E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces
edited by Deborah Battaglia
Duke University Press, 2005
Writing the Other: A Practical Approach
By Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward
Conversation Pieces, vol. 8
Aqueduct Press, 2005
Since before literature existed, humanity has been asking the questions "Who am I?" and "What does it mean to be human?" Science fiction answers this question in many ways, but one way is through portraying who "we" are not. To put this more simply, there's a long tradition in science fiction of focusing on the outsider. Sometimes these outsiders are mad scientists; sometimes they are their creations. We see both in Frankenstein. Sometimes these outsiders are travelers, either in space (everyone from Swift's Gulliver on), time (Wells' time traveler) or both (folks like the crew in Anderson's Tau Zero, who outsail their birth universe via relativistic travel). Sometimes they are criminals (as in Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron"). Sometimes they are machines, sometimes they are gods, sometimes they cross categories. And sometimes, very often, they are aliens.
As a general category, let us call these outsiders "others," and recognize that they are so central to science fiction as to partially define it. The two books addressed in this review are very different in form, background, and the approach they take to the other. I examine them together to show just how central this concept is, and to comment on how it means different things to different parties.
E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces is a collection of several extended academic essays. These vary in style and focus, but in general they attempt to apply critical anthropological perspectives to aspects of outsider and speculative culture. To be more specific, these essays address "Ufology as Anthropology" (Christopher Roth), alien languages (David Samuels), the voice of insiders in bizarre spaces (Deborah Battaglia), the Raelians (Battaglia again), the interplay between texts in manga (Mizuko Ito), connections between types of sampling (alien and music, for example), and the transformation of perceived personal identity through disease (Joseph Dumit's consideration of illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome).
These essays vary considerably in terms of how useful they'll be for science fiction writers and readers. To be blunt, some are so mired in the specialized languages of critical theory that they are nigh unto impenetrable. Deborah Battaglia's first entry in the collection, "Insiders' Voices in Outerspaces," is a good example of this. It is intelligent, and raises many interesting points, but in an abstracted fashion. There is no doubt that the interconnectedness of contemporary culture makes anthropology more complicated; how can you do field work in a culture that exists only online? Or only conceptually? That said, Battaglia's consideration of "the E.T. effect" is far more abstract (and frankly, verbose) than need be.
What's more, call me an anthropological snob, but I would have liked to have seen more of these anthropologists do more firsthand research and less consideration of texts at a distance. This applies even to otherwise clear and useful works like "Alien Tongues." Samuels treats the concept, the problem, and the practice of alien languages, either created or researched, with lucid scholarship. The result is a fine overview of how humanity has tried to imagine how others will or might communicate, both in science and in fiction. Samuels' study includes several pages summarizing the structure and history of Klingon—but here he misses a golden anthropological opportunity. Since Klingon is a constructed language, and one that is taught and spoken primarily within a nexus of other social contexts (a real language created from a fictional show, and one that was created for commercial purposes, fandom, etc.), this would be the perfect time to visit and experience such training firsthand. How does this new culture affect that which is being generated and analyzed? That seems an obvious anthropological concern, but Samuels does not address it.
By contrast, those authors who did plunge into the cultures they were studying produced interesting and fruitful works. It's both intrinsically interesting and culturally fascinating to read Battaglia's second essay, as she engaged in classic field work, steeping herself in accounts of Raelian culture and then visiting the cult herself, narrating and analyzing her experiences. It is as close as one can get in many ways to experiencing aliens within one's own culture—though the accounts of those who hear voices, or those who suffer diseases of mysterious origin, come close. All of these are humans who are other.
And that, by no small coincidence, is the main focus of Writing the Other. This slender volume (112 pages) contains three nonfiction sections and a fiction excerpt. The non-fiction pieces all deal with a single issue from different angles: writing about different cultures and ethnicities fairly and appropriately. Shawl and Ward both attended Clarion West in 1992, where they found their peers hesitant to write about people of different cultures for fear of getting it wrong. The essays, and their Writing the Other workshop, grew from a desire to address these concerns.
I took part in the workshop and found it useful. The exercises contained in this book are likewise useful. They are clearly written, systematic, and pragmatic. They guide interested readers through reflections that will heighten awareness of their assumptions as writers—assumptions that range from presumed cultural norms to what it means to be human.
There is little or nothing that is intrinsically science fictional about the tasks Shawl and Ward have set themselves. Any writer committed to being politically and psychologically savvy could benefit from the exercises. They do not help one's skills, necessarily, but they deepen one's awareness of character and sharpen one's focus for speech, mannerism, clothing, body language, etc., and, if followed, should make one's writing more ethical. Three things, however, anchor the exercises in the science fiction community. First, that's where Shawl and Ward primarily write; they are addressing these crucial issues locally. Second, they take the premises of science fiction seriously. That means that science fiction authors have a higher responsibility than most to examine their premises. To put it another way, a science fiction writer has no excuse for being unaware of things, or for assuming intelligent beings are just like him or her—and that includes "like" from the perspective of class, race, and gender assumptions. Third, many of the examples provided come from speculative fiction.
It should be obvious that of the two books, I prefer Writing the Other. I do. It is clear and immediately applicable, where E.T. Culture is abstract and convoluted. Writing the Other is not perfect, not by a long shot. Some of the scientific discussion (regarding the reptile brain) is outmoded. More importantly, dealing with these issues privately is less intense than addressing them in the public format of a workshop, and one runs the risk of treating them as merely intellectual matters. However, if one is too far from a workshop, or if someone wants to continue working on writing ethically about others after the workshop is over, Writing the Other is a good tool. Yes, that's how I'd sum up Writing the Other: a good tool for ethical purposes. By contrast, E.T. Culture is a multifaceted mine. It offers the seeds of many stories, and shows what an anthropological approach might offer if brought to bear on aliens and the question of otherness, but it lacks unity and needs field work to flesh it out. If you're a science fiction writer, you might pick up Writing the Other and do some of that field work on your own.