Are You a Capriphile or a Caprichaun?: Sci-Fi, Ethics, and Religion

Caprica_S1_Poster_01“Some commentators have proposed ‘science fiction’ as the last fictional repository for theological speculation,” wrote Margaret Atwood a few years ago. “Heaven, Hell, and aerial transport by means of wings having been more or less abandoned after Milton, outer space was the only remaining neighborhood where beings resembling gods, angels, and demons might still be found.” (Read Margaret Atwood’s literary history of sci fi here.)

Caprica, the new sci fi TV series in the Battlestar Galactica lineage, is the latest brilliant playground of ethics, theology, and social gumbo on the small screen. After watching the first few episodes, I can confirm that I’m definitely a Capriphile or a Caprichaun or a Capricaner or whatever Caprica fans end up calling ourselves. Apparently, I’m not alone.

Over at Religion Dispatches, commentators Diane Winston, Anthea Butler, Salman Hameed, and Henry Jenkins are blogging on each Caprica episode under a series titled Capricology. The mix of commentators is great in itself. Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion. Butler is an associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania. Halmeed is an astronomer who also writes about Muslims and science. Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at USC.

They’re covering the cultural intersection of science and religion as well as the interwoven commentary on the body, artificial intelligence, paganism, original sin, immigration, and race. Here are some excerpts from their posts on Caprica‘s first episode:
Whereas most TV dramas are good guys versus bad guys, BSG and Caprica probe the passions that enliven us. The pull of temptation, the cost of obsession, the slog to redemption (yes, yes, and yes) and then the biggest question of all: Do you need to be a carbon-based life form to own and feel these? Teetering between “must-see TV” and bloated soap opera, BSG worked because the melodrama was grounded in the quotidian: model ships, dog tags, and toothbrushes. Now with all the imaginable artifacts that could draw us into Caprica’s odd collision of machines, mobsters, and monotheists, a newspaper—with ball scores, stock prices, and local weather makes it all so mundane, masking (as our own newspapers tend to do) the real stakes behind the stories.–Diane Winston

I was most taken though by the plight of Adama’s daughter, who is brought back from the dead not through an act of self-creation but against her will; who is inserted into an empty world, a purgatory space, which she doesn’t recognize and understand, and is abandoned there, treated as an unnatural abomination, as a monster, by her own father and forgotten by the man who created her. (Shades of Frankenstein, but also some suggestions here of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the series Jane Espenson worked for before Caprica, where Buffy’s friends bring her back from the dead, like Lazarus, and she finds herself experiencing deep pain and trauma at being ripped from paradise and plunged back into our imperfect world. In fact, Espenson wrote “After Life,” a key episode in the exploration of this theme in Buffy. I hope the series will explore more fully what happens to this girl and how her experiences differ from Zoe’s.)–Henry Jenkins

The real genius of Caprica will be the weekly mind game Ron Moore and his crew are going to play with us about when life begins, and ends. Does life continue after physical “death,” and if life is not in a human body, is it really “human” after all? How does a new religious movement gain followers? What are the moral and ethical implications of a society that has lost its moral center and stokes its fear by creating the ultimate “protection force” that will eventually obliterate its creators? Most importantly, what does it mean to have a body? And how do you use it?–Anthea Butler

A belief in some sort of afterlife is central to many religions and it may have been pivotal in the origins of religions in the first place. How will this play out on Caprica, where the boundaries between what is alive and what is not are already getting quite blurry? Does it shape monotheism or polytheism in a particular direction? In addition to all this, we have the monomania (as Diane calls it) of Daniel Greystone that is leading him to create his own version of life-after-death—and the cost that humans will eventually end up paying 58 years later. As Henry pointed out with a comparison with Buffy, the issue of life after death is a fertile area of exploration for this series, alongside the psyche of suicide bombers.–Salman Hameed

Read more from Capricology: Television, Tech, and the Sacred.

Doria Russell: Novelist as “God”

doriarussellforwebTwo decades ago, Mary Doria Russell, a paleoanthropologist turned novelist, was decoding the stories in ancient bones. Then she wrote two beautiful, theologically evocative books of science fiction, The Sparrow and Children of God. (You can read the preface to The Sparrow here.

I love these books and have read them over and over. Also, I interviewed Doria Russell for Sojourners last year. She’s very funny and is currently working on a novel about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

The premise of The Sparrow and Children of God is that life is discovered on another planet by way of transmissions of hauntingly beautiful music. And Jesuits explorers and scientists make first contact, just as Jesuit priests were often in the vanguard of Europe’s age of discovery. Mary Doria Russell grappled with large moral and religious questions on and off the page—as she imagined the conversations and relationships between these Jesuits, the other scientists who travel with them, and the species they encounter.

Mary Doria Russell will be interviewed in a Speaking of Faith radio segment titled “The Novelist as God.” Listeners will discover what she discerned—in the act of creating a new universe—about God and about dilemmas of evil, doubt, and free will. The ultimate moral of any life and any event, Doria Russell believes, only shows itself across generations. And so the novelist, like God, she says, paints with the brush of time.

“The Novelist as God” will air on public radio stations nationwide from Thursday, January 29 through Wednesday, February 4. You’ll also be able to hear and download the program online at www.speakingoffaith.org, where you’ll find broadcast locations and times.

Ethics in the New Battlestar Galactica Webisodes

I’m a Sci-Fi junkie. The best theology and ethics discussions have always taken place first in the sci-fi genre. Battlestar Galactica (the remake) did not disappoint in the way it weaved the discomfort with prophets, the nature of an individual’s personal choice to sacrifice for the common good versus the state’s decision that an individual should sacrifice for the common good (of the state), and the ever-present allure to do limited evil in search of ultimate good.

Check out SF Gospel and Dyalogues Blog for fun posts on such things. Its where the question finally gets asked: Is there Cylon redemption for human sin?

Now, SCIFI.COM announced the launch of a new 10-part series of Battlestar Galactica webisodes, “The Face of the Enemy,” starting Dec. 12 at noon ET.  Two webisodes will debut weekly, leading up to the on-air return of the series on Jan. 16, 2009.

Each of the three- to four-minute chapters will complement and enhance the action broadcast on SCI FI and give viewers more insight into characters and events from the fourth and final season.  “The Face of the Enemy” (written by the excellent Jane Espenson and Seamus Kevin Fahey) follows the action and suspense inside a stranded Raptor carrying a group of passengers, including Lt. Felix Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani) and a Number 8 Cylon (Grace Park).

When passengers suddenly start dying in alarming ways, fear, panic and chaos erupt within the confines of the small ship as suspicion grows that there is a killer among them. Michael Hogan (Col. Tigh) and Brad Dryborough (Lt. Hoshi) also star. Check out here for more information..