An astro-lunatic’s response to the latest episode of The Orville
By MARTIN REZNY
Man, the universe must be kidding me. I come back from work, I put on my current favorite sci-fi show’s new episode called All The World Is Birthday Cake, and what a wonderful present I get. Spoiler alert,
Astrology is the villain! Dun dun duuuun…
I have to give it to Seth MacFarlane, I did not see that coming. Which makes it a legitimate work of science fiction, as exploring new concepts is exactly what you’re supposed to do on a Star Trek-like show.
In this story, a civilization at about our level of technology sends a signal into space, asking whether anyone else is out there. The titular ship of the show, the Orville, intercepts that signal and immediately changes course to set up a first contact meeting with the aliens.
Everyone on the ship is excited about the prospect, and that’s awesome. The last time I remember seeing someone being excited about a first contact situation in a show like this was on Babylon 5, I think.
But then, one of the crew mentions that she and one other crew member have a birthday soon at a ceremonial dinner with the local leaders. The locals immediately lose their shit, put both of them in prison for life, and check the rest of the crew’s real age.
In this society, everyone born in the sign of “giliac” is considered a likely violent criminal, and so everyone born during one month of the year ends up spending their whole life in a prison camp. Not gonna lie, subtle it is not.
I should’ve seen that coming, given that birthdays were mentioned at the start of the episode, and that the doctor saw the locals make cesarean sections during an inspection of a local hospital to deliver babies prematurely, seemingly for no reason. She was even told that it was to prevent “giliacs”.
Still, I had zero clue what’s coming, both as a lifelong fan of all things science fiction and as a scientist currently writing a book about astrology. All I can say is, kudos to the writers for being original. Unfortunately, just because an idea or a plot twist is original, it doesn’t mean it must be a brilliant critique.
Born Under the Sign of Straw Man
I will begin my… I guess correction is the right word, by saying that yes, it is entirely plausible that in a galaxy, you can have a galactic federation that collectively decided that astrology is bullshit, just like you can have one civilization that misunderstood astrology to such an extent that they used its most idiotic interpretation as a basis for a system of social control.
If it looked like this kind of story is a one-off on The Orville, I would still consider it an interesting and harmless thing. Unfortunately, it seems that in the galaxy of this show, the villain formula is going to be “religion bad”.
Right out the gate, I would recommend the creators of this show watch Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5, which have already dealt with the “science versus religion” issue with all kinds of nuance and maturity, showing both the bad and good sides of both of these approaches to life and the universe.
If every single time, the secular Planetary Union will be 100% right, while every enemy is a 100% misguided society based on a fanatical xenophobic or collectivist superstition that has no value or redeeming qualities, the plots will become real boring real fast. The thing is, nothing is as black and white.
Astrology in this episode gets a treatment wholly based on the popular skeptical interpretation of it. Captain Mercer might as well be quoting Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and he pretty much is. Which is no surprise, given that Seth MacFarlane produced the new version of the Cosmos show.
The problem is, that interpretation is wildly biased and incredibly reductive. Just look at history — you won’t find an astrological dictatorship of a kind depicted in this episode, and you should start thinking why that is. It’s actually very hard to find tangible harms of any form of astrological belief.
And the skeptics tried, a lot, believe me. The best they could come up with was a fertility drop of about 25% during the year of the Fire Horse in Japan. There’s more, of course (it’s all on Wikipedia), but this is the only thing that’s even remotely close to what the society was doing in the episode.
My argument is that this real case from Japan is as bad as it would ever get, for a number of reasons that require an actual understanding of how astrological beliefs develop and can or cannot be politically enforced.
Divining the Will of the Cosmos
Ask yourself — why was there a noticeable fertility drop in Japan, but never anywhere in the west, or even in India, which is very serious about astrology? This only potentially becomes an issue when the main thing you care about is the whole year of birth, which is the least logical astrological model.
In both the western and Indian forms of astrology, not only does the main sun sign change once a month, which leaves a much shorter time period during which you probably wouldn’t be able to significantly lower the overall birthrate per year, but you’re supposed to consider the position of all other celestial bodies as well, distributed across all kinds of timescales.
The conclusion from that is that even if you wanted to manipulate the constellation under which your baby is born, there isn’t any obvious better or worse time. Something equally good or bad overall is going on all the time, making it impossible to judge any time as universally better or worse.
BTW, the reason why you should want to have a horoscope that includes multiple celestial bodies across all timescales is that the longer the reign is of the sign and the fewer additional modifiers you have, the less meaning the constellation has. In other words, if astrology works in principle, only a complex one can describe individuals, actually differentiate them.
Okay, so suppose you’re a Fire Horse, like everyone else born that year. How can it tell you anything useful about your identity? There are millions of people just like you in your country alone. I guess it may look like enough in a highly collectivist culture, like many cultures in Asia are, but this kind of astrology is the least astrology you can have and still call it astrology.
And notice that even in countries like China or Japan, astrology of this kind is a popular belief, but not a basis for a system of government. The reason for that likely is that people developing astrology, the ancient astronomers mixed with proto-sociologists, effectively cannot arrive at a conclusion that there is any “better” or “worse” sign, or that any of them can or should be eradicated or oppressed. Astrology is based on a holistic observation, charting what is.
This is why you can have people trying to not have children at a particular time because of their misunderstanding of everything about astrology, but why an actual astrologer is not likely to advise such action to anyone. The Japanese behavior was superstitious and misguided, but precisely to the extent to which it didn’t make any good astrological sense.
Historically, some planets were considered “benefic” or “malefic”, but a), as astrology evolved, it evolved away from simplistic “good versus bad” distinctions, and b), everyone still has all benefic and malefic planets somewhere in their natal chart. They always exist for everyone. The only thing that changes are the areas of life where they exert their influence.
In terms of birth-based political systems, the thing that you should be looking at and criticizing, as an evolved secular space humanist, are caste systems like the one in India, which tend to have religious justifications. Not so much astrological ones. Given that astrology is independent of in which family you’re born, it’s strangely progressive and egalitarian, and quite inconvenient, in the context of maintaining a birth-based feudal power structure.
Finally, the solution in the story is also based on a skeptical misconception. The crew of the Orville changes the minds of everyone on the alien planet by figuring out that a star turned into a black hole in the constellation of giliac couple thousand years ago and by faking its reappearance. The locals, like total idiots, immediately decide that all giliacs are good people now.
Ignoring that you cannot change the minds of a whole culture overnight, astrological beliefs are not based on celestial omens, like comet returns or supernovae. Stars are only used to measure time. It’s about natural cycles.
Astrologies are predominantly seasonal beliefs, based on observing how people born at various times throughout the year or years behave, in relation to how weather changes throughout the seasons. No evil seasons mean no evil signs. Like you can’t control the weather, you can’t control human nature.
Which offers a potential for a story that makes sense and isn’t a caricature. If like one month on that planet really sucked every year, then people born in that month could perhaps be shunned. Then The Orville could fix that weather problem for those people using science, and maybe they would eventually figure out that there’s more to the whole thing and change policy.
Stars Can’t Be Wrong
Considering all this, the “critique” of “astrology” in this show is science fiction in the sense that a society like the one depicted in the episode is unlikely to ever occur in reality, at least not any human one. It’s still a fun scenario to deal with, but I find it important to make it clear that you have to try much harder to even start a discussion of real merits or problems with astrology.
What’s ironic is that astrology is one of the few ancient belief systems that are quite compatible with the modern notion of diversity, and especially strength through diversity, as it is an exploration of how the whole cosmic organism only works as a harmony of all of its disparate components.
Captain Mercer even mentions the metaphor of a cosmic organism in one of his speeches in the episode. That’s not a modern scientific view, that’s an ancient astrological one. Like the term “cosmos” — universe seen as a well-ordered whole. Captain Mercer specifically defends chaotic universe.
The skeptical de facto church of Sagan (I like Sagan’s work, BTW) has effectively hijacked these terms, using them to mean their opposites. The philosophy of the Planetary Union, or the show, is totally compatible with the astrological worldview. It’s the dogmatic materialism and reductionism of the modern skeptical movement that goes against what the show is trying to do.
There he is, Captain Mercer, arguing for diversity, by flat out telling a newly contacted species that their view of the universe is stupid and wrong, that there’s only one scientifically correct view, the one held by the Planetary Union, and that because he can’t think of how astrology could work in terms of physics, everyone should stop believing any version of it immediately.
That’s just a mirror image of the xenophobic religion of the Krill, the main baddies on the Orville, only using words instead of guns and nihilism instead of god. Admittedly, the xenophobic holocaust is still worse, but it is equally dogmatic and anti-diverse. Like the Borg were in a way a mirror of Starfleet.
I don’t care how many species there are in the Planetary Union — if all of them believe all of the same things about the nature of the universe and how society should work, then they are so not diverse that it’s not even funny. And no, details like position on circumcision don’t count as fundamental differences. Focusing on attributes of appearance or physicality is a shallow distraction.
Like with the Star Trek: TNG show, which The Orville is the spiritual successor of, a serious argument can be made that both the Federation and the Planetary Union are in effect totalitarian utopias, like a Soviet Union that worked, and commanded people to be nice to each other. Which is what Deep Space 9 already tried to analyze and challenge. In that show, it were often the Ferengi characters, from a race of capitalist caricatures, that showed the most genuine humanity. And on this level, The Orville has a lot of potential.
While the ideologies of the key players are quite one-dimensional so far on the show, most characters are three-dimensional, flawed, relatable people. Like Quark was on Deep Space 9. When they reflect on the inhumanity of ideologies at play in their universe, that’s when they’re at their strongest. When they spout them at one-dimensional villains, then they’re at their weakest.
At the end of the day, if you feel the need to criticize astrology and similar pre-scientific worldviews on your show, please at least have the decency to learn what they are and present good counterarguments against them.
Oh yeah, it’s entirely possible to write a great sci-fi villain who is an astrologer. I certainly intend to do that. I’d love to see that. Straw man villains don’t make for good television. The Orville is the best sci-fi show on air right now. All I’m saying is, you can do so much better. Just look at the other side of the story.
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