From Science-Fiction to Anthropology: there and back again

My first contact with science-fiction was through Star Trek the Next Generation. I can’t say for certain at what age I started watching it, but I believe it was in 1992 that I asked for the series figurines for Christmas. I was 6 years old.

As a kid, I did not speak English. Being a francophone, I kept asking my father to translate the episodes, to his great despair. He would do so during commercial breaks after trying to listen as best he could to the show. Many of my early memories of Star Trek TNG are unclear, probably because I didn’t get much of the story.

However, I clearly remember the sense of amazement I felt whenever I saw the vast expanse of space the Enterprise 1701-D was travelling through. The aliens, technology and landscapes were fascinating and I dreamt of being able to explore space as Jean-Luc Picard and his crew did. The show undoubtedly sparked a curiosity, feeling of astonishment and passion for space exploration that would follow me for the rest of my life.

I was about 10 when I saw Star Wars for the first time. It had a profound effect on me as well. Unlike Star Trek, it wasn’t a rendering of a possible future but rather one set in the past. It puzzled me that technology could have been more advanced in the past than it was in the present. Again, I felt jealous of the characters who, unlike me, were able to discover “strange, new worlds” and travel through the stars. And Star Wars made me wish I could use the force very badly.

As I grew older, I learned more about space exploration. I wanted to become an astronaut. I was crazy about X-Files. I read about aliens and UFO sightings, trying to imagine what aliens would look like, how they would think. I challenged myself to imagine them as extremely different from humans as possible. I started watching more Star Trek series during my teen years. At first, I felt TOS was very much like a western and its retro look turned me off a little. The technology looked ridiculous. Then, after watching a few episodes I realized it was revolutionary, for its time, not only as a science-fiction show, but also in that it was bold enough to represent a future where people from various ethnic groups and nations would work together in harmony despite their differences. More impressive is the fact that the show aired at a time in American history when civil rights movements were ragging and the cold war was still a thing. It still bothered me that the women were all wearing very unpractical revealing dresses, however.

I wanted to work in the field of space exploration. Yet as I started studying chemistry, physics and mathematics in college, I didn’t feel the amazement I felt when I was reading about science, space exploration or potential alien life forms. I wasn’t finding what I was looking for: a clearer understanding of humanity’s place in the universe, an idea of what it means to be human and what aliens could look and think like, etc.

I shifted towards social sciences and philosophy. I was a little bit lost about my career plans, but enjoyed reflecting topics such as post-colonial studies, religion, and politics. I wrote a paper about the book Future Perfect: how Star Trek conquered planet Earth. It provided me with interesting information about the different configurations of Star Trek fandom across the world and sparked my interest for the post-colonial study of the franchise. I took an anthropology class and didn’t think much of it, because the teacher was very focused on material culture and frankly, a little boring. I don’t remember much of it.

Towards anthropology, and an anthropology of science-fiction

I then became interested in Native affairs in Canada. I read about indigenous people’s experience of colonization and was astonished by the heavy burden it was weighting on them. Despite this, they have been fighting to defend their rights, identities and cultures for centuries. A short introduction to the Maori context in Aotearoa/New-Zealand made me wonder how it would be possible for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples to reconcile and reach truly respectful and equal relations. Despite the fact that previous experience had not allowed me to grasp a good understanding of what anthropology was, I felt compelled to study it. Something made me choose it, and it was the perfect choice for me.

I had always been critical of many recurring elements in science-fiction. I noticed that although humans from various ethnic groups were represented, white people always seemed to be at the center of the story. Despite the fact that Star Trek is known to have showcased the first “interracial” kiss on television, between Kirk and Uhura, Benjamin Sikso only ever dated and married black women. In fact it seemed more common for humans to date aliens than humans of a different skin color on Star Trek. As a Canadian and a Quebecer, it annoyed me that the place I was from was rarely mentioned in science-fiction even if America, France, England and other countries were. In addition, even if some female characters were in positions of power, men dominated the scene. Women were often represented as beautiful, attractive and weaker than their male counterparts. Aliens were too often strangely similar to humans, and why did everybody speak English?

My critique of science-fiction was fueled by my studies in anthropology. I became a Stargate fan in my first year in university, and was shocked by the repetitive use of the word “primitive” to describe aliens and humans around the galaxy in this TV show. What also struck me was the representation the show gave of indigenous cultures.

The representation of anthropology in Stargate is something else I have kept an eye on: Daniel Jackson is an anthropologist, an archaeologist and a linguist. In addition to talking at an impressive speed, he can read almost any language from any era and area of the universe. He knows almost everything about anything related to social sciences, humanities, history and literature. And yet, he calls someone primitive in practically every episode of SG-1. The authors didn’t do their homework: very few anthropologists still use this concept nowadays. It has been deconstructed and identified as based on the idea that societies can be ranked on the line of evolution. In other words, it is inextricably tied to racism.

Having been influenced by science-fiction to study anthropology, I now revisit it through an anthropological perspective, an anthropology of science-fiction. This exercise reveals, among other things, how much, despite trying to imaging extreme otherness in the form of aliens, authors can barely imagine something that differs from the Western perspective and world-view they are situated in. More so, the arguments they make with science-fiction express ideas that endorse, justify and celebrate a Western perspective. I will discuss this further in coming posts.

A journey from science-fiction to anthropology, there and back again

I have always felt that my choice to study anthropology was entirely coherent with my passion for science-fiction, but it is only recently that I have attained a clearer understanding of this. Having watched Jean-Luc Picard’s attempt to create harmonious relations with aliens during my entire life, I am now examining some of the same questions Star Trek and science-fiction in general have tackled with: how to understand people different from us, how to establish clear communication with them, how to settle debates when parties don’t agree on major concepts, and so on.

One specific TNG episode illustrates this well, in my opinion. In Damork, Jean-Luc Picard struggles to communicate with the captain of an alien ship who uses culturally specific metaphors to express himself. Not knowing any of the stories the metaphors are based on, Picard is at a loss. And yet, shared experience and struggle bring the two captains to a better understanding and mutual appreciation.

You can watch more short extracts here and here.

I attribute a lot of my interest to other cultures to my favorite Star Trek character, Jean-Luc Picard. He was an intellectual and a diplomat. He strived to create good and fair relations with the various aliens races populating the universe. In himself, he was a bit of a puzzle: he was French but had a British accent, drank Earl Grey tea and read a lot of Shakespeare. As I was about to meet Patrick Stewart in Montreal Comiccon recently, I looked back on Jean-Luc Picard’s character. He was very much an amateur anthropologist, and had trained in archeology, one of the discipline’s branches. Suddenly, I felt like my journey was even clearer.

And I felt even more awesome for being an anthropologist.

About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations!

There are 6 comments

    1. thegeekanthropologist

      Thanks for the input! I guess you’re right, I’ll review my posts and modify the tags to make them more relevant.

      Thanks again!


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