ANTHROPOLOGY AND SCIENCE FICTION
(First published in the CONTACT Newsletter, Vol. I, Number 2, March 1990; and posted here with permission of the author.)
In the spring of 1983, I attended a conference in Santa Cruz on anthropology and science fiction called CONTACT. The "con" is there because all science fiction CONferences have either something-CON or CON-something. The place was full of science fiction writers and anthropologists, as well as some "fans" who came to watch. We played a "game" called "Bateson." I have seldom learned so much in three days.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that anthropology needs science fiction almost as much, thought not quite, as much science fiction needs anthropology. Science fiction writers have to know something about a lot of fields of science, but the main ones are physics and anthropology. They also have to know just enough evolutionary biology to deal with problems of adaptation. They are concerned with the principles of planet formation, of what constitutes special environments, and about the cultures that prescient creatures form when they interact and communicate in that environment.
The focus of science fiction is almost always on some problem of adaptation to (including conquering or protecting) some strange environment. Then, in order to fit it into a story form, every good science fictioneer should know rather a lot about psychology. The very best SF writers are, like Dostoevski or Melville or Hawthorne, skilled psychologists.
The level of psychoanalytic sophistication is high among science fiction writers. That takes care of the motivation and activities of characters. And it is also important to know a lot of mythology ~ most science fiction stories are versions of myths derived from some culture or other ~ often blatantly from the Greek or the Anglo-Saxon Arthurian legends, but the myth of any culture will do perfectly well. And all that brings me back to "Bateson" (anthropologist Jim Funaro, who organized and staged the conference, was a friend of Gregory Bateson and had been much influenced by him).
The game was fun: two teams were created, each composed of anthropologists and science fiction writers and artists (very important in science fiction circles). One team, composed of science fiction writers Michael Bishop and Paul Preuss, artist Darrel Anderson, anthropologists Robert Tyzzer, Mischa Adams, and me, had the task of creating a human society, with its environment, at least 5000 years in the future. The other team (science fictioneer C. J. Cherryh, artists Joel Hagen and Pamela Lee, anthropologists James Funaro and Reed Riner), created a society and culture of non-human, sentient, culturally advanced creatures. There was no communication between the two teams. Writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle played spy and troubleshooter, respectively.
Each team had a session of a couple of hours with the fans, telling them what kind of culture they had created and answering questions. This session was of great value because the questions drove us to greater consistency and also provided a lot of ideas that we had not thought of before.
Science fiction writer Larry Niven went between the two groups, so that he know both creatures and both cultures and could set up the conditions of the contact.
Then the CONTACT took place between the evolved humans species and the non-human species in ways that Niven and the two teams extemporaneously created in front of the audience of fans. Each team made a move, then the other made a response, and the CONTACT was in fact carried out. It is astonishing how easy it is to fall back on some sort of violence in the face of difficulties of comprehension. It is astonishing how, just as in a family, the protagonists create a "story" that neither anticipated. It all takes place in front of you: you are part of it, but it really isn't anything you planned. It isn't, perhaps. even something you like.
While the two teams were planning their cultures, more-or-less "scholarly" but certainly entertaining papers were being given by anthropologists and science fiction writers, to keep the fans (and one another, because, after all, all of us are fans) informed and amused. Then, at the end of the conference, a story teller working with two mimes turned the whole event into stunning and convincing myth.
The importance of all this to anthropology should be evident: it gives us a chance to dream up cultures ~ even non-human cultures. A number of things become apparent as you take part in this kind of exercise: first of all, you'd better get the physics of your environment right ~ only if you know that can you see the range of adaptations necessary. And those adaptations are fundamentally cultural adaptations: I know of no better way to express instantly and clearly the basic dominance of the environment in the adaptational exercise. You also discover in creating a culture that if it doesn't all hang together, Malinowski-fashion, it all falls apart. Cultures in fact must be functionally consistent behavioral responses to environment, and the familiar and strange things that enter that environment.
Finally, anthropology raises the fun level at every university where it is taught ~ in every organization where anthropologists hang out. An association with science fiction raises the fun level of anthropology itself. It also sharpens the anthropological wits.
Science fiction is "als ob anthropology." Long may it wave. I am looking forward to the next CONTACT conference.
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