7 Fantasy/Science Fiction Epics That Can Inform You About the Real-World Political Scene

Monday, December 5th, 2016

Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, looks at 7 fantasy/science fiction epics that can inform you about the real-world political scene:

  1. Babylon 5
  2. Battlestar Galactica
  3. Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire
  4. The Hunger Games
  5. The Lord of the Rings
  6. Star Wars
  7. Star Trek

I enjoyed his contrast of the old and new versions of Battlestar Galactica:

The original 1970s TV series was remade in the 2000s. Both versions focus on the survivors of twelve human colony worlds that have been devastated by an attack by the Cylons, and both feature many of the same characters. Yet the original series and the remake are otherwise fundamentally different.

The former reflects a conservative response to the Cold War: the humans fall victim to a Cylon surprise attack because they were influenced by gullible peaceniks; the survivors’ military leader, Commander Adama, is almost always far wiser than the feckless civilian politicians who question his judgment. Concerns about civil liberties and due process in wartime are raised, but usually dismissed as overblown.

By contrast, the new series reflects the left-wing reaction to the War on Terror: the Cylon attack is at least partly the result of “blowback” caused by the humans’ own wrongdoing. The series stresses the importance of democracy and civilian leadership, and condemns what it regards as dangerous demonization and mistreatment of the enemy—even one that commits genocide and mass murder.

Both the original series and the new one have many interesting political nuances, and both have blind spots characteristic of the ideologies they exemplify. The sharp contrast between the two makes them more interesting considered in combination than either might be alone. They effectively exemplify how widely divergent lessons can be drawn from the same basic story line.

No mention of Mormonism, by the way.


  1. Graham says:

    The modern BSG ultimately failed for me on the storytelling level: the failure to write the Cylons convincingly as villains who had a genuine ‘Plan’ as telegraphed in the opening titles, general breakdown of the narrative line over time, and ultimately the decision to rewrite the Cylons as the failed AI experiment of humanity rather than of an alien race. [That last, the premise of the original BSG, always struck me as clever. It made humanity's struggle to survive the more poignant, as it was against the AI experiment of another race that already had failed to survive it.]

    That and the ending. Yuck.

    But the politics sometimes grated at a lower level.

    There was one string of episodes that struck me as interesting. [spoiler]

    When the humans were stuck on New Caprica under Cylon rule, Col. Tigh’s resistance used suicide bombers. This was meant to, and did, raise some moral issues for American society facing the Iraq war. Since one was meant to sympathize with the resistance.

    I shared some of those- a group ordering men and women to commit suicide is always going to pose at least the hard moral question involved in asking that of anyone. Even if they have volunteered for the duty. For example, I gather that Catholic German officers struggled long and hard with the idea of committing suicide even to kill Hitler. And their struggle was an honourable one.

    Although, IIRC, the show focused more on the morality of using suicide bombers against the enemy and against human collaborators, than of the death of the bombers themselves.

    This was actually interesting. The Cylons were military targets and the collaborators were cooperating with a genocidaire enemy, but OTOH Tigh was still running a terrorist campaign and not attacking in conventional ways. I have no idea what the laws of war were in the lost colonies but presumably he was breaking them. And the collaborators were still people trying to survive.

    All that was quite interesting and valuable moral exercise. It was weaker than the writers hoped, considering the enemy were machines. Ultimately the less regarded questions of the collaborators’ lives and those of the bombers themselves were the important bits.

  2. Graham says:

    Just to clarify- the decision to rewrite the Cylons as a human failure was not during the series itself- it was a baked in premise of the reboot. I meant it was a change from the 1970s series.

  3. Watcher says:

    Hmmm, not all that sure about Star Trek. It always strikes me as essentially pushing a pro-communist society in which all needs are met but no one is paid — never any strike over pay, anyway — and is essentially military (and armed to the teeth) with ranks and uniforms but professing ‘peace’ while glorifying something called the ‘prime directive’ (which is always ignored) and either never mentioning religion in case anyone is offended or pretending it is so old-fashioned as to be unworthy of the future.

    What I want to know on this last point is how did religion suddenly stop?

    Star Wars is just flying adventures wrapped up in a ‘rebellion’ over tax rates, or something. Mind you, when the black guy took off his white uniform in the laster outing — I never call it armour because every shot at the stormtroopers kills the wearer — you could say it was the real black man emerging from the straitjacket of white oppression, if one was so inclined to say such things.

  4. Graham says:

    In TOS Star Trek, there are some scenes that imply the federation has many religions. The episode with the parallel Roman Empire Planet implies that Christianity is still among them.

    In TNG era Star Trek, religion gets almost no play among Federation characters. In Deep Space 9, it seems clear that every other race has some sort of religious framework, even if played for laughs (Ferengi religion is based on getting rich enough to buy entry to the Divine Treasury). Only humans have none.

    At one point Captain Sisko even tells an alien, “Humans don’t have souls. We don’t believe in them.”

    That struck me on multiple levels but particularly the blithe assumption that belief determines the nature of reality. Kind of religious in its own right.

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