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Hard ReadingLearning from Science Fiction$

Tom Shippey

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781781382615

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781382615.001.0001

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Getting to Grips with the Issue of Cultures …

(p.85) 5 Introduction
Hard Reading

Tom Shippey

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The relativity of cultural values is effectively axiomatic in modern cultural anthropology. But if cultures are relative, can they not be compared, critiqued, and evaluated? Is there any basis for the belief that modern liberal democracy is the best solution for humanity as a whole? In this chapter science fiction is seen as presenting a series of test cases. In some stories, science is portrayed as another type of superstition. In apocalyptic stories, moral values are suggested to be inappropriate for changed circumstances. Most strikingly, in many stories the possibility is raised of social engineering to effect desired cultural changes, with in most cases undesired and unexpected consequences. Science fiction offers both self-assertion and self-questioning in ways more probing and more painful than commonly realised.

Keywords:   Cultural values, Cultural anthropology, Superstition, Moral values, Social engineering, Cultural change

This is a heavily revised version of the first extended piece I ever wrote about science fiction (I had been writing reviews in Peter Weston’s fanzine Speculation for some time). It came out in 1969 in the Birmingham University journal Alta, of which I was at the time assistant editor. Alta was a really good idea: expensively produced (this piece came out with half a dozen book covers as illustrations) and full of interesting material relating to the university. As assistant editor I had to do some ‘science writing’, i.e., making things like developments in electron microscopy understandable to non-specialists. I remember also republishing two pieces by a strange figure on the fringes of ‘literary theory’, though it wasn’t called that yet. One of the major Russian literary theorists was Mikhail Bakhtin; Mikhail – writing from Communist Russia – had a brother called Nikolai. In 1917, Nikolai was a middle-class soldier in a hussar regiment, and when the Revolution broke out it seems that some of the Bolsheviks were rude to him. He accordingly joined the White Guards, and fought for years in the terrible Russian civil war of which one sees flashes in Dr Zhivago. In the end, he had to flee, joined the French Foreign Legion, rose to be an adjutant or sergeant-major, fought the Rifs in Algeria, got shot and was invalided out with the Croix de Guerre. After which, by a natural career progression (?), he became Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University. One could hardly find a more striking example than these two brothers of Mikhail’s concept of ‘dialogism’, which becomes a theme in what follows here. Nikolai’s accounts of the Revolution and the Foreign Legion had appeared in a little pamphlet, now very rare – there is a Nikolai Bakhtin Archive in the university library at Birmingham – and we republished them in Alta. The university authorities, however, did not like Alta very much, and it was soon closed down as too expensive.

Since this piece was not on disk, and I only had one file copy, I forgot about it for many years. Rereading it many years later, I was struck with (p.86) horror and surprise. The horror was at how naive I had been, not to mention plain ignorant. I picked two stories out of Astounding/Analog to illustrate a shared theme. What I didn’t know was that they were both by the same author, ‘Winston P. Sanders’ being a pseudonym of Poul Anderson. So it was no wonder they shared a theme. I had been fooled by John W. Campbell – who often let, or made, his authors publish under different names. (It’s been said one whole issue was written by Randall Garrett, writing as Randall Garrett, ‘Darrell T. Langart’, and ‘Wally Bupp’.) Campbell fooled me in other ways too. I generalised from a steady diet of ASF, and several of the things I said then applied mainly or entirely to that magazine. I also got the timing completely wrong in pointing to the magazines just as the main focus of sf was about to move away from them (though this is a development I still regret).1

However, and in spite of all that, I was surprised at how semi-prescient bits of the article were – just like science fiction, in fact. The word hadn’t been invented yet, but what I was doing was bringing up the issue of ‘multiculturalism’. Multiculturalism was just about to become absolute dogma: all cultures are equally valid, all must be respected, all knowledge is grounded in culture. Allan Bloom, in his book The Closing of the American Mind (1987), has remarked (correctly or otherwise) that there is one thing every American student knows for sure on entering university, and that is that ‘all truth is relative’. Really? A classic counter-statement of that case is H. Beam Piper’s ‘Omnilingual’, from ASF of February 1957, where an unknown language is deciphered by starting from a table of chemical elements, because that is part of the nature of the universe, not bounded by culture. That truth is not relative. But if there is such a thing as non-relative truth, then cultures can be rated according to how well they correspond with it. Some of them will work, some will not, and there will be different degrees of success and failure. This deep difference of belief has increasingly opened up a gap between science and the humanities, even in our culture, that (see introduction to item 2, above) has contributed to the unease about sf in the latter.

This is not to say that our culture has all the answers: very much not so. Nor that ‘science as we know it’ is the last word: sf would not work at all if the latter were thought to be true. As I remarked above: when I got around to reading Thomas Kuhn’s now-famous book on paradigm shifts, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), it didn’t surprise me a bit. The idea that there was a kind of inertia, even within science, working against new paradigms and novel theories, had been (p.87) an absolute staple of Campbell’s ASF, and I had digested it on many levels from fiction.

So, one theme in sf was ‘challenges to culture’. Right, I’d seen that; this explained the interest in ‘alternate history’, even within hard sf, because science could interact with culture in different ways; it also explained the fascination with anthropology (see next item); and the whole attitude to culture. Yes, they are different, but, yes, they can be evaluated, and, yes, there may be a reason or even a duty to change them – part of what I call in this piece the (hidden) ‘iceberg of beliefs’ beneath the narrative surface. It is well summed up by (the late) Iain Banks, who in his non-sf book The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007) has a character say, when someone brings up the then-fashionable ‘end of history, capitalist democracy has won’ idea: ‘Bullshit. You ought to read more science fiction. Nobody who reads sf comes out with this crap about the end of history.’ Dead right, Iain, and spoken like a trufan.

The serious mistake I made in 1969, however – my excuse must be that of having been educated by science fiction – was tacitly accepting the de haut en bas attitude then normal in sf. The standard image – one sees it, for instance, in Hal Clement’s stories, both originally serialised in ASF, Mission of Gravity (1954) and Close to Critical (1958) – was the strange planet with lovingly worked out physical peculiarities, whose pre-scientific natives were being educated in the verities of physics (which applied even on their strange planets) by confident human tutors from their base in orbit. (James Cambias’s The Darkling Sea (2014) is, so speak, a ‘Hal Clement’ scenario, without the attitude.) But what if the natives did not want to be educated in physics (in Clement’s works they always did)? Then they would have to be educated until they did, even at the cost of social upheaval. Another way of putting this is to say that the authors were projecting the nineteenth-century image of benevolent imperialism – Westerners in Asia and Africa – into the future. This was not quite as arrogant as it seems, for at least some of them saw the issue, and were prepared to look at it ‘dialogistically’: duty to help, no right to impose. And authors were also happy to imagine a situation where we were contacted by aliens whose scientific knowledge was greater than ours, leading to total social upheaval for us. But it was tacitly accepted, first, that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and, second, that the ideal omelette was, to quote one of the authors discussed below, ‘pure democracy and the highest technological level’.

In this piece, as revised, I have accordingly tried, without concealing all my errors, to focus on the issue of ‘cultural engineering’, scrapping the original and aggressive title, ‘Breaking a Culture’. At the end, (p.88) though, I note, with the advantage of hindsight, one more way in which lack of awareness of this issue has led and continues to lead to real-world disasters. Sf is often prescient in ways which its creators did not expect.