Problems of Scale

So, I’m currently watching Battlestar Galactica from start to finish. I just finished season 2. I’ll probably make a more comprehensive post when I’m done with the series – in fact, I’m considering writing a series of posts similar to my one about epic metal back in November 2007, this time about my favorite TV shows (of which BG is definitely one). But right now, I’m just going to talk about something that bugs me about BG – and almost all sci-fi, really.

That is the problem of scale. Particularly, that science fiction universes almost always completely fail at actually depicting what the stated facts imply their universe would be like. Consider:

Up through season 2 on BG, there’s been action on four planetary bodies so far by my count, these being Caprica, the unnamed moon Starbuck crashes on, Kobol, and New Caprica. All of these are presumably about as large as Earth – certainly no smaller than the moon, since they all appear to have roughly Earth-like gravity. And yet:

  • There seems to be only one city on Caprica, in which two groups of characters, separated at the beginning of the series, meet by chance even though neither of them is searching for the other, and only one forest, where a group of characters trying to rescue those left behind on Caprica are able to find them in a matter of hours.
  • When Starbuck crashes onto the moon, the Cylon raider she shoots down happens to land within walking distance of her own wreck. And it is considered plausible (though not likely) that a few dozen Vipers can fly over the surface of the moon and (not even using sensors, but rather relying on visual contact!) find Starbuck and rescue her before she runs out of air.
  • When the Raptor crashes on the surface of Kobol, it just happens to land in the middle of the ancient City of the Gods. And that’s exactly where the rescue party goes to find them, even though they had no way of knowing that’s where they’d be.
  • When they settle on New Caprica, an effort at least is made to explain why everything is so small – only a small portion of the planet is inhabitable. And that’s where they settle, and who cares about the rest? So New Caprica is the most believable of the planets.

There’s more problems, on a deeper level. There are the 12 Colonies, each with their own distinct culture (though I can only remember a few distinct characterizations – Gemenon is religious, Caprica is the capital, Saggitaron was oppressed, uh…). But these are entire planets! Does anyone think that if there were eleven other planets as densely populated as Earth, that that would mean Earth’s culture would become homogenous? Hell no. There would just be many, many more cultures out there.

Part of the problem, of course, is the very nature of the show; it wants to depict a civilization of only a few thousand people travelling across a distance of hundreds of light-years (and this is what it would take, nevermind the Cylon’s claim that they were “an entire light-year away” when they found out where New Caprica was. Gimme a break. Alpha Centauri – the nearest planet to Earth – is 4.6 light-years away). Each different planet and star system is really more on the level of a city-state in Greece in the ancient Mediterranean. Or, in what is a more apt analogy, on the level of the 12 tribes of Israel when they made the exodus from Egypt. BG never really wanted to portray what a civilization that spread across 12 planets and multiple star systems would be like.

But of course this isn’t just a problem with Battlestar Galactica. Consider Star Trek – every episode I’ve seen involving a planet treats it like there is one city on the planet, just one civilization to deal with. Star Wars is the same way; Tattoine is “small village in the desert”, Coruscant is “large city”, Naboo is “seaside city”, etc.

In other words, we achieve diversity at the interplanetary level – which is what we want, since this is space opera – at the expense of actual planets. Instead we get a bunch of city-states floating in space with blank space between in which to fight and arbitrary rules for how long it takes to get from one planet to another.

The best attempt to avoid this problem that I’ve seen is Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle (the three Books of the New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun). BotNS takes place on Urth, which is Earth, but not just “on Earth” – it’s in South America, in the city of Nessus, ruled by the Autarch, whose lands are bounded on the north by the Ascians. The BotLS takes place entirely within a generation starship made from a hollowed out asteroid, but it involves a number of different city-states all living inside it – Viron, Trivigaunte, Mainframe, etc. The BotSS actually involves the main character going on an Odyssey-like journey to a bunch of different cities on the planet Blue. Etc.

The question, I suppose, is whether this is a problem that needs fixing. It is an irritant, to a certain extent – I know I laughed at that line about “an entire light-year away” in Battlestar Galactica. But for the most part we manage to ignore it. Would we really be better off forcing BG to take place on a single planet, or perhaps a single star system with a few planets in it, and modifying the entire plot to deal with the rule-change?


8 Responses to Problems of Scale

  1. Nick Milne says:

    I want to say first that you’re absolutely right about this problem being rampant in science fiction, and that it’s too little remarked upon for something so worthy of note.

    Nevertheless, I think there are reasons why it is not so very troubling in BSG. Let’s look at each of your four examples in order (it’s going to be a long comment, I’m sorry to say).

    First, we know there are many cities on Caprica. We can see them at a distance (from space, in fact) being destroyed by nukes in the miniseries, and – of course – in the opening credits of every show. It’s also the case that there are at least two different cities mentioned by name, and four different cities in which the show’s events transpire. The two named cities are Caprica City, the planetary capital, and Delphi, where everyone meets up at the end. We see Caprica City in the miniseries and some flashbacks (it’s where Roslin learns of her cancer, and where Six kills has her encounter with the baby). Delphi is the site of both the Museum – why Starbuck goes there – and a large Cylon transport hub – why Helo and Sharon go there. The latter two spend at least two months on Caprica, remember, and are moving all the time, so they cover a lot of distance between the field in which Helo is initially abandoned and the forest base from which they’re eventually picked up. On the way to Delphi they pass through at least two different (unnamed) cities: the one where they find the basement bunker, and the one where they run through the sewers. We know they’re different cities because they have different architecture, there’s more forest time between each of them, and they explicitly see Delphi on the horizon after they leave the second one. Sharon takes Helo to the museum in Delphi because it will be a good place to hide out while they wait for dark and because it’s the home of the Arrow of Apollo; Starbuck goes there to get the Arrow. The only trouble that remains to us here is that they both get to the building at the same time, but that’s a matter of dramatic necessity rather than the show’s producers pretending the rest of the planet doesn’t exist.

    As far as the Caprican forests go, well, there’s no reason why the planet couldn’t be predominantly forests with agricultural areas and coastal cities, as seems to be the case. Sharon and Helo pass through different forests between the cities they find, and there’s also the field where the Raptor initially sets down. The forest in which the resistance cell is hiding out seems to be near Delphi (probably because it’s an important Cylon transport hub), and the cell itself is based in that abandoned school. The rescue mission is later led by Starbuck, who was at that base and remembers where it was; why should it be shocking that the Raptor force was able to touch down relatively close to it? And as far as being able to find each other in a matter of hours, one would think that the resistance fighters would have noticed the sound of Raptors flying nearby and set off to investigate. So there you go.

    Next, let’s consider the moon on which Starbuck crashes. Yes, the Cylon raider lands within walking distance of her, but they are shown spiralling down together, basically, and it does take her a couple of hours to get there. We may complain of the coincidence involved in her stumbling upon it at all, but, well, dramatic necessity again.

    I don’t understand your complaint about the fleet’s efforts to search for her. The incredible unlikelihood of success is frequently and explicitly mentioned by the Galactica crew, and they even show charts of the abysmally small amount of ground their searches have been able to cover by comparison to how much surface the moon has. A few narrow strips on the equator, basically, with the rest unexplored. Nobody ever thought it plausible that they could find her; indeed, the implausibility of the search versus the cost of conducting it is a crucial plot point. They search for her because it’s her. They have to.

    Next, there’s the issue of the party that crashes on Kobol. I’ll address the precise site of their landing at the end of this comment, more or less, but the rest of it may be explained as well.

    I don’t know if there was any question of the crashed Raptor perhaps having a signal beacon of some sort, but it’s also the case that the Galactica crew know the co-ordinates to which the scout Raptors initially jumped, and could likely work out the trajectory of their descent based on that and the planet’s rotation. At the very least they could drop into within a few hundred miles of where the crash occurred, and, from a sufficient height, conduct scans for the wreckage. Not so difficult. Besides, I seem to remember that the scout team was supposed to be heading for the ruined city in the first place (after the initial scans of the planet’s surface revealed its existence), so that would naturally be a good place for the rescue party to start their search. I’ll check on this, though.

    You’re right about New Caprica, so I’ve nothing to say about that.

    Now – and I hate to say it because it sounds like such a lame excuse – it is canonically accurate to say that many of the coincidences and fortuitous synchronisations of arrival in both time and space can be attributed to the show’s overriding mysticism, in which all of the parties involved appear to be fulfulling a plan beyond their understanding or control. You’ve only just finished season 2, so I won’t spoil anything, but I can safely say that it gradually becomes very clear that “all of this has happened before; all of this will happen again” isn’t just a pithy saying.

    Sorry about the length. I’ll be sure to check back here more often, anyway; I hadn’t known that you had a blog of your own until I saw your post on SaintSuperman.

    • Brian Patrick Cork says:

      I don’t know about this amounting to a nerd fight Mr. Milne.

      You ability to recall events, both significant and minute, in these matters (and, I am sure most others) is nothing less than extraordinary. That is a gift, and not necessarily a trait limited to maladroits.


  2. Nick Milne says:

    Also (and this is a minor thing), it makes sense that Coruscant would be characterized as “large city” given that the planet is, if memory serves, entirely covered by one city.

  3. Thanks for the (long!) response.

    WRT Caprica, I suppose my complaint isn’t that the planet didn’t have enough stuff on it (it does clearly show a bunch of cities getting nuked), or that the action didn’t take place in enough different places – it is that (and I know this is woefully subjective) it didn’t *feel* like a large area. The space in between the cities just didn’t feel big enough.

    [One quibble, though: it seems unreasonable to me for the resistance fighters to have stayed in the same school as a base the entire time. Wouldn’t the Cylons have found them? Especially if it was a school close enough to Caprica City to go in, blow stuff up, and leave, on a fairly regular basis? I guess I just assumed they had to be constantly on the move to avoid the Cylons, and that’s why I found the Raptors finding them to be slightly odd.]

    But you’re right about the dramatic necessity of most of the coincidences, and how it’s technically canonically accurate to explain them by the mystical aspects of the show. I haven’t figured out what the theology and metaphysics of the show’s universe actually are (nor do I know for sure that there is a good explanation for them waiting for me), but I’m willing to wait and find out.

    Overall it’s a great show, though. I’m in the middle of season 3 right now; it seems to be dragging a bit, but hopefully it’ll pick up as they get closer to Earth. My only complaint, besides everything I’ve talked about here, is that it’s hard to find characters to root for; the humans, in personal and political matters, routinely make questionable decisions, and the cylons, uh, slaughtered billions of people and then complained that the humans didn’t have enough respect for life. This isn’t a problem with the show, per se, more like a slight disappointment on my part that I can’t pick characters and root for them the way I did for Spike and Anya in Buffy or Fred and Wesley in Angel.

  4. Incidentally, the end of C.S. Lewis’s _Out of the Silent Planet_ talks about this:
    “He [Ransom] became vividly conscious that his knowledge of Malacandra was minute, local, parochial. It was as if a sorn had journeyed forty million miles to the Earth and spent his stay there between Worthing and Brighton.”

  5. […] Visaggio The incomparable Túrin Húrinson — who cannot be compared to anything — writes about a longstanding problem with science fiction. He calls it the problem of scale. I call it monoculture. But it’s […]

  6. e7th04sh says:

    Star Wars, well, i will speak the obvious when i say, that the series were a futuristic analogy of historic tale. And this applies to each and every aspect of the series, and has it’s impact. As this idea is more important than accuracy and realism, the planets are an analogy of culture. Destruction of a planet is symbol of act of terror against culture it represents. It’s all visible in the story, which makes much more sense when you “translate” or future stuff to past stuff.

  7. Jeremy Faulkner says:

    “The space in between the cities just didn’t feel big enough.”

    Perhaps these cities were part of a large metropolitan area? If the United States has BosWash then why wouldn’t an advanced civilization such as the one depicted on Caprica have a similar metro area?

    Furthermore, they seem to have been on the move for two months. If they travel a modest distance of just 10 miles per day (easily doable for a pair of soldiers!) for two months, they can cover about 600 miles. For comparison, Google Maps states that the distance between Sherman, Texas and Brownsville, Texas is 606 miles…if one travels via I-35/I-37, hitting the large cities of Plano, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Waco and Corpus Cristi along the way. If Caprica’s population density is anything like Earth’s, then it is entirely plausible to hit that many cities in that short of distance. And if the Capricans followed our horrible trend of urban sprawl, the time spent in the forest will be even less.

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