Rex’s last post reminds me that I’ve been meaning to write about one of the most fascinating science fiction worlds I’ve come across in a long time. I’m talking about The Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, which I want to compare with George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones [the TV show - I've not read the books].
I want to talk about the role of ethnic difference in narrative, but since Rex brought up the issue of bodies, let me first note that one of the interesting things about The Culture is that unlike the many other “highly advanced alien species” discussed by Rex in his post, bodies are very important to The Culture. In this post-singularity world people can back themselves up or choose to live entirely virtual lives, but most choose to have bodies anyway. These bodies are enhanced, to be sure: they have neural laces to tie them to the co-evolved artificial Minds which run their space ships, and they have extra glands which give them whatever drugs they might like at a mere thought, but they are still bodies. Over their long lifespans they can choose to be male or female at will, and many go through several changes over a lifetime. The Minds too can take on human avatars, and the nature of these avatars is an important reflection of their personalities, although we are frequently reminded that they are not human. For instance, they can eat and defecate, but they don’t have to and the food which is passed through their bodies is still edible since it hasn’t really been digested. We are even told that some humans like to eat avatar-digested food. But then who understands humans?
Getting back to ethnicity and narrative… let me start with Special Circumstances, an organization which figures prominently in The Culture novels. Here’s an explanation from Wikipedia:
Special Circumstances is part of a larger fictional Culture organization called Contact, which coordinates Culture interactions with (and in) other civilizations. SC exists to fulfill this role when circumstances exceed the moral capacity of Contact, or where the situation is highly complex and requires highly specialized skills… Special Circumstances also does the ‘dirty work’ of the Culture, a function made especially complicated by the normally very high ethical standards the Culture sets itself. SC acts in a way that has been compared with the democratizing intentions of real-world liberal intent on overcoming the world’s (and especially other nation’s) evils by benign interference.
One of the things that makes The Culture books so interesting is the deep ambivalence Banks has for his Special Circumstances heroes. While they have no material interest in delving into the affairs of other societies, it is clear that their motivations are not entirely selfless. They are driven in equal parts by a desire to “improve” these other cultures as well as their own boredom. Yes, they usually win in the end, for the betterment of all concerned. One could thus argue that SC is an argument for liberal interventionism. But I think it is much more about the need for good stories.
SC is important to The Culture novels because the world of The Culture is a rather boring utopia. There is no money, no discrimination, no real politics, etc. For this reason, for anything interesting to happen it must happen at the fringes of Culture, at the point of contact with other (usually less developed) civilizations. This interests me because it makes clear how important contact (or Contact) is for narrative. I also think it explains why people get so defensive when anthropologists point out the underlying racism implicit in various fictional worlds.
Take, for example, the Dothraki of Game of Thrones:
The Dothraki are dark, with long hair they wear in dreadlocks or in matted braids. They sport very little clothing, bedeck themselves in blue paint, and, as depicted in the premiere episode, their weddings are riotous affairs full of thumping drums, ululations, orgiastic public sex, passionate throat-slitting, and fly-ridden baskets full of delicious, bloody animal hearts. A man in a turban presents the new khaleesi with an inlaid box full of hissing snakes. After their nuptials, the immense Khal Drogo takes Daenerys to a seaside cliff at twilight and then, against her muted pleas, takes her doggie-style.
Now, I think a lot of the problem is that the Dorthraki are intentionally a “hodgepodge creation”:
George R.R. Martin has written , “I have tried to mix and match ethnic and cultural traits in creating my imaginary fantasy peoples, so there are no direct one-for-one correspodences [sic]. The Dothraki, for example, are based in part on the Mongols, the Alans, and the Huns, but their skin coloring is Amerindian.”
I think a lot of the problem is Martin’s reliance on the worst stereotypes about nomadic peoples rather than more historically accurate accounts. For instance, one popular history of Genghis Khan emphasizes the importance of the Mongols in the creation of the “modern world.”
But I don’t want to talk about what is wrong with Martin’s Dorthraki so much as why so many people get upset when scholars point out these problems. I think it is because of a feeling that good stories need good “others” and that without difference, including different levels of civilization, one can’t have a good narrative. The anthropologist in me wants to reply that recreating Tylor and Morgan’s stages of civilization in narrative form serves to reproduce the ideological foundations of racism is even if it isn’t directed at any particular ethnic group, but the fan of science fiction and fantasy novels in me understands that such is the stuff that (most) fantasy worlds are made of. Fictional others allow us to explore the limits of our own humanity. Still, I think The Culture novels show that we can do better, that we can ask more of our imagined worlds. But even Banks’ novels still rely upon a social darwinian view of galactic development, with each civilization necessarily going through the various stages of development, with only minimal interference by the more developed societies. I say this not so much to criticize Banks but to point out how hard it is to escape from such narrative frameworks, even in (or especially in?) stories that otherwise push the boundaries of what it means to be human.
Addendum: I posted it to Twitter, but I wanted to link again to a recent interview in Wired with anthropologist Kathryn Denning who “studies the very human way that scientists, engineers and members of the public think about space exploration and the search for alien life.” I think she has some really interesting things to say about our discourses about contact with alien life.