Critically-acclaimed TV series Battlestar Galactica broke one of the cardinal rules of hard science fiction: It wasn't really about science. Instead it was hard social fiction, a realistic look at the future of human culture.
It's easy to overlook this basic fact about the series because most of the action took place in outer space, and involved a population of ship-bound humans in constant and miserable war with a frighteningly advanced species of biotech creatures called Cylons. But BSG was not about space and robots. It was about what set of circumstances could rid humans of their cravings for war, hierarchy, and slaves. And it was a thought experiment about what would happen if you tried to reboot the human race from a tiny remnant of the population.
Looked at from this perspective, it's obvious why so many critics talked about how BSG had an appeal that stretched beyond the confines of science fiction fandom. It was a drama about the building blocks of human society: Government, defense, family, home, science, and religion. Yes, science was in there, but it wasn't the focus. This also goes a long way toward explaining why BSG's spinoff series, Caprica, will take place entirely planetside, in a very Earthlike city, during the decades leading up to the catastrophic events of BSG. This is a series that asks questions about the future of our social relationships, and you don't need spaceships to answer those.
I'm not saying BSG did a bad job with the spaceships and robots. The show had some amazing space fights and cool ideas about biological robots. But its representations of future tech were in the service of an overarching preoccupation with social development.
So what exactly does BSG predict about the future of human culture? In some ways it simply extrapolates from our world today, which was made a little too obvious by the show's finale where we see proto-Cylons in the dancing figures of Sony bots. Humans never do overcome their desire for servants who will do all their tedious, dangerous and physically taxing labor. Even as scientific innovations evolve, spawning self-aware cyborgs and faster-than-light travel, human culture remains tangled in an ancient feedback loop of master vs. slave.
But the roles of master and slave have changed a great deal from what we see today on Earth. Though there are still class divisions (we know that some colony planets have fewer resources than the wealthy Caprica), men and women have achieved what appears to be total equality. We see this in little ways - women share the same barracks with men in the military - but also in big ones. Women like fighter pilot Starbuck, the female cylons, and President Roslin are leaders. There was a brilliant scene in the TV movie Razor where a rescue mission is comprised of a weapons expert, a pilot, and a tactical expert who all just happen to be female. Women are simply everywhere in this universe, in positions of power and bravery as well as positions of debasement and perfidy. **
With women and men standing side-by-side as equals, however, somebody else has to bear the burdens that women did traditionally. Someone else has to be the hard-working but non-voting members of society, the group who cleans up after the people with power but never says a word. And that would be the Cylons. So future humanity has cleaned up its act when it comes to gender - and to a certain extent race - but it has not lost its drive to enslave.
Interestingly the most memorable and important Cylons in the series are all women, and they are all obsessed with what amount to futuristic reproductive rights. They want to be able to have babies when and how they want, just the way twentieth century feminists did. But the Cylons are hardly like downtrodden human women of yore, pressing their noses against glass ceilings and bemoaning the feminine mystique. They have nukes, and they use them.
So if you consider BSG an example of hard social fiction, then the cultural McGuffin that sets its narrative ball rolling is this: What if an historically downtrodden group suddenly, in one generation, became smarter and stronger than their oppressors? What every single woman became smarter than the smartest male physicist, and stronger than the strongest male rapist? What then?
There's a limit to my comparison between Cylons and women here, because of course BSG isn't about a bunch of men hiding in tin cans from angry women. Instead the show poses a more universal question, about what might happen if a group of slaves suddenly evolved much faster than their masters.
And the answer is the entirety of this television series, which is at times utterly brilliant in answering this question. Not only would those slaves destroy their masters' worlds, but they would also force those masters to rethink what it means to be human. Those humans would have to come face-to-face with what it means to structure a society around masters and slaves, and if they were very, very lucky they'd eventually figure out some way to create a hybrid culture where nobody enslaves anyone because the very idea is horrifying.
As BSG came to its conclusion a little over a week ago, humanity has in fact reached a point very like this. Humans and cylons are living together as families, creating a new civilization among proto-humans 150,000 years ago on Earth. They have no slaves, and they have shed the last vestiges of a centralized government. They are about to create a society so different from our own that it is barely imaginable.
Unfortunately, they make one crucial mistake: The human-cylon hybrid people also shed their technologies, their cities, and their memories of the lessons they learned from the slaves who evolved. And so the people of our present day, who are slowly moving beyond the era of human slavery, are once again trying to create a new breed of robot slaves.
Still we are left with the hope that humanity won't make the same mistakes this time around. We haven't built sentient robots yet, and we haven't yet enslaved beings whose consciousness is comparable to our own. We haven't yet denied our equals the vote; we haven't trained our high-tech progeny that their only roles in our eyes are those of gunfodder, ditchdigger, and whore. And this is where it's useful to think about the role of science fiction in the human future.
People who create hard science fiction hope that their work will inspire new inventions and scientific discoveries. And those who create hard social fiction hope their work will lead to discoveries in the cultural realm. Perhaps BSG can serve as a memory, lost long ago, about what happens to a society that clings to the roles of master and slave.
If any invention arises from BSG, maybe it will be a society that understands not just what is wrong with being a slave - because we all know that, in our bones - but a society that understands what is wrong with being a master.
** One could make this argument to a lesser extent about people of color on BSG as well. The show's highest ranks are filled by people who are all shades of brown, often biracial, as if at this point in the future there has been so much intermarriage that traditional racial categories are barely in existence (though notably there are still plenty of unmixed whites). Unfortunately, the showrunners failed to cast a racially-diverse group as the show's core characters, so it's hard to convince us as viewers that this is a future where power is truly multicultural.