First Published: November 30, 2006
CAIRO: Science fiction has always breached the boundaries of the normal, the tried and tested. It has widened the scope of human imagination by grasping the conforms of evolution and — by opposing them directly — created a new reality.
A new hope.
From Leonardo da Vinci to H.G. Wells to Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas, the genre has sought to paint the dismal turbulence of today in the frame of tomorrow.
While history teaches us to learn from our past in order to refrain from repeating the errors that have caused pain and agony, science fiction looks to tomorrow — either on earth or in some sub-dimensional other realm — to theorize what the human condition could accomplish.
A new hope indeed, as Lucas went back and renamed Episode IV of the "Star Wars" saga.
And he revisited I–III to help us understand why there was a new hope.
But science fiction can also be used to give us insight into the horrors of today. Lucas in "Revenge of the Sith" portrayed a power-mad Senate clapping away as its freedoms were squandered by an evil emperor bent on creating a new empire true to the Dark Side of the Force — his religion.
The comparisons to US President George Bush are too overwhelming to ignore.
In "Dune," Herbert reveals the murderous fanaticism of a religious order run amuck against the background of powerful space guilds — today’s multi-corporations — vying for power on the chessboard of greed.
That these guilds were in a chaotic war to secure the most vital of all resources — spice — it is not hard to connect the dots to today’s geo-strategic realities: Where there is plenty of oil there are usually corporations and governments engaged in a tit-for-tat war of proxies for control of the fields of black gold.
However, the reader must not assume that science fiction comforts itself simply with political comment. Throughout the genre is the trend to tackle the most penetrating of issues — the existence of God, good vs. evil, the struggle to combat temptation and greed; ethics, morality, humanity.
The very questions of when we are human and when we lose sight of our humanity are addressed.
And into this fray comes "Battlestar Galactica," which a few weeks ago entered its third season in North America and Europe.
A remake — rather a laborious and leisurely one — of the popular science fiction television series of the late 1970s and early 1980s, "Galactica" focuses on a "ragtag fleet" of humans who have survived a holocaust wrought upon them by their own creations.
Machine vs man, man vs machine as told countless times in "I, Robot" and "The Matrix," "Demon Seed" and so on.
But "Galactica" may have broken ground in its opening salvo as it took on the specter of suicide bombings, occupation vs. resistance and the never tiring dilemma of 'us’ vs 'them.’
In its first episode of the third season, the humans are occupied by the machines-cum-humans, the Cylons.
There is a resistance group called "insurgents" in the episode.
The insurgents use makeshift bombs planted in the roadside to take out as many Cylons in their vehicles as they possibly can. No, it is no coincidence that these scenes are a near identical retelling of the improvised explosive devices used in Iraq by the armed groups there.
The most poignant comparison, however, is the scene where a young blond man volunteers for a suicide mission to kill Cylons and a group of humans who have joined a police force trained, funded and supported by the machines.
His mission is to kill a human leader known to be consorting and colluding with the Cylons as well as to kill as many of the "recruits" as possible at their graduation ceremony.
The young blond human says since the Cylons killed his wife he has nothing to live for. His commander asks him if he is dedicated to the mission. He says he is.
Ethical questions surface — is this a legitimate thing to do? Is it "human" to be creating a human weapon of destruction?
These questions are asked as the young man is prepped for his mission. Another human commander who lost an eye to torture while being detained by the Cylon occupiers says anyone who spent time in jail would not hesitate to condone the suicide bombing.
The young human bomber straps on a belt of explosives. He dons the hat of the Cylon-trained police force. As he is greeted by a Cylon commander, he whispers the name of his dead beloved and blows himself up.
The entire scene could have been culled from the headlines in Iraq or Palestine, both countries under a brutal occupation, both countries where suicide bombings are a daily occurrence and both countries where hardships, torture and detention have created numbed societies with nothing to lose.
Take for example the latest suicide bombing carried out by an elderly Palestinian woman who no longer cared for her life after her son and grandson were killed by the Israelis.
She blew herself up and injured three Israeli soldiers.
Or the news we hear every day of Iraqi police and recruits attacked by a suicide bomber.
The question of religion is also factored into "Galactica’s" rendition of these grisly Middle East realities.
Before the man straps the belt around his waist, he is seen praying with beads in his hands.
A coincidence? I would wager not.
In the second episode, the concept of suicide bombings as a result of occupation is dealt with point blank when one of the leaders allied with the Cylons says, "It is abhorrent and contrary to everything we believe in."
These words could have very well been written by a White House staffer for one of George Bush’s speeches on the Middle East.
A prisoner — one of the leaders of the resistance — retorts: "Desperate people will take desperate measures."
Issues such as torture, detainment and lack of legal reprieve surface in the conversation; a not so subtle reference to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the Patriot Act I and II.
As the Cylon-allied leader leaves, a police officer donning a balaclava is seen in the background — reminiscent of the special Iraqi police commandos.
I find it revolutionary that a US program would tackle such complex issues, but I applaud producer Glen A. Larson for doing so.
To end warfare and civil strife one must have the courage to penetrate the root causes. Simply labeling such incidents as acts of terrorism is an arrogant and ignorant skimming of the surface.
Let us hope the public will face up to the human stigmas of today as revealed to us by the science fiction of tomorrow.
Firas Al-Atraqchi is the Editor of The Daily Star Egypt.