Attack of the Anthropologists (Retro SF Review #1)

19 Jan

Katherine MacLean is a fey young woman whose career is curiosity.

Even if it didn’t have the connotations it has today, “fey” is kind of a weird term to describe someone by.  The dictionary gives three definitions:

1. giving an impression of vague unworldliness

2. having supernatural powers of clairvoyance

3. fated to die at the point of death (Scottish)

These definitions make perfect sense when we’re talking about Eowyn calling Aragorn “fey” in The Return of the King, but none for a science fiction writer whose short stories aren’t paranormal romance, or whatever they’re calling it these days.  And while he story “Unhuman Sacrifice” in the anthology A Century of Science Fiction references God many times, it’s not because there’s spooky stuff going on down yonder planet–it’s because one of the characters is a crazy missionary trying to witness to an alien people who become convinced that he’s an evil spirit who lives inside the translator machine… and shouts at them.

But the rest of Damon Knights description of MacLean’s writing sounds right:

“Unhuman Sacrifice,” first published in Astounding in 1958, is a subtle interweaving of anthropology, social comment, depth psychology, irony, deadpan humor.  There are pointed comments here on good intentions, religious differences, the pursuit of happiness, and how not to interpret anthropological data …”

Note: This is a review about retro sci-fi, written in the retro Scattering style.  Meaning it’s scattered, rambling, and self-indulgent.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Oh, anthropology.  Dear, dear anthropology.  Do any of ye readers not know that the two groups of people I unswervingly despise are sopranos and anthropology majors?  I always thought it was because they have an elitist attitude toward historians, their methodology is ridiculous, and they are, frankly, second to none in obnoxiousity when students (second place: English majors who talk too much in class, but never actually get to a point, and all the while don’t wear shoes).  But maybe I loathe them because at a very young age, I read “Unhuman Sacrifice.”

When Revent (read Reverend) Winton comes to the planet–well we don’t really know the name of the planet–on engineers Charlie and Henderson’s ship, he is elated to find that the new found land has a native population he can witness too.  Pity he’s a terrible preacher–as Charlie and Henderson are sure, Winton was made a missionary to get him as far, far away from human beings as possible.  Charlie and Henderson, as well, threaten Winton with the disapproval of anthropologists were he to tamper with the natives.

“Revent, I appeal to you, tampering is dangerous.  Let us go back and report this planet, and let the government send a survey ship.  When the scientists arrive, if they find we have been tampering with the natives’ customs without waiting for advice, they will consider it a crime.  We will be notorious in scientific journals.  We’ll be considered responsible for any damage the natives sustain.”

The good Revent doesn’t really give a you-know-what.  God is on his side!  He annointed Winton with His Holy Seal of Faith to do His Mighty Purpose.  Or whatever.  The result is, as I’m sure you can guess, disaster.

But let’s stop with Henderson’s quote a few lines up.

Take a deep breath.

Am I reading this right, or am I reading this right?  There is a government-sponsored, Intergalactic Department of Anthropology?  A part of me cheers that academia hasn’t died; and a bigger part cries that they wouldn’t send historians.  John Lewis Gaddis in The Landscape of History speculates that, if multiple extraterrestrial intelligences were found, history would be more than a social science–it would be a natural science.  Natural sciences such as geology, paleontology, astronomy, and others, after all, are concerned with studying change over time–comparatively.  Historians study change over time in human behavior.  Once we get aliens: it’s comparative, and we move into the fancy new buildings on campus with the nice lecture halls.


But not in MacLean’s universe–in MacLean’s universe, it’s the anthropologists directing the search for and study of extraterrestrial life.  To their credit, it seems that they’re strictly opposed to interference.  I means, historians already know not to interfere with their subjects because they… kind of can’t.  But I’ll take what I can get.

The point of all this is that the fey Katherine MacLean composed a flawlessly-written story with a horrifyingly good twist ending, incorporating issues of religious hypocrisy and academic integrity all the while.  Oh, and did I mention the native population has a stage of life in which they turn into plants?  And that even the scientist visitors (Charlie and Henderson) completely misunderstand this and try to stop what they see as barbarity?

Funny, that sounds like another book I’ve read: Xenocide, by Orson Scott Card (third in the Ender series).  Let me give a brief summary of Xenocide:

Anthropologists control interaction with alien life forms.  A religious mission sets up on a planet with an indigenous population.  This population has a stage of life in which they turn into plants.  Scientific visitors completely misunderstand this and try to stop what they see as barbarity.

OSC does insert an interesting subplot about OCD, religion in a population of the seriously mentally-ill, discussions of genetic determinism, and an emergent superintelligence on the intergalactic Internet.  But the parallels between Xenocide and “Unhuman Sacrifice” are clear.  And when I look at Speaker for the Dead–something of a science fiction manifesto for the writing of history–I wonder if OSC didn’t meet some snotty anthropologists in his life too.  And I wonder, too, if Card read Astounding in his youth, and a particular story by a few young woman whose career was curiosity…


2 Responses to “Attack of the Anthropologists (Retro SF Review #1)”

  1. Robert January 28, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    Ha ha. I am anthro grad student and I agree with you — anthropologists are obnoxious elitists. Great article.

    • Isabela Morales January 28, 2011 at 10:29 am #

      You must be one of the rare good ones– congrats

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