Anthropology and Old School SciFi

Shortly after I returned from Vanuatu and was down with malaria (for which no definitive results regarding the specific strain that hit me, except that it MAY have been doxy resistant, which is to say we may never know), I spent several days in idle convalescence. During that time I caught up with some of the storytelling provided by one of my regular leisure podcasts, Escape Pod, which sometimes provides really great storytelling. On this occasion I began to listen to a retelling of an old classic sci-fi short story by Robert Silverberg titled “Schwartz Between the Galaxies”.

(At right, the cover of a 1986 anthology in which this story appeared).

Silverberg book

The blurb on Silverberg’s quasi-official homepage summarises the story thus:

It’s not easy to be an anthropologist in the 21st Century. All the primitive cultures are gone, assimilated into a neo-Western global socio-economic sameness. Professor Thomas Schwartz is that useless anthropologist, globe-hopping from lecture to lecture, from Montevideo to Port Moresby, New Guinea, and all the cities are the same. But in his fantasies, he travels on a great interstellar liner surrounded by the representatives of many alien cultures–something to study!

A thoughtful rumination on the possible demise of cultural diversity written for Judy-Lynn del Rey’s first Stellar anthology [1973]. The story was a conscious effort at 1950s-style “conservative” storytelling, and earned a Hugo nomination.

Unfortunately, the story itself actually stinks (IMHO), and I switched off after less than 10 minutes.

The catch is, the story line constitutes a variation of the tired modernist myth that, in its most recent guise, feeds off of the notion that “globalization” is a tangible threat and will McDonaldise us all in the end. The notion of impending cultural homogeneity is about as silly today as it ever was, because the very real planetwide connectivity and scale that characterise our present moment have nothing to do with the “degradation” of perceived cultural purity or stability.

Overall, I found the story itself to be quite dull (as well as anachronistic, misogynistic, and slightly racist) at times. No news here; one has to take Old School SciFi for what it was – even though that doesn’t really excuse its writer, given that 1972 is not that far removed from us. In this respect, the fact that it was ever nominated for a Hugo just goes to prove that said award has never been a guarantor of quality. However, the responses it got from listeners in the EP site constitutes a lively, if probably ephemeral, public debate regarding various misperceptions, contradictions and issues related to anthropology. So I thought I might point readers to it.


Of course, you may have to listen to the story. Or not. Your choice. I did not find it was indispensable in order to get the gist of the various arguments being presented.

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