Inventing Real Cultures: Some Comments on Anthropology and Science Fiction

Geoffrey Samuel

Part One

[This is an old paper by now, and dated in parts, but it is one of my favourites, and the conclusion still has some relevance to anthropology today. It was originally written for the 1978 to Australian Anthropological Society Conference at the University of Sydney, and has never been published. A revised version would, of course, have to take into account the major subsequent transformations in anthropological writing. It could look at the novels of more recent authors not considered here, such as Samuel Delaney, Jr. and Octavia Butler, as well as the non-fictional writings of Donna Haraway, with their frequent dialogue with science fiction, and the impact of feminist awareness on all three of these. It might also consider some of Ursula Le GuinÕs later works, such as Always Coming Home, a novel written in the form of a collection of ethnographic fragments, and the four interrelated stories in Four Ways to Forgiveness. The present text has however not been revised, except for minor stylistic improvements.]

My father studied real cultures and I make them up - in a way, it's the same thing. - Ursula Le Guin, daughter of Alfred Kroeber (Le Guin, 1977a:39).


While most of my examples in this paper come from Ursula Le Guin's novels, I think that my argument applies to substantial component of the science-fiction field. I have two principal points to make. The first is that anthropology is, in a number of ways, a major influence on some modern science-fiction. Secondly, I shall argue that the anthropology concerned is, by and large, a particular kind of anthropology. It is cultural anthropology as it has developed in the American universities, the anthropology of Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture and of Margaret Mead's writings. Towards the end of the paper I shall ask whether there are any signs of change in this respect, and whether newer trends in anthropology have been reflected in the way science-fiction writers see culture and society.

The first of my points, that there is an influence from anthropology on science-fiction, is by now somewhat less than original. The involvement of an increasing number of (mostly American science-fiction writers with the social sciences in general, and with anthropology in particular, has been pointed out in a number of places (e.g. Sills 1968, Stover 1973), and there have even been anthologies of anthropological and sociological science-fiction (Stover and Harrison 1968; Mason 1974; Milstead 1974).

One of the first discussions of the role of the social sciences in science-fiction was provided by Yole Sills in an article in the International Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences (Sills 1968). Sills introduced the term “social science fiction,” suggesting that it could be usefully employed “to identify narratives that extrapolate from current social science concepts in order to predict or speculate about the future shape of society” (Sills 1968:474). This definition corresponds to a traditional view of science-fiction proper as being concerned with extrapolation from current knowledge in the natural sciences.

Among the social-science fields mentioned by Sills are anthropology (including archaeology and linguistics), sociology, psychology and psychiatry, and political science. She suggests that “social science fiction” draws on two different literary streams: the classic science-fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, and the tradition of utopian and “dystopian” fiction which goes back to Plato's Republic and More's Utopia and has included such more recent works as Zamyatin's We, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. Social science fiction is nevertheless basically “a contemporary development of classic science fiction” (1968: 474); it employs the same literary conventions, and it is written by the same writers.

Sills' attitude to “social science fiction” is curiously apologetic and deprecatory: she tells us that

The knowledge of the social sciences displayed by most of these writers is understandably naive and superficial since it is obviously gleaned second-hand from popularizations of the various disciplines. Much of social science fiction is so inept in style and plot that it hardly merits consideration as literature, even according to the most tolerant critical standards. (1968: 474).

Further on she justifies the study of such writing in these terms:

Without placing undue stress on the intrinsic importance of social science fiction, it would seem desirable to study the ways in which the concepts of social science are distorted or misrepresented by a genre of literature that reaches a sizeable public and provides one more indication of popular perceptions of thc role of the social scientist in society. (1968: 480)

There has been a change towards a more positive evaluation of science-fiction since Sills wrote, and it has, I believe, come about for two rather different reasons. One is that science-fiction has improved. The overall quality of the best science-fiction writing today needs considerably less apology than it did twenty or thirty years ago. The level of knowledge of the social sciences displayed in some contemporary science-fiction writers can also be quite sophisticated.

The other reason is one of academic convenience. As Kingsley Amis observed, “any literature that students voluntarily read can't be all bad” (cited by Stover 1973: 471). If students will not read the books we would choose, then we can at least find something to say about the books which they will read. This line of reasoning appears first to have got going in the English departments of the educational system. It was however soon taken up by the social scientists.

Leon Stover, who has co-edited a couple of anthologies of science-fiction stories, one of social-science fiction (McNelly and Stover 1972) and one of specifically anthropological material (Stover and Harrison 1968), is a case in point here. While Sills suggested that the studying science-fiction was a way of seeing how the mass public distorts the concepts of the social sciences, Stover promoted science-fiction as a way of getting basic social-science concepts over to college students (one hopes in not too distorted a form). Stover's anthology of anthropological science-fiction, Apeman, Spaceman (Stover and Harrison, 1968) was specifically designed as a set of readings to accompany an introductory course in anthropology.

As I have already mentioned, other anthologies along the same lines have since followed (Mason 1974, Milstead 1974). In this connection the use of Ursula Le Guin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness (first published in 1969) in a number of social science courses around the world is also worth noting. In a 1973 article in Current Anthropology Stover provided a survey of science-fiction stories which take up anthropological points of one kind or another, and he concluded that “science fiction has indeed brought to the public a self-critical self-consciousness about culture that used to be confined to social scientists, including anthropologists” (1973: 473).

I think that an essential factor in the growth of anthropological themes and material within science-fiction, and one which is not mentioned by Sills or Stover, must have been the immense growth of anthropology departments and courses in the United States, which goes back to the early years of this century, but accelerated rapidly in the post-war years. The scale of this development is familiar enough, but a few figures may help make the point. The number of anthropology departments in American universities rose from around five in 1900, to around 50 in 1940, to about 300 in 1976. Also in 1976, there were perhaps 1000 tertiary institutions in the U.S.A. offering at least one anthropology course (figures adapted from Rogge 1976:832, fig.5, and Robinson and Williams 1977: iii). One result of this expansion must clearly have been that very large numbers of students were exposed to at least some elementary cultural anthropology.

I would suggest that all this needs to be kept in mind when considering the growth in the anthropological content of science-fiction, particularly among those authors who were born after 1930 or so; while I can provide no real supporting evidence, I would guess that a large proportion of these writers must have been exposed to at least some anthropology as part of their college education. (The corresponding development in the British university system was on a much smaller scale, and the subject is still taught mainly within specialized degree courses in anthropology. Perhaps this helps to explain the relative absence of recognizably anthropological themes in modern British science-fiction.)

There have been a number of science-fiction writers who have a more substantial background in anthropology than one or two introductory courses at college. Among these are Chad Oliver and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as perhaps Ursula Le Guin herself. While the degree of these writers' involvement with anthropology is doubtless atypical, they have all been influential within the field of science-fiction. Oliver [1] is the least well-known of this group to the general reading public; he is as far as I know the only professional anthropologist who is also a successful science-fiction author. Oliver completed an M.A. in English at the University of Texas, and followed it with a doctorate in anthropology at U.C.L.A. Since then he has combined research on Plains Indians and in East Africa, and the chairmanship of an anthropology department, with writing five science-fiction novels and some fifty short stories.

Vonnegut majored in chemistry at Cornell in the 1930s, and did graduate work in anthropology at Chicago immediately after the war. I don't know whether Le Guin formally studied anthropology at any stage, but as Kroeber's daughter she could scarcely have avoided some contact with it, and she has clearly read extensively in the ethnographic and anthropological literature.

In all three cases—and, of course, for nearly all of those students in introductory anthropology courses who ended up as science-fiction writers (assuming I'm right about them) anthropology meant cultural anthropology, physical anthropology and prehistory—particularly cultural anthropology, though as Stover and Sills point out physical anthropology and prehistory have left their own traces on modern science-fiction. This was the anthropology of Boas and his students, including Kroeber and Sapir[2], of Murdoch, Redfield and Merton, and perhaps above all of Ruth Benedict, whose Patterns of Culture was a basic text for generations of American anthropology students, and of Margaret Mead, who must have been read by thousands of people who have had no closer contact with anthropology.[3]

Social anthropology, as it developed in Britain and later in Australia, had a following in the United States - but it was never the mainstream. Yet U.S. cultural anthropology of this period did have one major point in common with the contemporary British school of functionalism; it was, increasingly, concerned with the analysis of individual societies as relatively static and stable entities. The more dynamic elements represented by evolutionism and diffusionism lasted longer in the States than in Britain—indeed they survived to surface again in altered form with the recent [in 1978 - G.B.S.] growth of Marxist anthropology—but in the 1940s these models were very much on the out. There were also, I think, aspects of science-fiction that predisposed science-fiction writers to take up the more static models offered by anthropology.


Part One Part Two Part Three References Notes

Home Page

GBS. Updated 03/03/2002