Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On the Impossibility of Cultural Estrangement

Charles Stross writes on his excellent blog about the lack of cultural estrangement in far-future science fiction. His objection is that far-flung societies ought to be significantly removed from what is familiar to us; and yet many space operas present a future that is essentially the status quo, plus made-up technology:
The gender politics, religious framework, ideologies, fashions(!) and attitudes of today—specifically, of a type of Anglophone developed-world middle class lifestyle that lots of folks aspire to—has become a universal norm. And nothing else gets much of a look in.
He brings up two examples, one of which I am unfamiliar with; the other one is Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton, the first book in his Commonwealth series, of which I am a big fan. I have my own problems with Hamilton's writing, but they are not the same as Stross's problems. In fact, I was very surprised by his objections; and while Charlie is very good about engaging with his fans, the comment thread stands at 348 entries as I am writing this, and I just don't see the value of riding into the middle of the discussion on the back of a white rhino. So you get to read this on my blog instead.

My first counter to Charlie's objection is that he is guilty of this himself. He grants that Hamilton at least has a fig-leaf explanation, that the rich people who are the majority of Hamilton's protagonists have access to rejuvenation and their society is therefore frozen in time (in the later books, access to rejuvenation for the middle classes and working poor is also addressed). Yet let's look at Stross's own far-future books. He's come up with two compelling space-opera universes: that of the Eschaton (abandoned due to mechanical inconsistencies that bother Stross far more than they ever bothered fans), and that of Saturn's Children. In the latter, society is frozen in a sort of today-plus-ten-years, with middle-class aesthetics predominantly influenced by the Western fascination with Japanese pop culture which has - today, in 2014 - become thoroughly mainstream and is well on its way to being diluted into banality; and much of the rest of that world is a direct copy of the modern vintage hipster approach, co-opting the symbology that is already retro in his reader's time. Stross's fig-leaf excuse is that he is describing a rump society left over after humanity essentially ground to a halt, stopped reproducing and died out, all within a lifetime of the observer's now, and the remnants are compelled at firmware level to ape that moment in time when their creators perished. In the Eschaton universe, Stross goes further still - his god-machine takes various historical human societies, including quite recent ones, and deposits them around the universe in such a way that they would come into contact with each other simultaneously - but at different points in their own development. The compelling culture of the original Eschaton book is late-stage Imperial Russia, but with starships and lasers. The most distinctive culture in the second Eschaton book is literally Space Nazis.

Secondly, the most obvious retort: every writer is told to write what they know, and every reader consumes a story via their own perspective. For a human, fallible writer to create a universe that is fundamentally unrecognizable would be a neat trick indeed, especially if it is supposed to have developed from an existing modern one. Have any managed this? Answers in the comments, please...)

For the human fallible reader, that universe would be confusing and without meaning - the semiotic equivalent of opening a PDF document in Notepad. This is why the works of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells do not accurately describe real-life 2014-or-thereabouts. For even the best futurist to predict events more than a decade or two in the future, without firmly grounding them in historical precedent of similar developments, is a blind lottery: you might succeed accidentally and occasionally, but you can't pull it off reliably and repeatedly.

Thirdly, I think there is a counter-argument to be made to Charlie's assertion that a comparison of our present with our own past implies an unrecognizable future. Yes, the world of 2014 is incredibly different from the world of 1914; but that world is far less removed from 1814 in the view of the man on the street. And the world of 1714, in that same perspective, would be remarkably similar to the world of 1214. That's just taking Europe - a continent and culture that famously had a thousand-year chasm in its civilizational development, from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Renaissance; and if Hamilton's criminally familiar universe is set 400 years in the future, well - there are 400-year-old buildings a stone's throw from where I'm sitting right now, still perfectly functional. And if I go into a shop, I can buy food from farmers and artisans who use 400-year-old methods to produce a premium, higher-added-value product. I live in a country that is often lauded in global media as the world's most advanced digital society, but in this same country, heating your house with a wood-burning stove is still a perfectly valid infrastructural choice.

The classic SF soundbite about the future being already here but unevenly distributed applies at both the macro and micro scales. Parts of our lives are incredibly advanced, but transport a modern literary novel four hundred years back in time, edit it slightly for spelling and vocabulary, and I think it would still be readable to the people of that age, as one of those new-fangled notions in the style of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Fourthly, I think the grounding of far-future SF in modern culture is simply a normal part of the compact between the reader and author. The escapism that draws readers to space opera is about being a better version of yourself - not about associating with someone entirely different. From the days of "Utopia", it is understood and accepted that the author uses the expanded horizon of speculative fiction to make a relevant point, to say something about the society in which we live today. If the future they have described does not come to pass, the artistic value of the work is not diminished - we still enjoy Verne and Wells, and Asimov and Heinlein.

The best futurists are not the ones who have guessed right - they are the ones who have presented a future so consistent, believable and attractive that the generation of their fans goes out and builds it.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

On Offense

K. says...

"So what is your take on "cultural appropriation"? Seems to be a hot topic on tumblr and instagram. Got to an argument about this on the last one."

The primary irony here is that this conversation about cultural appropriation is being had by white Europeans.  The secondary irony is that worries about cultural appropriation are being dismissed by people from a nation whose self-identity, self-worth, and history is almost entirely about its distinct culture.

The danger with cultural appropriation is that it dilutes cultural identity, which can be extremely important. (E.g. you know how American black people often have ridiculous-sounding names? This is an extreme backlash against the destruction of their distinct identity after forced integration into the white American cultural space. Similarly, Hong Kong Chinese are very protective of their mix of Anglo and Chinese names, as this gives them a cultural identity that is distinct from the Mainland.) This is very difficult to internalize for people who are generally part of a dominant, unthreatened culture.

The difficulty with explaining this to Estonians is that at this point, they are so starved for worldwide attention that cultural appropriation would not be seen as a necessarily bad thing - the first example I thought of was a Kanye West remix of Tõnis Mägi's "Koit", but I expect most people would go "that's awesome!". Let's try to think of something more impactful: imagine yourself in a conversation with a Soviet Union apologist who is disparaging the low level of specifically Estonian culture, with its dumb and useless music like Tanel Padar; whereas in the olden days, Estonians had access to the works of superior Soviet artists like Georg Ots.

TL;DR: Be aware that even if something doesn't seem like a big deal to you, it might still be a big deal to someone else; not everyone's experiences mirror your own.

That I get and agree with. Someone talking bad about a particular culture or insulting it. But at the same time, items in itself don't have any meaning. People give them context which is important, especially for me in this case. This was a really beautiful photo of a female caucasian wearing a feathered native american headpiece to advertise it. The company selling them gets these pieces from native americans who actually make them. For me it was kinda the wrong place to feel offended. There was nothing insulting there (unless you blame the model for being born white since some other white people now and many in the past were doing bad things). Especially if you think on those cheap Halloween native american costumes and all of the 'acting stereotypical' ways. For me the interesting thing was that the main vocalists in this case were white teenage caucasians from Europe. There were quite a few fully or partially native americans who loved the photo.
If someone who is a supporter of the Soviet Union and its actions is insulting Estonian cultures or traditions, I could care less since I will certainly not be able to change his mind. Getting offended would just be a winning situation for the one doing the insulting. Maybe if they burned something on a political note? But in this case, if someone is doing it in supportive and positive way, why feel offended? But... as an article I once linked sad... offendedness depends mostly on the person who feels offended.

Okay, several points:

In the situation you described, the most relevant aspect is that this is probably being *sold* to white people. And if it's being sold to white people in America, then yes, I can see how that would be seen as a terrible thing to do - marginalizing a culture that has already been severely damaged by your own. Instead of providing life opportunities and developmental aid to Native American communities, the buyers are behaving like tourists - looking and pointing at the noble savages, throwing them a few coins and bringing back souvenirs to show their friends at home. This is not necessarily the attitude of the buyers, but it could certainly be construed that way by the Native Americans. 

Neither you nor I get to decide what Native Americans should or should not be offended by. And this extend to other situations. You don't get to tell me I shouldn't be offended at an antisemitic joke. I don't get to tell you that you shouldn't be offended at a sexist joke. As long as I realize that there is actually some reasonable historic/cultural background to explain why someone of another culture/minority *might* be offended, then I am going to be extremely weary of setting limits on their behalf regarding what is and isn't offensive. (We can have a fascinating conversation about why one joke about Jews is antisemitic and another one isn't, if you're patient.)

Now, there's certainly a good argument to be had against meta-offense; offense on behalf of another minority. But...

The situation you described - I can understand why this would horrify Europeans. Again, Estonia is sort of unique here because the community and culture has existed on this piece of land ever since there's been human habitation, and has pretty much never been in an expansionary war (but I tell you what, the people at the tourist office in Sigtuna were *genuinely* upset at me when I asked them where was the site of the former great church that the Estonian raiders burned down). So Estonians have never had to apologize, as a nation, for being extremely nasty to another nation. Almost every Western European nation has had to do that - I think the Irish are the only exception? Whereas white Americans most certainly have something to apologize for - several times over - but are, as a stereotype, militantly refusing to admit that they've done anything wrong, or at least that they are supposed to feel bad about something that their grandparents did.

So I can certainly understand the sequence of thought that leads Europeans to be embarrassed on behalf of the Caucasian race at the behavior of white Americans.

(Side note: as a member of the linguistics student minority, I am deeply and personally offended at your use of "I could care less" in that form. :P)

As for not being able to change someone's mind: that is not necessarily true. It's *difficult*, but it does happen occasionally, and when it does, it's worth the effort. Mostly it happens with the help of a strong external trigger, but that trigger needs to land on a fertile soil of awareness that there are other ways of thinking out there, and that apparently rational people subscribe to them. The long-form treatment of this is the film "American History X" with Edward Norton, which I recommend highly. The short-form is the old quote, I think attributed to Margaret Thatcher... Anyone who is not a socialist when they are young have no soul, and anyone who is not a capitalist when they are old have no brain. 


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