CULTURES: FACT OR FICTION?

Dr. Charles F. Urbanowicz / Professor of Anthropology
Department of Anthropology
California State University, Chico
Chico, California 95929-0400
530-898-6220 [Office]; 530-898-6192 [Dept.] FAX: 530-898-6824
e-mail: curbanowicz@csuchico.edu / home page: http://www.csuchico.edu/~curban

11 November 1976[1]

[This page printed from http://www.csuchico.edu/~curban/Forum/Cultures1976.html]

© [All Rights Reserved] This paper was originally dated November 11, 1976 and was presented at the discussion for the Anthropology House Forum known as "El Mundo" and was placed on the WWW on April 26, 1999.

ABSTRACT:

Anthropology and science fiction often present data and ideas so bizarre and unusual that readers, in their first confrontation with both, often fail to appreciate either science fiction or anthropology. Intelligence does not merely consist of fact, but in the integration of ideas--and ideas can come from anywhere, especially good science fiction! The presentation and discussion will focus upon the relationship between anthropology and science fiction.

 

INTRODUCTION

I have been reading and thinking about science fiction for more years than I care to count and I seem to be writing/discussing science fiction with a variety of individuals since 1973. On 7 November 1973, at the first (I believe) "Anthropology Looks At" at CSU, Chico, I presented a brief paper entitled "Anthropology Looks At Science Fiction." Later that year, on 1 December 1973, I presented an expanded version of that paper, with the title of "Anthropology and (Good) Science Fiction," at a Symposium on "Anthropological Fiction: A Novel Approach To Culture" at the 72nd Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, New Orleans, Louisiana. Both paper were subsequently revised and published (in shortened versions) in a CSU, Chico publication in May/June 1975, under the title "An Anthropologist Looks At Science Fiction (Impact, Vol. II, Issue 5, page 7).

Other academicians appear to be increasing their involvement in "things science fiction" and in 1976 two newsletters/journals were established for the dissemination of ideas: Anthro-Tech: A Journal of Speculative Anthropology (published at Lock Haven State College, Lock Haven, Pennsylvania) and Speculative Anthropology: The Forum For Cultural Futuristics (the official forum of the Speculative Anthropology Society, published in Westminster, California). The title of this presentation comes from a brief article recently submitted to one of these journals.

Using "speculative anthropology" in various titles is not without some accuracy, for could not some argue that all anthropology is "speculative" to one degree or another? Anthropological theories can run the spectrum, from quasi-technocratic interpretations of "the data" to an incredible and seemingly endless variety of biopsychoculturalstructuralfunctional interpretations of cultural phenomena! It might be noted that the distinguished British anthropologist Edmund Leach once wrote that "anthropological theories often tell us more about the anthropologists than about their subject matter" (Edmund Leach, 1966, Virgin Birth. Genesis as Myth and Other Essays, 1969, page 109). This might be the same point which Reed Riner suggested in Volume 1, No. 2 of Speculative Anthropology, when he wrote that "at least some of the extant 'corpus anthropologica' might productively be reconsidered as science fiction" (1976, page 9).

 

FACT / FICTION

Perhaps the single most important contribution of 20th century Anthropology has been the detailed and documented account of the tremendous "range of variation" in cultures of this planet. This has been a distinct move away from various 19th Century monolithic interpretations of "CULTURE" against which all other "cultures" were appropriately, or more inappropriately, "ranked." Just as anthropologists have successfully demonstrated this range of variation in cultures, so have a variety of science fiction authors pointed out a similar "range" in Cultures Beyond The Earth (edited by M. Maruyama and A. Harkin, 1975).

In response to the title question, "Cultures: Fact Or Fiction?" a response, perhaps heretical to some, is that it really doesn't matter! Over time, our audiences will let us know if we are fulfilling our role as teaching anthropologists. If our courses are attempting to point out the range o variations in successfully adapting to the environment, and if we are attempting to work with individuals to create an enlightened citizenry, and if we can do this with fiction or fact, or both successfully woven together, so be it!

What is science fiction? T. Carr has presented an intriguing definition:

"...in its 'pure' form, in stories [which are] based solidly on logical extrapolation of known scientific principles....[science fiction] is the most rigorously rational form of literature we've had. (T. Carr, 1973, An Exaltation of Stars: Transcendental Adventures in Science Fiction, page 7)

More recently, James Gunn has written that "the world has finally caught up with science fiction" and perhaps this deserves some consideration (Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, 1975). Silverberg once wrote that "science fiction, at its best, illuminates our own time by turning a mirror towards the future" (Earthman And Strangers, 1966, page 8) and this sounds quite reminiscent of Kluckhohn's classical statement when he wrote that "anthropology holds up a great mirror to man and lets him look at himself in his infinite variety" (Mirror For Man: A Survey of Human Behavior, 1944, page 19). Indeed, it would be perfectly legitimate to substitute the words "science fiction"for anthropology in the following statement made by Boas and the statement would make immense sense.

"Anthropology [read science fiction] is often considered a collection of curious facts, telling about the peculiar appearance of exotic people and describing their strange customs and beliefs. It is looked upon as an entertaining diversion, apparently without any bearing upon the conduct of life of civilized communities. This opinion [about anthropology and science fiction] is mistaken. More than that, I hope to demonstrate that a clear understanding of the principles of anthropology [or science fiction[ illuminates the social prowesses of our own times and may show us, if we are ready to listen to its teachings, what to do and what to avoid." (Franz Boas, 1928, Anthropology And Modern Life, page 11)

 

WHY?

Why an interest in science fiction by academicians? We approach science fiction for our own environmentally mediated reasons and in the teaching situation, perhaps science fiction works are readily available while anthropological classics are not. There is certainly room in anthropology for classical non-speculative data and speculative interpretations of the data.

Perhaps more than authors of traditional anthropological works, the talented science fiction writer can better convey the impression of a cultural whole to the reader. With obviously more freedom to manipulate and work with the data, there are numerous authors who write of the human condition on this planet and who can give us food for thought. Consider, for example, Nightmare Age (edited by F. Pohl, 1970), or The Ruins of Earth: An Anthology of Stories of the Immediate Future (edited by T.M. Disch, 1971), or Survival Printout (edited by Allison et al., 1973), or Exploring New Ethics For Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle, a blend of off-world and on-world science fiction and science fact (G. Hardin, 1972), or Earth In Transit: Science Fiction And Contemporary Problems (edited by S. Schwartz, 1976), or finally The City 2000 A.D.: Urban Life Through Science Fiction (edited by Clem et al., 1976).

Any individual taking the time to read and think about these volumes will not be confronted with any escapist literature, but with cogent items that deal with the potential destruction of this planet by Homo sapiens [?]. Good science fiction, with the appropriate presentation, data, and ideas, tries to encourage the reader to cultivate an awareness of potential futures, for possible changes in the present. Good science fiction can challenge the reader to think and question a wide range of contemporary issues.

Good anthropological science fiction is seldom escapist in orientation. One can read good science fiction written by anthropologists and good science fiction anthropology written by science fiction authors: Chad Oliver, a professional anthropologist (at the University of Texas, Austin) has written Unearthly Neighbors (1960) and several short stories with an anthropological motif; and there is always the 1968 "classic" in the field, edited by another professional anthropologist, Leon Stove, entitled Apeman, Spaceman: Anthropological Science Fiction.

There are numerous other science fiction works which give one pause: consider, for example, the genre which might well be called the "cataclysmic novels" such as G.R. Stewart's classic Earth Abides (1949) or J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World (1962) or The Drought (1962). How dependent are WE on technology and what would life be like on Earth The Day The Machines Stopped as C. Anvil envisioned it (1964) or The Day The Oceans Overflowed according to C. Hatch (1964) or The Day New York Went Dry by C. Einstein (1964)?

What would a planet be like if it consisted of all females members of the species or all male members? Read the speculations of Alph by C.E. Maine (1972) or Gender Genocide by E. Cooper (1972).

Incidentally, much has been made (by some) of the lack of female science fiction authors, but there are women author of science fiction. Perhaps the most notable is Ursula L. LeGuin (The Left Hand of Darkness) who is also, incidentally, the daughter of Alfred Louis Kroeber. There are, however, other female authors: see, for example, two edited volumes by Pamela Sargent entitled Women of Wonder (1974) and More Women of Wonder (1976), dealing with science fiction stories by women about women.

 

TEMPORARY CONCLUSIONS

Good science fiction can convey the problems of communicating with human and non-human sentient beings. One can read C. Simak's Way Station (1964), or G. Dickson's Spacepaw (1969), B. Aldiss' The Dark Light Years (1964), J. Blish's Vor (1958), or F. Herbert's The Green Brain (1966). All deal with issues crucial to the anthropologist: communicating with other individuals in order to find out something. That something could be about the "new" individuals or, perhaps, what is more important, something about oneself.

Just as anthropology should contribute to the eventual demise of "cultural superiority" by presenting data and ideas in terms of the relativity of cultures, good science fiction can contribute to our awareness of cultures and what it means to be human. We can increase our awareness and attempt to share it if we read Vercor's (a pseudonym for Jean Bruller) You Shall Know Them (1953) (originally entitled Borderline and also translated as The Murder of the Missing Link and also made into an incredibly poor film!), Anthropology Through Science Fiction, edited by Carol Mason et al., or A. Bandalier's The Delight Makers (1890) (which, incidentally, R. Edgerton and L. Langness see as one of the earliest examples of "humanistic anthropology" in America in their Methods And Styles In The Study of Culture, 1974, page 71). We can obtain something from Anthropology Through Literature (1973) edited by Spradley and McDonough, Above The Human Landscape: An Anthology of Social Science Fiction (1972), edited by Stover and McNelly (of California State University, Fullerton), or from the latest in Current Anthropology, American Anthropology, or The Journal of the Polynesian Society! As F. Pohl stated it in Star Short Novels:

"For we know ourselves by our extremes....perhaps thinking about horn-skinned bloodless aliens from another planet will teach us something about getting along with the divergent races, creeds, and sects who are our own cousins." (F. Pohl, 1954, Star Short Novels, page i)

Is this not what anthropology is all about? Consider Sol Tax in Cultures Beyond Earth:

"The critical importance of this book for anthropology today is that it removes itself from our planet to view 'human nature' as a whole....Only when we have comparison with species that are cultural in nonhuman ways--some of them may be far more advanced than we--we will approach full understanding of the possibilities and limitations of human cultures. Even if we have no contact with nonhuman cultures in the immediate future, the models that we meanwhile make require that we sharpen the questions that we ask about human beings." (Sol Tax, 1975, Afterword. Cultures Beyond the Earth, pages 202-203.)

Perhaps, however, one day we will be able to utilize our models elsewhere, as Paul Fejos (the director of the prestigious Wenner-Gren Foundation) stated in in 1960:

"There may someday be such a thing as space anthropology. We already know that there is life elsewhere in the universe than on the earth. Someday, it may be the business of anthropologists to study this--especially, perhaps, the business of linguists and ethnographers." (In A.L. Kroeber, 1962, Anthropological Horizons. Current Anthropology, Vol. 3, No. 1, page 92)

What then of science fiction and anthropology? If we agree upon the range of variations in cultures then we should also accept the idea of the "range of variation" in the anthropologists who work with the concept of culture. I am by no means decrying the traditional anthropological endeavors of scholarship, for indeed, much of my own work falls well within the traditional parameters of anthropology; what I do wish to point out, however, is that there is obviously sufficient room in the discipline for all sorts of anthropology, speculative as well as non-speculative.

Again, intelligence does not merely consist of facts, but in the integration of ideas--and ideas can come from anywhere, including good science fiction and good anthropology!

# # #

A few selected items not specifically mentioned in the text above are:

Aldiss, Brian W., 1973, Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction.

Baxter, John, 1970, Science Fiction In The Cinema.

Lundwall, Sam J., 1971, Science Fiction: What It's All About.

Stover, Leon E., 1973, Anthropology and Science Fiction. Current Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 4, pages 471-474.


A related "Web site" at CSU, Chico is:

1990 Perspectives on Science Fiction and Science Fact. (For the CSU, Chico Anthropology Forum, March 8.)


[1] © [All Rights Reserved] Presented at the discussion For the Anthropology House Forum known as "El Mundo" on November 11, 1976. It was placed on the WWW on April 26, 1999, as an example of some of my earlier ideas concerning the concept of "culture" and teaching techniques. No revisions have been made to the text since presenting the paper in 1976, save for some format changes needed for this WWW version. To return to the beginning of this page, please click here.

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26 April 1999 by CFU