Inventing Real Cultures: Some Comments on Anthropology and Science Fiction

Geoffrey Samuel

Part Three


Including the three children's fantasy novels of the “Earthsea” trilogy (1968-1972) Ursula Le Guin's total output of science-fiction novels has so far reached ten, from Rocannon's World (1966) to The Dispossessed (1974).[12] I will not comment on all of these in detail here, but will concentrate on the later novels.

Some points can be made generally however about the first few novels. Firstly, in these novels communication between cultures (and the related problem of ethnocentrism) is already an important theme, and it becomes progressively more important through the first four “adult” novels (Rocannon's World, 1966; Planet of Exile, 1966; City of Illusions, 1967; The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969).

In the second place, the setting of these novels becomes more and more Earth-like and realistic; the strong fantasy elements of the early novels (and also of the early short stories) are played down. At the same time the cultural and sociological aspects of the alien cultures become more and more the chief object of attention. What the characters do, in the later novels is generally important primarily because of what it tells you about who they are and what their societies are like.

Lastly, a major theme in several of the earlier novels. including the children's trilogy, is the need for balance, for equilibrium, both at the cultural and at the individual level. This is first explicitly stated in the novel City of Illusions in the language of the ancient Taoist scripture, the Tao Te Ching.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin's fifth novel, has already become one of the “classic” works of anthropological science-fiction. It epitomizes some of the points made above. Compared to Rocannon's World or even Planet of Exile, the “story” has now become a relatively minor part of the book. The real focus is on the working out of the culture and social system (including myths, ritual and political institutions) of the remarkable world of Gethen, whose inhabitants are neither male nor female, but go through a regular cycle in which they alternate between a sexless state and a brief period during which any of them can take on either the male or the female role in a sexual relationship.

The book has also become something of a classic in the women's movement, because Gethen, whose people simply do not relate to each other as male or female in any of the familiar ways, is used to point out the pervasiveness of gender-based assumptions and expectations in our own culture. The real action of the book takes place in the gradual progress from mutual incomprehension to some degree of understanding of the two central characters, the Gethenian, Estraven, and the “normal” male, Genly Ai, who is the envoy of the League of Worlds to the planet. Relationships of this kind also occur in the first two novels, and they are of course closely related to the anthropologist's experience during fieldwork. The relationship between Estraven and Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness is however much the most elaborated and fully worked out of these struggles for mutual comprehension in Le Guin's work, though the theme recurs again, particularly in the long story or short novel “The Word for World is Forest”. The Left Hand of Darkness is very much a novel which argues for cultural relativism, and though the novel ends with the Gethenians unwillingly forced to accept change, in the form of contact with the League of Worlds, that change is essentially towards a kind of higher level of stasis and mutual tolerance represented by the League.

The Lathe of Heaven, Le Guin's next “adult” novel (it appeared in 1971, between the second and third of the “Earthsea” trilogy) is anomalous, in that it lies outside the general framework of planetary colonization, mindspeech, the League of Worlds, and so on, within which her other science-fiction novels are all written. It takes a standard science-fiction convention, the idea of alternative universes, and uses it to provide a powerful statement of the Taoist philosophy of balance which Le Guin was also expounding in the “Earthsea” books at around the same time.

The central character of The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr, has dreams which bring about changes in the real world. He falls into the hands of a psychologist who tries to use Orr's powers to “improve” the world by getting him to dream solutions to overpopulation, racial antagonism, and so on, but the “solutions” have more and more disastrous consequences, and eventually Orr himself has to take control and re-assert the necessity for balance and for respect for the order of things. The novel is perhaps the high point too within Le Guin's work of the static view of culture and society which I earlier discussed. Orr's eventual act is to accept the world as it is. I think that one can see in the following two novels, “The Word for World is Forest” (1972) and The Dispossessed (1974), and also in some of the short stories which she wrote during the early 1970s, Le Guin coming to terms with the necessity for change in society.

“The Word for World is Forest” is about a quiet and peaceful planet (Athshe) covered with forest and inhabited by little green men, living in harmony with their environment - and provided with a total cultural block against killing other men. Earth has destroyed all its own forests, and decides to cut down the forests of Athshe, using the little green men as slave labour, and to ship the wood off back to Earth, where it is now an extremely scarce and valuable commodity. However to do so would devastate the planet and destroy the whole basis of life for the little green men. Le Guin produces a suitably appalling terrestrial military commander, who is quite prepared to kill the natives off, and an anthropologist from Earth who understands what is going on and tries to help the natives, and she works through a number of the classical features of the colonial situation. The denouement however is not quite what one might expect. The little green men learn to fight back, they learn to overcome the cultural taboo on killing other men, and they force the Earthmen to leave the forest and the planet alone. Change here is regrettable, but it is inevitable. Athshe's people can only survive by becoming something other than what they were.

The Dispossessed is a longer and more complex book. It is in fact the longest single narrative Le Guin has written. I have already mentioned the three main societies in the book, the two on Urras (the capitalist A-Io and the Soviet-style communist Thu) and the anarchists on the nearby planet of Anarres.

Shevek, a physicist from the anarchist planet, visits Urras, and the usual problems of cross-cultural communication come into play. If this book has a central focus it is in the detailed working out of the anarchist utopia on Anarres; but it is implicit in this utopia, and in the misery of the lower classes on Urras, and the riots in their cities, that change, if always ambiguous and problematic, is nevertheless necessary. Even the anarchist society of Anarres has become fixed and rigid and needs to rethink its basic assumptions.

I would not claim that either of these novels represents an adequate treatment of change from an anthropological perspective (but then anthropology itself has scarcely produced anything of the kind as yet). In “The Word for World is Forest,” a basic premise of the culture has to be transformed, and we are left not knowing what the ultimate consequences may be. In The Dispossessed, the inadequacies of the societies of Urras have been replaced on Anarres by an anarchist community which is itself becoming locked into a static and self-destructive social pattern—and now this situation of stasis is seen as a problem in itself. I think it is fair to say though that these novels indicate a view of society which has moved significantly beyond the simple Redfieldian nostalgia for the folk society, and beyond the discussion of culture-contact purely in terms of the destruction of traditional values, which we find in so much of the earlier anthropological science-fiction, including perhaps Le Guin's own earlier work.

I would not necessarily put this development in Le Guin's work down to any direct “influence” from anthropology. I think the connections are more subtle than that. Anthropology and science fiction are both in fact reflecting a gradually changing climate of opinion, within academic circles and within popular culture, a climate which they have themselves perhaps significantly influenced, but which has also reflected political and economic aspects of the wider society (Vietnam, the rise and decline of the “counter-culture,” the economic and ecological crisis of the world today). The most I would suggest is that both anthropology and science-fiction are moving towards more valid and useful formulations, and that they may be able to help each other in some small way during this process.



I say “help each other” because it does seem to me that science fiction could be of more use to anthropologists than merely providing a way of making anthropological arguments more palatable to unwilling students. The science-fiction writer attempting to construct a non-Terrestrial culture is performing an exercise which it would I think do “real” anthropologists no harm at all to imitate. Ian Langham has argued (1978) that invented cultures (or invented variations on real cultures) allow anthropologists to perform "thought-experiments" through which the methodological assumptions behind theories can be examined and tested for coherence and consistency, paralleling the similar use of such experiments in the natural sciences.

I would suggest, too, that if anthropology still has to establish its claim as a useful and constructive area of enquiry within the social sciences, part of the problem is our lack of interest in speculation, in prediction, in thinking about what may happen to societies in the future rather than what has happened in the past. As contrasted with most of the other social-science disciplines, anthropology appears—to non-anthropologists—to have little or nothing to contribute to the design of future societies, or of future developments within our own society, beyond a lament for the values of vanishing cultures trod under the heel of progress. Certainly this is an ironical situation. Anthropologists generally claim, with some justice, to be the least committed of all social sciences to the assumptions of our present society—and yet they seem to have little to say about how it might change or about what alternatives are open in the future. It has been left to the science-fiction writers to attempt to work out the answers to some of these questions. Perhaps it is time anthropologists got in on the act; they might even enjoy it.


Part One Part Two Part Three References Notes

Home Page

GBS updated 03/03/2002