Inventing Real Cultures: Some Comments on Anthropology and Science Fiction

Geoffrey Samuel

Part Two


It is clear enough how ideas from anthropology could have come into science-fiction. In this section of the paper I shall attempt to argue my opening two points in detail; to describe the kinds of ways in which anthropology has interacted with science-fiction, and to substantiate my suggestion that anthropological science-fiction has been limited by the perspectives of American cultural anthropology.

The first point to make is that science-fiction has come increasingly to deal with other cultures as its stock-in-trade. The science fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, of the pulp magazines, paid little attention to the social or cultural aspects of extra-terrestrial life. Aliens lived in some kind of vague technological wonderland, or, particularly in the sub-genre of fantasy, in a more-or-less feudal and knightly Middle Ages. Or else they were simply—in science-fiction jargon—BEMs, “bug-eyed monsters,” totally non-human. The writers did not dwell on their social structure, their languages or their kinship systems. (There was more interest in such matters in the genre of Utopian fiction, as Brave New World, 1984 or Robert GravesŐ Seven Days in New Crete demonstrate; but that belongs rather outside my present subject.)

By the l950s and 1960s, anyway, science-fiction aliens were beginning to acquire some social and cultural background. In fact, aliens were becoming more and more human; and writers were increasingly using the classic devices of science fiction as a means to create alternative human cultures.

Thus time-travel could be used to place the protagonist in a past or future society; the idea of alternate universes (what if the Americans had lost the war of independence? What if Germany and Japan had won World War 2?) could be used to explore societies closely related to our own but differing in some central features.[4] Inter-stellar travel raised the possibility of human colonies on other worlds developing widely differing social systems (a device used in most of Le Guin's novels, for example). The idea of telepathy raised the problem (again explored at some length by Le Guin, particularly in City of Illusions) of the social consequences of the widespread use of telepathic communication. And so on.

I don't intend to speculate at any length here on precisely why this development took place, though it paralleled a wider shift of interest within society as a whole away from the natural sciences and towards the social sciences. A number of writers clearly began to sense the potential for social commentary and criticism offered by the conventions of the science-fiction genre. In Sills' terms, there was a substantial infusion from the tradition of utopian fiction, which had in any case long been using devices similar to those of science fiction[5] itself. Here I will merely stress that within science fiction, culture had become important. This in itself had significant consequences for the relationship with anthropology.

The first consequence, though perhaps the least interesting, is that science-fiction writers began to look towards ethnography for aid in constructing their invented cultures. This is a approach, again, which had already been used by the writers of Utopian fiction. To give a few examples from Le Guin's books, the culture of the people of Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness clearly owes a lot to North-West Coast Indian and Eskimo culture[6]; the role of dreams of Athshe (in “The Word for World is Forest”) is very reminiscent of that described for the Temiar people of Malaysia[7]; and the idea of a special vocabulary of terms of address correlated with a hierarchy of knowledge, in City of Illusions, recalls the honorific terminologies of many Far Eastern cultures (such as Java or Tibet). The reliance on Bedouin culture in Frank Herbert's Dune is another well-known example.

I have said that I regard this aspect of the relevance of anthropology (or rather of ethnography) as relatively uninteresting. Ethnography is here called upon simply as a store of information about possible cultural variations. Science-fiction authors also draw on contemporary Western society, and on societies of the past, in a similar way. Thus (to take Le Guin again) despite the North-west Coast and Eskimo trappings, the opposition between the two main societies on Gethen (Karhide and Orgoreyn) is really modelled on that between the capitalist West and the socialist East. This opposition turns up again even more explicitly in The Dispossessed where the nations of A-Io and Thu are quite directly modelled on the United States and Russia, and where there is little or no exotic ethnographic colour. The “anarchist” society of Anarres, in the same book, while it perhaps owes something to both the Israeli kibbutzim and the Chinese communes, probably owes most to the anarchist and socialist literature (cf. Le Guin 1976a:25).

A second way in which anthropology began to come into science-fiction could be called, borrowing a phrase which Susan Sontag has used in a very different context, The Anthropologist as Hero. With the increasing interest in culture there came the need for a suitable protagonist through whom to portray the gradual understanding of an alien culture; and who better than the anthropologist, professional interpreter of other cultures? Ursula Le Guin uses this device in her first novel, Rocannon's World, and there is also an anthropologist as a major character in “The Word for World is Forest”. Chad Oliver was particularly liable to resort to this technique in his earlier stories, as he comments in a post- script to the collection of his work published under the title The Edge of Forever (Oliver 1971).

One of my favourite episodes in this line is in fact from one of Oliver's early stories, originally published in the l950s, and reprinted in the Stover and Harrison collection (1968). A technologically highly-sophisticated extraterrestrial culture has sent a spaceship to earth, and the extraterrestrials announce that they require a representative of the most advanced culture on earth. They choose an Eskimo, which leaves the governments of the earth in an embarrassing situation. The President of the United States decides that for once they will have to turn to the social sciences to understand what is going on. He reluctantly consults a sociologist:

The sociologist was an honest man. “I'm terribly sorry, Mr. President,” he said. “I could take a stab at it if you like, but what you really need is an anthropologist.”

The President drummed his fingers on the desk. “Henry,” he said, “get me an anthropologist over here, and hurry.” (Stover and Harrison 1968:321)

However flattering the Anthropologist as Hero[8] may be to those of us who occasionally wonder why the wide world outside takes so little notice of the world-shattering discoveries of modern anthropology (and things haven't changed that much since Oliver wrote) he is really only a symptom of what I feel is the most interesting aspect of the interaction between anthropology and science fiction. This is the occurrence of anthropological problems as central themes in science-fiction stories.

The Anthropologist as Hero is usually there because of his usefulness in portraying one such central problem of modern anthropology; the problem of understanding other cultures. A second closely-related theme is the effects of culture-contact, especially of the introduction of modern technology into a technologically simple society. (The Anthropologist can turn up here too, as the only person who understands what the colonists from Earth are doing to the extraterrestrial culture.)[9]

I would suggest (and this is perhaps the essence of my second point, the point concerning the kind of anthropology which has been used by science-fiction writers) that culture contact is normally seen in terms of a necessarily disruptive and destructive irruption into a closed, static cultural system. Cultures are wholes, they form coherent patterns; they change extremely slowly if at all. A repeated theme is that other cultures should be “protected” from modern technology. Some writers make this into an explicit rule for situations of contact with other cultures.

All this links up with a frequently expressed nostalgia for the closed, harmonious, traditional society which was expressed particularly clearly by Kurt Vonnegut in an address to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971, in which he described his period in the Chicago Anthropology department, and cited Robert Redfield's concept of the “folk society”. He went on:

And I say to you that we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk societies, or failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water—and there aren't any folk societies for us anymore. (Vonnegut 1974: 178)

Now much of this is quite close to the kind of thing that anthropologists in both the American and British traditions have spent a great deal of effort in trying to get over to students and to the general public over the years. Cultures are wholes; they make sense in their own terms; they have their own values, and deserve better than to be condemned simply because those values are not those of our own society; and they are highly vulnerable to the effects of modern technology and other aspects of Western society, particularly in colonial situations. I believe that Stover may be right when he suggests that science fiction “has brought to the public a self-critical self-consciousness about culture” (1973: 473) that is specifically anthropological in kind. Science-fiction stories frequently relativise the values of our own culture[10]; and they are often vehicles for suggesting the inadequacies of our own cultural rules, and the destructive aspects of our interaction with societies. Whether or not we have been aware of it, many science-fiction writers have been allies in the long battle against ethnocentrism.[11]

I would be the last either to decry this preaching of cultural relativism within science-fiction, or to suggest that we are no longer in need of it. Anthropologists may feel by now (rightly or not) that they have relatively clean consciences on this score, but we can hardly be unaware that ethnocentrism, along with its related diseases of racism, nationalism, contempt for “primitive” cultures (one could add ageism and sexism) are still all too alive in the world around us. Popular literature in the main acts as a powerful agent in propagating these doctrines, so that to see some popular literature on the side of the angels, as it were, is a welcome enough sight.

I would argue though that anthropology itself (both in the United States and in the British and Australian contexts) has moved beyond the simple cultural relativism which held such strong sway over the discipline through many of its formative years. In part this has been an inevitable response to the changing nature of the societies studied by anthropologists. There are no peoples left today who are not drawn within the orbit of modern industrial society in one way or another, and the attempt to reconstruct what a culture was like in its supposed pre-contact state is by now generally recognized to be both impossible and rather pointless.

I think too that anthropologists have become increasingly aware of the problems associated with the simpler modes of cultural relativism. It no longer seems possible merely to assert that all cultures are equal, if this implies that Auschwitz, the Gestapo or the National Front are cultural expressions as valid and as worthwhile as the Parthenon or a symphony orchestra. At least one cannot make such an assertion without placing at risk precisely those values which anthropology's opposition to ethnocentrism has been trying to preserve. Anthropologists have become aware, also, of the extent to which the need to protect traditional societies from change has been used as a rationalisation for the preservation of unjust and inequitable situations, as under many colonial regimes.

Anthropology [in 1978! - G.B.S.] is in the middle of trying to work out these problems at present in a variety of ways, of which the most evident at present is perhaps the increasing interest in the Marxist tradition of social analysis. There is clearly a long way to go before any really adequate formulations are produced in this area. However the question I wish to ask here is whether this move away fron the static model of society has been reflected at all in science fiction. I intend to look at this question through an examination of the series of novels written by Ursula Le Guin.


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GBS updated 03/03/2002