Posts Tagged ‘Ursula Le Guin’

“Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home. Each is an aspect of the other.” – Anthropologist Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive

I led off my last post with a photo of Ishi, perhaps the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, and the caption “Ishi, the last of the Yahi. His story is not identical to John’s in Brave New World.”  While this framing makes perfect sense to me, and I did so with some hope of people actually looking him up, I feel like I should explain briefly before finishing the second post (on Brave New World).  What follows are some brief, deliberately provocative, and unfinished ideas about Ishi’s legacy.

Ishi’s story is sad and horrific, and I won’t try to fully summarize it here.  Everyone who is remotely well-read should be familiar with it.  I’ll even use the second person address here since I feel so strongly:  You should begin with the obvious online sources (this timeline is also a good summary) and then you need to read Theodora Kroeber’s book Ishi in Two Worlds.  Then maybe Ishi in Three Centuries or Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America.  Theodora Kroeber is, incidentally, Ursula K. Le Guin’s mother.  Le Guin’s father, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, was one of the scientists who had the opportunity to work most closely with Ishi.  Arthur’s relationship with Ishi, like that of all those who studied the “wild Indian” is one that can easily be criticized in hindsight, and I won’t defend the exhibitionism and exploitativeness of anthropological science at the time.  However, the Kroebers’ interactions with and documentation of his story are invaluable documentation of  a remarkable man and an awful, yet common, story.


At the prompting of a friend, I read this Slate review of Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.  I have yet to read the book, but in a brief note thanking my friend for the heads-up I couldn’t help but add:

“The Slate reviewer really should know better than to use “sci-fi” as a shorthand for “science fiction” if she wants people who read the genre to not dismiss her opinion offhand.”

Snarky? Nitpicky? Maybe. However, I doubt most regular readers of science fiction who have followed the genre for a while would not also notice the usage in the review, which implicates the  author as somewhat unaware of the genre’s history (and, as my response implies, therefore maybe not particularly qualified to review the book?).**   The term “sci-fi” is contentious for many people who write and read science fiction, and when they use it, it is often aimed at “low-brow,” space-opera stuff.  Wikipedia has a reasonably good summary of the history of the term in the article on Science Fiction:

As science fiction entered popular culture, writers and fans active in the field came to associate the term with low-budget, low-tech “B-movies” and with low-quality pulp science fiction.[39][40][41] By the 1970s, critics within the field such as Terry Carr and Damon Knight were using sci-fi to distinguish hack-work from serious science fiction,[42] and around 1978, Susan Wood and others introduced the pronunciation “skiffy“. Peter Nicholls writes that “SF” (or “sf”) is “the preferred abbreviation within the community of sf writers and readers”.[43]David Langford‘s monthly fanzine Ansible includes a regular section “As Others See Us” which offers numerous examples of “sci-fi” being used in a pejorative sense by people outside the genre.[44] The abbreviation SF (or sf) is commonly used instead of “sci-fi”.

So, people within the science fiction “community” saw that “sci-fi” was being used in the mainstream to label and discuss the genre; simultaneously they noticed that the genre was seen as trashy, juvenile, escapist, et cetera by this same mainstream (at least in part because a bunch of it, like any other genre, actually was all of these things, which is not necessarily a bad thing). So the response to this, rather than anything more nuanced, was to distinguish between “science fiction” (or “SF”) and “Sci-Fi.”  The former is serious and important (or at least tries to be).  The latter looks something like this:

Note that one of the authors featured in this issue is also mentioned in the wikipedia entry cited above.