The Unbearable Weight of Reference

Playing World of Warcraft a month or so back, I was in what people call a “pick-up group”, some strangers who had agreed to team up to accomplish a specific short-term goal. The group chat channel was all business until we had a bit of downtime while we waited to move to the next stage of the area we were in. Somebody said something about the Halloween decorations in one of the major cities in the gameworld, the one ruled by the undead, and somebody else said that they’d always found that city creepy anyway, particularly in one room where an undead experimenter is tormenting his victims.

Then one guy typed, “Yeah, well, there’s a lot of torture going around, with the Americans doing their thing.”

Silence for a minute.

Then someone typed, “You had to say it, didn’t you? Now look what’s going to happen.” And sure enough, the group chat broke into an escalating series of political cat-calls and insults between three partisans on each side, while the rest of us stayed silent. Shortly after that the group broke up, its mission incomplete.

Fantasy and science fiction as a cultural genre stretching across a number of forms seems to me to be a uniquely hot flashpoint for debates about the referential connections between a particular work of fiction and the real world. There’s the position best articulated by Tolkien, that allegory cripples fantasy. At the same time, a lot of the most powerful works of speculative fiction are built around an exploration of the real world through divergence or distortion, through a glass darkly.

I’ve been struck by this question in reading fan debates about the Marvel Comics series Civil War and by the television series Battlestar Galactica.

In fan discussions of either work, there tend to be a decent number of those “you had to bring it up” moments, but they play out somewhat differently. With Battlestar Galactica (BSG), the connections to current events in Iraq, as well as to human history more generally, are programmatic and deliberate. No one can protest that raising the issue of those connections is wrong or unnecessary. Instead, fan debates tend to be about whether the referentiality of the series has any plasticity or not, about whether the show means to be saying a single thing about the nature of American involvement in Iraq, or about whether the United States maps onto the humans or the Cylons. The current season opened with a large proportion of the surviving human population living under Cylon occupation on a planet they had foolishly settled at the end of the last season. Some humans were working together in an insurgency that employed suicide bombings. The Cylons had engaged in torture within a prison camp, and were growing increasingly desperate at their inability to stamp out the resistance. However, in the previous season, the humans were the ones who resorted to torturing Cylons, and in this season, they attempted to carry out a genocidal attack against the Cylons using a form of biological warfare.

Quite a few fans announced that the occupation episodes were the end of their interest in the show, not because they were badly made or insufficiently engaging, but simply because the referentiality between the show and the world had become too offensive or constrained. I thought this was an interesting reaction, and maybe more revealing of narrowness of historical vision among those complaining than otherwise. The show’s situation seems to me to be more broadly referential to the 20th Century as a whole. Suicide bombing, insurgencies, torture, occupation, genocide, are part of the grammar of our life and times, not just of the last four years. More importantly, it seems to me that BSG, most of the time, the references to the world as we know it are at least potentially labile, open to interpretation. When the humans decided to stage a genocidal attack against the Cylons, the show is, in my view, perfectly happy with allowing a viewer to think that a completely justified plan. (In fact, the “liberal-signified” President, who started as a bleeding-heart minister of education, is the one who firmly commits to the plan.)

I think this is partially what some fans object to, a show that opens up rather than closes down the ethical questions and problems of the contemporary moment through the use of speculative fiction. They’re not complaining about its reference to the real world: they’re requiring that any reference to the real world of here and now be confined to a single and unambivalent message about good guys and bad guys. That’s the demand that is often made of allegory, and surely this is one reason Tolkien was right to be suspicious of its intrusion into fantasy.

Civil War is another matter, but not because it is obviously without reference to our current situation. In the series, the US government has decided that all superheroes must register with and receive approval from the government following an incident where careless superheroes cause the death of hundreds of young children. Some characters support the registration, some don’t. Those who do back a plan that ultimately includes incarcerating unregistered superheroes in a black-ops prison in another dimension, with no legal recourse or rights.

Here I think fans are right to say, “Please, let’s not talk about this series in the context of current events”. The reason is that there aren’t any interesting discoveries to be made through such a discussion, because the quality of the referentiality to the world is so low and because the intrusion of the world into the universe of the comic books befouls the fictional universe.

While Marvel’s editors promised that it would be possible to sympathize with either side in the story, that’s become increasingly impossible. In a gritty real-world thriller, some of the tactics of the pro-registration side might not make it impossible to root for them. In a comic-book universe where colorful superheroes have routinely and resolutely opposed the tyranny or machinations of supervillains, it’s fairly hard to sympathize such tactics, which now include not only the black-ops otherdimensional prison, but the nonconsensual cloning and mental programming of a powerful superhero. Basically, the pro-registration heroes have become, rather blatantly, supervillains.

So not only is the story rather non-plastic in the way it maps onto the contemporary situation, it’s inconsistent with the shared-world fiction of its setting. It doesn’t help that it’s also badly written to boot. When fantasy is written to deliver an unambiguous verdict on some specific circumstances or events within the real world, it raises the question: why the diversion into fantasy in the first place? We have no shortage of strongly written, polemically powerful commentary on the follies and injustices of the last six years. It doesn’t add much to that conversation to have Iron Man playing the part of Dick Cheney–and it leaves a nasty layer of storytelling filth around those characters for the next group of creators to have to scrub away. I suppose you could say that this brings the troubles of our times to an audience that might try to avoid those issues, but I see no evidence that the readers of Civil War are hiding their heads in the sand.

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5 Responses to The Unbearable Weight of Reference

  1. David Chudzicki says:

    “(In fact, the “liberal-signified” President, who started as a bleeding-heart minister of education, is the one who firmly commits to the plan.)”

    I’m not sure you can use the President’s support for the plan as evidence for its moral ambiguity. From the very beginning of the show onward, her “bleeding heart” seems not to apply to Cylons. (I’m not going to try to remember much specific evidence for this, but there was a fairly early episode where she’s being nice to one cylon, convinces him she sees him as a person, and once she has what she needs from him, remorselessly throws him out the airlock. Speaking of torture, I think the same Cylon is extensively tortured by Starbuck in the same episode.)

    …but I don’t think this impeaches your point about moral ambiguity in the slightest.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s true, except for the very beginning, when she didn’t really believe the Cylons would nuke the people who couldn’t warp away. But that was less about Cylons and more about her fierce desire to protect human beings. You’re right otherwise: she’s always been very ruthless about the Cylons.

  3. Tim – I totally agree that the politics of BSG are mostly ambiguous and open questions rather than provide answers. I found the conclusion of “Collaborators” quite uncomfortable, as it seems at first to connect directly to the military tribunal issue of today – it’s easy to see Zarick’s push for secrecy and invisible retribution as a critique of Bushism (which triggered happy nods of recognition for me). But he then raises some good points about the impossibility of tying a society back together in the wake of the events, which seems more about WWII and reads as more sympathetic. Ultimately, I couldn’t find a place that I felt was an agreeable parallel between the fictional and contemporary situations, which seems to be the kind of discomfort that many fans find unpleasant.

    There are no easy answers – personally I admire the show for picking at the scabs of our most troublesome contemporary issues, but its ambiguity could be quite frustrating for someone looking for political confirmations & “dittos”, which seems to be the most popular mode of political discourse today.

  4. Stephen Frug says:

    My problem with BSG as a political allegory — or, indeed, as having any “applicability”, to use Tolkien’s word for what he likes as opposed to allegory — is that the opening move, the Cylon genocide of humanity, renders everything else either simply and flatly inapplicable or (much worse) gives it a seeming applicability which in fact distorts any thoughtful response to anything. (Blogger Abigail Nussbaum makes a version of this point here:

    Basically, the problem is that the opening move is so out of scale that any attempt at applicability is deceptively reasonable. To think of the humans circa season 1 as the U.S. post 9-11, and read their discussions of the issues in this way, is wholly crazy, since Al Quadea didn’t massacre 99+% of the U.S. on 9/11. To think of the humans in early season 3 as Iraq post-invasion is wholly crazy, since the U.S. didn’t massacre 99+% of Iraq prior to beginning its occupation. Thus debates which superficially *sound* the same as post 9-11 or post-Iraq invasion debates are in fact radically and deceptively different, since they are occurring in such a radically different context. (If they were in fact simply different, this wouldn’t be a problem; it would just be SF. It’s that they sound superficially the same, that they are (to use the term from intro French class) faux amis. It makes you think that you can apply the situation when, really, you can’t.)

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    But the situation of genocide and the moral problem it poses to survivors *is* applicable, broadly speaking, to at least the 20th Century and arguably to more of human history overall.

    More importantly, if we make the move to applicability instead of allegory, doesn’t that mean that it’s possible to take some part of a fiction and see it as having complex things to say about some real experience which is asymmetrical with it? An allegory consistently shadows a single referent; something which is applicable has a lot more plasticity to it. So precisely once you no longer see BSG as an *allegory* to the contemporary situation, you can find things of complex usefulness in what it has to say about occupation, or torture, or terrorism, etcetera.

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