Science Fiction and Anthropology

Stories have always been a window to the spirit of humanity. Whether they are written or told orally, through stories we face our greatest failures as well as our greatest victories. We can climb the highest mountain, or plummet in to deepest depths of the underworld. We experience the depth of the human condition. To even try to generalize the vision of humanity through stories is beyond my capacity.

Science fiction is one of my great loves. Sci-fi I think it kind of unique in the fact that it often looks at the future of humanity. Will we colonize the worlds of the galaxy, or succumb to our own devices of destruction. Will we be enslaved by robots or an alien invader, or will we find a harmony and ascend towards a golden age of civilization. While all fiction probes as human nature, science fiction holds a special place in investigating humanity.

As my first example, I will use Star Trek: The Next Generation. The stories told over the course of this series touch upon technological progression, and a future humanity free from war and most disease. It is set in a time when humanity has ventured out into the galaxy. We meet all kinds of alien species, and each asks us to question how we look at others as well as ourselves. In one episode, Who Watches the Watchers, a team of anthropologists has set up on a planet to study a proto-Vulcan culture. Now, this episode presents a unique conflict in my opinion. Anthropology, especially sociocultural anthropology, puts great emphasis on participant observation, actually living with the people you are studying. In Who Watches They Watchers, we find the anthologists at a distant in a blind. The people they are studying at the beginning are unaware they are being watched. This is because of the Prime Directive, a philosophy that prohibits interference with an alien culture because such interference may change the evolutionary course of the culture.

This begs an important question for me. How much do anthropologists change the people they study? How much influence do our views and opinions have upon other people? This is especially true of archaeology, as the people that are studied cannot always speak for themselves. Does the very act of studying a people, whether living or dead, change those people? It is an important question.

The rest of the episode explores some of the questions I have asked. One of the proto-Vulcans becomes injured, and is transported to the Enterprise for medical treatment. Here he gets an image of captain Picard, and thus thinks he has seen some kind of deity. This leads to debates within the society about the existence of the Overseer, a kind of god that was long ago rejected by the logical proto-Vulcans.

As another example let’s look at Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation. This is the story of how Hari Sheldon develops psychohistory, a mathamatical science used to predict the future. It is part of Asimov’s Foundation series. Most of the story takes place on Trantor, the capital of the galactic empire. It is said to be home to 45 billion people, layed out in a variety of sectors, each with a unique culture.  The wikipedia article on Trantor says; “Trantor had over 800 (sectors), averaging 50,000,000 people each.”

As an example of the cultural diversity on Trantor, I list a few quotes concerning the different sectors on Trantor. All from wikipedia

Dahl—One of the poorer sections of Trantor.The main job of the lower class is heatsinking, where workers supervise the conversion of heat from the planet’s core directly into electric power by sinking extremely long rods into the inner core of the planet; ‘heatsinkers’ were generally looked down upon by other Dahlites. Naturally, most Dahlites hated the Empire, and the soldiers of the Empire (‘sunbadgers’). Dahlites were dark skinned, black-haired, and fairly short. Dahlite males wore a large, thick mustache, and all carried knives. Rather than using ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs.’, or ‘Dr.’, as forms of address, Dahlites always used ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’ (never ‘Doctor’).

Imperial—The sector in which the Imperial Palace and the Galactic Library lie. When Seldon first visited Trantor to deliver his speech at the Decennial Convention, fashion in the sector called for bold, bright colors and wearing hats without chinstraps. According to Asimov, many of the inhabitants of this sector were tall Northerner yellowhairs, implying that they were people of what we call Nordic ancestry.

Mycogen— As Asimov explains in Prelude to Foundation,their name is formed from the Greek stems myco- (meaning ‘yeast’ or other types of fungi) and -gen (meaning ‘maker’ or ‘producer’), which matches the description of the Mycogen as specialized in breeding and exporting yeast, or “microfood,” to other portions of Trantor. It kept the best for itself; the food eaten by Seldon in Mycogen was the best he had ever had. They lived by a strict religion (to Mycogenians, ‘history’). The ‘high priest’ was the leader of the council of elders, the government of Mycogen. During a rite of passage, all Mycogenians are completely depilated, so they can tell the difference between themselves and non-Mycogenians. Because hair is considered so repulsive, most Mycogenians shriek at its appearance; foreigners must wear skincaps at all times. The sight and feel of hair was considered similar to pornography lewdness by Mycogenians. By tradition usually wear a cloak called ‘kirtle’, men always wear a white kirtle; women, a gray one.

It seems to me that diversity is a natural part of human development. People that once held a common ancestry and language are now barely able to communicate with one another. One example of this is Scandinavia, Germany and England. All speak modern forms of Germanic languages, but the languages (and associated cultural systems) are now so different that intercommunication is not possible without knowing more than one language.

Trantor can be used as an example of how even unified political units become more diverse over time. Star Trek can be used as an example as well. Different humanoid races emerge as the result of unique geographic (planetary) locations, history and cultures. As more time passes, new cultural forms will emerge from old ones, increasing human cultural diversity. This may be part of what is going on in America today. The country is growing more diverse through the influx of immigrants, as well as internally. What it means to be American varies from person to person, from state to state and from region to region. Can it be said that Michiganders are the same as Texans?

I do not know what the future will look like, but science fiction will continue to explore these possibilities. And anthropology will be there to study the diverse experience that is the human condition.



About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

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