Book Review: Battlestar Galactica, by Glen A Larson and Robert Thurston

I’m reviewing the 1978 first edition of this book, although I am aware there are multiple versions and spin-off publications with the same name. Although this is a very well told, flowing and competent piece of entertainment fiction, I am also aware that it was written alongside the scripting and production of the original television series, so it’s not just the two named authors here, is it? They’re backed up by the creative influence of script writers/editors and the quality assurance processes of the Hollywood machine. Not to mention the marketing. In addition, most people who have ever read this book will have seen the TV series or feature film and liked the story already, enough to buy the book. Preaching to the converted is easy.

One spoiler paragraph: Having said that, it’s a good book. Everyone knows the central idea that twelve colonies in space have been at war with the Cylons for a thousand years, finally arrange a peace conference and then things go wrong and the humans are ejected from that part of the galaxy. Gathering together into a nomadic caravan, they flee and are hounded, all the time wistfully hoping to find the missing 13th human colony, Planet Earth.

In the plot line, there’s good tension between the elected civilian authorities who have the final decision and the experienced military commander who is trying to ensure survival. Sometimes the politicians are foolish, especially the greedy Sire Uri, but the military leader is not at the top of the command structure and must kow tow, so he innovates clever work-arounds to avoid catastrophe.

The plot has ground action adventure, fighter squadrons and lasers to thrill one half of the audience and some human conversation, charming behaviour to children, regret, career women and romantic triangles to lock in the other half, so it’s not just power struggles as all bases are covered for broad appeal. There are differences of viewpoint too, as some characters are defined by war, revenge and risk taking, whereas others want only peace and to forgive. “There are no enemies, just friends we haven’t met yet”. A lovely thought. We have to accept that people like this exist and have influence on decision making, even as they sit and count their toes in twilight rest homes for the mentally incapable.

Selfishness, betrayal and complacency are used by the authors as agitating factors that heighten the risk in this story and place the characters in situations where they will be sorely tested, echoing the modern understanding that humans are their own worst enemy and the main thing threatening human survival at the moment is our species’ own actions and inaction on things like environmental pollution, greed and over-population. The thing that kills us here is something we’ve let in, through lack of wisdom and eternal vigilance, whether that’s carbon dioxide, poverty, Cylons or food insecurity. From a religious standpoint, the insidious thing that tried to seep through human defences was the first drop of evil. The suggestion is that humanity’s Achilles heel and eventual downfall is that the species lets problems pass, which is even easier to do if they have a human face. Talking of which:

Count Baltar, self-serving and self-appointed to the title, is the human spokesman negotiating armistice on behalf of the Cylons. Without the treacherous human defector on their team, the enemy would not have gained its tactical advantage to overwhelm and condemn the population (see also John Major and Lord Haw-Haw). Luckily, kings of betrayal like this are immensely rare, as most people can see that helping to exterminate a culture that you are a member of, or freedom itself, can only go one way and you’ll be swept up in the tide. It does happen though, sometimes, which makes such people lightning rods for even more popular anathema than the comparatively more straightforward and principled enemy. In the sense of a fictional story, this type of character is a good idea because they sway the audience into caring and uniting against them. A super-villain, if you like, works best with a smug, human expression. Without the strong and capable villain, the heroes would not be tested and would never get to show how brave and selfless they are, thus establishing the moral high-ground for one side, ideology or culture over another.

In the book, Adama’s diaries are fairly formal and uninspiring, designed to give insight on the fears and responsibilities circulating in a leader’s head, although these tracts are kept to less than one page long to spare us the boredom. One of these entries doesn’t make any sense at all and it appears he’s drifted off into Don Quioxote senility, so why is that in the final product if it doesn’t add anything to explain his actions or fuel the plot?

Okay, so you all know the story. To tell you something new and make this review worthwhile, winning another nerd sticker, next I’ll list the differences between the TV series and the book. Some of them will be simply down to the cost of filming those scenes, or the need to keep an antagonist antagonising, so this is an academic exercise really, not a whinge that decisions to change detracted from anything:

In the TV show, Cylons are robotic and only metal bits and wiring show inside when they get broken, but in the book, Cylons are organic creatures with one, two or three separate brains. They just put on a metal suit for war and the humans are unsure whether the red light shining out is a natural emission from their bodies or whether it has been generated from the helmet.

In the book, the bridge crew and pilots watch as the Battlestar Atlantia is bombed, beamed amidships, broken in half and breaks up, whereas in the TV series there’s a doubt about who survived because Galactica withdraws from the fray and then they bump into Atlantia on their travels and have a chat, before losing it again. The space fighter aircraft on the human side are called Star Hounds in the book, which I didn’t hear in the show, and they fire laser torpedoes rather than beams.

In the book, Baltar dies quite soon after his act of betrayal, as the Cylons don’t need him anymore, and actively dislike him, which contrasts with his regular appearances in the series. In the book, Felgercarb means madness, but in the TV series “croc of felgercarb” suggests crap. Also, in the book, Starbuck and Boomer’s homemade cigars have narcotic weed in them.

Finally, and here’s a tremendous difference, in the TV series of Battlestar Galactica the fleet comprises about eight ships, which could be to keep the model-making budget under control. In the book, the fleet consists of twenty-two thousand ships! Only a third of them have hyperdrive capability, so the convoy has to travel at the speed of the slowest.

I streamed the old TV series back to back and I couldn’t believe how often they used the same piece of footage, where the same pilots have a dog fight with the same three Cylon ships and they are disintegrated in exactly the same way every time. This probably also happened when an accountant said “you’ve spent the money filming that once so don’t spend a penny filming it gain”. That bean counter back in 1978 couldn’t have predicted box set bingeing. Anyway, the book is good even if it is almost identical to the story as it’s told in the film and series, so I’ll recommend it.