The God Tangent

I’m a Battlestar Galactica fan. I like the original recipe version — hey, what’s wrong with cheese? — but I love the reimagined version. So as you might imagine, I and friends have spent the past few days reacting to BSG’s stunning series finale. In particular we’ve been reacting to the explanation of some of the show’s greatest mysteries as the biggest deus ex machina I’ve seen since Medea.

I’m not going to say more about BSG for fear of spoiling things for those who haven’t seen it. But I’ve been noodling something in the wake of those discussions, which is whether there’s a difference between fantasydom and SFdom on the subject of religion.

Now, let me preface further discussion of this with several big caveats.

1) Though I mostly write fantasy, I also write SF; my planned next novel is YA cyberpunk. My reading tastes are roughly equal between fantasy and SF, though I’ll admit I avoided hard SF until I started discovering some writers within that subgenre whom I liked (specifically Kay Kenyon and Brenda Cooper — yeah, I noticed they’re both women). So I’m not trying to start some kind of fantasy/SF war here. I think fantasy and SF are like chocolate and peanut butter, two great tastes that taste great together. (Or kill you, if you have a peanut allergy… huh. Maybe that analogy doesn’t work so well. Sorry, couldn’t think of anything better.)

2) And I know I’m making some big assumptions here about the science fiction audience. In the absence of harder data I’m forced to rely on surveys like this one, which uses a truly odd methodology to imply that a hefty chunk — about 30%, by my count of this page — of SF writers are atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc. If there are better surveys than this out there, I’d love to know where to find them. But going solely on this and “fannish wisdom”, I’ve always heard/understood that most of SFdom leaned atheistic.

Yet I wonder whether that applies to fantasydom as separate from SFdom. I say this because, in an extremely informal survey of the folks in my personal and online circles, I noticed a pattern: the mostly-fantasy fans/writers got angrier about the BSG finale than the mostly-SF folks. Specifically, they seemed to be more offended by the use of God as a plot-resolution tool. The mostly-SF fans/writers were a little more laissez faire about the whole thing — I definitely saw some annoyance there, but not the levels of towering fury that I glimpsed among my fellow fantasyphiles. The SF folks’ attitude seemed to be, “Yeah, that was stupid. Oh, well, at least the rest of it was cool.” Meanwhile the fantasy folks were all, “RAGE.”

I don’t have enough data here even to conjecture, let alone hypothesize… but I’m going to conjecture anyway. (My old Research Methods teacher is going to hunt me down and beat me, I just know it.) I suspect that the reason the fantasy folks were angrier is because they interpreted the show’s use of God as somehow… disrespectful. God as BFG, basically, or the nuclear option in MAD scenarios; so powerful a “problem-solver” that its use pretty much ends the story by default. Or maybe a better comparison would be the “rocks fall, everybody dies” ending in roleplaying; it absolves the creators of responsibility for resolving the plot’s mysteries in more nuanced ways, and generally suggests they just got tired of trying.*

Anyway, all this got me thinking: what’s the religious/spiritual makeup of fantasydom, versus SFdom?

I don’t have the time or money for a proper survey, and to be honest I don’t have the inclination. Got books to write. But this is the Magic District! And lo, magically, I can produce a poll!

OK, obviously this isn’t meant to be scientific. If like me you’re a little of both, then it’s your choice as to whether you consider yourself primarily a fantasy or SF fan. And I’m not excluding SF fans because I don’t like them, but because the Magic District is a gang of fantasy writers talking mostly about fantasy, plain and simple. Nor is this discussion or poll meant to be offensive to either the religious or non-religious; I’m not trying to imply that X is better than Y or anything along those lines. I’m just curious. So let’s see what we can find out, hmm?

Commenters! Please be respectful of others’ choices and backgrounds in our house. I will shut down comments if this goes pear-shaped in any way. Oh, and if you mention BSG in the comments, please be respectful of those whose DVRs failed to record, etc., and either hide or talk around spoilers.

* I’ll admit this is my own feeling about the BSG finale, though I heard echoes of it from other people. I loved it, don’t get me wrong — cried at multiple points, sat on the edge of my seat, etc. — but I was really unhappy about some plot mysteries being resolved with nothing more than “God did it!” as the apparent answer. Also, if you’re wondering about my own religious bent, I’d have to classify it as “spiritual but not religious”. I believe firmly in the existence of God or some form of higher power, but though I was raised Baptist, I no longer follow that faith. I’m kind of a religious Goldilocks: this one’s too hot, that one’s too cold. Haven’t found the one that’s just right, but honestly? I’m not looking too hard.

9 Responses to “The God Tangent”

  1. 1 Rachel Aaron
    March 26, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    The subject of divinity always seems so much easier in fantasy, gods can be characters there. I have to say, though, (and in pure ignorance since I’ve never seen BSG) hand of god copouts always piss me off as a reader/watcher. I feel like what, you couldn’t resolve the plot by yourself so you had to play god? Also, once you bring god in as an active (if obscure) participant, that begs the question, why didn’t she/he/whatever do something BEFORE now?

    I have to say, hearing my friends (and now you) talk about the god ending of BSG has dampened my eagerness to watch the series. Is it still worth it?

  2. March 26, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Well, to play devil’s advocate re BSG, they did foreshadow the intrusion of God (and in the show they noted that God could be “the gods” or could be something else entirely, and didn’t like being called God) long before the end of the series. But up to that point, it had been a subtle and debatable thing — maybe God, maybe some kind of weird programming, maybe the character who sees “angels” is crazy. This ending made it so explicit that I wondered, “Why did He/She/They/It bother being subtle before now?”

  3. 3 Matt
    March 26, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    I’m going to disclaim this in saying, I haven’t really got any familiarity with BSG, or the finale…

    But, on the other hand, I find it terribly interesting how long critics have been expressing their displeasure with Deus Ex Machina. Both my High School English teacher and Aristotle expressed how little they liked it.

    I think in sci-fi there might even be a bit of a tradition of using it – H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” comes to mind. Batman (which strays a bit into Sci Fi, I think), always has a gadget ready to solve the problems he runs into. Heck, I can even think of examples in Serenity and The Matrix Revolutions… All I can’t ignore the Eagles swooping out of the sky all through Lord of the Rings.

    It’s definitely a plot device of convenience. It’s a way to end a story that would otherwise be a downer in a compact, resolute, and not-so-down way… but it is terribly unsatisfying if it reaches too far into the absurd.

  4. March 26, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Does anyone know anything about which religious backgrounds prefer which kinds of fantasy?

    I for one find that the Jewish influence in my upbringing (my mother’s family is Jewish) makes me have a negative reaction to vampire stories. That is to say, if you bring in an Eastern European mob with crosses, that reminds me of the pogroms, which distracts me from what the story was intended to be about, in a “besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” kind of a way.

  5. March 26, 2009 at 11:35 pm


    I think you’ve hit it on the head: the problem with BSG was that it crossed into absurdism. With “War of the Worlds”, the deus ex machina was accompanied by a plausible scientific plot resolution (germs). It did kind of come out of nowhere (what, these spaceship-building creatures wouldn’t’ve tested for dangerous substances/organisms before they decided to conquer a planet?), but it still made intuitive sense. With BSG, the plausible/intuitive plot resolutions (which fans were speculating wildly about) were explicitly denied by the series creator. Instead, he went for “God did it.”


    Yeah, the subtle anti-Semitism in myth-based (as opposed to “romanticized”, a la Anne Rice) vampire fiction is kind of creepy; I don’t blame you for reacting badly. It was recently pointed out to me that Bram Stoker’s version of the story explicitly played on the old “blood libel” myth, along with then-popular conceptions of Jewish people in European society; it’s hard for me to see it as just straight mythological horror anymore because of that. =(

    I can’t speak to which religions lean towards which fantasy, though, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a survey of that (or anything like it). There are some connections that seem intuitively obvious to me, like Wiccanism with Faerie-based fantasy, for example, though Wicca isn’t really supposed to be linked with any particular cultural tradition. But I don’t know that the obvious linkages are all nationality/ethnicity-based. Most of the folks I’ve met who are into Kabbalistic fantasy aren’t Jewish, for example, but lapsed Christians of some variety. And Gnostic fantasy — I see more of that in Japanese video games than I’ve seen anywhere else. =)

  6. 6 mlronald
    March 27, 2009 at 2:51 am

    I have to admit that in the BSG finale, when Baltar started going off about how there had to be a divine hand in all this, my first thought was “My God, he’s just realized he’s a character in a story.”

  7. 7 Emily B
    March 27, 2009 at 3:14 am

    “My God, he’s just realized he’s a character in a story.”

    Yes! It’s kind of like that moment in Rome when Caesar decides not to punish Pullo and Vorenus because they obviously have powerful gods – ie authors – on their side. Except that was a one-off joke instead of the resolution of the entire series.

  8. 8 Emily R
    March 27, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    I think it’s that the question of God was presented as if it wrapped up answers–and it didn’t, and it shouldn’t, and there’d been some great ambiguity before about actually arguing out these questions. The links between relations to monotheistic gods and to parents (cavil, baltar), the way that a mechanical race with multiple creators to come up with a monotheism, what role exactly the Lords of Kobol have…None of that was touched on, a little like Starbuck’s closing scene ended her arc but left a whooole lot unsaid.

    I think another thing is that, used as a deus ex machina, the god-concept in SF doesn’t match the scenery well. A lot of science fiction settings are based on the idea that what seems fantastic/transcendent/etc is actually scientifically understandable: swapping the concepts only works in some cases (9 Billion Names of God is one I can think of). To me, it seems like an unsatisfactory ex machina in BSG because it “doesn’t match the drapes”: it seems out of context with the rest of the stories.

    Although now I’m pondering what Lord of the Rings would have been like with a scientific/technical mcguffiny ex machina. Gandalf builds the biggest honking trebuchet in the world, capable of being aimed just right, and launches the ring into Mordor…

  9. 9 Emily B
    March 28, 2009 at 12:42 am

    I think you’re right with the “not matching the drapes” idea. Even dropping the Ring off an Eagle’s back into Mt. Doom would probably come across as “too technological” for LotR. It started as a story where you need courage and humility and good-heartedness and all that to resist evil and destroy the Ring, so it has to end that way (even if sword skills come in handy along the way – but the battle before the gates of Morder was a distraction, not the endgame). Likewise, while god stuff is a fine subplot for BSG (especially being ambiguous as something the characters believe but which might not be literally true), it doesn’t work to end the story when we started with perfectly mortal humans and machines and all their foibles being both cause and solution for all the other problems. I remember in the commentary for S1 somewhere RDM said that they were careful to make everything Head!Six told Baltar something he could have known or guessed intuitively back then. We didn’t have definite supernatural elements in play for… what, at least three seasons? So switching from “characters’ beliefs about higher powers motivating them” to “yep, definitely supernatural” was a big shift.

    Which… actually could still work, in other circumstances. I’m thinking of the Moontide and Magic duology, in which the main character is a naturalist confronted by the existence of magic. But it was clear from pretty early on that this was the direction the story was going, whereas I think BSG shifted too late to make it feel convincing.

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