Encounters with the Other

This is the second post in a series on intersections between anthropology and speculative fiction.  A common interest shared by both is first contact.  In discussing anthropological considerations of first contact, I hope to provide useful tools for your fictional accounts, a bit of inspiration, or, at the least, fifteen minutes of procrastination.

So here goes.

Anthropologically speaking, first contact is all about how cultures construct, perceive, and interact with an unknown “Other” (and, yes, the “others” in Lost are a classic example).  Ideas about a cultural other are usually built from tiny bits of inaccurate or distorted information.  As a result, encounters are often fraught with the potential for miscommunication and conflict.

Cross-culturally, factors that tend to play a crucial role in shaping first contact encounters include:

  • Technology (especially technologies relating to transportation and warfare)
  • Religious ideology
  • Communication (language barriers and translators, in particular)
  • Physical appearance
  • Disease
  • Political considerations

These elements appear again and again, across cultures and through time, so let’s take a look at each in turn.  Just to have a touchstone, I’ll drawn on the first contact encounter between the Spanish (specifically, the Conquistador Hernan Cortes) and the indigenous peoples of Central America as an example.

When they talk about technology, anthropologists generally mean any kind of tool made by humans to assist them in adapting to their environment.  So, yes, computers and all that count, but so do stone tools and shields and weapons and ships.  Because it includes things like transportation and weapons, technology is usually front and center in determining when and how first contact encounters occur.  For example, without ship-building technologies, the Spaniards would not have encountered the Maya and Aztec when they did, nor would they have been able to assault the island city of Tenochtitlan.  When constructing your fictional first contact stories, always consider how technologies might limit or define the nature of the encounter.

Religious ideologies are also a big one – in many cases, such ideologies are the trigger for one culture to go out and encounter another in the first place.  In some cases, the religious motivation might be learning, exploration, or teaching.  In other instances it might be to conquer and convert.  Because religious ideologies are rooted in faith and often tied to beliefs about morality, they can shape first contact encounters in profound ways.  Take the Spanish conquest as an example.  When they arrived in Mexico, the Spaniards believed they had a mandate to convert any peoples they encountered.  The Maya and Aztec, who believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses, had a tradition of incorporating new deities into their worship; they were happy to include the Christian god in their rituals, which was not at all what the Spanish had in mind.  From religious misunderstanding, chaos ensued.

Communication is another critical element in first contact scenarios, one that involves the need for both literal translation and cultural interpretation.  Translators often come to play roles of exaggerated importance.  Take Dona Marina, the bilingual woman taken as a interpreter (and later as a lover) by Cortes.  Able to speak both Mayan and Nahuatl, Dona Marina would translate to Alguilar (a Spaniard who lived for some time among the Maya), who would then translate to Cortes.  This three-way game of linguistic telephone left plenty of room for both literal and cultural misunderstanding.  Only when Dona Marina learned Spanish was Cortes able to fully draw upon her keen understanding of the languages and cultures of the people he was attempting to conquer.  Some argue to Marina’s insights and advice gave Cortes a critical advantage against the Aztec.  When writing fiction, we should not overlook the importance of translators, or of their ability (or lack thereof) to translate languages and place the translated words in cultural context.

Physical appearance is probably one of the things people think of first when discussing first contact.  Things like skin, eye, and hair color, costume and dress, body decoration and jewelry…these all play a role in setting two groups apart from one another.  They are the canvas upon which cultural “otherness” is first drawn.  Beyond this, however, their importance will vary.  In some encounters, physical appearance is used as a gloss for “humanness” and a justification for enslavement or murder.  In other encounters, differences in appearance fade away almost immediately.  Remember that these types of differences may be shocking only at the onset of an encounter.

When one culture or group visits another and makes first contact, they often carry with them diseases to which they have immunity, but to which the people they are visiting have had no exposure.  Such was most certainly the case during the Spanish conquest, during which almost 90% of native populations were killed by smallpox and other Old World diseases.

Finally, political considerations can play a huge role in how first contact encounters unfold.  In the case of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec, political motivations drove both sides and ultimately contributed to Spanish victory.  Cortes was personally motivated to increase his own fortunes, which inclined him towards bold (even reckless) actions.  These behaviors caused the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, to act with even greater caution than he might have, giving Cortes the time he needed to defeat a larger native force.  Furthermore, Aztec policies of conquest and expansion in Central America left a large disgruntled native population who were only too eager to side with someone promising to free them from Aztec rule.  As a result of this political instability, Cortes was able to manipulate huge numbers of natives to join his cause and swell his otherwise very small army.   Had this not been the case, Cortes’ campaign might have turned out quite differently.

Taking the aforementioned factors into account when writing fictional first contact stories will lend them depth, complexity, and a feeling of authenticity.  If you’re looking for an example of a novel that does this particularly well, I’d recommend Mary Doria Russell’s book “The Sparrow.”  Her story centers on a Jesuit mission to an alien planet and she weaves religion, communication/translation, physical differences, and political considerations together in an intricate exploration of tragic misunderstanding between human and alien.

Alright…I think I’ve gone on about this long enough for one post 🙂

If you have questions or thoughts, post them in the comments!  I’d love to know what you think, as well as what (if anything) you’re finding useful.

3 thoughts on “Encounters with the Other

  1. efkelley

    Plenty of good stuff here to think on. I’d heard of the concept of ‘the Other’ before. It’s an area where I always felt shows like Star Trek fell down. They touch on the potential differences between lifeforms and cultures several times, but they almost never give us something truly alien.

    The potential for interesting conflicts (and thereby interesting stories) is amazing. This post serves as an excellent idea mill.

  2. NicoleMD

    Hmmm… I like the bit about cultural context of translation. Seems like there’s lots of room for things to go wrong there. 🙂

    I really need to read The Sparrow too. It’s sitting in my living room after two people at VP recommended it to me. I came across the book at the Island’s used bookstore sitting all alone on a shelf staring back at me. Obviously this book wants me to read it.

    1. mirandasuri

      Yeah, in many cases the misunderstanding of how a literally correct translation should be interpreted within cultural context causes WAY more trouble than the actual act of literally translating…

      You should read the Sparrow – it really is a great book (skip the sequel, though. Sparrow stands a lone really well).

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