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Cultural Engineering

Entry updated 28 May 2016. Tagged: Theme.

A phrase not especially common in sf Terminology, although what it refers to is fundamental to the genre. The idea of humans deliberately altering the nature of alien cultures (or of Aliens doing it to us), or indeed of doing the same to isolated cultures on Earth or colony worlds, is often evoked in sf – sometimes approvingly, slightly more often disapprovingly. This is especially so in stories in which Anthropology, Colonization of Other Worlds and Sociology are dominant themes. Examples include: the Foundation's self-serving imposition of a synthetic Religion on client societies in early episodes of Isaac Asimov's Foundation (May 1942-October 1944 Astounding; fixup 1951; cut vt The 1,000 Year Plan 1955 dos); the reshaping of a planetary culture through the imposition of designer languages (see Linguistics) in Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao (1958); the activities of Lloyd Biggle Jr's Cultural Survey in The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets (April 1961 Analog as "Still, Small Voice"; exp 1968) and The World Menders (February-April 1971 Analog; 1971); the Bene Gesserit sisterhood's seeding of planetary cultures with legends and prophecies designed to facilitate their own ends in Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965); the one-man assaults, via Genetic Engineering, on a planet's Overpopulation problem in three episodes of George R R Martin's Tuf Voyaging (coll of linked stories 1986); and persistent tampering with other galactic societies by the Contact/Special Circumstances arm of Iain M Banks's Culture, ranging from successful overthrow of an unpleasant empire in The Player of Games (1988) to a disastrous War triggered by attempted reforms in the back-story of Look to Windward (2000). A twenty-first century example of Aliens manipulating or attempting to manipulate our human culture is David Brin's Existence (fixup 2012), where the First Contact message received by Earth is designed to propagate itself virally by infecting us with the need to produce and send out such galactic chain letters.

A quick-fix approach to cultural engineering that is deployed several times in sf is the elaborately devised hoax intended to unite the world, or humanity on a wider scale, against an apparent threat. In Max Ehrlich's The Big Eye (1949), the menace is a genuine approaching planet which, however, will not in fact collide with Earth as mendaciously announced by a benign conspiracy of astronomers. Examples using various forms of fake Alien include Theodore Sturgeon's stories "Unite and Conquer" (October 1948 Astounding) and "Occam's Scalpel" (August 1971 If), the Outer Limits episode "The Architects of Fear" (30 September 1963), Poul Anderson's "The Moonrakers" (January 1966 If) and the Graphic Novel Watchmen (1986-1987 Watchmen; 1987) scripted by Alan Moore – the last including an overt acknowledgment of "The Architects of Fear" and a probable nod to Sturgeon with the phrase "Alien Bee", the author's original title (as revealed by him in a 1979 introduction) for his story published as "The Dark Room" (July-August 1953 Fantastic). Pauline Ashwell's Lizzie Lee story "The Lost Kafoozalum" (October 1960 Analog) similarly hoaxes warring factions of a rediscovered human colony (see Colonization of Other Worlds) to unite them against the supposed threat from other colonists.

A further common form of cultural engineering in sf is the Time-Travel or Alternate History narrative (often both at once) in which an individual, a group of Secret Masters or some sort of Time Police force attempts to engineer past, future or Parallel Worlds into the most stable and productive conformations. Thus the modern protagonist thrust by Timeslip into sixth-century Rome in L Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall (December 1939 Unknown; exp 1941; rev 1949) soon sets about a successful programme of cultural meddling to fend off the Dark Ages; but the interventions of Time Police in Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955) tend, it is argued, towards societal stagnation owing to the repeated choice of safe, middle-of-the-road options. Sf itself can be seen as a form of sublimated cultural engineering in its persistent modelling of Thought-Experiment societies that differ from our own. [DRL/PN]

see also: Uplift.

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