Slavery in Battlestar Galactica

One of the themes in the show I am surprised has not seen much development is that of slavery. The Cylons are thinking, feeling beings of mental capacity that matches or exceeds the colonials. But not long ago they were slaves who fought for their freedom. Most of the characters postdate that era, but some, like Adama, could well have, in their family, owned Cylon slaves. It would have made an interesting scene for a Cylon to tell a colonial that he remembers being that person's household slave or nanny.

Turns out that won't be Adama, though. The planned prequel, known as Caprica, in theory will show a political battle between the Adama family (with Joseph, the father, a Civil Rights Lawyer) battling the Graystone family, which owns the corporation which developed the Cylons. However, there could be older slave-owning characters within the fleet. This will thus be touched upon if Carprica is ever made. (Notes about their opposition come from a New York Post story no longer available on the web.) We're also told that the Cylon genocide is "prompted" which implies that the misuse of the slaves was quite serious. Indeed, it is hard to figure out how we 21st century humans will create our first AI children without engaging in acts which could be judged "atrocities," experimenting with them, erasing and restarting until we get it right. After all, the evolution of human intelligence was a nasty process, full of atrocity, if you imagine it had an intelligence guiding it. (Of course most religions prefer to imagine we were created already intelligent and ignore all the fossils of our lower-intelligence ancestors.)

Robot slavery is often ignored in SF. I was quite interested in Star Wars to see Luke try to enter a bar with R2D2 and C-3PO and have the bartender toss them out: "We don't serve their kind here." But after this start, Lucas ignored all the slavery issue, and told a story with happy slavers and happy slaves, even though they were intelligent, emotional beings. They were very much treated as property, and when 3PO's mind is ordered wiped by the good guys, the audience mostly nods thinking, "that explains that plot hole" rather than "How can our heroes order a murder so casually?"

It's possible that the Adama family standing up for the civil rights of the Cylons will explain how Adama was chosen by the Final Five to escape the attack -- and chosen he was. It may explain why their agenda included sending sleeper agent Tigh to be his lifelong friend, and Tyrol to be his viper engineer. I hope so -- this is a real issue, worth exploring in SF. Most viewers perceive the Cylons as close to 100% bad guys -- after all the genocide is certainly an atrocity, even if committed by slaves against their former owners. Clouding that a bit more is worth doing in a show like this.


The Cylons were slaves. My first reaction is so what? It's like saying our cars are slaves, or talking dollars are slaves, and one day they rise up against us. They're just machines. The "skinjobs" weren't created yet 40 years earlier, after all, all the Cylons looked like the "1978" machines saying "by your command" almost mindlessly. Okay, okay, the machines had been given some or a lot of AI, and that makes them thinking creatures--sentient beings. But I still couldn't imagine emphathizing all too much with their plight, since as machines they feel nothing, it's not like the uprising in the Planet of the Apes movies. Whipping an ape that feels pain is different than programming a Cylon to dig a ditch. The only thing that humans stopped Cylons from doing was achieving their own destiny and serving beings pure enough to be worthy of it--namely, themselves--at least until they created new "humans" to serve just as mindlessly, which is just plain weird. Or maybe like you said in some other post the humans forced the Cylons to do their fighting for them, and it sickened them about humans, which again, oddly, made them want to slaughter all the humans. Help me out here, my head's spinning.

They were sentient beings. What leads you to think they feel nothing? Their later generation models that we see are certainly feeling beings, it's one of the ironic points that they are more emotional at times than the colonials.

The old model Cylons we see in Razor keep a prototype hybrid around, and worship him as a god, and he does have a prophetic channel to whatever the Cylon god is. So why do you think they're unfeeling beings or have no sympathy for their slavery?

It just seems weird to me that humans would create a race of robots that feel pain and suffering and misery (in between robotically intoning, 'by your command') to do slave-type work--menial tasks. If so Caprica must stand for Capricious and the humans got everything coming to them--I mean how sick does a planetary civilization have to be to create a special race of sentient beings as slaves to suffer and do menial labor? But they do feeling nothing, the Cylons can shut off pain receptors, and that's the new generation skin jobs; it's hard to imaging the old 1978 clunkers feeling pain, it'd kind of defeat the purpose of building a robot ("buy the deluxe model for a million creds more, it comes pain receptors!"). Unless the misery they felt was a spiritual or mental suffering (such as being created to fight human wars for them, or being denied their destiny as a species), which would help explain why the Cylons are so spiritual (and hate humans so much).

And seems weird also the 1978 clunkers would go away and create a Cylon master race to enslave them, and this master race looks like a bunch of humans, and these humans, when you take away the sexiness and power, are basically a parody of the human evil they're trying to wipe out by exterminating humanity.

I doubt that humans set out to create sentient beings. I suspect it was an accident, in an effort to create a smarter machine, they created a fully sentient one. In the beginning they ignored the warning signs. Noone expected their "toaster" to wake up one day and ask, "is there more to life than this?" We have not been given much history on this subject. By the time the humans understood what happened, the war may have already started. To extrapolate further, it is possible that the mechnical Cylons attempted to improve themselves, accidentially creating a better model that in turn rejected their creators. Perhaps the cycle of time is happening at both a macro and micro level.

We have not yet been shown the motives of the Cylon designers, but we know what they got in the end -- sentient, feeling beings. This is entirely credible, there is a strong faction in the AI community that believes the path to an AI involves understanding emotion and intuition as much as, or more than logic. After all, we started as emotional, intuitive beings first and only quite recently did we develop more logical forms of thinking.

James and Brad, your points are compelling, and I have to say I like James' idea better of them suddenly becoming aware and rebelling instantly, but then I would get even more strongly back to the notion that Joe Adama was fighting for 1978 Cylon clunker rights, it'd be like me fighting for the rights of washing machines. I guess the only way Brad's theory would work would be if they were sentient all along. My own theory at this point is the Cylons were doing work and/or fighting wars for humans, suddenly became aware (but how? don't know) and then saw humans as a different creature, were repulsed by them, and decided to kill them all like we would feel repulsion and kill cockroaches if suddenly we became aware that they were crawling on us. That wouldn't make the Cylons very sympathetic though--but I hope the show stays away from that. The show Dexter actually had me sympathizing with the main character, who is a serial killer, but I doubt BSG will be able to get me to sympathize too much with a robot race that is enslaved and who's idea of justice isn't freedom but total extermination of humanity, while creating a new master race modeled on humanity's worst traits they hate so much.

Here's another question: Would the show have been better off if the Cylons weren't humans, or rather, if there could be Cylon "skin jobs" but they didn't have human emotions and we weren't asked to empathize with them? (Hornets nest opened)

It would be very different. More like the Star Trek Borg or the Berserkers, I guess. The original Cylons were a bit like the Berserkers, but their motives were campier.

The idea of "suddenly becoming aware" is a popular one in SF, but it seems pretty damned unlikley in reality. We have lots of projects where we want to create real AI, so it's not necessary to imagine it happening by accident in real life or in SF.

But I regularly run into people who think sentient, feeling AIs would still be "just machines" and quite suitable for slavery. I see people say that about the humanoid Cylons who are clearly more feeling in many ways than many of the colonials. I feel it extremely likely that we will create intelligent slaves in our quest for AI. I know many people who have said that's what they want to do. So it's not much of a stretch for this story.

... as you know, and fuzzy logic is not "feeling." Intelligent machines, even machines with AI, are different than sentient beings that feel pain and suffering--even spirituality--which is a uniquely human trait, as part of our brains are wired for it. To create sentient, feeling creatures to be enslaved is uneconomical and unnecessarily capricious (it's a little beyond draft mules and dissecting monkeys for medical research), as it too strongly reflects parts of our own history that we have rejected--it almost follows, based on Earth's history, that slavery is not compatible with an advanced Earth democracy, although economic exploitation will probably be with us as long as we exist. So I'm still just not buying it!

As you say, "part of our brains are wired for it." And it's clear in this show that the brains of the humanoid Cylons are wired for it too, and the Guardians worshiping a God suggests it was true of them as well.

Indeed, it is capricious (though I am not as sure about it being unnecessary or uneconomical) and that is the point. As the writers of the show have said, the Cylons had justifications, not yet shown on screen, for wiping out the colonies. The colonies were slavers, and though most of the slavers are now old or dead, they were part of the Cylon justification.

Imagine, as a hypothetical, that Israel had, in the 50s, acquired nuclear weapons and nuked Germany once it got back on its feet. An atrocity, to be sure, but nobody would have wondered as to why they did it, and many would wonder if they wouldn't have deserved it, at least a little.

(Biblical history is full of such atrocity of course, by former slaves against former masters (via their god) or even simply against people who made the bad choice to live in the land that some thought their god had promised to them. I don't think the biblical parallels are an accident, either.)

From the beginning Cylon have never been machine , it is just propaganda. Cylon are human clones or cybers , with a biological entity inside the metal. That because making a sentient robot is too much difficult and nobody even the colonials are near doing it.So they are sentient being made from human stock. The downloading system is used to configurate their mind , making them slaves. But saying them machine like Craig do is the easy way to excuse any crime done. Now I ask the question : Did cylons actually revolt ? Or as they were just used as gunmeat to some scheme ?

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