Religion and character in Battlestar Galactica

From the start I loved the modern iteration of Battlestar Galactica. It was gritty and exciting, filled with passion and despair.

Somewhere along the line that went wrong. And the more I think about it, the more it highlights the centrality of character to every aspect of story telling.

You’ve got to have faith?

Religion exemplified the problem with BSG.

Psst, Starbuck, I think we might be caught in an allegory.
Psst, Starbuck, I think we might be caught in an allegory.

At the start religion played an interesting role. This was a sci-fi setting in which the characters had an old-fashioned faith. Their relationship with that faith, and how it affected their understanding of current events, gave them extra depth. I loved it.

But then faith slipped over into fact. The plot started being led by ancient prophecy and holy books. The role of religion in the show had taken a radical shift, and it was one that completely changed my understanding of the characters.

Subjectivity adds depth

When their religion was a subjective matter, a faith choice on which characters could legitimately hold differing opinions, it gave them depth. It was a layer of the world that added richness, nuance and variety to the show’s diverse collection of soldiers and refugees. It made them interesting.

Destiny removes agency

When their religion became an objective matter, driving the characters towards a pre-ordained destiny, it removed that depth and took away the characters’ agency with it.

As we saw that elements in the religion were objectively true it became harder to see belief in religion as a choice characters made. It also took away the possibility for divergent views. Now a character who didn’t agree with the religion was objectively wrong and being stupid.

Worse, the element of prophecy and destiny deprived the characters of control over their own fate. They were moving towards a pre-ordained future. The choice wasn’t theirs. They were less in control of their actions, and so less interesting.

This is why I almost always hate prophecies in fiction.

What a shame

This wasn’t everything that was good about the show at the start, or that went wrong along the way. But what it highlights is that plot or setting can change our understanding of characters, strengthening or undermining them. As both writers and readers, it’s something to look out for.

So, now that I’ve got you thinking, can you see other examples where the shape of the setting directly affects the characters in this way? Share some examples, help me think this one over.

 

Thanks to Joe Kawano for the question that inspired this post.

Religion as society – lessons from The Lions of Al-Rassan 2

I love to see genre literature explore religion. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the vicarious thrill of the non-believer getting inside the head of a person of faith. Maybe it’s the wonder of exploring the deeper possibilities of the universe. Maybe it’s the lure of giving in to the irrational, of wanting something more behind the scenes.

I particularly enjoy seeing fantasy explore the monotheistic traditions of Europe and the Middle East. I think that it’s something we used to be wary of. Fantasy religion tapped into the pagan stuff become that was safer and more acceptable. But the sub-genre that became urban fantasy has, to a large extent, smashed that taboo, and Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s magnificent Preacher leapt up and down on the pieces with filthy and humanistic vigour, really challenging what religion and the church are about.

What’s still rare, in my experience at least, is fantasy that explores the structures rather than the tropes of monotheism’s history.

That’s part of why I enjoyed the religions portrayed in The Lions of Al-Rassan so much. While not monotheistic they are clearly representative of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in their medieval forms. It’s not about the supernatural side of religion, it’s about the human institutions – the priesthoods and pogroms, the moments of beauty and horror all inspired by faith. It looks at religion with the eye of a sociologist or historian, not a myth-maker, and says ‘what’s going on here then?’ But it shows the results in a close up, personal way.

I can only speak from my own personal experience and reading, but I found the portrayal of the characters’ varied religious views and experiences more honest and intriguing than most others I’ve read.

All this allows the book to explore the themes of fanaticism and bigotry, as Jon Taylor pointed out in response to my previous post. And it does it well, not getting preachy and in your face, just showing the damage these things can do.

It’s a fascinating and very human portrayal of religion, and that’s probably why I enjoyed it so much. It’s one I’ll be thinking about next time I’m building a story world, considering how religion fits in as a social institution. And once again, it shows the things that Guy Gavriel Kay manages to do a little differently.

* * *

On an unrelated note, if you have access to the BBC’s iPlayer then I strongly encourage you to go listen to this week’s Chain Reaction, in which comedian Frankie Boyle interviews comic writer Grant Morrison. Morrison is one of the most interesting and insightful people in popular culture, responsible for some magnificent story-telling and some mind-bending madness, and it’s a pleasure to hear him talk.

Steal and steal well – first lesson from The Lions of Al-Rassan

I finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan yesterday. It was a beautifully written and fascinating book, and I’ll probably be writing about it most of this week, because like all the best books it’s taught me lots of lessons.

Spoiler alert - it's not about real lions
Spoiler alert – it’s not about real lions

Setting somewhere different

First up, the most obvious thing to talk about – the setting.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is a fantasy novel with almost no fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world version of Medieval Spain, a period known in real world history as the Reconquista. There’s one single magical fantasy element in the whole book, and other than that it’s essentially a piece of historical fiction with the details tweaked.

It’s an interestingly different setting, one that emphasises the world-building aspects of fantasy rather than the magical ones. It’s a bit like chopping the most wacky ten percent off of George R R Martin’s Westeros and leaving behind the world of people and politics. It lets Kay explore the possibilities and wonders of a historical period without being tied down to specific events and without the risk of someone turning round and calling him out for historical inaccuracy.

It’s also interesting to see an author use that setting as a basis for any sort of fantasy. Secondary world fantasy settings, while usually taking a lot of their queues from medieval Europe, haven’t often played with the particular features of the Iberian peninsula. While this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Arabian-influenced fantasy it is the first time I’ve seen someone use the particular political and culture encounters, the clashes and compromises, and the elegant half-way-house culture that was Spain during the great struggle for dominance between Europe and Islam. It makes for a very different feel.

Here comes the history…

OK, let me step back a moment and put my history graduate hat on.

For those who don’t know it, Spain was torn between Islamic and European influences for most of the middle ages. These two great cultures – Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East – were defining themselves in contrast and conflict with each other, but also by absorbing influences from each other. From the first Islamic invasion in 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492 they grappled to control the Spanish peninsula, as a succession of different states rose and fell. The resulting culture took the best of both worlds to create something bold and vibrant. The resulting politics was bloody and horrifying, with battles and massacres aplenty.

Everybody in the peninsula defined themselves by their religion, even if other factors also came into play, and the differences between religious, cultural and political allegiances were not clear cut. But while this was mostly a land of Christians and Muslims competing with each other it was also a land in which a small Jewish minority sought to survive and to carve out their own niche amidst the chaos.

Using what’s distinctive

What’s so wonderful about Guy Gavriel Kay’s use of this is that he hasn’t just taken the outward trappings of the period – the caliphs and kings, the poets and princes. He’s taken the deep rooted institutions and issues and riffed on them to build his world. There are religions mirroring the places of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in medieval Spain. The politics between the city states reflects the real challenges and tensions of a period in which allegiances were slippery and borders ever-shifting. The massacre of one religious group by another is all the more powerful for reflecting what really happened to many Jews as tensions rose. And the plot of the book reflects the polarising influences that arose in the most bloody periods.

This means that you get much more than just another fantasy adventure. You get a world that’s both different and familiar, that’s utterly convincing in its detail. And for me, as a fantasy fan and a history fan, that’s some damn good reading.

Not done yet

I’ll be back to write more about this tomorrow I’m sure. In the meantime thank you to my friends who persuaded me to read this, especially Glenatron who’s evangelised for GGK any time I’ve created an opportunity.

Have you read The Lions of Al-Rassan? If you have let me know what you thought. If not then go read it!

Seriously.

Now.

Go.