Inventing Real Cultures: Some Comments on Anthropology and Science Fiction

Geoffrey Samuel


Notes


This paper was first presented at the Australian Anthropological Society Conference at the University of Sydney in August 1978. I would like to thank Bernie Huggins for valuable references and comments.

1. The collection The Edge of Forever contains six of Oliver's earlier stories together with a biographical introduction, a bibliography and an afterword by Oliver (Oliver 1971). Return...

2. Linguistics has not been discussed directly in the body of the paper, but the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has left its mark on a number of science-fiction writers, including Le Guin and Theodore Sturgeon. Return...

3. Both Benedict and Mead are mentioned, for example, in Theodore Sturgeon's novel Venus Plus X (1978:33 and 67-8), though their role is mainly that of providing ammunition for the attack on conventional family life and especially conventional sexuality that pervades Sturgeon's work. Sturgeon is a fascinating writer in his own right who would require full discussion in any extensive treatment of “social science fiction”. Venus Plus X is a novel about bisexuality (or non-sexuality; everyone in Ledom society is both male and female) which makes an interesting comparison with Le Guin's later treatment of the same theme in The Left Hand of Darkness. Another Sturgeon story of direct interest to anthropologists is about a society without incest taboos: “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” (in Sturgeon 1974). Sturgeon's interests, both in these stories and elsewhere, however seem to me more psychological than strictly anthropological. Return...

4. On alternate universe stories see Ash 1977:120-123 and Harrison 1976. A number of the thematic surveys in Ash 1977 are relevant in the context of this paper, particularly that on cities and cultures (164-171), which includes a section on alien cultures (169-171). Return...

5. Virtually all modern “Utopian” fiction could be equally well classified as science fiction (though the reverse is not necessarily true). Return...

6. Perhaps reflecting Boas and Kroeber's research interests in these cultures, and Le Guin's long residence on the North-West Coast. Return...

7. Cf. e.g. Noone and Holman 1972:50-59, Stewart 1969. Return...

8. It almost always seems to be the Anthropologist as Hero, not Heroine, doubtless reflecting the well-known male chauvinist bias of most science-fiction. I would like to thank Ingrid Hagstrom however for referring me to Robert Silverberg's Vornan-19, which features an unforgettable female anthropologist:

Who has not heard of Helen McIlwain? What more can be said about her? The apostle of cultural relativism, the lady anthropologist who is no lady, the dogged student of puberty rites and fertility cults who has not hesitated to offer herself as tribeswoman and blood sister? She who pursued the quest for knowledge into the sewers of Ougadougu to partake of skewered dog, she who wrote the basic text on the techniques of masturbation, she who had learned at first hand how virgins are initiated in the frozen wastes of Sikkim? It seemed to me that Helen had always been with us, going from one outrageous exploit to another, publishing books that in another era would have had her burned at the stake, solemnly informing the television audience of matters that might shock hardened scholars. (1970:86).

Sills' remarks about science fiction revealing the way in which the general public sees the social sciences may be apposite here. Return...

9. E.g. in Lloyd Biggle, Jr.'s The Still Small Voice of Trumpets (1969). The situation in this book resembles closely, for example, that created by British colonial policy towards East Africa in the 1920s and 1930s, when attempts to start up industry in Kenya and Uganda were prevented through deliberate policy of the colonial administration—both to protect the Africans from industrialization and to protect British industry from losing its safe colonial markets (Brett 1973: 268-9). Return...

10. For example the Sturgeon story about the incest taboo which was cited in note 3. Return...

11. Of course, as has been frequently observed, there has also been much science-fiction that is ethnocentric, politically reactionary and characterized by cultural arrogance. Return...

12. Including “The Word for World is Forest,” strictly speaking a longish short story or novella rather than a separate novel. A full bibliography of Ursula Le Guin's work, including short stories and fiction as well as novels, is given in Mullen and Suvin 1976:234-238, although this does not include two recent works, neither of them science-fiction (the novel A Very Long Way From Anywhere Else, 1976b, and the short-story collection Orsinian Tales, 1977b). Return...


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