This post is part of the series Anthropology in Outerspace which examines representations of anthropology in science-fiction. To read previous installments in this series, consult the related contents section at the end of this post or select the series in the ”Our Series” menu in the right sidebar.
As Emma indicates, there are several scenarios in science-fiction in which the attitudes of the characters are reminiscent of those of anthropologists. While the characters at play in these stories may not be described as anthropologists, they exhibit behaviors and express ideas which remind anthropologists of the founders of our discipline as well as typical examples from anthropological fieldwork.
One such example is the Star Trek TNG episode ”Darmok” (S5E2), a fan favorite which has inspired an impressive amount of fan art and derived products (see exhibits A and B).
Plot : captain Jean-Luc Picard is mandated by Starfleet to establish relations with the Tamarians, aliens who communicate in an manner incomprehensible to the crew of the Enterprise and their universal translator. After attempting to communicate over the viewscreens with no success, the Tamarians unexpectedly teleport Picard and their own captain, Dathon, on the uninhabited planet below their starships. There, Dathon offers Picard a dagger: believing he is being challenged to a dual, Picard refuses. Through the day and the night, the captains continue to attempt to communicate. When they are attacked by a giant invisible beast, they join forces to defend themselves. Picard eventually gains a better understanding of the manner in which Tamarians communicate: by using examples from their own history and literature. In the end, the Dathon dies from the injuries the beast caused him, but Picard is brought back to his ship where he communicates with the Tamarians. He now understands that Dathon had intended their common struggle against the beast to be the starting point of relations between Starfleet and his people.
I have discussed this episode before when describing how my passion for science-fiction contributed to my choice to study anthropology. As a child, it inspired me to think about intercultural relations, their complexities and the value of perseverance and dedication when attempting to establish and maintain them. As a graduate student of anthropology, I now consider the episode in light of what I know about anthropological work: this is perhaps the Star Trek episode which comes closest to presenting how deep differences can run between peoples, and how they sometimes make it seem impossible for persons from different cultures to understand one another.
Indeed, several anthropologists have produced fascinating work, notably in relation to the more recent ontological turn, which allow us to consider these profound differences (Tanner 2004; Schwimmer 2004). While much of the science-fiction litterature, TV series and movies I enjoy deal with issues related to intercultural differences, no doubt having been at least partly inspired by what anthropologists have long experienced in their own work, many sci-fi scenarios only provide pale examples of the pronounced alterity anthropologists encounter, and the challenges, be they motivating or heavy to bear, that they face.
Additionnaly, it seems that writers sometimes reproduce in their scenarios events in which anthropologists and ethnographers were implicated: they tell an existing story in a science-fiction setting.
One Star Trek DS9 episode, ”Explorers” (S3E22) provides such an example of ”retelling” of an existing story. According to Bajoran history, an ancient ship – which functions as a sailboat propulsed by solar pressure – allowed the Bajorans to explore space and reach Cardassia, a planet in their star system, some 800 years before. Intrigued and wishing to test the plausibility of this account of history, Captain Sisko builds a ship using an ancient blueprint and embarks on a journey. When he reaches Cardassian space, he is congratulated by a reluctant Gul Dukat, a military leader who previously dismissed Bajoran history as ”fairy tales”.
While rewatching the episode recently, I got the distinct impression that it was inspired by the travels of the Hōkūle’a, the traditional voyaging canoe built by the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) during the 1970s. Its voyages from Hawaii to Tahiti and Aotearoa/New-Zealand strengthened the ties between the peoples of Polynesia: it became a symbol of pride and hope and provided strong credibility to what academia had until then held as a myth about the migrations between the Polynesian islands. Indeed, the idea that Tahitians had populated the Hawaiian islands, Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Cook Islands thousands of years ago, while concording with polynesian myths and oral history, was overwhelmingly contested by academics as being entirely impossible: surely, they thought, the distances were too significant, the dangers to great, the technology of the time too limited. When the Hōkūle’a successfuly reached Tahiti in 1976, its crew using only traditional navigation methods and no contemporary instruments, a powerful argument was obtained against academic disbelief. What does this have to do with anthropology, you ask? Ben Finney, an anthropologist, was one of the early advocates and active participant in the project to build the Hōkūle’a. He took part in its first voyage in 1976 and was the first president of the PVS.
Interestingly, however, as reported on Memory Alpha, the episode was inspired by the voyage of the Kon-Tiki, a ship Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer and ethnographer, used to sail from Peru to Tahiti in 1947. He was attempting to prove that it might have been possible that a Pre-Columbian South American civilization could have settled Polynesia. His theory was later disproved. By the voyages of the Hokule’a.
So while a more contemporary example could have provided rich, significant and surprisingly similar inspiration for this episode, writers were nonetheless inspired by more ancient events. Which begs the question: are science-fiction writers completely disconnected from current developments in our discipline? This is one question I wish to further explore in this series.
Schwimmer, Eric, 2004, «Preface: The Nature of Nature», dans J. Clammer, S. Poirier et E. Schwimmer (dir.), Figured Worlds: Ontological Obstacles in Intercultural Relations, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, pp. ix- xii.
Tanner, A., 2004, «The Cosmology of Nature, Cultural Divergeance, and the Metaphysics of Community Healing», dans J. Clammer, S. Poirier et E. Schwimmer (dir.), Figured Worlds: Ontological Obstacles in Intercultural Relations, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, pp. 189-222.