Normalising the horrific – television and suicide bombers

Let’s call this entry a late night place holder, something I might come back to in greater depth later. I am interested in the role that television, and I mean fictional televison, plays in normalising, or at least how the depiction of things become normalised, by television. This first struck me in the way that torture was shown during the early to mid 2000s – shows like Lost, Alias, Battlestar Galactica and 24 were full of it, and not always by bad guys and in ways that were, for a time, less and less problematised. But that discussion itself is one for later.

Tonight I watched episode 10 of season 5 of Supernatural and something that had struck me watching V about a month ago, caught my attention again. Here were good characters engaging in suicide bombing. Since the rise of suicide bombing in our news over the past 20 years, we have seen plenty of bad characters using suicide bombing tactics on television. It has been in Spooks and, in the third case of suicide bombing that I have seen in the last month on television, quite recently on 24. But these are expected locations for suicide bombing, particularly because it is the bad guy, the one who needs to be stopped, who is the bomber.

Back when Cylons occupied New Caprica in Battlestar Galactica, the resistance used suicide bombing. What was interesting at the time was how the show carefully problematised this use, with debates about it and the clear implication that the “innocent” would die along with the occupiers. This use of suicide bombing was carefully thought through and did make some interesting points to challenge the way we thought about suicide bombing and its use by the oppressed.

In V last month it was a throwaway moment – a character we didn’t know but who was clearly on the side we are unambiguously supposed to support, setting off a bomb to kill himself and others who were in thrall to the supreme bad guy. What has changed to allow such a unquestioning, unproblematic use of suicide bombing by a good character?

The case in Supernatural was a little different – there is an element of the “last stand” about it as Jo is going to die anyway. But this does not explain her mother choosing to kill herself along side her. And yes, they were only killing hell hounds. While the trope of the “soldier” allowing their impending death to be sped up in order to save others is a very common one in war related films, the idea of a full able person killing themselves is much less common.

The other suicide bombing which I haven’t mentioned yet is that which sets off the action of Caprica. Again here as in Battlestar there is a much greater problematisation of the use of suicide bombing, but still questions remain about it.

My central question is, how often did we see suicide bombing on our televisions even 10 years ago? How has the frequency increased? Does this mean anything? Are we entering a Baudrillardian spiral in which the referent disappears?

Thoughts to return to later – but I welcome any comments or ideas.

Monthly cultural round up: March

During March I spent a lot of time on planes. And a bit in hotels. These things, strangely, underpinned quite an active month of cultural experiences.


Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte I read this entirely on planes and have already talked about some of my thoughts on it here. I must say I was quite amazed how readable it was, even if some of the characters drove me a little crazy. I do think though that Edgar is possibly one of the most undervalued male characters in literature ever though!

The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri This was one of those books which one starts reading with absolutely no expectations whatsoever. Again, very readable. What I found most interesting in it was the exploration of the way arranged marriage works and works out, or doesn’t, and its social meaning and constructions. It was also quite interesting to see some of the tensions in the Hindu-Muslim relationship in India as well as an exploration of the way events have a way of unfolding, when no one considers the consequences to anyone but themselves.

Rides a Dread Legion by Raymond E Feist More of the churn of the Feist machine, but I actually thought this was better written and more compelling than some of his later work. I still do wonder why Feist can’t just start anew with a whole bunch of new characters and a new universe rather than having to contort the history, gods and past of the original one in order to allow for new stories. And, god help me, the book even made me cry a little at the end. Full marks also must go to the inclusion of a strong female character who isn’t married to anyone – something not seen for a while.

Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard A birthday gift from a friend who knows me just a little bit too well, I read this in three days (flights to Perth and back helped). It is the story of an American woman who meets and falls in love with a French man and ends up moving to Paris to live with him. The subtle and not-so-subtle cultural differences, and the growing love of food, make up most of the book. What I found really interesting was that sometimes I found myself identifying with her American point-of-view, and sometimes with the French. but a very readable, very enjoyable, honest and insightful book, especially if you have spent some time in or know either culture well.


District 9 I am not a huge fan of the mockumentary genre in general because I actually think that it is quite hard to tell the whole story within the mockumentary, and District 9 did suffer from a bit of a lack of discipline in that it was sometimes hard to tell what was “in” and what was “out” and why there was the transference between the two. So I found that a little distracting. The story was of course the standard one of the fate of becoming what you hate – very Lacanian really – and also about the assumptions we make which underline prejudice and how they are often our undoing. That being said, in general I really like the rather different take on alien first contact and the whole conception of the aliens. And I really liked the father-son combination of smart aliens. There was also something really moving about the older alien’s reaction to seeing the scientific experimentation, particularly when one obviously was not being guided by facial expressions.

The Lovely Bones This is not a film to see on a plane, not while they have the lights on anyway. I cried and cried and cried. It was very Heavenly Creatures style Peter Jackson and beautifully executed for it. While the notion of “heaven” was there, it wasn’t too overplayed, and was a device more than anything. The performances were fantastic though and it was the whole depiction of the parents which just killed me.

Couples Retreat This, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of film to see on a plane. Rather patchy is the best I could say. For some reason which is really quite difficult to articulate, I laughed myself stupid in the yoga section, and I rather liked the Guitar Hero-off but it was a standard paen to coupledom where all the couples end up staying together even when patently they shouldn’t. Especially in the case where the best argument for it is social utility and the prevention of loneliness.


The Pixies, Horden Pavilion This was a fabulous show. Playing Doolittle and accompanying B sides, they were tight and well rehearsed. One considers that perhaps it was better to see them now than 20 years ago as they were more professional but without losing the edgy guitar driven rock we love.


Two trips to Sydney and two exhibitions.

Take Your Time Olafur Eliasson, Museum of Contemporary Art I have also discussed this exhibition elsewhere. Previously viewed in January, we returned with small boys because we knew they would love it. As the programme says, Olafur Eliasson is an artist who transforms our experience of the space around us. The exhibition was an interesting experience in perception…and also lego.

Hymn to Beauty: the art of Utamaro Kitagawa Utamaro, Art Gallery of NSW This beautiful exhibition even has its own x-rated section. I love Japanese wood block prints and this is a lovely example of the floating world style. A small but very worthwhile exhibition.


Battlestar Galatica: The Plan This was a massive disappointment. So excited to see more BSG, and to fathom perhaps some of the unsolved mysteries, The Plan left one totally unsatisfied and just a little frustrated. It was lovely to see old the old faces again (except, noticeably, Lee), but please give us some content! Overall it seems that in the end they didn’t quite know how to end the series, and the small frustrations from the last couple of episodes (Starbuck is an Angel! The opera scenario was just a mundane incident!) really were in no way made any better by the Cylon back story. I am not sure I am in any way convinced that the Cylon plan was just “kill everyone”.


So that was March. School holidays and less travel likely to lead to a different skewing of culture for April.

100 Sci Fi women #32: Caprica Six

Caprica Six Battlestar Galactica

All the Sixes are sexy and intense and, at least initially, ruthless. The opening scenes of Battlestar Galactica where we see a Six pronounce the end of the treaty before the destruction of the space station and her along with it, signal that we are not dealing with any ordinary woman. And the scene where Caprica herself admires, then casually breaks the neck of, a baby in a pram is a startling televisual moment. But Six isn’t entirely villain, she, like many of the Battlestar characters, has a journey ahead of her; a journey which sees her grow and change. Caprica seduces Gaius Baltar and thus gets him, partially unknowingly (although, let’s face it, would Gaius have really cares?) to betray humanity and open the door to the Cylon attack. But Caprica’s journey does not end their, she is left with a ghost of Gaius in her head, and her growing humanity makes her want to be something different, not just an enemy and hunter of humans. Together Caprica, who is a hero, albeit a somewhat mistrusted one, of the Cylon people, and Sharon, the Cylon-who-thought-she-was-human, hatch a plot to try and live with the humans. Of course, it is a total disaster, and the experiment on New Caprica fails utterly. Their good intentions become perverted, and the humans cannot see any good in intentions which include occupation and oppression. Caprica has become well-meaning, but her intentions are isolated by the fact she is not human and cannot truly grasp the way that humans see the world. She learns compassion though over time, and helps the sick Hera to escape. Her compassion is also evident in her dealings with Saul Tigh and in the relationship she develops with him, which leads to her pregnancy. She needs his love though to sustain her pregnancy, which fails when Ellen Tigh returns. Caprica’s experiences with Baltar and Tigh and humanity in general make her more than the ruthless, beautiful killer she is at the beginning of the series. She becomes a person of compassion, of love, of conflicting feelings and of intentions to try to make the world work better for everyone.

100 sci fi women #20: Laura Roslin

Well, I once again apologise that my life has got in the way of my blogging and it has been a full week since an update. And a big update it is – no 20. This obviously has to go to a very special science fiction woman. Before I go on though, I’ll note another list: “Top 5 Science Fiction Leading Ladies“.  Two of the five included there already appear on this list, and we make it three tonight….

President Laura Roslin Battlestar Galactica

250px-roslinDespite being something like 34th in line for the Presidency, Laura Roslin is the highest ranking member of the government who survives the initial Cylon attack. The best part of President Roslin though is that we don’t see her full of slef doubt, unsure that she can do it – she boldly steps into the role of President of the 12 colonies and starts to rule from day one.  This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have some doubts, but like any competent politician, she keeps them largely to herself and gets on with the business of keeping her people alive. The tally she keeps of the number of those alive in her fleet is a constant moving reminder to her and to us of the toll of what the fleet faces on a day to day basis. And one has to love the fact that Laura always backs herself, whether it is airlocking a Cylon or staring down her political enemies. We also have the mystical Laura, caught up in her vision which result from her cancer-fighting drugs. I also love the fact that she readily accepts that she is the leader in the prophecy – no false modesty here. She also doesn’t give in when she loses her leadership; she is committed to the resistance on New Caprica and continues to fight for her people.  And of course, when she and Adama give in to their mutual affection, it is a relationship that must make everyone soft and squishy. If all our female politicians could be like Laura, the world would be a much better place.

I won’t compromise the success of this operation or the safety of this fleet to indulge the neediness of 12 perpetually unhappy representatives. I can’t.


Science fiction and fantasy (not that sort) women

So I have been inspired by a number of projects that have been about recently exploring areas where women are often overlooked but are still there, still important and even if, unfortunately, often under-represented. The fabulous work on the alternative Hottest 100 and the work on the Feminist SF site on Mindblowing Science Fiction by Women. Also I have seen some wonderful lists of science fiction related areas recently, including Den of the Geek’s wonderful pice on sci-fi corridors and io9’s regular Top Tens, including unlikeliest apocalypse survivors and dirt cheap aliens who still look awesome. And let’s face it, everyone loves a list. So, over the next few weeks, I want to develop a Top 100 science fiction and fantasy women (and we might include supernatural world views in there too). I have a lot of them up my sleeve and will publish them in regular posts over the next few weeks, but please feel free to add in your own, and when we get to 100, we can stop. Or vote. Or something.

So, we might as well start with my current favourite…..

Starbuck aka Kara Thrace


Starbuck kicks arse, both literally and figuratively. Could in no way be described as a girly-girl, but definitely scrubs up nicely in a frock – or her dress blues. The Top Gun of the Galactica, Starbuck shows that women can drink and fight and sleep with who they want, but still command respect and authority because they are good at what they do. With an abusive mother and an absent father and a fiance who died because she had slacked off as his instructor, Starbuck was tough, but also demonstrated vulnerabilities and insecurities. Her appearance in any episode of Battlestar Galactica brought it to life and she was a waaaaay better character than the Starbuck of the original series ever was. By the end of the series it turned out that Starbuck was more than human, possibly an angel of some description, and if there have to be some sort of metaphysical beings in the world, I love the idea that they chomp cigars, mess up their love lives and can’t resist punching a superior officer because he is, quite frankly, a dick. I miss her now I don’t get to see her all the time.

Future past

In the wake of the end of Battlestar Galactica and its revelations about the origins of humanity, I was contemplating other science fiction which is set in the pre-human past, and which contains origin myths about humans. There is obviously a lot of science fiction which crosses into extant human history, forming alternate histories or just explaining that past – David Weber has a strong line in it, Doctor Who could survive without it and AE Van Vogt and Robert Heinlein have dabbled in it. There are also the occurrences in a galaxy far far away, a long long time ago.

What was interesting to me though was, however, how little science fiction I could think of that I have read or seen has actually stepped into the pre-human and impacted on humanity. It seems like such a rich vein of exploration. I do wonder whether I am just forgetting some, and thoughts of these kinds of stories do seem to lurk insubstantially at the corners of my thoughts, but I just can’t quite grasp them. The two that have occurred to me are the Pliocene series by Julian May and The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams.

In the Pliocene books, humans who don’t fit into the the new Galactic Milieu of the 22nd century travel through a one-way time machine in Southern France to the Pliocene period. Here, rather than discovering an untouched, pre-human world, they find two races of aliens who are perpetually warring despite their genetic relationship. Humans are used by the Tanu, a race of tall, goodlooking faerie like aliens, as their allies, although in some cases they are reduced to little more than slaves. The two races in the books, the Tanu and the Firvulag, are clearly the descendants of fairies, elves, sprites, goblins and trolls of human legend. What also becomes clear through the books is that some humans who have returned to the Pliocene have a genetic relationship to the Tanu themselves, suggesting that they survived to mix with the human evolutionary cycle. The suggestion is that one of the key aspects of the Galactic Milieu, the development in some humans of mind powers such as telepathy and psychokinesis may have in fact been at least in part a result of the inter breeding between human ancestors and Tanu.

In Hitchhikers Guide, the characters do not return to a pre-human earth until a couple of books along. However, it is the first book which nonetheless reveals the origins of the Earth and its purpose – as a huge supercomputer which has been created to discover the question of the meaning of life which gives the answer 42. Once the question is revealed, so too will the meaning of life be revealed, or so the theory goes. Mice were the representatives on earth of the beings who had created the computer/Earth, there to ensure that the processes ran appropriately to reach the answer. Of course, when the Earth is destroyed to make way for a Galactic bypass, the mice’s plan is destroyed and a new Earth must be built.

Interested to add to the collection of pre-human/human impacting science fiction if anyone has any thoughts.