Saturday, December 21, 2013

anthropological SF and Lafferty

So I've started doing general SF reviews over at my blog They Have Pulled Down Deep Heaven On Their Heads.  The latest is of Michael Bishop's short novel Stolen Faces (1977), which is a specimen of 70s anthropological quasi New Wave science fiction.  The general discussion of the book may be of interest to Laffertians.

But it's got me thinking about anthropological SF (maybe most emblematically exemplified by Ursula Le Guin) and Lafferty:  does his work fit into this category/phase/expression of science fiction?  Probably not any more than his work fits into the New Wave in general.  But just as his work is amenable to the literary, experimental, psychological, linguistic, philosophising characteristics of New Wave (such as the likes of Zelazny and Delany exhibited), so too his work is amenable to the emphasis on indigenous identity, worldview, magic, ancestry, ritual, and culture in the anthropological SF of the likes of Bishop, Le Guin, and Tiptree.

One potential difference I see in Lafferty over against other practitioners of anthropological SF is that Lafferty's exploration of 'tribal' ethnicity and culture feels much more insider than what I've read in other authors.  Other writers often feel more like the compassionate and self-censuring view of a master race who is trying to repent of its atrocities and make amends.  Don't misunderstand that:  Le Guin and Bishop, for example, are exemplary liberal humanists (Taoist and Christian respectively) who are earnest about repentance and new policies toward the Other, working that out deeply and powerfully in their fictions.  But Lafferty feels more like a tribesman speaking out on behalf of the People.  His voice comes across to me more like a Chinua Achebe or Black Elk.  (It's interesting to note in this connection that Gene Wolfe said Lafferty's unique genius would have been taken more seriously in the USA if he had been of South American or some other non-white ethnicity.)

Lafferty deals often with other ethnicities and tribes than his own, sure - Native Americans and Native Indonesians spring to mind - but I think his empathy comes from the inside of his experience.  And those other Others sometimes stand in symbolically for his own, I think.  I know he self-identified as an ethnic and religious minority.  In one interview he said he just narrowly missed being a WASP by being instead a Ruddy Irish Catholic.  His own worldview too was far more in line with various indigenous peoples of the world than with the modern secular humanist worldview dominant in the West.

While I can think of quite a few short stories which are explicitly anthropological in theme, I'm not sure I can think of any of his novels that are really centred in this concern (aside from the obvious Okla Hannali).  Past Master, for example, seems more about sociology and political philosophy (and class is more at issue than race).  Anyway, here are a list of some of the short stories, off the top of my head, that are pretty deeply anthropological I think:

'Narrow Valley'
'Ride a Tin Can'
'Groaning Hinges of the World'
'How They Gave It Back'
'Frog On the Mountain'
'Nine Hundred Grandmothers'
'Land of the Great Horses'
'Smoe and the Implicit Clay'

More stories that feature anthropology, but I'm not sure whether they centre in that theme:

'Cliffs That Laughed'
'Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne'
'Name of the Snake'
'Old Foot Forgot'
'Tongues of the Matagorda'
'Happening in Chosky Bottoms'
'Days of Grass, Days of Straw'

Can anybody think of other instances and perspectives on this?


Gregorio said...

In anthropology there is a sharp distinction between emic and etic. The 'emic' refers to to the native culture as perceived, explored, and lived from within the culture itself, while the 'etic' presupposes the upposedly detached, scientific, objective point-of-view out of which the non-native ethnogapher studies his subject.

Anthropological SF often plays with these dicotomies, for exmaple, in the way that it portrays the attractions and dangers of 'going native' or switchng from the etic to the emic (in pop sci-fi, the movie Avatar is an example of a narrative built upon just such a radical switch). Apropos of your insights, I've always found Laferty to be aware of this etic/emic in a humorous yet quite savvy way, and who--more often than not--seems to identify with the emic point-of-view. I think that a story like "The Cliff Climbers" is a small yet telling example of how Lafferty can indicate shiffting emic and etic hermeneutics within a single narrative. As you point out, Lafferty's ethnic/religious differences often located him outside the dominant culture, and this may account for his sesitivity to the emic/etic issues and his own unique form of anthropological speculative fiction.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thank you for injecting some expert knowledge, Gregorio! Very helpful. I hadn't even thought of how Lafferty not only wrote these types of narratives from the inside to some degree but obviously was indeed clued in to this distinction - having many of his space explorers (and others) wrestle with it.

Also, I'm glad you added a story to my lists. I forgot about 'Cliff Climbers' in this regard.

Antonin Scriabin said...

The Reefs of Earth is another example in Lafferty of getting "in the heads" of an-Other people, and remaining sympathetic of behavior and ideals that run counter to those of White Earthlings.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Interesting, Antonin. Reefs kept popping into my head as a novel that potentially exemplified this, but I didn't really analyse it.

I assume the Pucas are the Others you're referring to? It's difficult because in an interview he seemed to indicate he didn't sympathise with them, but thought them pretty nasty. (I'll have to hunt up the exact reference.) But even if so, he does often get right into the heads of even characters he's sending up. I've noticed that too. I want to say that there is rarely an out and out black-and-white villain in his stories (*human* villain, that is - I do think he has some demonic villains and worldview villains that are unambigously evil). He sometimes does this so thoroughly it's hard to tell who he wants you to root for in a story!

Kevin said...

In The Reefs of Earth in some ways the "others" are the humans, so thoroughly does he inhabit the Puca frame of reference. In some ways The Reefs of Earth and "Weirdest World" are related, being told from the point of view of aliens trapped on earth and having to figure out the ways and mores of us humans to (ultimately unsuccessfully) survive.

Another one that might have some cultural anthropological slant is The Fall of Rome, which goes to great lengths to show us the culture of the 4th and 5th century Goths.

Kevin said...

Other favorite (non Lafferty) examples of anthropological science fiction of mine are:

Chad Oliver's story "Rite of Passage" which deals with a race on a planet so technologically and culturally advanced that they live like our stereotype of primitives, in complete harmony with the natural environment. Really a very good story, and I recommend it highly.

Ursula LeGuin's novel Always Coming Home which is the story of a cultural anthropologist who imagines a society tens of thousands of years in the future and records her notes of a visit to that culture. While there is never any doubt that the narrator knows the culture she names the Kesh is an invention of hers, the story is about the people of the Kesh and tracks several of their individual stories, their myths, their songs, their technology, etc. It's a very good book for a reader with patience.

Can't really tie these back to the Lafferty discussion. They are just the two that jump to my mind as shining examples of anthropological SF.

Oh and how about "Boomer Flats" for your list of anthropological Lafferty stories?

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, I think you're probably right about Reefs, Kevin. Also, Fall of Rome, hadn't thought of it that way - another good point.

Thanks for the non-Laff recommends. 'Boomer Flats' did come to my mind but I couldn't remember it well enough. Need a re-read.

'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)