Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Polygenism of Science Fiction

I just finished reading Ben Bova's Mars Life, largely because of its enigmatic dedication to the former polygenist, Carleton S. Coon. Coon was the last of a long, if disgraced, line of anthropologists at Harvard who promoted the "American school"--the idea that races evolved separately. Needless to say, these theories, long superseded by data in population genetics, were utilized to justify any number of racist policies, including (but not just limited to) slavery in the US and apartheid in South Africa.

The anthropologist in Bova's novel, Carter Carleton, seems to embody what I imagine Coon to have been like--curmudgeony and atavistic (he, of course, may not have been). Pace the general characterization of anthropologists in fiction, he's a sexual brute; falsely accused of rape on Earth, he is nevertheless aggressive in his attempts to bed women he meets on Mars--the male version of the sexualized female anthropologist stereotype based on Margaret Mead. Thoroughly unpleasant in all respects, Carleton fails to even discover physical remains of Martians; rather, he takes the credit from a young colleague who stumbles on to the site.

Of course, given this ambivalent characterization of the anthropologist, this still begs the question--why Carleton S. Coon? Well, Coon was in some ways the darling of science fiction anthropology in the 1950's and 1960's, contributing to the 1968 edited volume of anthropological science fiction, "Apeman, Spaceman." The reasons are obvious--the "hard" science fiction of the time espoused a kind of galactic polygenism, still preserved (like a fly in amber) in Star Trek episodes, where different "races" populate the universe, each originating on a separate planet, with plots hinging upon the mechanics of "racial" conflict between these different groups. If it looks vaguely Victorian, that's because it is--the supposed conflict of nations/races that legitimated empire building in the 19th century, most recently given new life by Samuel Huntington.

On the one hand, this "racial" understanding of the alien other is just so much space opera, providing a patina of Gernsback-ian "wonder" to tales of space travel. But, on the other, it projects a conservative, even procrustean, understanding of races as separately developing, conflicting "types" to our future encounters and ultimately works to legitimate racist reactions to other peoples and other cultures today. Without polygenism as a body of theory in anthropology, what would epic science fiction have been like? Can we imagine a science fiction without it? What would that be like? Can we, for example, imagine an alien that was never separate from the non-alien . . .The galactic equivalent of mitochondria?

Bova, of course, is not advocating polygenism, nor, I suppose, is he really suggesting that we pick up the Carleton S. Coon again. His somewhat ambiguous rationale is described in the "Biology in Science Fiction" blog. I see it as an interesting form of reflexivity. The antiquated Carter Carleton, by excavating the Martians, is simultaneously excavating the polygenism of the genre, the history of science fiction that has never been separate from the constellations of power/knowledge that supported it.