Future Tense

Almost Humane

What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.

Lt. Starbuck interrogates Leoben on Battlestar Galactica.

Photo via Sci Fi

This piece is part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. On Thursday, Oct. 2, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on science fiction and public policy, inspired by the new anthology Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future. For more information on the event, visit the New America website; for more on Hieroglyph, visit the website of ASU’s Project Hieroglyph.

Syria. North Korea. South Sudan. It’s hard to read about the human rights violations in these places without wanting to rush for an escape—and science fiction is often portrayed as the ultimate departure from reality. But the genre is powerful and relevant when it explores what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be inhuman—and inhumane. Stories with robots and aliens create enough distance for us to more objectively examine the behavior of sentient beings, particularly when it involves dehumanizing practices such as torture and imprisonment.

In many ways, prisoners at Guantánamo Bay forfeited their humanity; the Bush administration deemed the Geneva Conventions inapplicable to detainees, justifying conditions such as solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and physical and psychological abuse. Reports, including one by a Bush administration official, confirmed the practice of torture at Guantánamo, as well as at prisons abroad, such as Abu Ghraib.

In the midst of the first round of nationwide discussions about Guantánamo, Battlestar Galactica returned to television. The reboot, which began airing in 2004, illuminates humanity’s foibles via the Cylons: robotic servants who evolved to become indistinguishable from humans and who unleashed a devastating nuclear attack upon their former masters. In the first season, human Lt. Kara Starbuck interrogates Leoben, a Cylon prisoner who claims that he planted a nuclear warhead on one of the ships. Starbuck resorts to waterboarding after hours of fruitless questioning about the location of the nuke. Bush administration officials asserted that waterboarding wasn’t a form of torture. (Despite President Obama’s ban, waterboarding allegedly continues, both for military trainees and terror suspects.) Although the Cylons annihilated the human race—an act with parallels to Sept. 11—it’s difficult not to feel sympathetic when Leoben’s head is submerged in a bucket of water. It’s also hard not to feel appalled at Starbuck. 

During captivity, Leoben eats hungrily, prays, sweats, and demonstrates pain. Starbuck wants him to relinquish his human identity and also wants to punish him for it: “Here’s your dilemma: turn off the pain, you feel better. But that makes you a machine, not a person. … So the only way you can avoid the pain you are about to receive is by telling me exactly what I want to know, just like a human would.” The episode reveals the paradox behind Cylon-human torture, and thus, behind human-human torture. She humanizes Leoben by exploiting his capacity to feel pain while dehumanizing him via her actions. It’s unclear whether his refusal to “turn off the pain” or give up the information is a human response or an inhuman one; regardless, Starbuck also dehumanizes herself.

Leoben asserts his humanity again when he admits to lying about planning a warhead because he was afraid to die. In response, the human president, Roslin, chucks him out the airlock, ending both his torture and his life.

At the beginning of Season 3, the Cylons have the chance to annihilate humans. Instead, they do something worse: They enslave the survivors, which is the ultimate dehumanization. The stripping away of free will perfectly exemplifies Thomas More’s argument in Utopia: “[S]lavery is the punishment even of the greatest crimes; for as that is no less terrible to the criminals themselves than death. … [P]reserving them in a state of servitude is more for the interest of the commonwealth than killing them.”

While it’s tough to watch a Cardassian torture Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek, some of the most profound examples of torture and enslavement in science fiction don’t involve humans at all. Babylon 5’s most poignant conflict occurs between the Centauri and the Narn, who act out a familiar story: The technologically advanced Centauri arrive on Narn, home to a peaceful and pastoral race. The Narns welcome them and regard them as godlike, and the Centauri make the Narn prisoners on their own planet, forcing them into manual labor so the Centauri can enjoy the planet’s resources.

The Narn fight back, leveraging Centauri technology to conduct sabotage and assassinate the invaders. The Narn become more Narn as they assert their free will and exact revenge, typically human characteristics. The Centauri eventually destroy Narn with WMDs and enslave Narn religious leader G’Kar, whom they attempt to turn into a court jester. Even though G’Kar is an alien, it’s harder to watch him paraded around in a clown’s cap than it is to watch Leoben’s or Picard’s torture. Humiliation is the point of G’Kar’s ordeal, which culminates in the plucking out of his eye when the Centauri leader doesn’t like the way G’Kar looks at him. While the stories often contain parallels to human history, when the actors aren’t human, sci-fi can do something Ray Bradbury likens to Perseus’ slaying of Medusa: “an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way. … Indirection is everything. Metaphor is the medicine.”

Dehumanization takes other forms in sci-fi, such as Mengele-esque medical experiments on prisoners in Minority Report, Gamer, Glasshouse, The Passage, and many more. Sci-fi also depicts the cruel nature of solitary confinement, which some 80,000 U.S. prisoners currently endure. Kelley Eskridge’s novel Solitaire explores the idea of virtual confinement, warning against futuristic forms of torture that may result from attempts to dehumanize prisoners.  

But sci-fi also provides alternatives to endless imprisonment and torture. The government in BSG debates sending 1,500 human prisoners to harvest water from a nearby moon, but President Roslin argues against slave labor and suggests allowing prisoners to work toward early release. The human prisoners mutiny, forcing a comprise: They’ll retrieve the water only if the fleet holds open, free, and fair governmental elections. Ultimately, the prisoners gain control over their own ship (which is stripped of all non-prisoners and weaponry) by arguing, “We need to be free men and women. If we’re not free, then we’re no different than Cylons.”

In Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, a penal colony on the moon supplies grain to Earth. Upon realizing the value of their finite resources, the “Loonies” overthrow the Lunar Authority and become a sovereign nation. They devise their own parliamentary system, and Luna flourishes. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed features a society living on a lawless moon where small conflicts are managed with fistfights and larger conflicts with public reprimand. There are no prisons, but there is an Asylum that colonists can inhabit if they don’t want to join society or if they need protection. These works depict alternatives to prison, torture, and dehumanization, urging us to consider other ways to manage our incarcerated populations.

In BSG, Cylon prisoner Leoben advises President Roslin not to “be too hard on Kara [Starbuck], she was just doing her job. The military … they teach you to dehumanize people.” Maybe science fiction can teach us another way.