific and technological futures extrapolated from current sciences and technologies.  This stems from Gernsback being one of the players in the development of critical technocracy (i.e., a literary movement typified by the belief in the inevitability of scientific progress and the need to apply scientific principles to “inefficient” aspects of human culture, as well as in terms of style, mobilizing the technocratic emphasis on efficiency and precision allowed SF editors to begin forging a specific SF style, which interestingly, parallels the emphasis on clarity and brevity found in high modernism).  One example of his prophetic vision would be his lecture in Chapter VII, “The End of Money.”  In this, he restructures monetary exchange on a pseudo-Marxist basis of labor.  Additionally, on the final page of the text, Alice points to Ralph’s role in Gernsback’s imagining of prophetic vision, when she says his name out loud, “one to foresee for one” (293).

There are also some interesting parallels between Ralph 124C 41+ and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  One clear example is the conflict between the scientist and nature.  Gernsback writes, “He felt that Nature herself was punishing him for his daring assault upon her dominions.  He had presumed to see the laws of Life and Death at variance, and this was the penalty, this living death, shut in with the living dead” (287).  In Frankenstein, M. Waldman tells Victor that, “these philosophers…penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places” (57).  Victor goes on to narrate, “Such were the professor’s words—rather let me say such the words of the fate—enounced to destroy me” (57).  Victor does pay the ultimate price in the loss of his friends and family as well as his own life, whereas, Ralph suffers a moment of dystopic anguish, while the fate of his beloved Alice is not yet determined.  Furthermore, both character’s distress, in part, comes about because they have developed processes that either prolong or restore life to dead animal tissue.  Victor uses this ability to become a male progenitor of life, while Ralph uses it to bring his girlfriend back from death, thus granting life, through science, to that which was lifeless.

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Module, Notes on New Wave SF, October 9, 2006

This is the eighteenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

For each of our meetings in the Genre Definitions Module during the first semester of the MA in Science Fiction Studies programme at the University of Liverpool, we were assigned days to lead discussion. For one of these meetings, I began our discussion on the SF New Wave. Below are my prepared notes that I used as an introduction to the topic.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

Genre Definitions Module

9 October 2006

New Wave SF

New Wave science fiction is characterized as a turn away from the hard sciences to the soft sciences of psychology and sociology, as well as a shift from linear, clear window narratives to experimental narrative styles, as well an adoption of higher literary standards.  The stories in which the term New Wave can be said to describe have no clear historical demarcations.  Most scholars accept the beginning date of New Wave to coincide with Michael Moorcock becoming the new editor of the UK SF magazine, New Worlds in 1964.  Moorcock, as editor and writer, promoted stories that fit the New Wave model.  New Wave ran through the 1980s, but its decline began in the 1970s when conservatism began to erode the counterculture that began in the late-1960s.

New Wave SF cannot be said to have been a formal literary movement, because many authors labeled as New Wave do not accept the designation. Therefore, it is problematic to define it as such.  However, there are certain elements that are identified as being New Wave.  The first, and most important element of New Wave, is the belief that SF should attain a respectability, which would result in SF being taking seriously as literature.  In a sense, it was time for SF to mature and move from a younger, adolescent audience to an adult audience that understood the cultural changes taking place at that time.  It was with this in mind that SF authors began implementing a higher style of writing, as well as undertaking a great deal of literary experimentation in their works.  However, others, such as Damien Broderick in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, propose that this shift in style has more to do with the greater education the upcoming New Wave writers had than their predecessors.

Another element of New Wave has to do with extrapolation taking place through the soft sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology, and linguistics) instead of the hard sciences used in earlier SF.  Linked to this shift is a turning inward to crisis and introspection of the mind and psyche.  Additionally, New Wave stories are concerned with the near-future, and there are many stories with dystopic elements.  Other New Wave themes are listed by Peter Nichols in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  He writes that New Wave SF stories include, “an interest in mind-altering drugs and oriental religions, a satisfaction in violating taboos, a marked interest in sex, a strong involvement in Pop Art and in the media landscape generally, and a pessimism about the future that ran strongly counter to genre SF’s traditional optimism, often focused on the likelihood of disaster caused by overpopulation and interference with the ecology, as well as by war and a general cynicism about the politics of the US and UK governments” (866).  Additionally, New Wave authors didn’t buy into the perfectibility of humanity, salvation through science and technology, or faith in human intelligence.  New Wave was a response to the cultural changes taking place in the world beginning in the late-1960s.  It was linked to the counterculture born of that era, and it brought SF out of basements and bedrooms.

We should place New Wave in relationship to earlier SF.  As R. A. Lupoff writes in The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, traditional SF is about, “physical problem solving and/or combat.  Conflict is seen in terms of good protagonist versus bad antagonist (or occasionally natural catastrophe).  Moral and psychological ambiguities are few.  Style tends to be simple and structure of narration straightforward” (328).  On the other hand, “New Wave writers frequently saw problems as social or psychological in nature, subject to resolution only through radical alternations of the psyche or similarly radical restructurings of society.  The conflict they wrote about is between the victimized individual and oppressive society or nature, or it takes the form of a pathological society at war with itself.  Moral and psychological ambiguities lie at the heart of most New Wave stories.  The movement is characterized by an emphasis on style and experimentation; the structure of the narration could be anything an author found successful” (Lupoff 328).

A short list of New Wave authors includes:  Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Harlan Ellison, Philip José Farmer, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad, and Roger Zelazny.  Not all of these authors embraced the New Wave label, but their stories nevertheless reflect key elements of a new style that moved the SF genre forward.

New Wave was a sea change in the direction of SF, and it most assuredly had its detractors.  Before New Wave exploded, there had developed a conservatism within the SF ranks, which resulted in reused themes and stories.  The New Wave, in part, reacted to this stagnation by trying something radically new.  However, as Asimov was quoted on the back of Judith Merril’s 1968 New Wave anthology, England Swings SF (US title) or The Space-Time Journal (UK title), “I hope that when the New Wave has deposited its froth, the vast and solid short of science fiction will appear once more” (qtd. in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction).  Regardless of fears held by the old guard, New Wave was a driving impetus toward better SF in both style and story, as well as the foundation for new SF styles such as cyberpunk.  Essentially, New Wave created a bridge between classic SF and postmodern SF.

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Utopias Module, James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Bridging Herland to the Stars, June 8, 2007

This is the seventeenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

During the second semester of the MA in Science Fiction Studies programme, we had two modules: ENGL612: Utopias and Dystopias and ENGL681: Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin. We also pitched our dissertation projects and began meeting with our assigned advisor (I was very happy to have worked with Dr. David Seed on mine–more on that in another post).

In the Utopias and Dystopias module, we read a library’s worth of utopias and discussed them in depth during our meetings with Mr. Andy Sawyer, Dr. Peter Wright, and Dr. Seed (depending on the work being considered during a seminar session, we met with different faculty).

After studying under Dr. Lisa Yaszek at Georgia Tech, some texts stuck out in my mind–namely stories by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Julie Phillips had very recently published her excellent and authoritative account of Sheldon’s life, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Reading Phillips’ biography of Sheldon rekindled some ideas from my SF and Gender Studies classes at Georgia Tech, which I brought into our seminar discussions in the Utopias and Dystopias module. This essay is the culmination of those discussions and further research. Also, it permitted me to think about how First and Second Wave Feminism related to these two very important writers and their work. This essay was the final project in this module.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

ENGL612: Utopias and Dystopias

June 8, 2007

James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Bridging Herland to the Stars

What women do is survive.  We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.

James Tiptree, Jr., “The Women Men Don’t See”

The above quote by Ruth Parsons in James Tiptree, Jr.’s 1973 story, “The Women Men Don’t See” is probably one of the most quoted lines from Tiptree’s stories, because it’s a powerful indictment of male patriarchy as well as a shout from the heart of the author behind the pseudonym, Alice B. Sheldon.  It’s interesting that Tiptree employed the word, “chinks” to describe the space in which women may inhabit in the overwhelming male created world-machine, because chinks can describe an opening, crevice, or aperture as in the gaps between gear teeth.  However, chinks may also describe a weakness in one’s armor either figuratively or literally.  It’s within the weaknesses of the patriarchic hegemony that women may find their own space, but it’s confining and forever shifting.  Sheldon, through Tiptree, developed a voice that challenged the “world-machine” in many of her stories including the later published, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

What’s engaging about Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” besides its own message and vector is that it maintains a striking similarity to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, which was first published serially in Gilman’s groundbreaking monthly magazine, The Forerunner in 1915.  In fact, “Houston” could be referred to as a far-future retelling of Herland in outer space.  Additionally, these two works form their own geared system where one’s earlier movement within First Wave Feminism propels the other’s movement in the much later era of Second Wave Feminism.  These actions in turn inspire later feminist SF.  It’s this interlocking and intertextual engagement between the two stories that positions “Houston” as a bridge between Gilman’s classically utopian story and First Wave Feminism with the SF impulse in later utopian writing and Second Wave Feminism.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Alice B. Sheldon

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1860, and endured a childhood of near-poverty and dislocation along with her brother and single mother, Mary A. Fitch.  Gilman’s father, Frederic Beecher Perkins, a member of the well-known Beecher clan, left Fitch following Gilman’s birth.  Rising above her beleaguered childhood, she maintained a certain independence by working, “as a designer of greeting cards, an art teacher, and a governess” while living at home, and later establishing herself as a writer and lecturer on socialism and women’s issues (Lane vi).  Her life is accented by an early marriage to Walter Stetson, with whom she had a daughter, Katherine.  However, the marriage didn’t last, and it was later agreed that Stetson and his second wife, Gilman’s friend, Grace Ellery Channing, should raise their daughter.  Through her first marriage, and the years following it, she returned to a nomadic existence of writing and public speaking in part to avoid attacks from the press, “particularly in California, for ‘abandoning’ her child and for being an ‘unnatural mother’” (Lane viii).

During this tumultuous time, Gilman wrote her most famous work, Women and Economics and it was first published in 1898 (Lane viii).  She went on to write many more books that further galvanized her prominence and reputation.  Following her second marriage to George Houghton Gilman in 1900, she began publishing The Forerunner in November 1909 until December 1916.  The Forerunner was a monthly magazine that contained articles and stories that supported socialism, Edward Bellamy’s “Nationalism,” and women’s rights issues.  It was during 1915 that her comedic utopian novel, Herland found its first and only publishing during her lifetime.

Alice B. Sheldon, who later assumed the pseudonyms James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon, was born on August 24, 1915 to Mary Wilhelmina Hastings and Herbert Edwin Bradley (Phillips 12).  Mary was a socialite and writer, and Herbert established his wealth with shrewd Chicago housing investments.  Together, they traveled on safaris in Africa, and they brought Alice along with them.  Alice was never left wanting, and her early life was punctuated by adventure and attention (though not always welcomed).  Before the Second World War, she had a tumultuous marriage to William Davey, and she considered a life in making art.

Unlike Gilman, Sheldon didn’t settle on one career earlier in life.  She worked at photoreconnaissance in World War II, where she met her second husband, Huntington Denton Sheldon, and subsequently worked for the CIA.  Between the war and joining the CIA, Sheldon and her husband ran a chicken hatchery, and she earned a PhD in experimental psychology following her work with the CIA.  It was during the final stages of her dissertation, that she rediscovered SF, something that she had enjoyed in her youth, and wrote four stories of her own, which she mailed out to magazines under the pseudonym, James Tiptree, Jr.

Gilman, Sheldon, and First Wave Feminism

Before continuing, it’s important to describe the political movements that both of these authors arrive from initially.  Gilman and other women around the turn of the century were building political power for change and improvement to the lives of women.  Today, we call this movement in America, First Wave Feminism.  First Wave Feminism has deep roots and an established history that goes back hundreds of years.  Many historians and critics point to the Enlightenment as the beginning of feminist thought, because it was also the time when established systems of political control and patriarchy were challenged.  A notable date for American First Wave Feminism is the year 1776 when Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors” (par. 1).  John Adams incredulous response was, “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh…We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight” (pars. 7 and 12).  The struggle for women’s rights and issues would be a long and arduous one, but significant change was on the horizon when Gilman was born.

Gilman grew into a world where many women were fighting for universal suffrage and additional rights for women at the turn of the twentieth century.  There were two prongs to this and they were the woman’s movement and feminism.  The woman’s movement preserved sex and gender differences while taking back the language of patriarchy and supporting municipal housekeeping (i.e., if a woman can run a household, why can’t she run things in the public sphere).  On the other hand, feminism challenges the idea that there are fundamental difference between men and women.  This idea grows out of the increasing awareness and promotion of socialism at that time.  Feminists sought women’s rights rather than supporting assumed concepts of “duties.”  Also, proponents viewed economic and sexual freedom as intertwined.

Gilman, following a writing tradition established by revolutionary writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and her 1792 published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, employed writing to get her vision promoted with reasoned arguments.  Her most recognizable work is Women and Economics first published in 1898.  However, her rediscovered serialized novel from 1915, Herland, is a more humorous story that uses the utopian tradition to elucidate liberal humanist themes and her thoughts on women’s issues.  The major liberal humanist themes that Gilman promotes in Herland include:  meditations on the changeability of human nature (usually for the better), inevitability of human progress, inevitability of human rationality and reason, and the danger of unexamined authority.  Also, these themes can be seen through a feminist lens as including:  the danger of women’s economic subordination and the need to replace existing male-dominated power structures with new ones based on female nurturance and cooperation.  Furthermore, Ann J. Lane describes Gilman’s particular approach to enacting change:

Convinced of the plasticity of human nature, she vehemently sought to destroy the molds into which people, especially but not only, female people, were forced.  Her specific contribution to this wing of Social Darwinist thought was her assertion that women, as a collective entity, could, if they so chose, be the moving force in the reorganization of society (x).

Gilman, as did other leftist thinkers at the turn of the century understood, it was the power and will of the people that could evince change.  For her, it was the power of women, as half of the population, to “be the moving force in the reorganization of society.”  She hoped to enact this political shift through the ideology of First Wave Feminism and the woman’s movement:

In her utopia, Charlotte Perkins Gilman transforms the private world of mother-child, isolated in the individual home, into a community of mothers and children in a socialized world.  It’s a world in which humane social values have been achieved by women in the interest of us all (Lane xxiii).

“A world in which human social values have been achieved by women in the interest of us all” is the central, defining theme of Herland.

Where does Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. fit into Gilman’s and other First Wave Feminists’ ideologies and plans?  Sheldon was born the same year that Herland was serialized in Gilman’s The Forerunner.  Her mother, Mary, was clearly an independent woman who was well respected, published, and not afraid of hunting in the unexplored wilds of Africa at the turn of the century.  However, Mary played a role of the socially active and ebullient woman who flirted, hosted parties, and enchanted men with her stories and charms.  Also, Sheldon considered getting married again after her first failed marriage to Davey in order to achieve independence from her parents prior to getting an art critic job at the Chicago Sun (Phillips 104).  In fact, Sheldon didn’t espouse hard line feminist ideals in her early life beyond wanting to do the things that she was interested in, and that was not something available for compromise, which is something Gilman learned the importance of in her first marriage and the medical treatment she received during the depression following her daughter’s birth.

It was after World War II that she began to find out more about women’s rights and issues.  Phillips writes about Sheldon’s discovery:

What Alli finally discovered in the 1950s was women’s work.  She read Hannah Arendt, who led her to Simone de Beauvoir.  She studied Rebecca West and Mary Wollstonecraft.  In 1955 she told Dr. K that she was reading Lady Murasaki and that a man friend had just given her Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (192).

It’s highly unlikely that Sheldon read anything by Gilman, because Gilman was not largely rediscovered until late Second Wave Feminism.  Additionally, Phillips responded to an email query that neither Alice or Mary mention Gilman in their personal writing.  This makes the connections between these two authors’ works that much more interesting.

Sheldon’s late awakening to First Wave Feminism beyond her own headstrong and striving character to lead her own life and propagate negentropy (altruistic adding information and order to the universe), situates her in a unique position as a bridge between the old guard and the approaching Second Wave marked by the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.

Second Wave Feminism and Its Influence on Sheldon

Following World War II, the short term freedoms won by women both on the home front (e.g., jobs, economic independence, and greater self-esteem and personal worth) as well as on the front lines (e.g., the Women’s Army Corps, of which Sheldon was a member during her photoreconnaissance work in WWII) didn’t last for long.  However, there was a backlash against women in the wake of the war that by-and-large forced them back into the home.

Many women struck back at these trends to enforce culturally derived notions about a woman’s place in society.  Leading up to Second Wave Feminism there were several key events and shifts taking place that led to the new wave.  First, Esther Peterson was named Assistant Secretary of Labor and Director of the United States Women’s Bureau for President John F. Kennedy.  She directed investigations and commissions that uncovered discrimination against women across the board, which led state and city governments to follow suit and form their own commissions.  Another impetus was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1963, and it disseminated what is best described as a popularized version of the government reports.  Then, in an attempt to kill the Civil Rights Act of 1964, certain members of Congress included sex along with race and religion as criteria barring discrimination.  However, this ploy failed, and as a result, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, and religion.  And finally, women were already involved in the civil rights and peace movements, but they were restricted from attaining the higher positions within these organizations.  Therefore, women had to go out on their own and found organizations, such as NOW, to address issues with which they were most concerned.

These new organizations, as well as individuals, were concerned about several key issues.  The Equal Rights Amendment was hoped to establish equality by employing simple language:  “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” (Paul sec. 1).  There were also struggles over reintegrating women into the public sphere and the work place.  One way to accomplish this was achieved in the 1972 Title IX Education Codes, which regulate how education is done in public schools.  It guarantees access to education regardless of sex.  Other important goals involved women’s health care issues (e.g., physical, mental, and spiritual), and domestic issues such as having access to the things that make a household work (e.g., having a credit card in one’s own name).

Sheldon was aware of the growth of women’s rights, and she contributed to the effort through letter writing and research that ultimately didn’t result in a book as she had initially hoped.  After Sheldon had begun writing SF as James Tiptree, Jr., she paused in the spring and summer of 1973 to begin a new project.  It was to be “a book under her own name, on the nature of women, to be called ‘The Human Male’” (Phillips 291).  It was to be an “answer to all the ‘scientific’ studies men had produced over the years on Woman” (Phillips 291).  Sheldon set out to counter male centric views in these ways:

It would review current research on gender differences while serving as a guide for young women to the male world and the male agenda…At the same time, by talking about men from a woman’s point of view, it would illustrate women’s way of looking at the world (Phillips 291).

Had “The Human Male” been completed and published, it would have been a work much like Gilman’s earlier works about women, and it would have employed a strategy similar to that Gilman uses in Herland.  However, Sheldon never finished “The Human Male,” but she did utilize “talking about men from a woman’s point of view” in a future Tiptree story, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

Twice Told Tales:  Herland and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

Sheldon, as Tiptree, wrote stories about women either escaping the bounds of Earth and male patriarchy, as in “The Women Men Don’t See,” or women who entered the patriarchic circuit found only pain and death as in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”  However, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is a compelling example, because it follows on the footsteps, most probably unknowingly, on that of Gilman’s Herland.  Both works appropriate a male voice, but the dissonances and contrasts reveal a woman’s point of view speaking of men.

Herland is about a group of three male adventurers who discover an isolated land only attainable by the then new technology of powered flight, and there they discover much to their initial disbelief that only women populate it.  In fact, as Lane describes:

In Herland women have created a utopia without men at all.  Again this world is unfolded through male eyes and a male consciousness, not in the traditional manner of a dialogue, but through the dramatic confrontation that occurs when three American men stumble on an all-female society (xiii).

The “dramatic confrontation” allows “Gilman [to romp] through the game of what is feminine and what is masculine, what is manly and what is womanly, what is culturally learned and what is biologically determined male-female behavior” (Lane xiii).  The author’s questioning of accepted sex/gender roles through contrasts and confrontation breaks with the typically didactic approach of earlier utopia fictions.

Gilman explores male points of view through her three American male creations in the story:  Terry, Jeff, and Van.  Terry is a hyper-masculine chauvinist, who is rich, a dilettante, and mechanically inclined.  Jeff is a sentimentalist who is the opposite of Terry, because he idolizes women and reads poetry.  Between these polar opposites is Van, a sociologist.  He represents a synthesis of Terry and Jeff, but he’s also a willing learner and he never fit in well in our world outside Herland.

The men are presented with a world created by Gilman that combines elements of “the new woman” and “the true woman” into what Rebecca Holden labeled, “the new, true woman.”  This amalgamation combines the “new woman’s” concept of “angels in the household” with the “true woman’s” “cult of domesticity” and “cult of true woman,” both of which were debated during the era of First Wave Feminism.  Examples of the “new woman” in Gilman’s Herland include:  Celis insisting on carrying her own basket (92), the women’s control over their own sexuality and the sheer force of will to procreate (56), breaking the linkage between child bearing and childrearing (102-103), the women are “people” (137), switched gender roles, and Herlanders radical departure from Christianity (109).  Examples of the “true woman” in Herland overlaps some of those of the “new woman” and include:  sexual purity and non-sexuality, always considering the future, having children and nurturance, municipal housekeeping (e.g., Herland is like a great big house where the cats are quiet, everything has a purpose, it’s tidy, and there’s no distinction between public and private spheres), switched gender roles (e.g., Moadine was “patient…courteous,” but also described as “some great man” on page 74), and the religion of Herland as the worship of Motherhood or the cult of true womanhood (109).

James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” echoes the issues and narrative themes in Gilman’s Herland, though through a far-future lens and in light of the shift from First Wave Feminism to Second Wave Feminism.  Tiptree’s approach to this relied on her, “[embracing] evolutionary biology as a source of hope.  Only when people understood their biological drives, she believed, could they transcend them, learn to control their emotions, and achieve real cultural change” (Phillips 293).  She embraced this in her writings as James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon.  Also, her transcendent beliefs mirror those held by Gilman in that culturally derived containers that box people, particularly women, in, are something to be resisted and overcome.  However, Sheldon, as an experimental psychologist, believed that much of our behavior is wired into us, and “one of the ironies of [Sheldon’s] career as Tiptree is that she insisted most on the biological, essential nature of gender at the moment she seemed to be proving that it was all an act, that gender was what you said it was after all” (Phillips 294).

She did embrace the consciousness raising works and Second Wave Feminism beliefs, at least in part, because she realized how dated her own mother’s views were regarding equality of the sexes.  Her mother’s “independent spirit had begun to tarnish in Alli’s eyes.  Like many older women, Mary resisted the new wave of feminism, and Alli now described her as ‘distinctly unliberated’” (Phillips 296).  Additionally, her correspondence with other women SF writers, most notably Joanna Russ, further fueled her recognition of the plights of Second Wave Feminism.  However, these exchanges were tempestuous at times, because Sheldon performed herself as the male James Tiptree, Jr. in her correspondence as well as her writing until her identity was revealed in late 1976.

Sheldon, as Tiptree, received a real education about Second Wave Feminism from Russ, but she had been exposed to all major varieties through her reading.  The four types of Second Wave Feminism included liberal humanist feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and lesbian separatist feminism.  Betty Friedan is most closely associated with liberal humanist feminism.  Gilman and the contemporary critic, Shulamith Firestone are aligned with Marxist feminism and it’s analysis of reproduction with production.  The Catholic philosopher Mary Daly is a well known radical feminist who believes that patriarchy can not be changed from within–the entire system would need to be scraped and rebuilt from the ground up.  Lesbian separatist feminism is often connected to radical feminism, but it also holds that emotions for another woman are feminist ideas, and that only women can be feminists.  Joanna Russ runs the gamut between radical and a lesbian separatist both in her fiction and professional writing.  For example, Russ “wouldn’t accept [Tiptree] as an admirer, only sometimes as a sympathetic figure, and as a feminist not at all” (Phillips 305).

With these things at heart, Sheldon, as James Tiptree, Jr., began contemplating a new story for Vonda McIntyre’s upcoming anthology, Aurora:  Beyond Equality.  McIntyre and her coeditor, Susan Janice Anderson tasked Tiptree, Russ, and others to write “fiction that explored what the world might look like after equality between the sexes had been achieved” (Phillips 304).  The result for Tiptree was “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”  “Houston” is about a space mission with three men onboard who are flung several hundred years into the future after encountering an energetic solar flare at pointblank range.  These men discover that they are in a future inhabited only by cloned women who exist in an anarchistic culture of creativity and exploration on planets and in space.  In the end, two of the three spacemen react against their female rescuers and all three are ambiguously confined, because as Lady Blue tells Dr. Lorimer, “We can hardly turn you loose on Earth, and we simply have no facilities for people with your emotional problems” (Tiptree 221).

The obvious connection to Herland in “Houston” has to do with the fact that it’s a society of women with a unique means of reproduction.  Lorimer, the beta physicist of the three men, realizes when talking to the “twin” female Judys, “You aren’t sisters…You’re what we called clones” (Tiptree 206).  Judy Dakar replies, “Well, yes…We call it sisters” (Tiptree 206).  Gilman’s parthenogenesis in Herland, if there were some kind of scientific basis to it, would result in cloned children of the mother.  In “Houston,” there are many copies, but each copy is an individual with her own personality, goals, and abilities possibly shared with the other clones, but not necessarily so.  The elimination of men in the story necessitates women finding a way to continue the species.  However, a double meaning underlying the cloning is the solidarity and shared experience of women that’s realized through the “book” that each of the 11,000 clone types share to pass along information and experience across and between generations (Tiptree 207).  As sisters, they are human beings that sing, “Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, roaming songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs–everything” (Tiptree 207).  Also, they have love–friendships as well as deeper, physical love, which is diametrically opposite to the asexualized beings in Herland who literally consider one another sisters.  Another layer of meaning to the clones comes from a letter Tiptree wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin, in which she wrote, “the clone fantasy arose…from, ‘my own loneliness and longing for siblings–sisters especially’” (qtd. in Phillips 311).  Additionally, clones imply the elimination of having to make choices, which for Sheldon would have seriously considered in order to relieve her own stresses imposed by pushing herself professionally and creatively (Phillips 311).

A further parallel between Herland and “Houston” is that mothering and childcare take place behind the scenes.  In both cases, there’s a portion of telling, but little showing by either author.  Tiptree briefly describes the implementation of enucleated ovum in a mother’s womb, and Gilman recounts the parthenogenesis and restrictions placed on potential mothers in Herland.  These stories are significantly different than Joanna Russ’ Whileaway in The Female Man and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time in the way that childbirth and rearing are carefully described.

Sheldon breaks with Gilman regarding the ‘new true woman.’  Sheldon’s Second Wave Feminist ideals enables these future women to be sexual beings that enjoy one another and establish relationships beyond friendship.  In part, this is probably a wish fulfillment on Sheldon’s part, because of her own unrealized lesbian fantasies and relationships.

This is one of the things that the three astronauts in “Houston” are unable to wrap their patriarchal minds around.  Unlike Terry, Jeff, and Van, the astronauts aboard the Sunbird are all more or less chauvinistic.  Dr. Orren Lorimer is a physicist, and the narrator of the story.  Often there, but observing instead of acting, he’s accompanied by the alpha males of his crew compliment:  Major Norman (Dave) Davis and Captain Bud Geirr.  Bud rapes one of the female crew members aboard the Aurora, Dave tries to kill them all in support of his Judeo-Christian fundamentalism, and Lorimer watches and is slow to act in favor of the women with whom he’s supposedly aligned.

The actions and reactions of the male astronauts propelled into the future, “raises many more questions than it answers, including ‘Are men/women really like that?’ and ‘Is this society really happy?’” (Phillips 311).  On the one hand, these characters are extremes or archetypes that Tiptree employs to realize her utopia.  Additionally, “Tiptree said at the time that he was enjoying imagining the world of ‘Houston.’  It’s a world of cool, competent women who take care of practical matters while the men flounder in a useless search for hierarchy and authority” (Phillips 311).

As Phillips points out, the story very much rests on the problems of the men choosing to either conform or react to their new surroundings.  They come from a society very much entrenched in hierarchy and based on a command structure.  Coupled to that structure is the belief that as men, they are superior to women physically, mentally, and morally.  Cracking under the pressures of arriving in a ‘brave new world,’ Dave reverts to the patriarchy of his religion to enforce order, and Bud lapses into misogynistic power over women through rape.  Dave exceeds his rank by noting his middle name of “Paul” and proselytizing, “I was sent here…You have spared us from the void to bring Your light to this suffering world.  I shall lead Thine erring daughters out of the darkness.  I shall be a stern but merciful father to them in Thy name” (Tiptree 218).  Dave’s self-righteousness as a male, Christian leads him to the conclusion that the new world order is evil and it’s up to him as the ranking male to enforce God’s will on these feminine profaners.

When Bud rapes Judy in the bower, he openly speaks his inner thoughts under the influence of a drug administered by the women.  Between telling Judy sweet nothings and coaxing her towards sex, he says, “You can tell you’ve been out too long when the geeks start looking good.  Knockers, ahhh–,” and “Ass-s-s…Up you bitch, ahhh-hh” (Tiptree 213).  For Bud, the women are objects subject to his will and exist for his gratification.  His hostility to women marks him as a misogynist surpassing even Terry in Herland.  However, even more interesting about this character is his refusal to believe that he and his two crewmates are literally the last men.  Judy, held and shaken by Bud, asks, “Why do there have to be men,” and Bud replies, “Why, you stupid bitch…Because, dummy, otherwise nothing counts, that’s why” (Tiptree 215).  For Bud, Dave, and even Lorimer, men are the unit by which progress and life are measured.  Without male patriarchy, “nothing counts” in their antiquated worldview.

One final comparison between the two stories involves the use of plants in both stories.  Herlanders cultivate the Earth by means of a harmonious arrangement that doesn’t serve to deplete or destroy their isolated ecosystem.  The female spacefarers of “Houston” use plants for air and food on their long journeys.  It’s necessary for them to maintain a balanced ecosystem within the metal confines of their ship holding out the vacuum of space.  In Herland, Van comments on Jeff by recording, “Jeff, with his gentle romantic old-fashioned notions of women as clinging vines” (Gilman 21).  Tiptree mentions vines, particularly kudzu, within the confines of the women’s spaceship Gloria.  The literary identification of the vine with Eve/woman has a long history.  Horace and Virgil both wrote of the vine wedded to the elm, and in Christian theology and related literature such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, the identification falls between the vine/Eve and the elm/Adam.  However, Gilman and Tiptree use this imagery for different effect.  Gilman further develops Jeff as the hopeless romantic who idolizes women, and therefore doesn’t understand them as people, but as objects worthy of worship as defined by man.  Tiptree specifically names the vine as kudzu, which is a peculiar choice compared to the more pleasant vines like ivy (168).  Kudzu would be useful in a space environment, because it grows very quickly and spreads out to cover a large area.  In this sense, when the reader later discovers that the Earth has been overrun by women and the men metaphorically suffocated by a disease induced failure at the genetic level, it’s apparent that kudzu is more than a scientifically minded choice on Tiptree’s part.  However, kudzu’s enormous growth potential must be controlled, just as the cloning and expansion of the new feminine-only humanity is controlled collectively.

Tiptree’s use of kudzu and other troubling imagery in “Houston,” could be a warning about what might appear as a perfect lesbian separatist utopia, which Philips described thus:

Alli decided after all to write about an all-female world, as seen through the eyes of a male narrator.  She wanted to know what women would be like as themselves, outside men’s shadow.  The world of ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is more peaceful than ours, and knows neither greed nor power.  But it does not seem like a free or comfortable place–certainly not a utopia in which Alli could live (310).

This is where the story derives its power.  Additionally, the story explores recurrent Tiptree themes:

The question of the alienness of women to men and men to women is an important one in her work.  The alienation of one sex from another stands as the paradigm, one to which she repeatedly returns, of other forms of difference, of the relation between self and Other (Lefanu 108).

Typically utopian authors build utopia to match their ideal world, but in this case Tiptree/Sheldon uses the utopian setting to challenge and provoke the reader.  And, it is this skill that she employed on her other stories to make them memorable and notable as great SF.


Reading and engaging Gilman’s Herland and Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” provides a new insight into the literary development of feminist literature in transition from First Wave Feminism to Second Wave Feminism.  Furthermore, reading these two works together brings out further meaning from each singular story.  They are in dialog with one another thematically, narratively, and culturally, and therefore, deserve critical analysis together even if the connection was not deliberate.

Herland provides a primarily upbeat and comical utopian fiction about the successes of a race of women, while “Houston” reveals darker themes about a female utopia threatened by the male penetrating force as well as the conviction of the new female-only world order.  First Wave Feminists such as Gilman were fighting for something that they had not had before, while Sheldon as a product of First and Second Wave Feminism shows a hidden anxiety about the potential loss of gains made, but she also makes clear that women are capable of confining threats and ultimately, building utopia.

The most fascinating thing about the parallels between Gilman and Sheldon’s lives and works is that Sheldon probably didn’t know about or read Herland.  The parallels in theme and narrative elements are unmistakable, but they are telling very different stories.  Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is a bridge between time as well as ideological and political ideas.  Even today, these works are invaluable cultural resources that tell us about where we’ve been and they point the way to way to the future by challenging us to consider new possibilities as well as warn us about our launching pad.

Works Cited

Adams, Abigail and John.  “Letters Between Abigail Adams and Her Husband John Adams.”  The Liz Library Collections.  1998.  15 May 2007 <;.

Friedan, Betty.  The Feminine Mystique.  New York:  Dell, 1963.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  Herland.  New York:  Pantheon, 1979.

Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace. John Conington trans. London: George Bell and Sons, 1882. 17 May 2007 <;.

Lane, Ann J.  “Introduction to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.”  Herland.  New York:  Pantheon, 1979.  v-xxiii.

Lefanu, Sarah.  Feminism and Science Fiction.  Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana UP, 1989.

Milton, John.  Paradise Lost.  1674.  16 May 2007 <;.

Paul, Alice.  “Equal Rights Amendment.”  National Organization of Women.  1921.  16 May 2007 <;.

Piercy, Marge.  Woman on the Edge of Time.  London:  The Women’s Press, 2000.

Phillips, Julie.  Email to the author.  7 June 2007.

—.  James Tiptree, Jr.:  The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2006.

Russ, Joanna.  The Female Man.  London:  The Women’s Press, 2002.

Tiptree, James, Jr.  “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”  Warm Worlds and Otherwise. New York: Ballantine, 1975. 79-121.

—.  “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”  Her Smoke Rose Up Forever:  The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr.  Wisconsin:  Arkham House, 1990.  168-222.

—.  “The Women Men Don’t See.”  The Year’s Best Science Fiction No. 8.  ed. by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss.  London:  Sphere, 1976.  57-88.

Vergil. Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics Of Vergil. J. B. Greenough. Boston: Ginn & Co, 1900.  17 May 2007 <;.

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin, Final Paper, Voices of the Alien Other During Wartime in the SF of Heinlein, Le Guin, and Haldeman, May 17, 2007

This is the sixteenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

I wrote this essay as the final project in ENGL681: Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin module of the MA in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool. This module was challenging and fun. We read a lot of Le Guin’s writing alongside criticism, theory, and historical context. Around this time, I also had read Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman. The overlapping resonance in their works led me to write this essay.

At the end of the essay, after its works cited list, I am including a Coda that I cut from the first draft in order to fit the assignment’s word count. Also, it wasn’t germane to my overall discussion. However, including it here might be useful for readers interested in other fictions related to the three discussed in the main essay by Heinlein, Haldeman, and Le Guin.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

ENGL681: Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin

May 17, 2007

Voices of the Alien Other During Wartime in the SF of Heinlein, Le Guin, and Haldeman

Years ago at an MLA conference I saw a young man, a graduate student, read a paper on one of Ursula Le Guin’s science-fiction novels.  After he had finished and it was time for discussion, a handsome, middle aged woman at the back of the room rose and said emphatically, “You’re wrong.  I didn’t.”  It was Le Guin.

Joanna Russ, “Letter to Susan Koppelman”

Writing academic criticism about living authors is a problematic enterprise, particularly involving metaphorical and textual meanings, but it’s a practical and essential element of literary exploration and discussion.  Regardless of the intentions of authors, readers bring their own point of view and cultural education to a text, so there are myriad connections between stories and cultural frameworks in which these texts are situated.  A significant intersection within the cultural web has do to with SF stories about the Vietnam War and the loss of a voice from the objectified alien other.

War, military conquest, and military adventure all have a long history in SF.  However, the stories that came out during and around the hot zone phase of the Cold War (i.e., around the time of the Korean War and more markedly, the Vietnam War) show a growing disparity of belief involving the militarized might makes right in earlier SF.  To explore the shift in tone and meaning of military SF as a social message, it’s best to begin by looking at the text most recognizably identified as the model for post-WWII military SF:  Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  Following that work are the very different, but analogously connected anti-Vietnam War texts:  Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest.  Haldeman’s novel is a reaction to Heinlein’s militarized future seemingly always at war with the alien other.  Le Guin’s novel, based on her earlier 1972 novella of the same name, goes beyond the singular voice of the war makers and includes the cacophony of voices on both sides of conflict.  Her approach, as illustrated in many of her earlier works, is a more elaborate synthesis of the (mis)communication and (mis)understandings that lead to war (i.e., the aggressive self-righteous and apparently technologically superior oppressing the native alien other and the oppressed appropriating the power of the oppressor in order to fight back and gain agency in the power system engaged between the two groups).

“The Only Good Bug is a Dead Bug”

It’s important to put Haldeman’s and Le Guin’s identifiably anti-Vietnam War texts in perspective both textually and historically, and this is best accomplished by looking at Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, because it set the stage for future SF works dealing with the military and war themes.  Starship Troopers is historically located at the historical apex of the first phase of the Cold War.  The novel was originally published six years after the end of the Korean War, five years before the Gulf on Tonkin Incident, and the same year as the Cuban Revolution and the founding of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam.  Strictly speaking, this is a novel created in the midst of the Cold War as well as at the crux of some of the bloodiest ‘hot spots’ in the protracted conflict between Western and Eastern powers during that era.  Instead of presenting a reaction against protracted and ambiguous wars, Heinlein presents a militarist utopic future that glorifies the role of the soldier as the only person capable and permitted to be a voting citizen.  The author idealizes the military and the way he believes the military could be employed to elevate the citizenry of a future society.  However, the way in which Heinlein engages the conflict between humanity and the alien other (i.e., the Skinnies and the Bugs) are the most telling elements of the novel despite the fact that human-alien conflict actually occupies a small portion of the text in comparison to his utopic world building.

The reader learns about Heinlein’s militarized future and the war with the Bugs through the protagonist and narrator, Juan “Johnnie” Rico.  It’s interesting that the author chose to have a narrator who is decidedly Filipino as evidenced by his name and the fact that he tells Bernardo at the end of chapter thirteen that his native language is Tagalog (Heinlein 218).  The Philippines are a strategic military location for the United States, particularly during World War II and the subsequent Korean War, both of which took place prior to the novel’s publication.  For all of the novel’s flaws, Heinlein’s presentation of racial equality on Earth is one positive element of an otherwise militaristic future utopia, and I mean utopia in the sense that it’s a wish fulfillment on the part of the author, otherwise it’s decidedly a dystopia for the civilians sans suffrage.

The other element of Johnnie’s character has to do with Heinlein’s choice for his name.  First, his nickname, Johnnie, recalls the famous American World War I song, “Over There.”  Written by George M. Cohan in 1917, it begins, “Johnnie, get your gun/Get your gun, get your gun/Take it on the run…Over there, over there.”  Hence, one of the nicknames of Americans fighting in the Great War:  Johnnies.  This creates a dual identity for Johnnie as both American as well as a member of a group of people ceded from Spain to the United States following the Spanish-American War, and eventually achieving independence after World War II.  Johnnie’s first name, Juan, derives from the Spanish form of Hebrew names such as Yohanan, which may be translated as “God favors.”  This may be true as the narrative follows Johnnie through training and battles until the final drop, which provides an ambiguous ending possibly to Johnnie’s life as well as that of the war.  His last name, Rico, is of Italian origin and its root meaning is rich or powerful.  Johnnie is from an apparently wealthy family, but his mother and father lack enfranchisement, because they have not served a term in the military, which is necessary before one is allowed to vote.  Another way of looking at his name, according to root meanings, is that Juan Rico means “God favors the rich” or by extension, “God favors the bold.”  This bears a similarity with Virgil’s famous quote, “Audentes fortuna iuvat” or “Fortune favors the bold.”  This often quoted motto can easily be used as a call to arms, particularly for the military hegemony of Johnnie’s future reality in the twenty-eighth century are bold in their routing of alien species in the planned annexation of more planetary space for humanity.

Johnnie’s bold comrades in arms come from all corners of the Earth in their united attack on the alien other.  This is an interesting turnabout by Heinlein that seems to point to the possibility that people will always find an alien other.  After (most) vestiges of inequality along racial and gender lines are removed, humanity has to look elsewhere for the alien other to objectify and therefore, become the literal and figurative targets of humanity’s need for a group to lower in comparison to ourselves.  Heinlein create two literal alien species in the novel, known only by their derogatory names:  the Skinnies and the Bugs.  There is only one battle, in the first chapter, with the Skinnies.  Johnnie describes them as, “local yokels,” and, “geezers [that are] humanoid, eight or nine feet tall, much skinnier than we are…[and] they don’t wear any clothes” (Heinlein 15 and 16).  Johnnie, clad in his “powered suit” that looks like “a big steel gorilla” leaps over buildings firing as many weapons as possible so that he rejoins the other soldiers with all ammunition expended.  Of course, the side effect of using a great deal of rockets, miniature nuclear bombs, and a flame thrower in close proximity to the enemy, there is a lot of collateral damage, carnage, and death.

Heinlein’s treatment of the Bugs is even more telling about the way the enemy is objectified in the course of military engagements.  Halfway through the novel, Johnnie describes them as:

The Bugs are not like us…They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s conception of a giant, intelligent spider, but their organization, psychological and economic, is more like that of ants or termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive” (Heinlein 117).

The enemy’s human-given derogatory name, ‘Bugs,’ itself implies a pest, which necessitates eradication.  The multicultural and racially diverse Mobile Infantry belies the racial hatred and prejudice of the alien Skinnies and Bugs.  Additionally, these eusocial arthropod-like organisms represent an evolved form of communism, which mirrors social Darwinian issues propounded by earlier authors such as H.G. Wells.

Heinlein’s Bugs are colonizing social insects on a much larger and more developed scale than mere pests.  They are clearly intelligent creatures, albeit different that ourselves, but nonetheless worthy of a narrative voice.  What is their side’s view of the conflict?  What do the inhabitants of Klendathu think of humanity and humanity’s military?  Heinlein, through Johnnie, removes all volition and agency on the part of the Bugs.  The fact that it is an intelligent and evolved species means nothing, because they are not us.  Their difference marks them, like their given name, as worthy only of a boot stomping on them forever, and this itself leads to an unwitting reversal on humanity, which I’ll return to in more depth later in this paper.

The ambiguity of the Bug war along with the one-sided view presented to the reader combine to shutout the alien other from any possibility of discourse.  As a Cold War narrative, Starship Troopers mirrors the ambiguity of the post-WWII tension and remotely engaged overt hostilities between the democratic West and the communist East.  For the West, it was impossible to popularly envision giving a voice, much less a privileged voice, to communist sympathizers or Politburo officials.  The reason for this is the West’s view of the subversive nature of communism.  Giving the enemy (i.e., the communists) a voice would be adverse to the stability of democracy.  Heinlein recreated this political narrative of his here-and-now in the pages of his military SF masterpiece.  The Bugs are an enemy that lie under the surface, hidden, burrowing to find new avenues of escape into the open, which represents the political consciousness of the West (i.e., privileged humanity).  Therefore, the Bugs cannot be allowed to speak, because they would undermine the military and political effort to eradicate both their race as well as their (literally) evolved political ideology.

Heinlein’s novel is not about the Vietnam War, but it sets the stage for future military SF stories.  However, it is written on the heels of the Korean War, which has many parallels with the Vietnam War.  One of those parallels is the continuous nature of protracted war in the post-WWII era.  Joe Haldeman and Ursula K. Le Guin draw on this as well as issues of voice, agency, and enemy identities as presented in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in their Vietnam War based SF works, which are as much a reaction against Heinlein’s treatise as the war itself.

When Will This War Ever End?

In the “Authors Note” at the beginning of the 2004 Gollancz edition of The Forever War, Joe Haldeman writes that it, “was not an easy book to sell back in the early seventies.  It was rejected by eighteen publishers before St. Martin’s Press decided to take a chance on it.”  The publishers that turned him down said to Haldeman, “Pretty good book…but nobody wants to read a science fiction novel about Vietnam” (“Authors Note”).  And Vietnam is precisely what the novel is about, because as Haldeman writes, “that’s the war the author was in,” but he also says, “it’s mainly about war, about soldiers, and about the reasons we think we need them” (“Authors Note”).

Haldeman’s novel is a reaction to the year he spent as a draftee in Vietnam in 1968-1969 (ten years after the publication of Starship Troopers), and it relies on the military SF history provided by works such as those by Heinlein and earlier pulp stories by E.E. “Doc” Smith.  Like Starship Troopers, the majority of the novel is concerned with the minutiae of soldiering life, though not as much about the training as in Heinlein’s novel.  However, this is reflective of the differences in the two authors’ military backgrounds.  Heinlein graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy on an officer track prior to the Second World War.  Haldeman was a Vietnam draftee who, as did many of the young soldiers from that war, received basic training and were subsequently dumped into the action just as the reader is at the beginning of The Forever War with the opening line, “Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man” (3).

William Mandella, the protagonist and narrator of The Forever War, does in fact kill.  However, like Johnnie Rico, the military encounters are few and far between.  Both novels, as Haldeman claims about his own novel, are “about soldiers and about the reasons we think we need them” (“Authors Note”).  The role of the soldier, or in this case, William Mandella, is integral to our understanding of the alien other, because he’s the soldier who interacts with the alien other through the sights of a loaded weapon.

Haldeman’s protagonist’s name is an interesting choice that has meaning within the context of humanity and its relationship with the alien other.  First, William has its origins in German, but it’s a widely popular name in English speaking countries and in particular the United States, but it has also been the name of several notable kings and historical figures.  The German version of William is Wilhelm, which breaks down into the roots, der Wille and der Helm.  Der Wille means will or volition and der Helm means helmet or protection.  As a soldier, his will is to protect the fatherland, and to fight promotes his will.  However, he’s an educated person who is a draftee.  His family name, Mandella, is more engaging due to its obvious association with the word, mandala.  A mandala is a symbol, sometimes described as a dynamic symbol, or as an archetype in Jungian psychology that represents the unity of self and completeness.  Haldeman’s choice here is almost, but not nearly as transparent as Stephenson’s Hiro Protagonist in Snow Crash.  Here, Haldeman is clearly employing this character to represent something else.  This includes the eponymous everyman soldier involved in a conflict that is far removed from their experience and everyday reality, but it also must mean the divided individual who through training and subversion has found him or herself changed and made less whole by the experience of engaging in war making.  Another example of this kind of mandalic character is Joseph Heller’s ambivalent Captain John Yossarian in his 1961 novel about World War II, Catch-22, which might have also been another of Haldeman’s influences.

It wasn’t Mandella’s desire to be a soldier, but the military provides his volition, or rather, removes his volition and replaces it with theirs through the use of post-hypnotic suggestions.  In the first battle with the Taurans, Sergeant Cortez (the similarity of the name with the Spanish conquistador is unmistakable), shouts over the com channel to his subordinates:

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled;

Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,

Welcome to your gory bed,

Or to victory (Haldeman 66)!

This is the opening stanza to Robert Burns’ poem, “Scots Wha Hae.”  The poem is meant to be what Bruce said to his troops prior to the Battle of Bannockburn against Edward II.  This is an ironic selection for the future military to chose, because the poem also refers to the oppression of the Scottish by the English.  The poem’s future purpose is an oppression of the will of the soldiers, because it turns them into killing machines.  It obviates the possibility of discussion with the alien other, the Taurans.  Therefore, the poem’s meaning is subverted to a military need for a breakdown in communication, because without communication, the propagation and continuation of war is able to continue unimpeded.

The military needs the disconnect between individuals on humanity’s side and the objectified Taurans as targets (possibly another word association on the author’s part).  After the war begins with a Gulf of Tonkin-like incident between Terran and Tauran ships far from Earth, the unwillingness of the humans to discuss the situation with the other side illustrates the extent humanity will go to in order to ostracize and make an object of other groups:  in this case, literal aliens.  Toward this end, the author is skillful in selecting what the reader is presented in terms of physical description of the Taurans in order to promote the objectification taking place within the narrative.  For example, the soldiers don’t really know what a Tauran even looks like on their first mission.  At first, they mistake what they call “teddy bears” as the Taurans.  Unfortunately, the soldiers are wrong, and that species’ psionic powers kills or debilitates several humans with psychic abilities.  Then, when the platoon actually encounters the Tauran forces, Mandella describes them thus:

The creature riding it was a little more human-looking than the teddy bears, but still no prize…He had two arms and two legs, but his waist was so small you could encompass it with both hands.  Under the tiny waist was a large horseshoe-shaped pelvic structure nearly a meter wide, from which dangled two long skinny legs with no apparent knee joint.  Above that waist his body swelled out again, to a chest no smaller than the huge pelvis.  His arms looked surprisingly human, except that they were too long and undermuscled.  There were too many fingers on his hands…His head was a nightmarish growth that swelled like a goiter from his massive chest.  Two eyes that looked like clusters of fish eggs, a bundle of tassels instead of a nose, and a rigidly open hole that might have been a mouth sitting low down where his adam’s apple should have been (Haldeman 59-60).

Mandella continually compares the Tauran with humans as the norm.  Also, his “nightmarish” description of “eyes that looked like clusters of fish eggs” and “a bundle of tassels instead of a nose” are reminiscent of BEMS.  Haldeman’s alien other is objectified as being too foreign, and too strange, to be acknowledged as a group of individuals with minds, opinions, and volition.  The slaughter of the Taurans that follows this description further reinforces the lack of volition and agency on the part of the aliens, and literally makes the beings targets for the human military machine.  However, Haldeman’s objective is differentiated from that of Heinlein.  The Forever War is about Vietnam and the military practices that Haldeman experienced while in the military.  U.S. soldier’s identification of the Viet Cong as “Charlie,” drawing from the racist Charlie Chan films, is one way in which the enemy were made objectified targets by the military in order to rationalize and relieve soldiers’ consciences about the wholesale slaughter induced in the protracted “conflict.”

Everyone Deserves a Voice

Ursula K. Le Guin is known for her anthropological approach to SF in many of her stories.  In some novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness, the reader is presented with different, and sometimes contradicting, observations from two different characters.  Having a shifting narrative, particularly when Genly Ai and Estraven are on the frozen wasteland of Gethen, reveals the way in which deceptively simplistic matters such as gender and cultural norms are far more complex than at the first look.  Other stories, such as Le Guin’s “The Matter of Seggri” read like an anthropological notebook full of stories by Seggrians as well as Hainish observers along with anecdotes and other miscellanea.  Another story of this kind is her novel, Always Coming Home, which was also released with its own soundtrack of imagined songs of the Kesh in the far future of Northern California.

In these stories and many of her others, Le Guin is actively working to answer the question, “What about the cultural and the racial Other?” (“American” 94).  What she means by the “racial Other” is, “the Alien everybody recognizes as alien, supposed to be the special concern of SF” (“American” 94).  The alien other is an important element of SF, but the way in which authors engage and challenge our understanding of it has changed over time.  For example, “in the old pulp SF it’s very simple.  The only good alien is a dead alien–whether he is an Aldebaranian Mantis-Man or a German dentist” (“American” 94).  Here, Le Guin is talking about BEMS (Bug Eyed Monsters), which are a recurring component of SF, particularly in the pulp era.  Its in this passage that she’s also referring to the presentation of the alien other in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War.  In both cases, aliens are targets, not real characters/beings/persons.  What constitutes the alien other may not necessarily be an alien in the strictest sense of the word.  The alien other may be quiet familiar but objectified, given no voice, and therefore, without volition or agency.

The objectification of the alien other in this manner elicits a power relationship between the subject with power and the objectified without power.  This kind of power relationship can lead to a turnabout for the power subject:

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself–as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation–you may hate it or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality and its human reality.  You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship.  And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.  You have, in fact, alienated yourself (“American” 95).

Le Guin argues that turning others into mere things, “has been remarkably strong in American SF” (“American” 96).  This leads to what we encounter in Starship Troopers and The Forever War, to which Haldeman was ironically reacting against:

The only social change presented by most SF has been toward authoritarianism, the domination of ignorant masses by a powerful elite–sometimes presented as a warning, but often quite complacently.  Socialism is never considered as an alternative, and democracy is quite forgotten.  Military virtues are taken as ethical ones (“American” 95).

Heinlein’s military-only enfranchised citizenry serves as the power elite in Starship Troopers, and even though it isn’t fully developed, the reader is capable of extrapolating the perpetuation of war as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and un-disguising Eisenhower’s conception of the military-industrial complex gone awry and power hungry.  Additionally, Heinlein builds a moral and ethical system around military codes of conduct in the didactic “History and Moral Philosophy” classroom flashbacks.  Haldeman’s William Mandella finds himself drawn to the ‘security’ and ‘safety’ of the military, because the author inverts the battlefield with the home front.  The ignorant masses of civilians are unfettered by the power elite who pursue war while neglecting social systems and the civilization at home on Earth.  War for war’s sake is pursued until the two sides in the conflict, humanity and the Taurans, come together to discuss how the conflict began, and that it should end before both species were destroyed not necessarily from without, but from within.  However, the reader doesn’t actually get to hear this from a Tauran, but from far future descendants of humanity.

Le Guin must have had these stories or similar military SF stories in mind when she wrote The Word for World Is Forest.  She originally penned the story as a novella in 1968 while she was staying in London for a year, and she titled it, “The Little Green Men.”  Before it’s inclusion in Harlan Ellison’s collection, Again, Dangerous Visions, he “retitled it, with [her] rather morose permission” (Word 7).  She describes the source for writing the story as a need to fill a void left by her disengagement with the anti-war movement in the United States.  She writes in the introduction to the novel:

All through the sixties, in my home city in the States, I had been helping organise and participating in non-violent demonstrations, first against atomic bomb testing, then against the pursuance of the war in Viet Nam.  I don’t know how many times I walked down Alder Street in the rain, feeling useless, foolish, and obstinate (Word 7).

Her involvement against the rise of Eisenhower’s prophesied military-industrial complex ran the gamut of Cold War conflict escalation.  In England, she was disconnected from the outlet that she enjoyed in the United States, which was to non-violently demonstrate against the Johnson-Nixon-Kissinger mushroom cloud carrying a fallout of death and suffering from promoting Western ideology by treating other groups of people as objects and not subjects.

The Word for World is Forest is constructed around the importance of voices, even those most disgusting and reviling.  The novel’s narrative is presented through the voices of three males involved in the struggle on a planet distant from Earth known as Athshe, which means ‘forest’ in the native language.  Two of these narrators are Terrans from Earth and the third is a native Athsean.  It’s important to consider hidden meanings in the choice of names, because as Le Guin has stated in the introduction to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in her collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters:

I sat down and started a story, just because I felt like it, with nothing but the word “Omelas” in mind.  It came from a road sign:  Salem (Oregon) backwards…Salem equals schelomo equals salaam equals Peace.  Melas.  O melas.  Omelas.  Homme hélas.  “Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?”  From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally.  Where else? (276)

However, this example illustrates that more than reading road signs backwards goes into the pool from which she catches her stories.  Stream of consciousness and word association plays an integral part into developing the seed that germinates into a realized story.  For this reason, some attention should be directed towards possible points of origin for the names of the protagonists in The Word for World is Forest.

Chapters one, four, and seven are explicated from the perspective of Captain Davidson.  This character is best described as a purely evil person who has a near-psychotic self-righteousness that manifests itself in his debasement of the Athseans or creechies as well as of other Terrans including his commanding officer.  Further scrutiny of his name may belie Le Guin’s choice for it.  Davidson is a surname of English origin that literally means, “Son of David.”  However, this character is no Solomon!  Another connection may come from historical persons involved in the Vietnam War.  Two notable persons are Lieutenant General Phillip Buford Davidson, Jr., who served as Westmoreland’s J-2 in Vietnam  (Ford par. 18), and Major General Alexander K. Davidson, who provided tactical airlift services to the Vietnam theater of operations during the late 1960s (Air Force Link par. 4).  However, it’s most likely that Le Guin wanted to place Davidson in opposition to Captain Raj Lyubov not only in their firmly held beliefs of one another, but also through the connection between Davidson’s English name and Raj’s given name, which implies the British term of empire in India.  Therefore, further conjuring the image of the oppressors and the oppressed, and by extension, the oppressed and the formerly oppressed seeking to help out those persons in a similar situation.

Captain Raj Lyubov occupies chapters three and five.  He makes a point to learn Selver’s true name and to become his friend after Captain Davidson nearly kills Selver.  Lyubov is a “spesh” or a specialist and scientist.  In essence, he’s Le Guin’s avatar or representative within the narrative as an anthropologist trying to figure out these native relatives of humanity.  His name is particularly interesting.  His given name, Raj, literally means ruler, prince, or royalty, but it also reminds the reader of England’s imperialistic history and its oppression of India during the ‘Raj.’  He’s not a character to actively aid Selver’s people, but he doesn’t warn his own people about an impending attack, which in itself is a traitorous act of rebellion against oppression.  Additionally, his surname, Lyubov is typically identified as a feminine Russian given name.  Could this imply that Lyubov has a ‘feminine’ side, or that he’s a hybrid personality that exhibits both the masculine and the feminine?  He’s in a male dominated military hierarchy, but he’s willing to consider and question the masculine rape of the land while not actively participating in it himself.  His full name also implies this hybridity, because of its combination of Indian and Russian names.  Le Guin fashions the other (i.e., Indo-Asian) with Davidson’s assumed ethnic superiority as ‘white’ while touching on a unity bridging the West and the East during the midst of the Cold War.

Selver, the native Athshean, occupies chapters two, six, and eight.  He’s the most powerful character in the novel, but he comes from a world without the power relationships inherent on Earth at that time or in Le Guin’s future.  His people invest great meaning in dreams and their interpretation.  Selver’s dreams lead him to a realization of how to remove the oppressors by appropriating the Earthmen’s tool of murder.  Of the three main characters, Selver’s name is the most interesting, and the one possibly the most full of hidden meanings.  Relying on Le Guin’s use of word play, it’s useful to explore anagrams of Selver and his home world, Athshe.  Two telling anagrams of Athshe are heaths and sheath.  A heath is land that has not yet been developed.  Before the arrival of Terrans to Athshe, the Athsheans lived in harmony with the land.  The Terrans’ develop the land by clear cutting it of all wood.  This development is actually destructive both to the planet and to its native inhabitants, and the act of destruction is itself in part handled by the natives in their forced support of the Terran occupiers.  The other anagram, sheath, implies a weapon not yet drawn.  The weapon is Selver’s awakening from dream with the means to lead and unify his people to remove the oppressors from Athshe.  Selver has two anagrams that describe his character.  One is revels, which comes from Old French, reveler, which means to rise up in rebellion.  The other is levers.  The obvious connection here is to Archimedes’ boast that given a long enough lever and place to stand, he could move the Earth.  What is more interesting is Thomas Paine’s use of Archimedes’ story in relation to the American revolution in his 1791 treatise, The Rights of Man.  He wrote, “What Archimedes said of the mechanical powers, may be applied to Reason and Liberty: ‘Had we,’ said he, ‘a place to stand upon, we might raise the world.’ The revolution of America presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics” (Paine, par. 1 and 2).  Selver is the revolutionary both in action and ideology.  He brings the ideas of revolution from the dream realm to the reality of his oppressed people.  As Paine argues, “Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think,” it is true too that Selver is the person to break free of “the slavery of fear” (par. 2).

Le Guin’s three protagonists create a spectrum of views within the conflict on Athshe between the Terrans and the Athsheans.  Lyubuv and Davidson are two opposing views on the Terran side.  Evoking her use of dualisms, these two characters represent good/evil, liberally open-minded/conservatively closed-minded, sane/psychotic, low self-confidence/egomaniacal self-image, and anthropologist-observer-preserver/soldier-reconnoiter-destroyer.  Together, Lyubuv and Davidson provide a Taoist resolution to humanity’s division.  Then, Selver is part of another Taoist matrix amongst his people as well as the other:  humanity.  Among the people of the Forty Lands, he is a god, a bringer of new ideas from the dream world to the waking world.  Unfortunately, he brings death and murder, but these are concepts also imported by humanity to Athshe by their inhumane treatment of the Athsheans and their contemptuous wholesale destruction of a once viable ecosystem.  Creating an analogous three dimensional matrix, Le Guin writes Selver as the other half of a ying-yang image with humanity.  Selver represents the living, but assumedly fragile forest, with his green fur and small stature.  However, he, like the forest containing his people, is a spring waiting to unleash its stored energies against the encroaching humans who threaten his world and his utopic existence.  In some ways, humanity in this story may feel threatened by the possibility of a utopic pastoral existence as that experienced by the Athsheans and it’s for this reason that their world and people are made to suffer.  Therefore, Le Guin completes her narrative of opposites with Selver appropriating the means of the oppressor to gain the respect and agency from humanity, and she accomplishes this both literally in the story and figuratively by giving Selver and his people a narrative voice, history, and spiritual life that one may only assume about Heinlein’s Bugs or Haldeman’s Taurans.


            These three political works by Heinlein, Haldeman, and Le Guin operate within a shared cultural space in the historical moment of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  These texts directly engage the increasingly technologized means of warfare and its relationship with political ideologies in ways that are unavailable to mainstream popular culture.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that Frederik Pohl argues, “there is very little science fiction, perhaps even that there is no good science fiction at all, that is not to some degree political” (7).  And, it’s the political message(s) within Starship Troopers, The Forever War, and The Word for World is Forest that make them enduring works.  However, these three novels remain classics, because they each spoke to and about a politically divisive time in the third quarter of the twentieth century.  They were engaged by readers at the time in which they were first published as well as in the intervening years to the present.  Just as much as these stories evoked what was in the minds of readers then, they continue to give the present an understanding and awareness of the times in which they were written.

Of these three authors, Le Guin creates a synthesis of the military SF tropes along with her recognizably anthropological approach to SF.  Her decision to do this facilitates multiple narrative voices that are necessary to better understanding the complexities of war and the way people on different sides of a conflict objectify and subjugate the alien other.

Works Cited

Burns, Robert.  “Scots Wha Hae.”  19 March 2002.  7 April 2007 <;.

Cohan, George M.  “Over There.”  2 August 2002.  7 April 2007 <;.

“Davidson, Major General Alexander K.”  Air Force Link.  September 1991.  6 April 2007 <;.

Ford, Harold P.  “Episode 3, 1967-1968: CIA, the Order-of-Battle Controversy, and the Tet Offensive.”  CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers:  Three Episodes 1962-1968.  1998.  6 April 2007 <;.

Haldeman, Joe.  The Forever War.  London:  Gollancz, 2004.

Heller, Joseph.  Catch-22.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1961.

Heinlein, Robert A.  Starship Troopers.  London:  New English Library, 1977.

Le Guin, Ursula K.  “American SF and the Other.”  The Language of the Night.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1993.  93-96.

—.  “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.  London:  Gollancz, 2000.  275-284.

—.  The Word for World is Forest.  London:  Victor Gollancz, 1977.

Orwell, George.  Nineteen Eighty-Four.  London:  Penguin, 2000.

Paine, Thomas.  “Introduction to Part the Second.”  The Rights of Man.  9 April 1998.  6 April 2007 <;.

Pohl, Frederik.  “The Politics of Prophecy.”  Political Science Fiction.  ed. Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox.  Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press, 1997.  7-17.

Russ, Joanna.  “Letter to Susan Koppelman.”  To Write Like a Woman:  Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction.  Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana University Press, 1995.  171-176.

Stephenson, Neal.  Snow Crash.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1992.


Coda to the above essay’s first draft.

One anti-Vietnam SF story that predates Le Guin’s novel, but provides multiple voices in a tangential way, is J.G. Ballard’s “The Killing Ground,” which shows how in a “world wide Vietnam,” English insurgents respond to captured American troops, and how an American officer uses his voice to mislead the English commander.  Another Vietnam era story is Gene Wolfe’s “Feather Tigers,” which is about an alien anthropologist studying the ruins of Earth, but it refuses to acknowledge the stories about the Mekong River Valley from a human created A.I. artifact.  A recent work similar to “Feather Tigers” is Robert J. Sawyer’s novel, Humans, which offers an interesting chapter that features different voices, one from our universe and one from a parallel Earth populated by Neanderthals, talking about the Vietnam War while looking at the memorial in Washington, D.C..  And finally, Bill Campbell’s Sunshine Patriots combines Heinlein, Haldeman, and Le Guin in a reactionary story against the John Wayne mythos and the first Iraq War.

Works Cited

Ballard, J.G.  “The Killing Ground.”  The Day of Forever.  London:  Panther, 1971.  138-146.

Campbell, Bill.  Sunshine Patriots.  Tucson:  Hats Off Books, 2004.

Sawyer, Robert J.  Humans.  New York:  Tor, 2003.

Wolfe, Gene.  “Feather Tigers.”  The Norton Book of Science Fiction.  eds.  Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery.  London:  W.W. Norton and Company, 1993.  280-286.

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Paper 2, Projecting Victorians into the Future Through the Works of H.G. Wells and Steampunk, Jan 8, 2007

This is the seventh post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This is the second major essay that I wrote for Professor Andy Sawyer’s Genre Definitions module in the MA in Science Fiction Studies program at the University of Liverpool. I condensed this essay into a briefer presentation that I gave first at the Faculty and Postgraduate School of English Seminar and then in Cambridge at Anglia Ruskin University’s SF and the Canon Conference [more details here].

In this essay, I work with texts that span the genre’s history from its proto-stage with H.G. Wells to its contemporary postmodern phase with Neal Stephenson. I explore the origins and meaning behind steampunk.

I spoke recently with Hal Hall about my Recovered Writing project. He had a similar idea to collect the papers at the major conferences. I might turn his idea to my own work and include my past presentations as a part of my Recovered Writing project.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Andy Sawyer

Genre Definitions Module

8 January 2007

Projecting Victorians into the Future Through the Works of H.G. Wells and Steampunk

Contemporary steampunk science fiction (SF) is best described as “the modern subgenre whose sf events take place against a 19th-century background” (Nicholls 1161).  These stories recall the early influential works of H.G. Wells.  In his future stories, Wells projects the people, customs, and culture of his own time, the late nineteenth-century Victorian era, onto the future.  Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come” is a powerfully illustrative story of that type.  Using this as a model, I argue that this is representative of one of two types of steampunk narrative.  The first, like Wells, projects Victorians forward into the future.  I call this type, “Wellsian steampunk,” and a significant example of this would be Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  The second type does the opposite and places present and/or future science and technology into the Victorian past.  I call this “hard steampunk,” because these stories best fit the accepted definition for the subgenre.  Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” is a prime example, and it presents a solid contrast between these two types of steampunk stories.

            Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come” serves as a model for the Wellsian variety of steampunk as well as the basis for steampunk and SF in general.  Also, this story and Wells’ other science fictional works are important to English literature.  This is one work in which he demonstrates, “the ability he shared with Dickens of taking subliterary forms and transforming them into intelligent literature” (Bleiler viii).  Additionally, he combines, “credible characterizations and a good story vehicle with the exposition necessary to a utopia…for the first time in English literature” (Bleiler viii).  His story is about people working their way through a utopian future (arguably dystopian), but along side that narrative, “he seems to have been the first to recognize that a society different from our own will have different social dynamics, and that the plot must grow out of the stresses peculiar to each imaginary society” (Bleiler viii-ix).  Therefore, Wells recognized the importance of sociology to developing a SF story set in a utopic or dystopic future.  However, Wells also realized that the estranging qualities of his story needed to be connected to his present, which generates, “His basic situation…that of a destructive newness encroaching up on the tranquility of the Victorian environment” (Suvin 208).  Thus, he projected the Victorians along a trajectory into his imagined future, which resulted in the estranging character of the Victorians in a future surrounded, and in some ways consumed, by new, far-future science and technology.

First published in 1899, Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come” is set in a technologized London in the early twenty-second-century.  The narrative concerns the fall of a young couple from the heights of the middle class into the dregs of the blue clad workforce and their miraculous re-ascent to the class of their birth by the self-motivated sacrifice of one of the woman’s earlier suitors.  Important themes within the story that identify this as a projection of Victorians into an imagined future include the Victorian obsessed young couple, class division, and the emerging technocrat.

The young couple (Elizabeth and Denton) is obsessed with Victorian artifacts and ideals.  One example of their obsession is the fact they resist their society’s conventions of using the latest audial and visual technology and choose to “read and write…and instead of communicating by telephone, like sensible people, they write and deliver…poems” (Wells 198).  Later, when they leave the city, “she wore a new dress of white cut in an old-fashioned pattern,” which is a contrast to the “pleasant pink and amber garments of air-tight material” that her father wears (Wells 194 and 212).  When they enjoy their independence as a middle class couple, they, “joyfully [buy] early Victorian treasures, veneered furniture, gold-framed steel engravings and pencil drawings, wax flowers under shades, stuffed birds, and all sorts of choice old things” (Wells 224).[1]  Thus, these two future Victorians clearly desire to live two hundred years in their past.

Connected to their desire for the past is their identification as Victorians transplanted into a future they are unprepared to meet.  During a powerful scene where the two encounter their first hailstorm, they “[seize] hands, these children of the city [and run] down the hill to their home in infinite astonishment” (Wells 216).  They are “children” not only of the city, but also of time.  As identified as forward flung Victorians, they are children of an advanced “age of cities” (Wells 219).  Their world is continually made helter-skelter after they reenter “the city that had swallowed up mankind” (Wells 220).  They are unprepared to deal with the reality in which they find themselves, because they engage Victorian ideals and cling to an alien past.  Therefore, their literal fall from the heights of middle class comes about, because they do not actively engage the future, but instead look back to the past.

Elizabeth and Denton’s fall from the middle class was not as terrible as it could have been, because “the new society was divided into three main classes” (Wells 221).  Wells copies the growth of the three classes from the Industrial Revolution and their solidification during the Victorian era.  The novella’s class system included, “at the summit slumbered the property owner, enormously rich by accident rather than design,” “the dwindling middle class [including] the minor rich,” and “the enormous multitude of workers employed by the gigantic companies” (Wells 221-222).  Additionally, the division is greatest between the lower and middle classes, which the narrator reveals by saying, “[Denton’s] taste would have seemed extreme to a man of the nineteenth century.  But slowly and inevitably in the intervening years a gulf had opened between the wearers of the blue canvas [indicating lower class, Labour Company workers] and the classes above, a difference not simply of circumstances and habits of life, but of habits of thought–even of language” (Wells 236).  In this passage, Wells establishes the amount of separation between the two most widely divergent classes as well as continue to reinforce his ideas about the perils inherent in the future of class division that he establishes in The Time Machine (1895).[2]  This reinforces Suvin’s observation that, “Wells’ first and most significant SF cycle (roughly to 1904) is based on the vision of a horrible novum as the evolutionary sociobiological prospect for mankind” (208).  The “horrible novum” in this example is the distancing between classes, which generates a conflict illustrating how, “the conflicts in his SF are therefore transferred–following the Social-Darwinist model–from society to biology” (Suvin 217).  However, the author links the poor of the future to those of the Victorian era when he writes, “In the refinement of life and manners these lower classes differed little from their ancestors, the East-enders of Queen Victoria’s time” (Wells 209). Therefore, Wells imagines that time produces a widening of the gap between the lower and middle classes, but the class members maintain a connection to their respective Victorian class members.

Associated with the Victorian era, early capitalist monopolization, and the middle class is the rise of the technocrat.  With capitalism’s greater reliance on science and technology at the turn of the twentieth-century, scientists and engineers began to accrete greater political power and some believed that they were better equipped to deal with the problems facing humanity such as war and class struggle.  Wells’ most fervent technocrat in “A Story of the Days to Come” is the last doctor that Elizabeth’s former suitor, Bindon, visits at the end of the novella.  After nonchalantly informing Bindon of his impending and social Darwinian necessitated death:

We hardly know enough yet to take over the management…Science is young yet.  It’s got to keep on growing for a few generations…You won’t see the time.  But, between ourselves, you rich men and party bosses, with your natural play of the passions and patriotism and religion and so forth, have made rather a mess of things…Some day…men will live in a different way…There’ll be a lot of dying out before that can come” (Wells 257).

After hearing his doctor’s monologue, Bindon considers to himself, “That these incompetent impostors, who were unable to save the life of a really influential man like himself, should dream of some day robbing the legitimate property owners of social control, of inflicting one knew not what tyranny upon the world.  Curse science!” (Wells 258).  Despite his protestations, this illustrates a power play between ideologies.  Also, Wells was not behind any one group who might choose to use the new sciences of the Victorians as Bleiler points out when he writes, “Wells was not optimistic about the future.  He believed that power had escaped moral control, and that injustice was in a position to perpetuate itself indefinitely with the new tools created for it by the physical and psychological sciences” (vii).  Thus, Wells projects his concern over social control through scientific developments of his day into the future populated with Victorian characters that have to deal with the consequences.

Neal Stephenson extends Wells’ work through his Wellsian steampunk novel, The Diamond Age (1995).  The story is about a nanotechnologically driven near future that follows in the footsteps of Stephenson’s earlier cyberpunk work, Snow Crash (1992).  The complex narrative primarily follows a young girl, Nell, who learns about life through a specially constructed teaching device known as The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, which is designed by the artifex engineer named John Hackworth.  They live in a world pieced together where, “the processes of decentralization, fuelled by a collapse in place-based politics, win out to produce a sprawling, centreless urban landscape composed of small claves” (Kitchin and Kneale 26).[3]

Even though Stephenson follows Charles Dickens’ narrative style and use of chapter headings, he most closely follows Wells’ model of projecting Victorians into the future by creating the transnational group or tribe known as the neo-Victorians.  The neo-Victorians are a group identified by their dress, morals, etiquette, and speech to closely align themselves with English culture of the Victorian era.  Becoming a neo-Victorian does not depend on national allegiance, but it does depend on meeting certain requirements and taking an oath.  Hackworth (middle class technocrat) has a conversation with Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw (an upper class, landholding Equity Lord) about why Hackworth chose to be a neo-Victorian:

My life was not without periods of excessive, unreasoning, discipline, usually imposed capriciously by those responsible for laxity in the first place.  That combined with my historical studies led me, as many others, to the conclusion that there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation, and that we must look to the nineteenth century instead for stable social models.

Well done, Hackworth!  But you must know that the model to which you allude did not long survive the first Victoria.

We have outgrown much of the ignorance and resolved many of the internal contradictions that characterised [sic] that era (Stephenson 24).

Neo-Victorianism is a “behavioral discipline that [they] impose upon themselves” (Stephenson 23).  Therefore, they believe that nineteenth-century English cultural values and mores are superior to anything else that has come along in the intervening years, and therefore, they chose to “emulate” the Victorians while resolving “internal contradictions.”

However, this group is not without its issues such as the restriction of news based on social status.  Stephenson writes, “One of the insights of the Victorian Revival was that it was not necessarily a good thing for everyone to read a completely different newspaper in the morning; so the higher one rose in the society, the more similar one’s Times became to one’s peers’” (37).  This example of double talk indicates another form of social control and stratification through the access to, and flow of, information.  Thus, the neo-Victorians are not literally Wells’ Victorians transferred into the future, but they are a logical extrapolation of that culture in the future with embellishments to their conception of what it meant to be Victorian.

Stephenson approaches preparing the young for the future from a different tact than Wells.  Nell, the young, lower class girl with a copy of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, grows up to be a knowledgeable and capable young woman who is destined to lead an army of women against the existing male-dominated power structure.  The reason that the Primer is constructed in the first place is because Finkle-McGraw wants Hackworth to design a subversive teaching aid for his granddaughter.  Hackworth realizes the true nature of the Primer when he thinks to himself, “Finkle-McGraw, the embodiment of the Victorian establishment, was a subversive.  He was unhappy because his children were not subversives and was horrified at the thought of Elizabeth [his granddaughter] being raised in the stodgy tradition of her parents.  So now he was trying to subvert his own granddaughter” (Stephenson 82).  Conservatism is at the core of Victorian thought, and one of the most highly regarded neo-Victorians, Finkle-McGraw, wants to radically alter the system from within through education with new technology (The Primer).[4]  Finkle-McGraw came to this plan after realizing that his success derived from his real-life experiences gained prior to becoming a neo-Victorian, and he wanted to endow his granddaughter with similar success derived from her teachings gained from the Primer.  However, it ends up affecting his granddaughter, Nell, as well as a quarter-of-a-million Chinese girls.  Thus, The Primer is a symbol for preparing the neo-Victorians to face a future that Wells’ Elizabeth and Denton could not face as is made clear at the end of “The Story of the Days to Come” when, “Denton’s thoughts fluttered towards the future in a vain attempt at what that scene might be in another two hundred years, and recoiling, turned towards the past” (Wells 261).  Nell has no such “recoil” from facing the future.  Thus, Stephenson presents hope for the future, however ambiguous, in opposition to Wells’ lack of faith in humanity’s future.[5]

Nell’s destiny and future success is afforded by the work of technocrats such as John Hackworth and Finkle-McGraw.[6]  The very basis of everyone’s life, nanotechnology, is the technocrat’s “gift” to humanity, because it’s a technology of equalization.  For example, after Nell and her big brother, Harv, run away from home, Harv says, “For starters, let’s get some free stuff” (Stephenson 216).  The author goes on to write, “They made their way to a public M.C. [matter compiler] on a street corner and picked out items from the free menu:  boxes of water and nutri-broth, envelopes of sushi made from nanosurimi and rice, candy bars, and…huge crinkly metallized blankets” (216).  Underlying the gift of nanotechnology is the fact that the megacorporations and black market handlers such as Dr. X control much of it.  Even in a nanotechnological future, there is still a cost associated with using specially designed items created by nanotechnology, and use of the Feed, “a bundle of molecular conveyor belts” that move molecules from the Source to matter compliers (Stephenson 8).  Additionally, the nanotech designers such Finkle-McGraw and Hackworth and kingpins such as Dr. X draw on the Feed in order to build the future molecule-by-molecule.  The technocrats may not rule the world, but in this story, they set about subverting their world’s status quo by empowering an orphan woman to lead an army of orphaned girls, but the one way of completely reinventing the world through the Seed, a nanotechnological device that would work like a plant seed except on a larger scale and for making all sorts of fantastic things, is left ambiguous at the end.  This ambiguity reflects how, “social and personal struggle persist, as does material need, despite the highly developed capacities of nanotechnology” (Berne and Schummer 466).  Thus, Stephenson provides no clear future utopia with Wells’ technocrats regardless of the power they yield in a completely technologized society unbounded by post-capitalism.

Traveling in a temporal direction opposite that of Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come,” and Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, is Ted Chiang’s short-story, “Seventy-Two Letters.”  It’s about a Victorian past constructed in a world where golem-like engineering and homunculi are realities.  Within this alternate history, the nomenclator Robert Stratton, who automates inanimate objects by using the kabalistic seventy-two letters, is faced with the problem of the human species dying out unless there is a way to combine his science of nomenclature with the biology of human reproduction.  As Smith points out, “Chiang’s primary method is to change underlying natural laws or symbolic systems, creating worlds and situations that are fantastic to us but utterly rational to the characters that must live with them” (par. 3).  Chiang does exactly this:  he alters “underlying natural laws” within a nineteenth-century, Victorian setting, and the characters within his imagined world rationalize these changes by employing science and the scientific method.  Furthermore, Chiang states, “[the story is] based on certain out-of-date ideas about the natural world, but they’re science fictional because the characters in them follow a scientific worldview” (Smith par. 25).  Thus, the story has fantastic elements, but they are set down and followed in a scientific manner through experiment and mathematics placing the story in the realm of SF.

“Seventy-Two Letters” is described as, “one of the finest representations of the SF subgenre of steampunk” (Beatty par. 2).  Using the comparative definition of steampunk that states, “while cyberpunk works in a setting of late capitalist decay and anarchy, with computer technology as its primary trope, steampunk revisits nineteenth century capitalism, especially Britain, and its primary trope is the steam engine,” I extend this to mean what I call “hard steampunk” (Beatty par. 2).  Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” and other hard steampunk stories follow this more accepted definition of steampunk.  Thus, Chiang’s story of returning to the Victorian past follows a different temporal focus than Wellsian steampunk, but it does so in order to explore issues of the present through the past instead of taking the present to the future.

Despite the differences of past and future in hard steampunk and Wellsian steampunk, Chiang’s story engages many of the same themes found in the works by Wells and Stephenson.  The obvious connection is the use of Victorian setting and characters.  This unifying element of steampunk is described by Beatty as, “this magical Victorian England is the other side of a metaphor.  It is what we are being compared to, via the golem and nomenclature, so that we can reconceptualize two things in our own time:  the economy, and science on the broadest level” (par. 21).  Thus, the otherness of the Victorians actually allows the reader to reconceptualize the here-and-now, and I agree that this is true for steampunk in general.

Beatty’s use of the “economy” evokes the conception of capitalism as presented in these works.  Free trade, wages, and ownership are connected to the class systems described in the works by Wells and Stephenson.  Chiang also employs social stratification to develop the plot of “Seventy-Two Letters.”  The middle class Stratton wants to mass produce powered looms at a cheap price through the use of dextrous automata, because, “Cheap cloth is bought at the price of worker’s health; weavers were far better off when textile production was a cottage industry” (Chiang 190).  He desires to improve the conditions of the working, lower classes.  However, Master Sculptor Willoughby resists Stratton’s plans, because he feels, “these automata of yours would put sculptors out of work,” and, “disrupt our entire system of manufacturing” (Chiang 191).  Thus, the story reveals the complexity involved in mass production and how the consequences from one change can wreak havoc upon other elements of the system.  Additionally, Willoughby, though an artisan, represents the impediments to change within a sufficiently complex industrial-capitalist system such as the one that had developed by the middle of the nineteenth-century.

“Science on the broadest level” connects to both social stratification and control through the efforts of the technocrat.  There are three powerful technocrats in “Seventy-Two Letters,” and they are Stratton, Dr. Nicholas Ashbourne–Stratton’s former college professor, and Lord Fieldhurst–“a noted zoologist and comparative anatomist, [as well as] president of the Royal Society” (Chiang 194).  Fieldhurst, building on the prior work of French scientists, confirms that the human species will be sterile in five generation unless there is scientific intervention.  He employs Ashbourne, and later, Stratton, to discover a method of using nomenclature to “animate” dormant ova within women.  However, his plan is to control future births, thus ensuring separate ruling and working classes, as well as conjuring the specter of social Darwinism.  In his position with substantial government connections, he is a powerful technocrat, but Stratton and Ashbourne secretly devise a way to ensure unrestricted future births through the use of a recursive epithet that obviates control by Fieldhurst.  Therefore, Chiang, evoking Wells, presents a dim future for the past at the hands of elitist technocrats, but salvation arrives from a compassionate technocrat, following a model more closely aligned with Stephenson.

Genre building, like Chiang’s nomenclature, depends on the proper application of names.  Through these examples, I have identified two types of steampunk based on their chronological focus of looking forward to the future or backward to the past.  It is a subtle, but important, difference between Wellsian steampunk and hard steampunk.  Additionally, grounding their differentiation in the canonical works of H.G. Wells adds greater import to the models that I have described.  Thus, based on these two delineations, further scholarly work may be conducted in the steampunk subgenre of SF by employing a descriptive naming convention such as this, thereby achieving a greater level of critical review on existing and future works.

Works Cited

Beatty, Greg.  “The Bridge Between Truth/Death and Power/Knowledge:  Ted Chiang’s ‘Seventy-Two Letters.’”  Strange Horizons.  16 April 2001.  25 December 2006 <;.

Berne, Rosalyn W. and Joachim Schummer.  “Teaching Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology to Engineering Students Through Science Fiction.  Bulletin of Science, Technology, & Society 25.6 (2005):  459-468.

Bleiler, E.F.  “Introduction to the Dover Edition.”  Three Prophetic Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells.  New York:  Dover Publications, 1960.  vii-x.

Burstyn, Joan N.  Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood.  London:  Barnes & Noble Books, 1980.

Chiang, Ted.  “Seventy-Two Letters.”  Stories of Your Life and Others.  New York:  Tom Doherty Associates, 2002.  179-239.

Kitchin, Rob and James Kneale.  “Science Fiction or Future Fact?  Exploring Imaginative Geographies of the New Millennium.”  Progress in Human Geography 25.1 (2001):  19-35.

MacKenzie, Norman and Jeanne.  The Life of H.G. Wells:  The Time Traveller.  London:  Hogarth Press, 1987.

Nicholls, Peter.  “Steampunk.”  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  Eds. John Clute and Terry Nicholls.  New York:  St. Martin’s, 1995.  1161.

Smith, Jeremy.  “The Absence of God:  An Interview with Ted Chiang.”  Infinity Plus.  2003.  25 December 2006 <;.

Stephenson, Neal.  The Diamond Age.  London:  Penguin Books, 1996.

Suvin, Darko.  Metamorphoses of Science Fiction:  On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre.  London:  Yale University Press, 1979.

Wells, H.G.  “A Story of the Days to Come.”  Three Prophetic Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells.  New York:  Dover Publications, 1960.  189-262.

—.  The Time MachineThree Prophetic Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells.  New York:  Dover Publications, 1960.  263-335.

[1] The consumerist theme in these three works deserves its own study in a separate paper.

[2] In The Time Machine, Wells reveals a far future where the classes are divided on evolutionary grounds.  The pleasure seeking Eloi on the surface evolved from the bourgeoisie, while the underground workers, the Morlocks, evolved from the working classes.

[3] Stephenson’s sprawl is in opposition to Wells’ high walled cities.  This idea of city building can be connected to the respective author’s ideas of bounded social structures that are further described in this paper.

[4] Using technology to change female lives in a future connected to Victorianism is connected to the fact that, “Technological advances changed women’s social and economic roles in nineteenth-century England, and polarised [sic] the life experiences of working and non-working women” (Burstyn 30).  Those changes were not always necessarily empowering, but it reflects the historical and SF observation that new technologies effect social change.

[5] Finkle-McGraw’s character is partially representative of Wells, in that he wants to shake things up, just as Wells, “eagerly used alien and powerful biological species as a rod to chastize [sic] Victorian man” (Suvin 209).

[6] Nell’s anti-Wellsian, hopeful ascent from humble beginnings is another Dickensian element of Stephenson’s novel, and as in the works of Dickens, Nell’s destiny is the exception rather than the rule.

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Paper 1, Mega-text and the Cyberpunk Subgenre, Nov 13, 2006

This is the sixth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

As I remember it, Professor Andy Sawyer led the Genre Definitions module of the MA in Science Fiction Studies program, but we had some seminars with Professor Peter Wright. This is the first of two major essays from the Genre Definitions module. It allowed me to begin my research in an area that I was very interested in (i.e., cyberpunk) but that I had not yet seriously researched.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Andy Sawyer

Science Fiction Studies Core Module 1: Genre Definitions

13 November 2006

Mega-text and the Cyberpunk Subgenre

In Bruce Sterling’s preface to Mirrorshades:  The Cyberpunk Anthology, he sets about constructing a definition of cyberpunk. Sterling points out “the Cyberpunks as a group are steeped in the lore and tradition of the SF field” (x).  However, cyberpunk authors changed traditional science fiction (SF) vectors by “overlapping…worlds that were formerly separate:  the realm of the high tech, and the modern pop underground” (Sterling xi).    Therefore, cyberpunk is arguably a subgenre of SF, because its practitioners build on earlier SF works while writing stories based on a new fusion of ideas.  Additionally, the dialog between works of cyberpunk and other works of SF provide a connection to an overarching meta-text.  This connecting dialog is accomplished by the sharing of language, terminology, and situations.  I would extend this argument by saying that cyberpunk operates within its own mega-text that is particular to works decidedly cyberpunk in orientation.

Two works of cyberpunk in mega-text dialog with one another are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  Gibson’s early work is said to be the foundation of cyberpunk[1], and Stephenson’s work is equally considered essential to the movement.  I argue that there exists a dialog between the works of Gibson and Stephenson that forms the basis of a cyberpunk mega-text that is also connected to the larger SF mega-text.

Christine Brooke-Rose first put forth the concept of a mega-text, or megastory.   She writes, “The realistic narrative is hitched to a megastory (history, geography), itself valorised, which doubles and illuminates it, creating expectations on the line of least resistance through a text already known, usually as close as possible to the reader’s experience” (Brooke-Rose 243).  SF authors, unlike mimetic authors, have to rely on anchoring their stories into ideas, concepts, and language that have been employed in previous works by other authors.  Essentially, SF is reliant on its situation within a network of texts including both non-fiction (e.g., science and technology) and fiction (e.g., SF, detective fiction, and other genre fiction).

On the one hand, SF’s central theme is that it’s extrapolated from real and theoretical scientific and technological concepts of the here-and-now.  This means that authors draw on the large body of scientific works and technological developments that SF readers may be acutely or tangentially aware of.  Additionally, SF, like science itself, is based on building upon prior works.  This is not to say that subsequent SF works have citations pointing back to passages and data contained in other works, but it does mean that SF is not written within a vacuum.  SF authors build on ideas that they have received from reading works within and without the genre.

Damien Broderick extends Brooke-Rose’s concept of the megastory by a closer reading of its importance to SF, and in so doing, he coins a new term, the mega-text.  His concept of the mega-text refers to the overlay of SF texts, themes, and ideas as, “the mutually imbricated sf texts” (59).  SF stories, for the most part, are an imbrication of texts in a three dimensional space where concepts and terminology float freely between the layers formed by the many stories thus arrayed.

The mega-text is a double-edged sword that represents the shared space of terminology, ideas, and themes that serve to both familiarize, as well as defamiliarize the reader.  He goes on to write, “But that familiarity, so necessary in alerting trained readers to the appropriate reception codes and strategies for concretising an sf text, maintains at its heart a de-familiarising impulse absolutely pivotal to the form’s specificity” (Broderick 60).  The SF mega-text is a shared space of concepts and terminology that many SF writers draw upon in the crafting of their stories.  SF readers rely on authorial use of the ideas contained in the mega-text in order to situate themselves in an otherwise (more or less) overwhelmingly fantastic place.  However, it is the shared elements of the mega-text that form the “de-familiarising impulse absolutely pivotal to the form’s specificity.”

The shared elements, or as Gary K. Wolfe labeled them, icons, are built-up “using a strategy of semiological compensation, or redundancy and overcoding…[The] sf mega-text works by embedding each new work…in an even vaster web of interpenetrating semantic and tropic givens or vectors” (Broderick 59).  The mega-text serves as the “text tube” where ideas react with one another and form new compounds and substances, as well as reveal litmus colors that indicate how one text is related to another across the mega-text network.  Reagents in the SF mega-text include computers, spaceships, robots, and solvable problems.  Cyberpunk icons include networked computers, the network, multinational corporations, virtual reality, disembodiment facilitated through technology, and problems sans solution.

Gibson’s Neuromancer is widely accepted as the foundational cyberpunk work, and it first lends itself to the SF mega-text by the author generating cognitive estrangement[2] through the establishment of setting in its opening sentence.  Gibson begins, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (3).  The description of the sky is estranging from the way in which one would normally characterize the sky, and it is rationally described through the language of technology (i.e., television).

Also, Gibson employs terminology that connects to a shared SF terminology that reinforces this text’s membership in the SF mega-text.  For example, Gibson’s description of the protagonist, Case, is densely packed with powerful descriptions and technologically-oriented words that elicit the feel of an SF story:

Case was twenty-four.  At twenty-two, he’d been a cowboy, a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl…He’d operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high…jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.  A thief, he’d worked for other, wealthier thieves, employers who provide the exotic software required to penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data (5).

Gibson re-envisions a cattle ‘rustler’ with the future occupation of a data ‘thief.’  Future corporations that protect their data behind ‘bright walls’ instead of fences, replace the ranches of the past.  And most importantly, Case ‘jacks’ into ‘cyberspace’ using a ‘custom deck’ that leaves him ‘disembodied’ within the ‘consensual hallucination,’ which is an artificial construct of reality known as the ‘matrix.’  Old becomes new and therefore, estranging.

In addition to Gibson’s use of computer technology in this narrative, he also conjures other images in crafting Neuromancer.  The style of the novel is distinctly noir.  Case’s world is ambiguously not dualistic and there is no apparent resolution at the end.  Also, he features the female cyborg Molly, the AI Wintermute, who wants to engage in the capitalist system, the near-immortal Tessier-Ashpool S.A. family/mega-corporation, and the spiritually positive Zion cluster Rastas.

Neal Stephenson extends these cyberpunk icons through the use of language and narrative style in his novel, Snow Crash, published eight years after Gibson’s Neuromancer.  Again, from the opening lines of the text, the reader is thrown into a world that is recognizable, but subtly different than the here-and-now:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order…Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night.  His uniform is black as activated charcoal…A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest.  Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel…[that] protects like a stack of telephone books (Stephenson 1).

‘The Deliverator’ has a ‘Terminator’ ring to it, and the name is capitalized.  He’s on his ‘third mission,’ wearing a black uniform that is protected by ‘arachnofiber weave’ and ‘sintered armorgel.’  All of this protection and militarized language (e.g., mission, bullet, napalmed forest, and armor) is established for “pizza delivery” (Stephenson 3).  Thus, today’s mundane is rendered tomorrow’s exotic.

In addition to the dense and destabilizing openings to these cyberpunk stories, Stephenson relies on a shared set of terminology to describe the computer-based-scapes in which his character, Hiro Protagonist, shares an affinity with Gibson’s Case.  Hiro writes “microcode (software)” (Stephenson 3).  When he uses his computer, he wears “shiny goggles that wrap halfway around his head” that “throw a light, smoky haze across his eyes and reflect a distorted wide-angle view of a brilliantly lit boulevard that stretches off into an infinite blackness.  This boulevard does not really exist; it is a computer-rendered view of an imaginary place” (Stephenson 19).  The ‘imaginary place’ that is projected onto Hiro’s eyes from the goggles is another description of Gibson’s “consensual hallucination that was the matrix” (Gibson 5).

Following Stephenson’s technical explanation of Hiro’s goggles, he best makes the connection to Gibson’s Neuromancer when he writes:

So Hiro’s not actually here at all.  He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones.  In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.  Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse.  It beats the shit out of the U-Stor-It (22).

This passage establishes another characteristic of cyberpunk:  the desire to leave physical reality and escape into a computer generated world.  Gibson describes Case’s crisis over losing the ability to disengage his body and enter cyberspace when he writes,  “They damaged his nervous system with a wartime Russian mycotoxin…The body was meat.  Case fell into the prison of his own flesh” (6).  The ‘meatspace’ is undesirable to the computer jockey.  Cyberspace and physical disembodiment is the desired space in which to work and live.  In the lives of both Case and Hiro, they live in a dirty and harsh world that doesn’t compare to the beautifully rendered and clean spaces found in their respective cyberspace or Metaverse.

Other icons in Stephenson’s novel that engage the discussion began by Neuromancer include:  a noir style, cyborgs (the mixed race Hiro, the mixed education of Juanita, and the gargoyle information gatherers), language as a programming language, media conglomerates, Cosa Nostra pizza delivery, Burbclaves, and the negative spirituality of the Reverend Wayne Pearly Gates franchise.

Gibson’s groundbreaking novel, Neuromancer, founded what became to be known as cyberpunk, and Stephenson extended cyberpunk by adding to its mega-text through his work, Snow Crash.  These novels engage in a dialog between themselves, as well as in a wider network of SF texts and real-world science and technology. [3]

SF constitutes a mega-text based on historically established terminological and stylistic icons that SF writers are free to draw from, as well as add to, in their own writings.  Cyberpunk is a literary movement that came about in the 1980s as some SF writers decided to strike off in a new direction by remixing historical tropes from SF and detective fiction, as well as bringing together new technology and pop iconography.  Therefore, cyberpunk is connected to and in dialog with the SF mega-text, but it has its own mega-text founded on icons unique to the cyberpunk movement.

Works Cited

Broderick, Damien.  Reading by Starlight:  Postmodern Science Fiction.  London:  Routledge, 1995.

Brooke-Rose, Christine.  A Rhetoric of the Unreal:  Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Gibson, William. Burning Chrome.  London:  HarperCollins, 1995.

—.  Neuromancer.  New York:  Ace, 1984.

Nicholls, Terry.  “Cyberpunk.”  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  Eds. John Clute and Terry Nicholls.  New York:  St. Martin’s, 1995.

Oshii, Mamoru.  Ghost in the Shell.  Manga Video, 1996.

Scott, Ridley.  Blade Runner.  Perf. Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer.  Warner Brothers, 1982.

Stephenson, Neal.  Snow Crash.  New York:  Bantam Books, 2000.

Sterling, Bruce.  “Bruce Sterling’s Idea of What Every Well-Appointed ‘Cyberpunk SF’ Library Collection Should Possess.”  EFF Publications–Bruce Sterling Archive August 1996.  5 November 2006 <;.

—.  “Preface.” Mirrorshades:  The Cyberpunk Anthology.  Ed. Bruce Sterling.  New York:  Ace, 1988.  ix-xvi.

Suvin, Darko.  “Estrangement and Cognition.”  Speculations on Speculation:  Theories of Science Fiction.  Eds. James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria.  Oxford:  Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Wachowki, Andy and Larry Wachowski, dirs.  The Matrix.  Perf. Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne.  Warner Brothers, 1999.

[1] Gibson first coins the term  “cyberspace” in his short story, “Burning Chrome.”  However, he gives it a more thorough treatment in his novel, Neuromancer.  Cyberspace is arguably the element that solidified the cyberpunk movement.

[2] Darko Suvin writes in “Estrangement and Cognition,” “SF is, then a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environments” (27).  Suvin introduced the idea of cognition to SF studies when he paired it to the notion of estrangement.  This resulted in an explicit division between fantasy and SF, thus further solidifying SF as a distinct genre.

[3] This survey of two cyberpunk novels offers only a glimpse of the dialog between texts that generates the mega-text definition of the cyberpunk subgenre.  Other cyberpunk mega-text contributors include Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, Paul Di Filippo, and Pat Cadigan.  Cyberpunk oriented films include The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell.  Furthermore, there are, to borrow Peter Nicholl’s phrase, “cyberpunk ancestors” (289).  These pre-cyberpunk authors were writing stories that share a cyberpunk orientation.  These ancestors include Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree, Jr., and J.G. Ballard and films such as Blade Runner (288-289).  Further cyberpunk mega-text works can be found in “Bruce Sterling’s Idea of What Every Well-Appointed ‘Cyberpunk SF’ Library Collection Should Possess.”

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Time and Consciousness Module Final Paper, Artificial Self-Creation in the Science Fiction of Greg Egan, Jan 8, 2007

This is the fifth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

During the first semester of the MA in Science Fiction Studies program at the University of Liverpool, I wrote this final essay for the Time and Consciousness module directed by Professor Barry Dainton in the Department of Philosophy. As I recall, Sunshine, Christian, and I had some of our most heated debates in Professor Dainton’s seminar. It was during this time that I first appreciated the writing and ideas of Greg Egan, too.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Barry Dainton

Consciousness and Time Module

8 January 2007

‘Inducing lasting and profound changes in one’s personality by artificial means is not just foolhardy, it is wrong.’  Assess this claim.

Artificial Self-Creation in the Science Fiction of Greg Egan

Psychologically invested Science Fiction (SF) stories have gained prominence within the genre particularly since the beginning of the SF New Wave in the mid-1960s (Nicholls 865).  One SF theme concerns personality and self-creation through artificial means.  Two recent works by Greg Egan, Diaspora and “Axiomatic,” are of particular interest to the discussion surrounding the transformation of one’s personality, and therefore, self.  His stories encourage the reader to consider whether making permanent changes to one’s personality is reckless, or inspired.  Also, he presents a graying of borders that present an ambiguity between right and wrong.

In these two stories, Egan writes about invested persons with freedom of will who desire to change their outlook or change their will regarding a particular issue or dilemma.  I argue that his characters operate within a Nietzschean framework of the superman to effect personal transformation (moral imperative) or personal dissolution (moral wrong).  Within this argument, right and wrong is determined by following the moral imperative to transform one’s self so that it progresses towards the superman.  There are other considerations such as moral responsibility to self and others that will also be discussed later in the paper.  However, before we can explore this argument, the basis for changing personality needs to be qualified.

Changing one’s personality can take place in one of two ways.  The first is a slow, engaging process of self-creation through work.  This might involve reading, studying, or taking part in psychotherapy.  The second is an artificial process, mediated by technology such as drugs or nanotechnology, to change the mind and/or body in some way to make one’s personality better fit the way that one would like it to be.  Additionally, we all, in some way, change over time depending on our experiences through life.  For example, one may hold anarchist beliefs early in life and later, have conservative beliefs (or vice versa).  These deeply held belief systems have a lot to do with our personality because they form the “rose colored glasses” through which we see and interact with the world.  Drastically altering our personality and beliefs will have the effect of transforming or changing us into “someone else.”

A corollary to the ways in which one can effect transformation deals with the authenticity of the way in which the change is made.  Using American culture as an example, it is considered more authentic to make change through doing things (e.g., personal work and the talking cure) rather than taking an “inauthentic” route such as the use of medicine.  DeGrazia borrows the term “cosmetic psychopharmacology” to describe the use of taking medicines to effect a change in personality or performance when there is no real medical need (36).  However, he points out in regards to a patient taking medicines to achieve a personality transformation that she desires:

That it is “unnatural”–that it works directly on her biochemistry rather than indirectly, as therapy does–simply seems irrelevant:  the shortcut would still be authentic because Marina’s values and self-conception are the basis for the chosen means (38).

Therefore, authenticity is established by the desires of the individual who wants a change in their personality.

There are two philosophical systems regarding self that are applicable to one’s desires and will and the application of that will towards personal transformation.  The first is Harry G. Frankfurt’s concept of freedom of the will, and the second is Frederick Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch, or superman.  The former theory has to do with building a conceptual framework about what makes one a ‘person,’ and how the ‘person’ can change through exercise of free will.  The latter concerns a moral imperative to transform the self into something greater than it was before.

Frankfurt’s philosophical conception of a person is essential to discussing artificial transformation of the self.  There are four elements that Frankfurt describes as distinguishing a person from a non-person.  They are first-order desires, second-order desires, second-order volitions, and freedom of the will.

The two types of desires provide an elaboration of lower-order and higher-order desires.  First-order desires “are simply desires to do or not to do one thing or another” (Frankfurt 7).  Humans and other animals share these.  The “essential difference” between humans and other animals are second-order desires, which is a distinction, “found in the structure of a person’s will” (Frankfurt 6).  Second-order desires are those in which one wants to possess a particular desire, or one wants a particular desire to be one’s will (Frankfurt 10).  Therefore, first order desires are those of acting and reacting, whereas second-order desires are based on introspection and a nesting of desires.

From second-order desires, Frankfurt derives that which is “essential to being a person,” second-order volitions (10).  This uniquely human quality, to want a want to be one’s will, is the volition of one’s will.  Thus, it provides a necessary part of what allows a person to think and conceive regarding personal transformation.

The final element that Frankfurt describes that allows personal choice of transformation of the self to take place is “freedom of the will.”  Specifically, one has freedom of the will if, “he is free to will what he wants to will, or to have the will he wants” (Frankfurt 15).  Therefore, one’s awareness of one’s own will and the enacting of changing one’s will to match one’s wants is freedom of the will.

Freedom of the will is an essential element of the discussion about changing one’s personality.  First, a person must have some desire to want to change their personality.  This want to want to change is a second-order desire.  Second, there is the expression of freedom of the will by choosing to make an artificial modification to one’s personality.  By following this line of argument, one exercises their freedom of will by electing to a modification, because it reveals the fact that the person is in fact a ‘person’ with second-order volition as well as freedom of the will.

Continuing on his theory regarding the freedom of the will, Frankfurt questions moral responsibility in relation to having a free will.  He states that “For the assumption that a person is morally responsible for what he has done does not entail that the person was in a position to have whatever will he wanted…This assumption does entail that the person did what he did freely, or that he did it of his own free will” (Frankfurt 19).  Therefore, one does not have to have freedom of the will to be held morally responsible for his/her actions.[1]

Questions regarding freedom of the will and moral responsibility are addressed in the philosophy of Nietzsche and his ideas regarding personal transformation.  He engages the discussion surrounding personal will by developing his moral imperative of self-transformation.

Some argue that Nietzsche is “an ‘instinctualist,’ urging us to act ‘out of instinct’ instead of with reflection and deliberation,” but this isn’t the case at all (Solomon 196).  Solomon points out that Nietzsche, “surely urges us to act in accordance not only with our natures (that is, with our first-order desires born of that nature) but also with second-order, ‘higher’ goals and aspirations” (196).  Therefore, he is aware that we, as individual persons, have base, instinctual needs as well as desires and ambitions above mere instinct, which maps onto Frankfurt’s concept of self-necessitating first-order desires and second-order volitions.

The other essential element of Frankfurt’s theory that we can use to read Nietzsche is that, “we can interpret Nietzsche as holding that we are free and responsible (that is, we have what he refuses to call ‘free will’) insofar as we act not only in accordance with our desires, ‘instincts,’ and character, but also in accordance with our higher-order desires (also derived from our character, presumably)” (Solomon 196).  For Nietzsche, there is an imperative to act “in accordance with our higher-order desires,” because we are persons with free will.  Thus, Nietzsche would hold that it is necessary, when faced with an opportunity that brings one’s “higher-order desires” to fruition that the opportunity be utilized.

Nietzsche first touches on this idea of self-building when he writes, “Active, successful natures act, not according to the dictum ‘know thyself,’ but as if there hovered before them the commandment:  will a self and thou shalt become a self” (232).  “Will a self” is intimately linked to the necessity of following higher-order desires or in Frankfurt’s terms, second-order volitions.  Therefore, Nietzsche would agree that for someone to be a person, to be a self, one must hold a desire to become that person comprised of a particular set of characteristics and personality.

Developing his philosophy further, Nietzsche chooses the symbol of the Übermensch, or superman, as representing the ultimate end of personal transformation.[2]  He writes, “And Zarathustra spoke thus to the people:  I teach you the superman.  Man is something that should be overcome.  What have you done to overcome him?” (237).[3]  This character desires to “overcome” what it is to be human.  It is by second-order volition and freedom of will that humanity can rise above itself to become something greater:  the Übermensch.  Additionally, Nietzsche uses a metaphor of rope to situate humanity in relation to the superman when he writes, “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and superman–a rope over an abyss…What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across and a down-going” (239).  This reinforces the transformative element of man in moving toward attaining the goal of the superman.  Man is “going-across” the rope, but man is also “down-going” for eventual replacement by the superman.  He is arguing that man must strive toward becoming the superman, but eventually, the superman will supersede and replace humanity.  There is no right or wrong associated with this transition, only that this should be the goal toward which humanity strives.  Also, it is this element of the idea of the superman that strongly supports the argument for artificially changing one’s personality.  Thus, transformation of the self is moving across the rope toward the superman.

SF is a literary space where concepts such as the Übermensch and Frankfurt’s freedom of will and second-order volitions can be demonstrated in a “cognitively estranging” story-scape about artificially changing one’s personality in permanent and drastic ways.  Some questions that these texts raise include:  What are the ways that these changes can be effected?  Are these changes irresponsible?  Are they wrong?

There are two SF works by Greg Egan that strongly engage the issues raised by artificially changing one’s personality.  They are his novel Diaspora and short story, “Axiomatic.”  Diaspora deals with an accepted form of personality change for computer inhabiting sentient beings.  “Axiomatic” is about a man who chooses to alter his personality so that he loses any concern about the well being of others, which facilitates his ability to commit murder and fulfill his need for revenge.

Egan’s Diaspora touches on the issues of personality change through artificial means.  The protagonists in the novel are sentient beings that live within a computer construct known as a polis.  These beings, some based on the minds and memories of humans, have continued to evolve literally as deus ex machina.  They have developed a way of altering personality called an “outlook.”  Egan writes, “Each outlook offered a slightly different package of values and aesthetics, often built up from the ancestral reasons-to-be-cheerful that still lingered to some degree in most citizens’ minds” (Diaspora 50).  However, outlooks “[affect] neural structures,” which means that outlooks can have far reaching changes on the individual with some alterations becoming permanent and drastically effecting the citizen’s personality.

In the first encounter with outlooks, Yatima and Inoshiro employ a temporary outlook in order to more effectively experience an art display.  This is the least harmful example of cosmetically altering one’s personality within these three texts.  After Yatima applies the outlook that Inoshiro gives her, she noticeably realizes that it has effected a great change in her perception.  Egan narrates, “Yatima still felt distinctly modified; the equilibrium had shifted in the tug of war between all the symbols in vis [sic] mind, and the ordinary buzz of consciousness had a slightly different tone to it” (Diaspora 52).  Yatima goes on to say, “I’m still myself.  I think,” and Inoshiro replies, “pity” (Diaspora 52).  Yatima hesitates to activate the outlook, because she is fearful of altering her identity, whereas Inoshiro is a foolhardy individual who is eager to experiment and try new things.  Yatima is cautious and methodical, while Inoshiro rushes in and feels too much.  Their personality differences leads to Inoshiro eventually altering his personality permanently.

Later in the novel, Yatima and Inoshiro attempt to save the remaining humans on the planet by inviting them to be “downloaded” into the polis before a planet-wide gamma ray threat bombards the surface.  Their entreaties are met with derision and revulsion, which causes their mission to fail save for a few dying individuals who are incorporated without their permission.  Inoshiro takes the loss very hard, and he decides, alone, to take on “an old outlook” that “imposed a hermetically sealed package of beliefs about the nature of the self, and the futility of striving” (Diaspora 148).  This outlook differed from their artwork outlook, because “the outlook was universally self-affirming.  Once you ran it, you could not change your mind.  Once you ran it, you could not be talked out of it” (Diaspora 148).  It became a part of Inoshiro and it changed his personality into something very different than it was before.  Yatima comments to herself, “What you are now is not Inoshiro” (Diaspora 148).  To Yatima, Inoshiro had become a different person than her friend who had led her on wild adventures.  Despite Yatima’s protestations, Inoshiro acted with freedom of will, because he expressed his second-order volition to change his personality in such a way that he could cope with the horrors that he witnessed after the gamma ray burst killed many human “fleshers.”  However, as Egan emphatically narrates, “Inoshiro had made vis [sic] choice, destroying vis [sic] old self and creating a new one to follow the ancient meme’s dictates, and no one else had the right to question this, let alone the power to reverse it” (Diaspora 149).  This particular outlook is designed to lock the individual into this outlook/personality forever without the possibility for change.  Inoshiro is effectively reduced to something less than a full person, because he no longer has freedom of will.  The new outlook may allow him to have second-order desires, but he cannot act on anything other than those volitions built into the outlook in which he is locked forever.  Additionally, Inoshiro’s choice would not follow Nietzsche’s idea of transformation towards the superman.  If Inoshiro’s choice had allowed for the possibility for further change or a will to change, then it would satisfy Nietzsche’s moral imperative to work towards becoming more than human.[4]

Egan presents a Nietzschean superman-like character in his short story, “Axiomatic.”  It’s about a widower named Mark Carver who desires to exact revenge on the murderer of his wife, but he is unable to follow through with that revenge, because of his moral compass.  He believes that “revenge was for the morally retarded” and “taking human life was wrong” (“Axiomatic” 97).  His belief that “human consciousness had always seemed to me the most…sacred thing in the universe” is deeply embedded in his psyche in so far that “[he] could no more devalue it than believe that one plus one equaled zero” (“Axiomatic” 97).

Despite the protagonist’s initial morality, he maintains a second-order volition of wanting to have the will to kill the man responsible for his wife’s death.  However, he is held back from executing his plans, because he was “safe in the knowledge that no amount of hatred or grief or desperation would ever be enough to make me act against my nature” (“Axiomatic” 98).  His “nature” is his moral beliefs and his personality.  He realizes that without changing that “nature,” he will be unable to put his will into action.  Clearly, the protagonist has freedom of will according to Frankfurt, because he entertains second-order volitions despite his inability to achieve them within himself.  Therefore, he seeks an artificial means of effecting the change in his personality that would allow him to carry out the execution of his wife’s killer.

Toward that end, the protagonist purchases an “axiomatic implant” that would burrow into his brain and enact the change that he desires.  These implants “were derived from analysis of actual neural structures in real people’s brains, they weren’t based on the expression of the axioms in language.  The spirit, not the letter, of the law would prevail” (“Axiomatic” 98).  Thus, the implant rewires his own neural structures to mimic the neural structures in someone who had once felt the way that he desires to feel.

The implant that the protagonist purchases is intended to allow him to “[hold] the belief that human life was nothing special” (“Axiomatic” 100).  Changes within his brain would only cause him to have this belief for a period of three days, which is based on his choice.  Additionally, he points out that “the next three days would simply reveal how I reacted to that belief, and although the attitude would be hard-wired, the consequences were far from certain” (“Axiomatic” 100).  His free will would be preserved to choose his actions based on the “the attitude…hard-wired.”  Also, the protagonist is correct that “the consequences were far from certain” beyond the scope of his intended mission.

The effect of the axiomatic implant on the protagonist allows him to kill his wife’s murderer, but it also has unintended consequences for his outlook in general and in regard to his memories.  It does allow him to achieve his second-order volition by making his desired will be his own through artificial self-creation.  The protagonist attains transformation of the self, but the ramifications of that transformation are beyond what he initially considered.  Prior to killing his wife’s murderer, he realizes, “it was all so clear now…I understood the absurdity of everything I’d ever felt for Amy–my ‘love’, my ‘grief’.  It had all been a joke.  She was meat, she was nothing.  All the pain of the past five years evaporated; I was drunk with relief” (“Axiomatic” 104).  Just as the axiomatic implant’s operational vector was to make him believe that “life was nothing special,” it blanketed that belief to all forms of life, including those he once believed were most significant to him.  Therefore, it altered a universal axiom within in his mind, but the new belief, which fit his desired personality, also affected his perception of all life, including his former love.

Another element of this unintended consequence concerns the complexity of the change that has taken place in his mind.  The widower considers:

My one mistake was thinking that the insight I gained would simply vanish when the implant cut out.  It hasn’t.  It’s been clouded with doubts and reservations, its been undermined, to some degree, by my whole ridiculous panoply of beliefs and superstitions, but I can still recall the peace it gave me…and I want it back.  Not for three days; for the rest of my life (“Axiomatic” 105).

His “one mistake” indicates that despite his careful planning, his decision to use the axiomatic implant to transform his personality was a foolhardy decision.  Had he been more careful, he might have realized that the complexity involved in self-creation would have produced consequences antithetical or tangential to his desired will.  However, “[he] wants it back,” because “the insight” that he gained is befuddled with his prior moral outlook that was replaced while the implant was operational.  The result could be self-dissolution as described by Frankfurt:

If there is an unresolved conflict among someone’s second-order desires, then he is in danger of having no second-order volition; for unless this conflict is resolved, he has no preference concerning which of his first-order desires is to be his will.  This condition, if it is so severe that it prevents him from identifying himself in a sufficiently decisive way with any of his conflicting first-order desires, destroys him as a person.  For it either tends to paralyze his will and to keep him from acting at all, or it tends to remove him from his will so that his will operates without his participation (Frankfurt 15-16).

The axiomatic implant makes his second-order volition regarding the devaluation of human life a first-order desire, but that desire conflicts with his prior first-order desires regarding the sanctity of human life.  He must resolve the conflict before his personality self-destructs or he is disconnected from control over his will.  However, this in some sense is the case, because he chooses to make the axiom changes permanent only after he realizes the conflicts and the loss of “peace.”  But, the protagonist is engaging in self-creation as evidenced by the last lines of the story:  “Part of me, of course, still finds the prospect of what I am about to do totally repugnant.  No matter.  That won’t last” (“Axiomatic” 105).  The protagonist realizes that he will become the personality centered on his will to act and the act of killing his wife’s murderer.  It was his desire to assume that personality, but like a drug, it pervaded his mind in ways that he did not realize would take place, and as a consequence, brought him other attitudes and feelings that he found pleasurable.  His motivation based on his initial second-order volition is transformed through his new personality to permanently affect his new personality through a new second-order volition.  Therefore, Nietzsche would approve of his self-building through transformation to overcome his human limitations.  In fact, his devaluing of human life makes him inhuman, but does that take him further across the bridge to the side of the superman?

Following Nietzsche’s moral imperative to overcome:  changing one’s personality is not wrong so long as it’s a means, and not an end.  For example, Inoshiro’s foolhardy escapism removes him from any future personal transformation.  He drops out of the progression towards attaining the superman.  On the other hand, the protagonist in “Axiomatic” takes a step toward personal overcoming that does not preclude future transformation.  Nietzsche would commend him on his bold move to radically transform his personality into something “other,” but he would have probably called him a coward had he continued to waffle and not injected himself with the axiomatic implant.  Thus, these two character’s transformations through technologically mediated artificial means are foolhardy, but far from wrong if one assumes the Neitzschean imperative for personal transformation and overcoming.[5]

However, the morality of their actions may be the element that determines right and wrong of personal transformation.  In Diaspora, Inoshiro’s transformation into someone radically different than their original personality as well as lacking any personal drive can be described as suicide.  For Yatima, the “person” she once knew as Inoshiro is dead by his own actions.  Also, there is the figurative dissolution of self when he disappears rather than continue talking with Yatima.  For Inoshiro’s friends, his actions would be morally wrong, because he has not met his moral responsibility to self.  Also, his new “outlook” may remove his freedom of will, but according to Frankfurt, this does not remove Inoshiro from his moral responsibility for his actions to his self.  Additionally, the action of the widower in “Axiomatic” to get revenge on his wife’s murder doesn’t obviate him from responsibility of taking another person’s life.  The widower chooses to take the axiomatic implant that fundamentally alters his moral framework in order to affect his will to kill his wife’s murderer.  His change does not remove his freedom of will, but regardless if it did or not, he is still morally responsible for his actions.  Thus, fundamental transformations of self do not remove one’s moral responsibility for one’s actions despite following Nietzsche’s ideology of overcoming humanity through personal transformation.

Works Cited

DeGrazia, David.  “Prozac, Enhancement, and Self-Creation.”  Hastings Center Report 30.2 (2000):  34-40.

Egan, Greg.  “Axiomatic.”  Axiomatic.  London:  Millennium, 1995.  93-105.

—.  Diaspora.  London:  Gollancz, 2001.

Frankfurt, Harry G.  “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.”  The Journal of Philosophy 68.1 (1971):  5-20.

Kelly, James Patrick.  “Mr. Boy.”  Best of the Best Volume 2:  20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels.   Ed. Gardner Dozois.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2007.  Advance Copy.  261-317.

Kubrick, Stanley.  Dir.  A Clockwork Orange.  Perf. Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Magee.  Warner Brothers, 1971.

Nicholls, Peter.  “New Wave.”  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  Eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls.  New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  A Nietzsche Reader.  Trans. R. J. Hollingdale.  London:  Penguin, 2003.

Solomon, Robert C.  Living with Nietzsche:  What the Great “Immoralist” Has to Teach Us.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.

Swanwick, Michael.  “Griffin’s Egg.”  Best of the Best Volume 2:  20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels.   Ed. Gardner Dozois.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2007.  Advance Copy.  261-317.

[1] Moral responsibility is important for special cases such as suicide.  A person may choose to have their personality altered so that they can commit suicide when they would not do so without the modification.  This alteration does not obviate the person from their moral responsibility to the self.  There is more on this subject in the section on Diaspora.

[2] It should be noted that “superman” is an imperfect translation of Übermensch.  Literally, Über is translated as “trans-“ or “over.”  Therefore, the term Übermensch is literally translated as trans-man (i.e., someone transcending humanity and becoming something far greater than human) or overman (i.e., someone that is beyond or above what it is to be human).  I adopted the term “superman,” because it is the accepted usage in A Nietzsche Reader.

[3] Zarathustra is not the superman, but he is Nietzsche’s alter ego and proselytizer in his work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[4] The polis citizens have attained a posthuman existence that could be argued as being superman-like, because they have escaped the bounds of physicality.

[5] There are works by other authors that also engage this discussion.  Among them are Michael Swanwick’s “Griffin’s Egg,” which is about a group of people cut off from Earth on a moon base choosing to use nanotechnology to reengineer their minds to face the challenges of the future.  Another story is James Patrick Kelly’s “Mr. Boy.”  It’s about a twenty-five year old who is maintained as a twelve-year-old in both body and mind.  A popular film example is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which is about a young criminal who is offered a choice to have his violent tendencies removed through an experimental medical procedure.

Out of This World, Science Fiction Exhibition at British Library Opens Friday, May 20, 2011

Andy Sawyer, science fiction librarian and my former advisor at the University of Liverpool’s MA in Science Fiction Studies programme, is guest curating the upcoming exhibit, “Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It” at the British Library in London. Opening this Friday, May 20 and running through September 25, it will be the first science fiction exhibition at the prestigious library. Y has entered many UK trip contests, so I hope to visit the exhibition. If you are in or around London, I guarantee you that Andy will have assembled an impressively kick-ass exposition for the uninitiated and aficionado alike. Visit the official site here, or read the library’s press release here.