Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Rest
Artist, Heather Oliver             

History, Legitimacy and Belonging, or: Who’s We, Kemo Sabe?

Girl-stars-anime

There have been recent conversations in the science outreach and SFF communities about what level of background knowledge makes someone worthy enough to “belong”. The former centered on the original Cosmos series as part of the reaction to the just-launched reboot helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson (unfortunately housed in FOX, several of whose subsidiaries already deleted a snippet in the pilot episode that dared to mention evolution). The latter partly continues the “old white dudes” discussion but received fresh fuel from an article by the publisher of Baen that’s the equivalent of a decapitated chicken running in circles.

Briefly, side A says you cannot be a legitimate member of X unless you are intimately familiar with its sacred texts: in the case of popsci, you must have watched the original Cosmos and worshipped Sagan as a nonpareil inspirational figure; in the case of SFF, you must have read the Leaden Age gospels with special emphasis on the holy trinity of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein (plus a heaping side of Joseph Campbell, especially if we go anywhere near Star Wars or fantasy epics). Side B points out that this exudes strong whiffs of parochialism by making legitimate membership contingent on the exclusive canonization of a narrow set of works — and people.

This discussion inevitably brings up two other items: class/wealth and history. The “But… but… Cosmos inspired so many to enter science!” mantra contains the implication that people can’t possibly become interested in exploring the universe unless they have the wherewithal to be “entertained” into it by high-end means: by having a TV, preferably color; by fancy school labs; and nowadays, by access to fast-WiFi Internet and its associated gizmology. Both Cosmos series heavily promote the trope of the heroic, visionary (male) individual who can radically change a large-scale outcome. People conveniently forget that Giordano Bruno wasn’t a lone sprout in a wilderness, or that Sagan’s Cosmos was embedded in a favorable context when it first aired in 1980: a culture that was still friendly to exploration and science, just before Ronald Reagan’s tenure started the US descent into rampant inequality and fundamentalist fearmongering. To non-US eyes it was patently obvious that the original Cosmos was American to the core despite its well-intentioned feints towards internationality (at least Vangelis – full name Vangélis Odhysséas Papathanassíou, trimmed in deference to Anglo sensibilities – supplied the rousing score,  far more memorable than the reboot’s generic swellings so far, though it’s early for a final verdict).

There can be no question that it’s important to know the history of whatever you delve into. If nothing else, such knowledge tempers the effusions of “First time EVAH that X has been tackled in science/SFF/whathaveyou” from gender bending to “duons” in DNA encoding (for which I plan a separate post: it has taken me the enormous length of two months – an aeon on the Internet – to stop being seriously pissed about it). At the same time, the purists don’t do themselves favors by quoting Sagan chapter and verse but blithely asking “Who?” when such names as Hrdy or Margulis come up – or by preaching the gospel of Saint Heinlein while looking blank at the mention of Tiptree or Norton (who wrote SF, not just fantasy; some even aimed at adults, not adolescents of any age). Historical literacy doesn’t mean learning only whatever is “common knowledge”, congruent with one’s agenda or hot-du-jour.

This blinkering becomes overwhelming when we leave the US frame and delve into other cultures or eras. To give one example from the other side of the traditional divide, there has been deafening silence in SFF from those professing to be on the Side of Good on medieval/renaissance imperialism south and east of Italy – because it would oblige people to contemplate the doings of the Ottoman Empire which, inter alia, employed the lovely custom of devshirme (child-gathering) equally beloved of those paragons of virtue and nerd-coolness, the Jedi. Along related lines, those who say that science or SFF should not “meddle in politics” don’t really deserve an extended rebuttal because they’re not even being disingenuous.

I personally think the purists employ lax criteria and low standards. Nobody should be considered a real science fan until they’ve read the pre-Socratics or a real SFF fan unless they’ve read The Iliad or Gilgamesh – in the original. I kid, but only just. My point is that SFF existed throughout the world long before the US Leaden Era and that such concepts as atoms and multiverses were discussed (as philosophy, since technology to attempt proof was lacking) way before Giordano Bruno – who, incidentally, argued exclusively from theology, not from evidence-based research. To put it another way, I burned to become a scientist before my country had TV or my school had computers and I became enamored of SFF (as in: the folklore of many cultures, including mine, and Jules Verne’s Nautilus) when I was anklebiter height and spoke zero English. Leaden Era SF was so excruciating to read at so many levels that I continued delving into the genre despite it, not because of it. I could only read it as alien anthropology – and the aliens weren’t from Rigel IV. I think that recommending these works as blanket entry points into SF is a self-defeating tactic.

People become inspired to enter science (or at least become permanently interested in its doings) and become immersed in SFF by countless paths, some straightforward, some less so. I don’t expect the Cosmos reboot to give rise to a surge in the ranks of science researchers: that would require a receptive cultural milieu that is currently simply not present, as the science funding levels abundantly demonstrate. Nor do I expect the SFF fandom (which is actually a system of interlocking ponds) to come to any substantial agreement over major issues. I won’t prescribe but here’s a thought: sci/SFF nerds might want to consider that young-earth creationists are dictating what parts of Cosmos get shown – something far more worrisome than the fact that some science communicators and scientists (real or potential) haven’t seen the original Cosmos nor considered it, well, earthshaking when they did.

universe through the canyon

Related Posts:

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise

Junk DNA, Junky PR

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Images: 1st, animé-inspired wallpaper; 2nd, unknown artist, Plato’s cave

17 Responses to “History, Legitimacy and Belonging, or: Who’s We, Kemo Sabe?”

  1. delagar says:

    “At the same time, the purists don’t do themselves favors by quoting Sagan chapter and verse but blithely asking “Who?” when such names as Hrdy or Margulis come up – or by preaching the gospel of Saint Heinlein while looking blank at the mention of Tiptree or Norton (who wrote SF, not just fantasy; some even aimed at adults, not adolescents of any age). Historical literacy doesn’t mean learning only whatever is “common knowledge”, congruent with one’s agenda or hot-du-jour.”

    Love this.

    Though, in fact, I loved it all. I kept wanting to highlight passages and shout YES!

  2. Athena says:

    Happy you liked it, Kelly — let’s say it’s an intersectional rant! *laughs*

  3. Sue Lange says:

    Haven’t seen this yet.

    That’s too bad about losing evolution in the reboot. Did it not talk about evolution at all? The creation of the universe? That was the most important part. And the reason I was glad it was on Fox. No sense preaching to the choir on PBS.

  4. Athena says:

    Several local stations removed a segment in the pilot episode that mentioned evolution. Evolution, in my opinion, is as important as the creation of the universe; they’re part of the same proces. And whether Cosmos is on PBS or Fox doesn’t guarantee that the fundies will see it or change their minds, if it’s already being censored to fit their viewpoint.

  5. Walden2 says:

    I know I should probably give it a chance but I was not terribly thrilled with the new Cosmos. In many respects it seemed little different from the stuff that has been cranked out on the Discovery and Science Channels for years now.

    I won’t even go into the comments on the inaccuracies that have already been noted elsewhere numerous times, but I will point out one item regarding the depiction of Voyager 1 that no one else seems to have commented on as far as I know:

    I was amazed that with all the time they no doubt took to render the probe as it really appears, they depicted the golden cover on the Voyager Record upside down. I know that may seem trivial to some, but how did they make a mistake like that? And what also got me is that the probe was shown sailing through some kind of cloudy field of debris – in deep space. Making noise.

    Tyson would and has taken apart such details in various films like Gravity and Titanic, so I see no reason to go easy on Cosmos, especially since it is supposed to be about the accurate portrayal of science!

    I agree with you, Athena, about the music compared to the original Cosmos; it was both bombastic and uninspiring. It was done by the same guy who did the music for Contact in 1997, where I wrote an extensive review on that film and had similar feelings about the music then.

    Regarding Bruno, while I get why they chose him in that he and his situation made for a seemingly straightforward Us (science) vs. Them (religion) story to push along the agenda, I think it was ultimately an unwise decision.

    As you said, Bruno’s cosmology had precious little to do with science, plus he was a believer in Hermeticism, which traced its roots back to some false Medieval documents and the Egyptian god Thoth! Sagan played fast and loose with his discussion of Hypatia in the first episode of the original Cosmos, too, so I guess they were just upholding tradition.

    Seriously, twisting history to serve an agenda is wrong and I do not care if they had good intentions behind it. Because now the pro-religious scholars are tearing it apart and more often than not are giving the real story behind what was shown.

    As one fellow said, they should have gone with Copernicus or Galileo or even Thomas Digges, even if they were nowhere near as dramatically interesting in real life:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/outthere/2014/03/10/cosmos-pick-wrong-hero/#.UyMkn_ldXQg

    Whether you like Sagan’s Cosmos or not, at least I never felt like he was dumbing down the various subject matters, even if sometimes he was. He was also much more diplomatic when it came to his views on religion. I don’t know how the makers of the new Cosmos think they are going to win over their intended audience by bluntly saying their religion is a bunch of corrupt crap and anyone who believes in it is a fool or worse. Plus having Obama introduce the first episode probably chased away a good chunk of those who might otherwise have watched it, I hate to say.

    Maybe things will get better, but our modern trend of fast cuts, over reliance of glitzy special effects, and Tyson’s sometimes cornball delivery and reactions has me wondering.

  6. Athena says:

    Plenty of important details were wrong in the Cosmos reboot pilot, though I recommend we wait until the whole thing is over before a final verdict. What surprised me about the Voyager 1 rendering was that the golden platter (and the probe itself) looked pristine, rather than pitted from countless micro-encounters.

    I thought that going with Giordano Bruno was a disastrous choice: to put it bluntly, he was a religious fanatic — he just happened to hold a minority opinion. His preaching was not with the intent to further scientific knowledge. The entire framing of this segment in the reboot was factually wrong and went against their purpose.

    I’m more positive than you on Obama doing the intro, though I’d have preferred to see a woman do it. The other half of the species and all that. But overall I agree that the Cosmos reboot has little chance of recapturing the original’s impact. Too many NOVA/Discovery/etc episodes have appeared in the intervening 30+ years & the reboot is hewing closely to well-trodden paths.

  7. Walden2 says:

    I thought they might have chosen Ann Druyan to introduce the first episode as she did with the original Cosmos when it was put on DVD, as a sort of handoff from the first generation to the next.

    As for Obama’s speech where he mentioned his support for science and technology, all I could think of on that comment was “Show me the money!” In any event, the fact that the President of the United States of America took the time to introduce a television series should be considered very important indeed. It might even be unprecedented in fact.

    Good point about the appearance of Voyager 1, though we will probably never find out what it really looks like now. At least it and its twin are still functioning and returning data about deep space, so they cannot be too damaged. And Voyager 2, having visited two more worlds than number 1, is probably even more beat up.

    And several people have pointed out that the new Ship of the Imagination reminds them of Boba Fett’s ship Slave 1 from Star Wars. I wonder if that was the intention? If they had stayed with Sagan’s ship design, which on the inside looked like a cathedral, would that have placated the religious audience more? :^)

  8. Walden2 says:

    One more add: In that segment near the end where Tyson relates how Sagan invited him to Cornell in 1975 to encourage the high schooler to attend that university, Tyson did not mention that he eventually went off to Harvard. That is the very institution which denied Sagan tenure in the 1960s and forced him to look elsewhere for a professorship.

  9. Caliban says:

    Very interesting. I didn’t watch this, and I’ve only seen bits of the original Cosmos–I tend to find popularizations, especially in a field I’m familiar with, slightly tedious, like reading the “Illustrated Classics” version of classics.

    The importance of Bruno with regards to science is it helps explains in part, not fully, the Church’s vehemence towards Copernicism and Galileo in particular. My guess is that the new Cosmos garbled this.

    While I don’t subscribe to the Church of Heinlein, there can be a problem when someone writes in a genre without fully reading it. I refer specifically to “literary” writers who deign to slum it in SF, and seem to think their twist (they’re all clones! etc) are novel. The issue here is not with mastering a specific canon, but a broad knowledge of the conversations that have happened within a genre.

    But since I find myself reading less and less SF these days (current reading: stalled in Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” tearing through Helen Oyeyemi’s terrific “Boy, Snow, Bird”) I haven’t even waded into the Sacred Books of Heinlein war.

  10. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > [P]eople can’t possibly become interested in exploring the
    > universe unless they have the wherewithal to be “entertained”
    > into it by high-end means: by having a TV, preferably color. . .

    How might my life had turned out if we hadn’t gotten color TV
    just a month before the premiere of _Star Trek_ in 1966? ;->

    > [A]at least Vangelis. . . supplied the rousing score
    > [for the original _Cosmos_]. . .

    I’d forgotten that, or never knew it. I **love** the soundtrack
    CD of _Blade Runner_ (including pieces that weren’t used
    in the film). _Chariots of Fire_ — not so much. ;->

    > Leaden Era SF was so excruciating to read at so many levels. . .

    I loved Clarke’s _The City and the Stars_ and _Childhood’s End_,
    and the non-fiction _Profiles of the Future_. The rest of his
    oeuvre — eh. (OK, the long short story _The Road to the Sea_
    has a _City_-ish grandeur and poignancy, and a couple of the shorter
    stories are cute — _The Star_, _The Nine Billion Names of God_.
    Never could get into the Rama novels. _Songs of Distant Earth_
    had some of that elegiac quality that makes Clarke unique among
    that era’s authors. _Imperial Earth_ I appreciated for the
    touch of gay. The novelization of _2001_, of course, was also
    mandatory reading (the sequels, not so much).

    Asimov I could never really get into, though the story
    _The Last Question_ was memorable. Foundation novels — never read.
    The robot stories — browsed in, didn’t really connect with.

    Heinlein leaves me pretty much cold. The only Heinlein I ever sort
    of liked was _The Door Into Summer_. I tried to read
    _Stranger in a Strange Land_ long, long ago, and couldn’t finish it.

    I was corrupted by New Wave (at least to the extent of early
    J. G. Ballard) pretty early in my reading career. ;->

  11. Athena says:

    Many people have indeed noted the resemblance of the reboot Starship of the Imagination (if only) to Boba Fett’s craft. My hope that this would reflect less portentousness and more playfulness wasn’t borne out but, again, it’s too early for final views.

    As a marginalized outsider myself, I think deGrasse Tyson had no choice but to go to Harvard when the offer came. The academy (not just Harvard) treated Sagan badly — you may recall the Academy of Sciences blackballing him — but they’re as tribal as any other clan.

  12. Athena says:

    Let’s say that when a host of a major science series says “There was only one man at the time who…” about Bruno, he’s got many facts wrong. Which plays right into the hands of those just waiting to pounce on science series and science in general.

    I’m with you on the Illustrated Classics POV — except for crackerjack F/X, such series are not for anyone with a modicum of knowledge in the domain. I also agree about knowing a domain you delve into, as you can tell from the paragraphs about wider historical knowledge. This stance is equally tiresome when it comes from within SFF about stuff deemed “paradigm-shifting” because the current batch hasn’t bothered to read beyond last year’s output.

  13. Athena says:

    You know my views on all three, so I won’t elaborate. Suffice it to say that if I hadn’t had access to the Silver Age/New Wave at the same time I got exposed to the fumes of the Leaden Era, I would have given SFF a very wide berth.

  14. intrigued_scribe says:

    “This blinkering becomes overwhelming when we leave the US frame and delve into other cultures or eras. To give one example from the other side of the traditional divide, there has been deafening silence in SFF from those professing to be on the Side of Good on medieval/renaissance imperialism south and east of Italy – because it would oblige people to contemplate the doings of the Ottoman Empire which, inter alia, employed the lovely custom of devshirme (child-gathering) equally beloved of those paragons of virtue and nerd-coolness, the Jedi. Along related lines, those who say that science or SFF should not “meddle in politics” don’t really deserve an extended rebuttal because they’re not even being disingenuous.”

    This, absolutely.

    Engrossing and incisive, from beginning to end.

  15. Athena says:

    I’m so happy you found it absorbing, my dear!

  16. Alex Tolley says:

    Did FOX affiliates completely reprogram episode 2 – because it was all about evolution?

    IMO, the rebooted “spaceship of the mind” is a cross between the Martian ship that Gary Sinise takes at the end of “Mission to Mars” and a shiny Naboo ship from Star Wars.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is going to face some interesting criticism for any gross visual errors after his critique of “Gravity”. Where does artistic license start and end in a science show? And how ’bout that DNA visualization in episode 2 – just bizarre.

  17. Athena says:

    I didn’t watch episode 2. What was bizarre about the DNA depiction? Also, I thought Gravity was way overrated.

Leave a Reply