Category Archives: science fiction

The Two Cultures, 50 years later

7 May was the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow‘s famous lecture The Two Cultures. Snow, a novelist who had studied science and held technology related government positions, decried the cultural rift between scientists and literary intellectuals. Snow’s argument, and his sociopolitical agenda, were complex (read the published version if you want the sense of it; educational reform was the biggie), but, especially post-“Science Wars”, the idea of two cultures resonates beyond its original context. The current version of the Wikipedia article says:

The term two cultures has entered the general lexicon as a shorthand for differences between two attitudes. These are

  • The increasingly constructivist world view suffusing the humanities, in which the scientific method is seen as embedded within language and culture; and
  • The scientific viewpoint, in which the observer can still objectively make unbiased and non-culturally embedded observations about nature.

That’s a distinctly 1990s and 2000s perspective.

Snow’s original idea bears only scant resemblance to the scientism vs. constructivism meaning. As he explained, literary intellectuals (not entirely the same thing as humanities scholars) didn’t understand basic science or the technology-based socioeconomic foundations of modern life, and they didn’t care to. Novelists, poets and playwrights, he complained, didn’t know the second law of thermodynamics or what a machine-tool was, and the few that did certainly couldn’t expect their readers to know.

Humanistic studies of science (constructivist worldview and all) would have undermined Snow’s argument, but humanists were only just beginning to turn to science as a subject for analysis. (Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was not until 1962. Structure did mark the acceleration of sociological and humanistic studies of science, but was actually taken up more enthusiastically by scientists than humanists. Widespread constructivism in the humanities only became common by the 1980s, I’d guess, and the main thrust of constructivism, when described without jargon, is actually broadly consistent with the way most scientists today understand the nature of science. It’s not nearly so radical as the popular caricature presented in Higher Superstition and similar polemics.) Rather than humanists understanding the scientific method or scientists viewing their work through a sociological or anthropological lens, Snow’s main complaint was that scientific progress had left the slow-changing world of literature and its Luddite inhabitants behind (and hence, scientists found little use for modern literature).

Snow wrote that “naturally [scientists] had the future in their bones.” That was the core of the scientific culture, and the great failing of literary culture.

Looking back from 2009, I think history–and the point in it when Snow was making his argument–seems very different than it did to Snow. Who, besides scientists, had the future in their bones in 1959? In the 1950s academic world, literature was the pinnacle of ivory tower high culture. Not film, not television, certainly not paraliterary genres like science fiction or comic books. History of science was a minor field that had closer connections to science than to mainstream history.

Today, in addition to scientists, a whole range of others are seen as having “the future in their bones”: purveyors of speculative fiction in every medium; web entrepreneurs and social media gurus; geeks of all sorts; venture capitalists; kids who increasingly demand a role in constructing their (our) own cultural world. The modern humanities are turning their attention to these groups and their historical predecessors. As Shakespeare (we are now quick to note) was the popular entertainment of his day, we now look beyond traditional “literary fiction” to find the important cultural works of more recent decades. And in the popular culture of 1950s through to today, we can see, perhaps, that science was already seeping out much further from the social world of scientsts themselves than Snow and other promoters of the two cultures thesis could recognize–blinded, as they were, by the strict focus on what passed for high literature.

Science permeated much of anglophone culture, but rather than spreading from high culture outward (as Snow hoped it might), it first took hold in culturally marginal niches and only gradually filtered to insulated spheres of high culture. Science fiction historians point to the 1950s as the height of the so-called “Golden Age of [hard] Science Fiction”, and SF authors could count on their audience to understand basic science. Modern geek culture–and its significance across modern entertainment–we now recognize, draws in part from the hacker culture of 1960s computer research. Feminists and the development of the pill; environmentalists; the list of possible examples of science-related futuremaking goes on and on, but Snow had us looking in the wrong places.

Certainly, cultural gaps remain between the sciences and the humanities (although, in terms of scholarly literature, there is a remarkable degree of overlap and interchange, forming one big network with a number of fuzzy division). But C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures seems less and less relevant for modern society; looking back, it even seems less relevant to its original context.

The scientist in TV dramas

This is a widely-acknowledged Golden Age of American television drama (led, of course, by cable shows, but with network fare that also has its high points). (I’m two discs in to Deadwood right now, which is the one show that is usually mentioned in the same sentence as The Wire in terms of really great shows.) One remarkable thing that’s happened recently, especially this season, is the flood of scientists as main characters. Several established shows have main characters who derive much of their identity, and personality, from being scientists: House, Bones, and (to some extent) Mohinder Suresh from Heroes. More than earlier shows in the same genres (medical dramas, forensic science dramas, superhero dramas), these shows and their characters explore the meanings of what it is to be a scientist in modern society.

But two new shows this season, Fringe and Eleventh Hour, are about science to an unprecedented extent (even including The X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but excluding CBC’s ReGenesis and the four-episode British version of Eleventh Hour, neither of which I’ve yet seen).

Fringe, and its main scientist character, showcase science-as-threat; Walter Bishop is Dr. Frankenstein for the era of Big Science. In his previous scientific life, Bishop had worked for the government and others on an endless array of “fringe science” research projects, mostly aimed in various ways at controlling the minds and bodies of people living and dead. Institutionalized for years, Bishop is now out and, working out of his old lab at Harvard, is helping the FBI investigate “The Pattern”, a big-business-linked series of weird and deadly happenings that are often the scientific monsters Bishop had helped to create. In Fringe, science is not just a threat to society, it is (inherently?) a threat to the moral fiber and mental health of the scientist. Bishop is an otherwise kindly old man whose broken personality is centered on a self-centeredness that is presented as, at least partly, a mental health issue, and alternately child-like naivety and (in the course of performing science) shocking callousness. Fringe is by no means a serious show, but it does articulate an interesting, and I think significant, interpretation of what it means in American culture to be a scientist.

If Fringe is in part inspired by the works of Michael Crichton, as creator J. J. Abrams claims, then Eleventh Hour is inspired by the other part of Michael Crichton’s works–that is, the part that deals with the moral and ethical dimensions of science as it is actually practiced, rather than the outlandish threats of science gone wild. The compelling main character, biophysicist Jacob Hood, also works for the FBI investigating science-related crimes and mysteries. But where Walter Bishop is pulled, out of dire necessity, from an asylum, Hood was recruited because (in addition to his brilliance) he was friends with someone who ended up in a position of power in the FBI. Most of the crimes involve acute threats to one or a few people, but there is no overarching conspiracy, no Pattern of misused science. Rather, the criminals are usually scientists doing realistic but scientifically/ethically/morally questionable research (often in commercial contexts), or the people who oppose what they do. Hood treads the line of genuine scientific enthusiasm (often accompanied by patronizing bemusement at his female FBI handler’s scientific ignorance), and ironic detachment and quiet disapproval of less-than-pure but not egregiously bad ways of doing science.

What does recent prominence of science and scientists tell us about American culture and the place of science in society? I don’t know, but I feel that it’s my scholarly responsibility to keep watching until I figure it out.

Neal Stephenson on 300

(The) Neal Stephenson has a great op-ed about 300 in the New York Times. He has a lot to say about the changing currents of culture and the recent history of science fiction, but his defense of 300 against the poor critical reception (although David Edelstein hasn’t yet produced a review, which is generally the only one I even think of taking seriously) is superb, and could well be about any number of the good things about modern popular culture: “These [geeks] don’t need irony or campiness self-consciously pointed out to them, any more than they need a laugh track to enjoy “The Simpsons.””

On that note, I’m off to see 300. Hopefully, it won’t turn me into a xenophobic Persian-hater.

Things I’ve been enjoying

A few months ago, I found (via TT) a wonderful series of short videos, “Mr. Deity“. There are eight episodes so far, and most of them are brilliant… especially episodes 5 and 7, featuring Lucifer.

Something else wonderful: a Terry Bisson science fiction (very) short story, “They’re Made Out of Meat“, and an award-winning film treatment of it.

Catherine Pandora has a great post in her petri dish on bestiaries, past and present: “the beasts and the birds will teach thee“.

The last two movies I’ve seen, both quite enjoyable though seriously flawed: The Illusionist and The Prestige. Hooray for David Bowie as Nikola Tesla.

One great image, among several very good ones from the Woot! “wide-screen version” contest, has given me repeated joy every time I think of it:
This is a pipeAnd finally, I won an eBay auction on a trio of 1929 photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt:
Blossfeldt 1Blossfeldt 2Blossfeldt 3

Human identity and science fiction

I’ve been working through Octavia Butler‘s Xenogenesis trilogy (a.k.a., Lilith’s Brood) in preparation for qualifiers. Butler, who died a year ago today, was an African American novelist who was the first science fiction author to win a MacArthur Fellowship. Her early work focuses heavily on the themes of race and gender (among others). With the Xenogenesis series, began in 1987, Butler makes human identity in general the central issue. A species of alien genetic engineers attempts to save the human species in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, but their means of doing so, genetic hybridization and improvement, destabilizes the meaning humanity. Characters argue about what it is to be human and what price should be paid for survival.

It’s interesting to read Butler against ST:TNG, which also premiered in 1987. Unlike the original Star Trek, which juxtaposed a utopian post-racist, post-sexist, post-nationalist humanity in the persons of Uhura and Chekov against the Klingon other who could stand in for blacks or Commies in turn, Next Generation took a more complex view of “human” nature. Humans and aliens, despite outward appearances, are usually treated as biological and social (if not political) equals; the species barriers are more cultural than biological. (The most interesting exception is the Ferengi, whose roles can be interpreted in a number of ways ranging from blatant anti-Semitism to an attack on misogyny and materialism to, in their DS9 iterations, a critique of the Trekkian leftist utopia itself.) In general, biology is secondary; humanity can be extended for all practical purposes to Klingons, Romulans, maybe even androids.

In Butler’s universe, biology is the root of human society and culture. Dawn opens many years after the end of human civilization; according to the Oankali who have “saved” humanity, humans are inherently intelligent and hierarchical–a combination that inevitably leads to disaster. Thus the only fix for humanity is a genetic one. For the aliens, almost all aspects of culture, even technology and material culture, are biological. The aliens commit no intentional violence, but have a deadly instinctual sting reflex; 3-way alien sex is primarily chemical and neurobiological, and doesn’t even involve physical contact except to interconnect their nervous systems. For Butler’s (post-)human characters the end of civilization is a small thing compared to biological transformations. The only value in the remains of Earth civilization, mainly of interest to the bio-luddite resisters, comes from whatever practical use can be derived from salvage.

So how does the culture- and knowledge-centric Star Trek universe line up with the bio-centric Xenogenesis universe? The Borg offer the clearest point of entry. While in-universe discussions of the origin of the Borg are numerous, their literary-cinematic origins are much more obscure. It’s certainly possible, though, that the Borg were partly inspired by Butler’s Oankali. Butler’s tendencies toward biological determinism would have been anathema to Gene Roddenberry; the Borg are the only recurring Star Trek species that offer no hope of cultural assimilation into the
peaceful Federation vision of humanity, and make a fitting arch-nemesis for the good collective (i.e., all the other humanoid races).

The Prime Directive makes for another interesting comparison. This doctrine of non-interference was a frequent point of contention as the Trek franchise evolved. The sentiment behind it was there in a few original series episodes, but in the Next Generation era (perhaps still feeling the weight of the Vietnam) the Prime Directive became a central practical and philosophical motif. New life and new civilizations means taking an anthropological perspective, and occasionally there are civilizations too unstable to keep from destroying themselves… sort of a Social Darwinism of the stars. This is what tempers the cultural assimilation aspects of the Federation. It’s the distinction between the third world and indigenous peoples. Even with the third world (i.e., post-warp civilizations), it’s more about the Open Door and the Big Stick than outright imperialism. In the later seasons, the movies, and in DS9 and Voyager (I can’t say much about Star Trek: Enterprise, since I’ve never seen it) there are plenty of points where the Prime Directive is pinched and poked, but for the most part it remains in place.

For Butler’s aliens, there can be no prime directive; they would stagnate and die themselves without new genetic trading partners, and here “trade” is of the non-optional, colonial (perhaps even slave trade) kind. The ethical crux is that the paternalistic higher beings really are saving the lower peoples from themselves. I’m not quite sure how to read this, especially from a feminist and anti-racist perspective. Whether we sympathize with Lilith (the black woman protagonist who grudgingly accepts the alien-imposed breeding program) or the resisters, neither offers much in the way of hope going forward… just different moral judgments on history.

Wikipedia, Original Research, and popular culture

Wikipedia has a (nominally) strict policy of “No Original Research” (NOR), which is for the most part both necessary and beneficial. After all, for most topics that warrant inclusion, there has been more than enough analysis in reliable published sources that original arguments are not necessary and simply degrade the quality and reliability of articles.

Occasionally, this policy leads to the deletion of valuable material, but mostly it keeps out the crap. (I recently instigated the deletion of one interesting and informative–and, I’m fairly certain, true–article that very clearly violated NOR. It left a bad taste in my mouth and reminded me why I don’t participate in any of the constant push to delete content that is clearly accurate but fails to meet the requirements for Notability and NOR.)

But there is (at least) one conspicuous area where banning original research gets in the way of creating high-quality content. Articles about popular culture fiction (for example, Battlestar Galactica episodes or little-known novels from “paraliterary” genres like science fiction) represent the borders of what can–and in many cases can’t–be analyzed using reliable published sources. Yet amateur literature or film analysis is often of high quality (especially when it can be contested, debated, and talked out among a group of intelligent fans), even comparable to academic criticism.

Of course, some kinds of original analysis are better than others. The Wikipedia Manual of Style guideline for “writing about fiction” (the only substantive guideline I’ve had a hand in developing and implementing as official) requires that articles on fictional content take an “out-of-universe” approach, looking at the work of fiction as a work of fiction rather than part of a “real” timeline. Out-of-universe analysis prevents some of the most egregious and useless original research, but the main reason why I supported (and continue to support) the “writing about fiction” guideline is that it just makes for better, more useful articles. Placing cultural products in cultural context is what makes for the most useful and interesting content. But the downside of this is that many articles, especially for fiction about which little or no criticism has been published, can offer no more than a plot summary.

See for example, the many articles on Battlestar Galactica (re-imagining) episodes. Following the letter of Wikipedia’s rules would mean deleting all or nearly all of them; there are no reliable, independent sources to established the notability (much less analysis) of every individual episode. And yet, these kinds of articles are of great interest to readers (especially since Wikipedia has so many, for a wide and growing range of tastes). However, current conventions lead to sterile plot-summary-only articles because original research about the allusions and symbolism, artistic and technical elements, dramatic development, acting, and resonance with contemporary cultural and political issues cannot be included. Even aspects that do have relevant sources are frequently excluded because articles are written more based on examples (e.g., other plot-summary-only articles) than on official guidelines. Most editors understand NOR, but not very many know about the “writing about fiction” guideline.

Case in point: Chief Tyrol’s speech as union leader in the final episode of season 2 comes almost word-for-word from Mario Savio’s famous Dec. 2, 1964 speech at Berkeley–“you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels”. Though the episode’s article makes no mention of it (as of now), the speech and its source are discussed in a podcast from the director–according to the Mario Savio article. But even if there were no official source, astute fans notice things like this. They notice when one piece of fictional material alludes to another one. They notice when an episode’s plot parallels what’s been in the news lately. They notice obvious hints and foreshadowing conveyed through camera work and music. These things aren’t part of a plot summary per se (and are decidedly out-of-universe, since they are related more to the viewing experience than to the internal “causes” of plot events), but they are often straightforward. Such analysis certainly involves a high level of originality (by both Wikipedia and conventional definitions), but when done judiciously it can be close enough to “right” (as far as there is a right interpretation of a work of fiction) to secure the consensus of nearly anyone who views or reads the work.

So that’s my argument. Wikipedia original research isn’t all bad, and Wikipedia’s rules about notability and NOR should be a little more lenient when it comes to cultural artifacts (music, movies, books, TV, etc.).