Writing cultures

I’ve been packing away my Science Fiction books before leaving for England. I have a not-so-secret passion for Science Fiction, and I especially like the sub-genre called “social science fiction”. Instead of focusing on the technological aspects of science, the genre mostly focuses on the social, politic and cultural implications that the future may bring. Mainly writing, constructing, creating fictive cultures and describing the social relations within. SF-writers have done this long before anybody had ever heard of “social constructivism” or “post-modernistic lack of self-confidence” or any such thing. Quite a few anthropologists have written SF trying to clear their minds of some of the heavier issues and relieving the need to tell some of all those “irrelevant” stories they have heard through the years.

Or maybe not just the irrelevant stuff. Before “Writing Culture” was published in 1986 and sparked much of the debate of how ethnography should be written, some anthropologists were already looking to SF for inspiration for different ways of dealing with representation of other. Unencumbered by any actual informants to be true to, SF-writing anthropologists found a new and fascinating creative and speculative freedom.

Looking around the net, I found several anthropologists praising the insights and narrative style of the SF stories. One is Geoffrey Samuel who wrote an article called Inventing Real Cultures (1978) Another is this one from 1976. Both of them explores the relations between anthropology and SF.

And even earlier, in 1968, an anthropologist and SF writer edited an anthology of anthropological SF – Apeman, Spaceman with the intent to use it as a text book to inspire students to see the width of the field of anthropology. Back then, of course, it was very wide, as one half the book relates to physical anthropology, and the other to cultural anthropology. Still, it’s a very good read, and it contains some excellent short stories. I especially like “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke and Chad Oliver’s “Of Course”.

I realize now that my definition of the genre is slightly off the mark as it really doesn’t have to involve the future. I find that books like Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and some of the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges all still fit the category in some way. Before I heard of “social science fiction”, I labelled this kind of writing “creative anthropology” – inspired by “creative accounting”. Both disciplines are meant to be all factual and clear, but inherent in both is the luring possibility of rearranging, reconstructing all the numbers, all the stories and ideas to your own unfactual pleasing.

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