The education of Ursula Le Guin
On Jan. 22, Ursula K. Le Guin died in Portland, Oregon. Since then, much has been written memorializing her genre-defying body of work, her contributions to feminism and science fiction, and her broad interest in human society and government.
But as a cultural anthropologist, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between Le Guin and her father, anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber.
Kroeber’s ideas – which had a profound influence on his daughter’s writing – stemmed from an important development in the discipline of anthropology, one that viewed human culture as something that wasn’t ingrained, and had to be taught and learned.
Culture isn’t genetic
Kroeber’s mentor was a Columbia University anthropologist named Franz Boas. Kroeber was especially drawn to Boas’ newly developed notion of culture and the broader theory of “cultural relativism.”
Cultural relativism emerged in the late 19th century as an alternative to theories like social Darwinism that linked culture to evolution. These theories – widely accepted at the time – tended to rank human societies on an evolutionary scale. Not surprisingly, Western European civilizations were seen as the pinnacle of culture.
But Boas proposed something radically different. He insisted, based on field-based research, that humans live in stunningly diverse cultural worlds shaped by language, which creates institutions, aesthetics, and ideas and notions of right and wrong. He further argued that each society needs to reproduce its culture through teaching and learning.
Kroeber described culture as “superorganic.” According to this idea, the “civilizational achievements” of any group of people weren’t passed down biologically and could only be taught. If we’re deprived of our access to human instruction – books, guides, teachers – we won’t know how to build buildings, write poetry and compose music. Humans, Kroeber knew, are hardwired to create, but there’s no such thing as a “hereditary memory” that allows a people to intuitively know how to recreate specific things.
He told the hypothetical story of a baby taken from France and brought to China. She would, he argued, grow up speaking perfect Chinese and would know no French. His point – as obvious as it might seem today – was that there was no hereditary quality to “Frenchness” that would carry over, genetically, to a child born of French parents.
The idea of culture as “superorganic” says that people are organic lifeforms, like ants or dogs or fish, but culture is “added” to them, which influences their behaviors. Ants and dogs don’t need culture to reproduce their behaviors: Raised in isolation from their own kind, they still do the things they were programmed to do.
Upending the status quo
Kroeber, along with many of his fellow anthropologists, were drawn to these ideas because they depicted culture as universally human, but not universally rankable, racially predetermined or inherently more or less sophisticated.
For example, it was common in the late 19th century for expansionists to justify their imperialist ambitions with “scientific” evidence that Native Americans were culturally inferior. They pointed to language: Native Americans, they claimed, didn’t have words for the passage of time. For this reason, they couldn’t grasp a complex concept like history.
But Kroeber and his colleagues pointed out the Hopi did have a complex way of reckoning time. They just didn’t count things, like days or hours, using the same terminology they might use to count men, or rocks or clouds, which are objects you can actually see. To the Hopi, a day is in no way like a rock. So it shouldn’t be treated as such.
Kroeber’s peers included African-American anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, Jewish linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir, and female scholars such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. All grappled with discrimination and cultural denigration.
In response, Kroeber was compelled to write that history, geography and the environment influenced cultural differences. No culture simply emerged naturally.
“Social agencies are so tremendously influential on every one of us,” he wrote, “that it is very difficult to find any test that, if distinctive racial faculties were inborn, would fairly reveal the degree to which they are inborn.”
The only reason, according to Kroeber, that someone would insist on innate differences between human population would be to preserve the status quo: societies built on racial discrimination and colonialism.
‘But does it make them think?’
Throughout her childhood in Berkeley, California, Ursula Le Guin was exposed to these ideas. They very likely formed the basis of her worldview.
Her writing was never simply about creating a magical or strange world. It was about crafting a laboratory to play with identities – race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or class – in a way that forced readers to think about how cultural prejudice colored their views of other people.
“Entertaining them is all well and good,” she told New York Times reporter John Wray, “but does it make them think?”
With Le Guin, it always struck me that the point of her imagined universes was precisely to show that nothing human was universal, and that what was “alien” was only a matter of perspective.
In “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Le Guin tackled the idea of gender norms. Here, I think she was channeling Margaret Mead’s breakthrough study “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies,” in which Mead was able to demonstrate that gender norms can significantly diverge across cultures.
In “The Word for World Is Forest,” Le Guin didn’t simply pen an environmentalist fable about the destruction of a forest and its people. She built off the insights of indigenous scholars like Vine Deloria Jr., who put native peoples’ voices and worldviews at the center of the indigenous rights movement. In “The Dispossessed,” she contrasts the different political systems of two neighboring worlds not to argue which one is best, per se, but to show that in order for these systems to exist, humans need to actively participate in and reproduce them.
In 2015 I planned an anthropology class that I hoped could use speculative fiction and fantasy as a way to understand basic concepts in cultural anthropology. The class was built around Kroeber and Le Guin.
A mutual friend gave my syllabus to Le Guin, and she wrote to me. She suggested some other works to include and seemed to appreciate the concept of the course.
“I think my pa would be tickled,” she wrote, “that he and I have ended up on the same [syallabus].”
Humans are storytelling creatures: the stories we tell have profound implications for how we see our role in the world, and dystopian fiction keeps growing in popularity. According to Goodreads.com, an online community that has grown to 90 million readers, the share of books categorised as ‘dystopian’ in 2012 was the highest for more than 50 years. The boom appears to have begun after the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001. The share of dystopian stories skyrocketed in 2010 as publishers flocked to capitalise on the success of the Hunger Games novels (2008-10), Suzanne Collins’s gripping trilogy about a totalitarian society ‘in the ruins of a place once known as North America’. What should we make of the fact that dystopian fiction is so popular?
A great deal of ink has been spilled exploring why these narratives are so appealing. But another important question is: So what? Is dystopian fiction likely to affect anyone’s real-world political attitudes? If so, then how? And how much should we care about its impact? In our research, we set out to answer these questions using a series of experiments.
Before we began, we knew many political scientists would likely be skeptical. After all, it seems unlikely that fiction – something known to be ‘made up’ – could be capable of influencing people’s real-world outlooks. Yet a growing body of research shows that there is no ‘strong toggle’ in the brain between fiction and nonfiction. People often incorporate lessons from fictional stories into their beliefs, attitudes and value judgments, sometimes without even being aware that they are doing so.
Dystopian fiction, moreover, is likely to be especially powerful because it is inherently political. We focus here on the totalitarian-dystopian genre, which portrays a dark and disturbing alternative world where powerful entities act to oppress and control citizens, violating fundamental values as a matter of course. (While post-apocalyptic narratives, including those about zombies, can also be considered ‘dystopian’, the standard setting is politically very different, emphasising chaos and the collapse of social order, and thus is likely to affect people in different ways.)
Certainly, individual totalitarian-dystopian storylines vary. To give a few popular examples, torture and surveillance feature in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949); organ harvesting in the Unwind series (2007-) by Neal Shusterman; mandatory plastic surgery in the Uglies series (2005-7) by Scott Westerfeld; mind control in Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993); gender inequality in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985); government-arranged marriage in the Matched trilogy (2010-12) by Ally Condie; and environmental disaster in the Maze Runner series (2009-16) by James Dashner. But all such narratives conform to genre conventions of character, setting and plot. As observed by Carrie Hintz and Elaine Ostry, the editors of Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Young Children and Adults (2003), in these societies ‘the ideals for improvement have gone tragically amok’. While there are occasional exceptions, dystopian fiction typically valorises dramatic and often violent rebellion by a courageous few.
To test the impact of dystopian fiction on political attitudes, we randomly assigned subjects from a sample of American adults to one of three groups. The first group read an excerpt from The Hunger Games and then watched scenes from the 2012 movie adaptation. The second group did the same, except with a different dystopian series – Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2011-18). It features a futuristic US in which society has split into factions dedicated to distinct values; those whose capabilities cross faction lines are viewed as a threat. In the third group – the no-media control group – subjects were not exposed to any dystopian fiction prior to answering questions about their social and political attitudes.
What we found was striking. Even though they were fictional, the dystopian narratives affected subjects in a profound way, recalibrating their moral compasses. Compared with the no-media control group, subjects exposed to the fiction were 8 percentage points more likely to say that radical acts such as violent protest and armed rebellion could be justifiable. They also agreed more readily that violence is sometimes necessary to achieve justice (a similar increase of about 8 percentage points).
Why might dystopian fiction have these startling effects? Perhaps a simple priming mechanism was at work. The violent action scenes could easily have triggered excitement in a way that made our subjects more willing to justify political violence. Violent video games, for instance, can heighten aggressive cognitions, and dystopian fiction often contains violent imagery with rebels fighting against the powers that be.
To test this hypothesis, we conducted a second experiment, again with three groups, and this time with a sample of college students around the US. The first group was exposed to The Hunger Games and, as before, we included a second, no-media control group. The third group, however, was exposed to violent scenes from the Fast and Furious movie franchise (2001-), similar in length and type to the violence in the Hunger Games excerpts.
Once again, dystopian fiction shaped people’s ethical judgments. It heightened their willingness to justify radical political action compared with the no-media controls, and the increases were similar in magnitude to what we found in the first experiment. But the equally violent and high-adrenaline action scenes from Fast and Furious had no such effect. So violent imagery alone could not explain our findings.
Our third experiment explored whether a key ingredient was the narrative itself – that is, a story about brave citizens contending with an unjust government, whether fictional or nonfictional. So this time, our third group read and watched media segments about a real-world protest against corrupt Thai government practices. Clips from CNN, BBC and other news sources showed government forces in riot gear using violent tactics such as tear gas and water cannons to suppress masses of citizens protesting injustice.
Despite being real, these images had little effect on subjects. Those in the third group were no more willing to justify political violence than the no-media controls. But those exposed to the Hunger Games dystopian-fiction narrative were significantly more willing to see radical and violent political acts as legitimate, compared with those exposed to the real-world news story. (The difference was about 7-8 percentage points, comparable with the two previous experiments.) Overall, then, it appears that people might be more inclined to draw ‘political life lessons’ from a narrative about an imaginary political world than from fact-based reporting about the real world.
Does this mean that dystopian fiction is a threat to democracy and political stability? Not necessarily, although the fact that it is sometimes censored suggests that some leaders do think along these lines. For example, Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) is still banned in North Korea, and even in the US, the top 10 books most frequently targeted for removal from school libraries in the past decade include The Hunger Games and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931). Dystopian narratives offer the lesson that radical political action can be a legitimate response to perceived injustice. However, the lessons people take away from media, be it fiction or nonfiction, might not always stick and, even when they do stick, people don’t necessarily act on them.
Dystopian fiction continues to offer a powerful lens through which people view the ethics of politics and power. Such narratives might have a positive effect in keeping citizens alert to the possibility of injustice in a variety of contexts, ranging from climate change and artificial intelligence to authoritarian resurgences worldwide. But a proliferation of dystopian narratives might also encourage radical, Manichaean perspectives that oversimplify real and complex sources of political disagreement. So while the totalitarian-dystopian craze might nourish society’s ‘watchdog’ role in holding power to account, it can also fasttrack some to violent political rhetoric – and even action – as opposed to the civil and fact-based debate and compromise necessary for democracy to thrive.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
On the morning of June 17, China launched its long-awaited Shenzhou-12 spacecraft, carrying three Chinese astronauts – or taikonauts – towards the Tianhe core module. The module itself was launched at the end of April, forming part of the permanent Tiangong space station, which is planned to remain in orbit for the next ten years.
China’s construction of its own space station stems from the nation’s exclusion from the International Space Station, a result of US concerns over technology transfers that could enhance China’s military capabilities. Undeterred by this, China has forged ahead with its own space programmes and alliances. Since, the country has demonstrated that the Chinese “brand” of space technology is reputable and can hold its own in the international arena.
An impressive track record of remarkable space endeavours is not the only thing that distinguishes China’s space brand from other national players. The government and related organisations have made concerted efforts to establish a unique “Chinese space culture” alongside the country’s advances in space technology. While the target audience for many of these cultural creations remains domestic, China’s space ambitions are directed at global audiences in a variety of ways.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the naming of these programmes after China’s traditional roots.
The name Tiangong translates as “Heavenly Palace”. This was the residence of the deity who holds supreme authority over the universe in Chinese mythology, the Celestial Ruler. The name is particularly fitting for a Chinese space station, which acts as a home in the heavens for the country’s taikonauts. The meaning of Shenzhou, the missions that take taikonauts to space, is “Divine Vessel”, which is also a homophone for an ancient name for China, “Divine Land”.
China’s lunar exploration missions, meanwhile, are named after the legendary Moon goddess Chang’e. The tale goes that Chang’e flew from Earth to the Moon after stealing the elixir of immortality from her husband, Hou Yi.
According to Chinese mythology, Chang’e continues to live on the Moon with her rabbit companion, who spends its time pounding the elixir of immortality in a mortar for the goddess. The rabbit is known as Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit”. China’s two lunar rovers, the second of which became the first to land on the far side of the Moon in 2019, are named after it.
A key component of this lunar landing mission was Queqiao, a communication relay satellite. This was named after the myth of the “Magpie Bridge”, which joins the “Cowherd” and the “Weaver Girl” across the stretch of the Milky Way in a romantic folktale. The satellite acted as a vital bridge of communication between the Chang’e mission components and China’s mission control centre.
The linking of China’s traditional past to its forward-looking space activities serves to strengthen the identity of these space programmes as distinctly Chinese.
In connecting these achievements to the country’s cultural heritage, they are presented not as mere copies of their space power predecessors, but as having developed from national talents and progresses. They also serve as a reminder that while the programmes aim for the furthest reaches of space, China’s future will never be disconnected from its national and cultural roots.
Furthermore, these legendary names are a signal to the international community that space is not the exclusive domain of historical western figures such as Apollo or Artemis, but that it also belongs to the lineage of the Chinese people.
China’s future in fiction
Over the last few years, multiple corporations based in China have released space-themed commercial products and promotional campaigns in conjunction with China’s official space organisations, from upmarket fashion brands to KFC. But perhaps the most notable promotion of China’s space ambitions is in films.
In 2019, the blockbuster sci-fi film The Wandering Earth was released. The film was well received, and was publicised by the state’s international media platforms as a must-see.
Director Frant Gwo has spoken about the importance of the message behind the film, claiming that China’s way of thinking about space is vastly different from US ideologies. According to Gwo, while the US dreams of eventually leaving the Earth to move to other planets, the Chinese space dream is to improve life on Earth through the use of space resources. The film promotes the idea that we mustn’t try to flee our planet, but instead, we must strive to protect it.
While most space-themed commercial products remain aimed at a domestic market, Chinese sci-fi is becoming increasingly popular abroad. Books such as The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, who wrote the short story which The Wandering Earth was adapted from, Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, which is also being adapted for the screen, and The Redemption of Time by Baoshu have all succeeded as translations.
Recognised by politicians as a potentially powerful tool for promoting state-approved narratives, government bodies have encouraged China’s sci-fi filmmakers to incorporate narratives that fit with the regime’s wider ideological and technological ambitions.
The fantasy aspect of sci-fi may explain why the genre is being internationally promoted first over other commercial products that feature imagery of actual Chinese space missions. Unlike China’s increasing capabilities in space, which are viewed as a threat by the US, the country’s fictional space developments pose no real-life risk. Able to incorporate the backdrop of a technologically powerful China into entertaining and compelling narratives, such stories allow foreign audiences to engage with the idea of China as a space power without the kind of political discourse that surrounds its real space activities.
Eventually, a foreign audience may begin to grow more comfortable with the notion of China as a technological world leader. And this, in turn, may cultivate an interest in the activities of the Chinese national space programme.
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