Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Wee Nerd-Fest

Here’s my thesis for this particular blog post: Battlestar Galactica is a romance; The Time Traveler’s Wife is not.

(For those of you checking your syllabus anxiously, Marriage 101 is down the hall on the right; History of Parenting 200 is upstairs; if you registered for Obscure Pop Culture Random Theories 480, you’re in the right place.)

Okay, now that those who were in the wrong room have left, the rest of us can get down to work. Battlestar Galactica is often mistaken for a sci-fi series: it is set in the far future, depicts warfare in outer space, and focuses on the conflict between humanity and a race of sentient robots called the Cylons. Though not quite an allegory of recent political events, the series seldom overlooks an opportunity to skewer the ham-fisted foreign policies of the current President and his cohorts – the characters, both human and Cylon, not infrequently find themselves wielding power in well-intentioned but disastrous ways, riding roughshod over basic human rights, attempting to achieve peace through invasion and oppression. The nature of evil in this series is that everyone is a George W. waiting to happen.

Political jabs are never the main point of the series, though, and neither are the various plot arcs involving individual characters. Helo’s love for Sharon, Starbuck’s self-destructive proclivities, Lee’s bizarre weight-gain issues – none of these are as interesting as the central romance between humans and the Cylon. Like Mr. Darcy, the Cylons are dauntingly powerful, and their aggression conceals a palpable longing: they have recreated themselves in human form, and they fall in love, over and over again, with human beings – they call themselves the children of humanity and exhibit an Oedipal conflict between their attraction to the parent race and their need to destroy it.

The humans, on the other hand, are like Elizabeth Bennet, defensive, oblivious: unlike the viewers and perhaps even the Cylons themselves, they do not realize that their happy ending must involve union with their perceived enemy. For that to happen, the Cylons must be humbled, must learn to shed their power advantage, and humans must overcome the prejudice that drives them to use epithets like "toaster" (a word that we can already recognize as an unsayably racist term, something that future generations will refer to with a shudder as the "t-word," evidence of the benighted prejudices of their forebears). Cylon and human circle one another warily, needing to trust one another and unsure of how to achieve that across the boundaries that divide them.

Like any romance, Battlestar Galactica alternates between exciting relationship-advancing episodes and those that focus on the more prosaic day-to-day life of a battlestar crew. Just when the romantic tension is at its highest point, Lizzie goes home to deal – interminably – with Lydia’s elopement and its fallout; the humans get back to the ship and negotiate with restive labour unions while viewers yawn and wait for the romantic hero to return, dangerous yet attractive, so that the story can proceed.

Romance is about attraction and mistrust, about the process by which a threatening stranger becomes an intimate companion. It’s about curiosity, fear, and longing.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is not a romance. (I don't mean that as a criticism, mind you – it’s a book that kept me up well past midnight last night, and you know that a book good enough to keep me from the precious precious sleep is a rare find.) The novel is, I will concede, a love story, a celebration of fidelity, but it bypasses all the usual romance conventions: in the opening pages, Henry (the time-traveling hero) sees Clare for the first time. She is looking at him with her heart in her eyes; she has known him since she was six years old and he recognizes instantly that she is his future, as he is her past. There is no distrust; there is no courtship – just this moment of recognition and belonging.

Instead of being fuelled by romance, the emotional impact of this novel is similar to that of the best fantasy novels (in my subjective opinion, that is, based on my admittedly limited experience with the fantasy genre). The appeal of fantasy, my husband once explained to me, is the thrill of identifying with a powerful hero. That struck me at the time as a rather pathetic reason to read a book. But in the best fantasies, the hero is not simply powerful – he has a power that both causes and is caused by suffering. The fantasy hero has abilities that are strange and mysterious, even within the fictional frame – they set him apart not as a Gandalf figure of wizardry but rather as one marked out for suffering. He is at once a vulnerable child and a man of greater breadth and depth than the comfortable, privileged mortals around him.

In The Time Traveler’s Wife, the moments of highest tension and satisfaction occur not from Henry’s interactions with Clare but rather from the occasions when his time-travel abilities are revealed to his contemptuous – and then amazed – acquaintances and co-workers. I never stopped enjoying the way these characters move from suspicion to awe as they realize that Henry isn’t lying or crazy – he really does move involuntarily through time. He is set apart from the rest of humanity, and Clare is his tether to a world in which he does not truly belong.

A leitmotif that runs through the book is the analogy to Penelope and Odysseus. Clare is an artist, weaving her tapestries while Henry suffers his terrible adventures. When I first read The Odyssey a few years ago, I was taken aback by how much time the hero spends sobbing. Odysseus, like Henry, is a man marked by suffering, one who is greater than other men because he has suffered more than they. Where romance novels are about a coming-together of hero and heroine, The Time-Traveler’s Wife and The Odyssey are about marriage – about enduring together through the infinite distances that divide us.


Blog Antagonist said...

I don't watch BG (well, I did in the '70's, but that was because of Dirk Benedict. What the heck was his character's name??? I've heard it's very good now and your review is certainly intriguing.

I resisted TTW for some time, thinking it a Sci-Fi novel, which I don't normally read. But when I did finally read it, I enjoyed it a lot. I thought your review was very insightful and I agree with many of your observations.

BTW...I signed up for Library Thing after seeing yours, and I am completely hooked. Thanks!

Mad Hatter said...

Sadly, I do not watch BG, although I know I will plow through the DVDs some day. It is my kind of show. Nor have I read The Time Traveler's Wife.

I do not engage in relationship talks with my husband unless a certain blog post prompts me to take a night off blogging to spend time with my husband thus resulting in a small tiff following an impromtu discussion about our relationship. (Get thee behind me, B&P).

The Big Mac post, though? It was helpful despite my Freudian typo.

Now I will retreat back to my own shitty space and contemplate whether my own lame attempts at humour were far and away TMI for my readers.

Occidental Girl said...

I really liked your synopsis and analogies between the stories. I didn't finish the TTW because it was back when we were moving and it was a library book, but I liked it.

I shared your post with a friend who was recently watching Battlestar Gallactica....for some reason. So funny!

bubandpie said...

Mad - Wait a second - that post was about NOT having the relationship talk...or was that a kind of irresistible reverse psychology that made the relationship talk (and resulting tiff) inevitable?

Mad Hatter said...

I didn't intend to have the relationship talk. The post just reminded me that I really ought to hang with my husband on a rare night when he wasn't rehearsing rather than do what I usually do when he is at rehearsal: blog. Both our presences in the living room must have been a little unnerving for both of us. So, yes, the solution to a good marriage? Don't talk. Period. Just blog.

Tee. Hee?

Andrea said...

Well, it is sci-fi--it's a space opera. An exceptionally well done space opera. The conventions of the sub-genre are thumbprinted all over it (small dedicated band of well-intentioned anti-heroes fighting bravely against overwhelming force; superhumanly physically attractive human beings engaged in improbable relationships; incredibly dark and depressing storylines; and in the vein of at least Stephen R. Donaldson's space opera trilogy whose title escapes me at present, frequent flips in perspective so that villains become victims and victims become heroes and heroes become villains, all the freaking time, until all notion of good/evil moral/amoral true/false is completely inverted, disassembled, and destroyed). It is, moreover, a postmodern space opera, which is perhaps why so many people enjoy it today; as one of my regular sci fi blog reads pointed out, Sci Fi is essentially a modernist project, that predicts that order, respect for authority, and technology will rescue us from our worse selves and from the consequences of our current actions. (Star Wars and Space Trek both follow this theme, though differently; and many would argue Star Wars to be more truly a space fantasy, but that's another argument for another day.) Postmodern sci fi/space opera, on the other hand, presupposes that we are still doomed, that power is corrupt and respect for it is absurd, and that technology will be part of our destruction and downfall.

But your comparison w/ Darcy is very amusing. And I don't think one precludes the other--I think your analysis is, if not exactly right, then very close--but it's still a sci fi show.

TTW was a good book. And also sci fi (the definition between sci fi vs. fantasy I've heard most often is that science fiction is a story which could not take place without some scientific development, whether real or wholly imaginary; whether fantasy is a story which could not happen, period. Ghosts, magic, spells, deities, etc., are properly fantastic elements that make a story a fantasy regardless of the environment (outer space or Chicago or Middle Earth); but any reasonable scientific plot device will make a story science fiction. In the case of TTW, it's an interesting little bit of genetics and astrophysics, which is certainly improbable but not fantastic, IMO. Admittedly, it skirts pretty close to the line.)

This is what happens when you write a post w/ BSG in it. I will go overboard in the comments section. Every time.

Pieces said...

I love the parallels you have drawn between BG and P&P. Very insightful. I have just finished the first season of BG so I am now finally getting what some people are talking about. May Netflix fly on the wings of angels with my next disc!

I'm going to have to check out the Library Thing too. I've already found a couple of books to read through yours.

slouching mom said...

Only you can get away with comparing BG to Pride and Prejudice! I love it! It works!

bubandpie said...

Andrea - Hehe. I was waiting to see how long it would take for you to ride to the rescue of sci-fi, that poor much-maligned genre. I'm never one to shy away from a little hyperbole, you know - it's precisely because BSG is not a romance and TTW is not a fantasy novel that it amuses me to say that they are. I'll concede that both BSG and TTW incorporate enough sci-fi conventions to fit that generic category - but they're borrowing their emotional bag of tricks from romance/fantasy.

I wonder if this would be a good test case for differing generic categories based on one's lit-crit camp: if we define romance and fantasy in terms of reader response (the emotional roles readers are invited to play - the specific way we are asked to empathize with characters), we'd draw our lines differently than if we look at genre more formalistically, focusing on thing like setting and subject matter (ghosts and magic vs. DNA).

Beck said...

I've never seen BG. I don't know why not. The Time-Traveller's Wife, though, has an odd place in my heart - first, my husband gave it to me for Christmas after a particularily bad marital period, and then it was the one book I had with me in the hospital last spring when I Nearly Died.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Oh, I thought that was where you were going: comparing the thrilling beginnings of a relationship w/ a marriage. I love it!

This is an aside but: after thinking (quite a bit!) about your last post, I believe the relationship talk belongs in the romance part and not the marriage part. Because the relationship talk is all about one partner feeling uncertain of the other's love. Which is why most men and some women find it threatening -- the very fact of it implies that something is very, very wrong.

Oh, The Joys said...

You know, I read TTW at record speed and found it entertaining, but overall I was underwhelmed by the writing. Your thoughts? (I know I'm not one to judge, but still.)

Kyla said...

I'm not loving BG this season. :( I actually don't even watch it unless is it about Starbuck and Lee. It got so dark when they were on New Caprica, I couldn't stomach it. I don't like situations like that.

I suckered my SIL into buying The Time Traveler's Wife this weekend, so I can borrow it when she is done. I'm reading Anna Karenina and don't want to buy anything tempting until I am done with it.

Catherine said...

I'm glad to see that you too are in the mood for book reviews! TTW is on my bookself waiting to be read, and I'm more intrigued now than ever. Thanks!

jen said...

The only thing I can offer to BG is that Dirk Benedict hot factor from my pre teenage years. Hold on, I need a moment...Dirk.

OK. TTW. I agree, it's not a romance. I agree about the fantasy. I think it's about connectedness and bravery, with some sci fi thrown in.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I should form my thoughts completely before commenting, no?

It may be that the partner initiating the relationship talk is only seeking reassurance, but to the other partner it often sounds like an attack.

Anyway. Regarding fantasy, some of the best books also insist upon the responsibility that the hero has to the rest of us. In the beginning the hero is usually having a blast with his powers; then s/he comes to realize that the powers should only be used w/in narrow confines for narrow, specific purposes. Takes all the fun out of it, really.

Gwen said...

Why is everyone talking about TTW this week? Weird, weird, weird.

Like OTJ, I didn't love it. I didn't hate it, either. I enjoyed all the settings with which I am extremely familiar, Chicago being my home town, but I also thought some of it was a little too much, too melodramatic, too overwritten, I guess.

One of the things that struck me about the book and which I haven't yet been able to articulate adequately despite several attempts was the way that the inevitability of Clare and Henry's relationship lessened its power, for me. Love, for them, wasn't a choice. Or at least, I'll argue that it wasn't. And because they didn't choose it, whatever AN wanted to say about relationships and connectedness was less convincing. A part of me envied a relationship where you never ever question if you are with the right person, because once you can know that with certainty, the relationship is no longer about "if" and "how" but simply "how." Maybe there really are people who "know" unequivocally that ONLY their partner is right for them .... but I don't know those people. Love, as far as I've experienced it, is always--at the root--about choosing.

bubandpie said...

Gwen - Maybe that's why I didn't think of the book as a romance: it wasn't about wanting these two people to be together. The choice part wasn't important for me (I think choice is overrated - I found the determinism of the past very comforting in the novel) - but in order for the reader to want two people to be together, they have to be apart.

For me, the book was really about Henry, especially little six- or seven-year-old Henry crying when he discovers that he is so alone. It wasn't really about the Time Traveler's Wife - Clare was just a convenient point of view from which to perceive Henry. And identification with Henry was mostly about showing off: I've never been able to resist a story with so many of those "There's More to Me Than Meets the Eye!" moments.

Momish said...

Oh, I don't watch BG unfortunately, so I cannot comment on that part. But, TTW was a great read! I loved that book and have forced others to read it as well. I just keep thinking what a great movie it would make! But, yes, I put it up there with SciFi over romance.

Mouse said...

I am forever wanting to write about BSG--the series as a whole, individual episodes, relationships and characters. But everytime I start, I become overwhlemed by all I want to say.

I also seem to be one of the few fans I know who's eating up this season. Even when there are the individual episodes that don't further the overall storyline, even when Starbuck gets little more than a few seconds of screentime, I'm captivated by the storytelling.

This season, as some have said here and elsewhere, has been dark and unrelenting. But I like that it's not comfortable and the lighter moments are few and far between--but I think it's realistic since they're fighting for the survival of humankind.

And then there's the whole issue of genre and the marginalization of sci-fi, another thing I frequently muse on. I grew up without the usual attitude and most of the "classic" literature I read when young was classic sci-fi. But that's what happens when your father is an English professor whose secondary field of interest is science fiction.

MotherBumper said...

Well frack me, I thought I was the only one who thought about the Oedipal conflict in BG. I was about to skip this post for fear of spoilers since I'm only just finishing the Pegasus episodes of BG 2.5 but I could not resist. I'm glad I read it, now you've made me curious about The Time Traveler's Wife. I think many folks get stuck on the entire war "don't we ever learn" morals of BG but there is so much more than the SciFi/War stories. I'm glad I attended this course - do I get Blogger University credits for attending?

bubandpie said...

Mouse - I love season 3. For me it's light years ahead of the first two seasons, with the possible exception of the Pegasus episodes. We caught up with to the current episodes a couple of weeks ago, and since then the quality seems to be on a bit of a downturn - that's what got me thinking about the "romance" angle: the recent episodes have felt like filler to me, because I'm waiting for the hero to show up again.

nomotherearth said...

Mouse - you are not alone. I love BSG this season too.

As to TTW, I kind of thought it qualified as a romance because they managed to stay together Against All Odds.

But the fascination of the novel for me was trying to figure out if his body was jumping because his mind couldn't accept a given situation. The psychology aspect was my hook.

flutter said...

I have been DYING to read TTW, I am so glad you wrote about this. Also, are you always this smart, that I feel oddly intimidated by your smartiosity?

NotSoSage said...

I have nothing to say. We don't have a TV and we ventured, this evening, to start watching the first season of Lost on our computer and the thing is so scratched that we can't get it to work. Rrgh. But I have heard good things about BSG.

I hadn't heard of TTW, either, but it sounds like my kind of book.

And as flutter said, I bow down to your overwhelming braininess.

debbie said...

that is an unbelievably cool comparison of two works. (I'm always excited to see a discussion of any kind relating to The Odyssey, b/c I'm a super-nerd like that.)

I'd never considered that aspect of Odysseus' journey as being so significant.


debbie said...

oh, and p.s. while I haven't read TTW, just going on what I gleaned from your post and the comments here, it strikes me as having a connection to the character in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 - the time-travel style.


Jenny said...

A BSG fan. I knew I liked you.

And yes, I totally consider it a romance first. All that sci-fi stuff is just fracking ancillary.

So say we all?

Heather said...

Wow, I am so impressed that you tie Pride and Prejudice into the same post with Battlestar. I love them both so much!

My husband is a HUGE sci-fi/fantasy reader and has gotten me hooked. I used to mostly only read Austen and the like.

The Time Traveler's Wife sounds interesting.

Amy said...

I love, love LOVE BG but as we're not yet finished watching the first series I had to stop reading your post. From what I read though, I agree :-)


Karen said...

I'm fascinated and also semi-averting my eyes lest you reveal BSG secrets I've not yet seen as we are catching up by indulging in all BSG all the time weekends curtesy of netflix.
note to self: make time to read books.

bubandpie said...

Amy, Karen - I did do my best to keep this post spoiler-free, since I've only just caught up with my BSG myself (and have, on occasion, nervously scanned posts on the subject, trying to avoid spoilers). Nevertheless, it's definitely a matter of read at your own risk. ;)

Gwen said...

When I was a child, growing up among stories of Christian martyrs, I believed that suffering made you greater, the way you described Henry being a greater man b/c of his suffering. But I didn't see him as being greater. He had more knowledge than Clare, about what was coming, which may have made him a stronger partner. I don't know. I don't know where I stand on the suffering=greatness issue because all the people I know who have really suffered would trade that for being lesser, I think. Maybe not. Something to ponder.

bubandpie said...

Gwen - I don't think suffering works in real life at all the way it does in books. I guess maybe sometimes it makes people stronger, but more often it cripples them - even if they recover, they are scarred. Even in books, the suffering hero is not always a good person, especially - there's just a sense that they are bigger, more important, because of what they have endured.

Her Bad Mother said...

And this - *this post* - is why I love you.