work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Science Fiction and Imagining Social Worlds

09.16.2010 · Posted in Uncategorized

… it’s often been said that science fiction isn’t really about science and technology – all that is only a means for the author to create social worlds without the constraint of setting them into already existing contexts (while the science in the fiction provides the indispensable plausibility of a realistic daydream).

I’ve been reading Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure lately. Teaching a sociology/anthropology module called “Imagining Social Worlds” I am tempted to include it in the reading list. The variety of human societies Vance projects onto the planet Tschai and the (of course: exaggerated) precision of the ethnographic sketches he draws of them is quite impressive.

There is a downside, however, but one that in itself is instructive as well. The protagonist, Earth-born space scout Adam Reith, is annoyingly flawless – a white knight par excellence, he’s Ivanhoe in space (and there also are two unconvincing damsel-in-distress stories… apart from a cult of evil Amazon sorceresses they are the only female characters in the whole book that have any agency of their own, most of which they owe to their saviour/knight). He’s more or less an Enlightened Victorian anthropologist/explorer immersing himself in native cultures and leading them out of that Heart of Darkness that is Tschai (the heart-of-darkness actually does make an appearance towards the end in the form of the Pnume caves of “Foreverness”).

So the student may not only learn something about how to employ the imagination to construct possible societies – but also about the post-colonial hazards involved in the process (one could even talk of outer-space Orientalism here), telling you more about male fantasies involved in what Marie Louise Pratt calls “counter conquest” than about what could plausibly happen in social interaction.

Pratt, Mary Louise (1992): Imperial Eyes, London: Routledge

Vance, Jack (1991) [1968/1969/1970]: Planet of Adventure, New York: Orb

2 Responses to “Science Fiction and Imagining Social Worlds”

  1. “Alastor” is another interesting piece of anthropological science fiction by Vance. The protagonists are (slightly) more credible than Adam Reith, maybe because they are actual members of the strange societies depicted who return home after a period of exile.

    Vance has travelled quite a bit, I wonder how much of his work was inspired by the places he visited.

  2. thanks for the hint – I probably follow that up as soon as I’ve got some time for novel-reading… (the only other book by Vance I know is Emphyrio – quite enjoyed that one)

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