Writing, etc., about gulfs between cultures?
February 14, 2012 1:15 AM   Subscribe

Looking for good depictions of people or characters with truly foreign, alien, or mutually irreconcilable views of the world.

Things which focus not on the possibilities of common humanity (or common sentience, in science fiction, possibly) but on its limitations. This could be fiction or nonfiction, in any medium or genre—books, film, theater, poetry, photography, paintings, performance art, news articles, blogs...

I hope that makes sense, and isn't too vague. Thoughts?

Thank you!
posted by Bufo_periglenes to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Are you looking for differences that can only be bridged with great difficulty, or do they have to be truly irreconcilable? I can't think of many examples of the latter in SF. That said, here's what I've read that comes closest:
  • "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Lewis Padget (the inspiration for the movie "The Last Mimzy")
  • "Spar" by Kij Johnson
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts
  • Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin, particularly the short stories "Feeling at Home With the Hennebet," "The Nna Mmoy Language" and "The Building"
  • "Three Worlds Collide" by Eliezer Yudkowsky
Some other depictions of cultural differences that aren't quite so insurmountable:
  • "Think Like a Dinosaur" by James Patrick Kelly
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
  • "Darmok", an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • A Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

posted by teraflop at 2:07 AM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces has the funniest and most absurd worldview of any character I can think of, although I'm not sure that's what you mean.
posted by kinetic at 2:40 AM on February 14, 2012

This was Stanisław Lem's stated goal with Solaris. Reportedly, he was never really satisfied with how movie adaptations tended to focus only on the human emotional/interpersonal elements.

It's wrapped up in a larger narrative, and is not the primary focus, but Doctor Manhattan's character in Watchmen would fit as well.
posted by kagredon at 2:46 AM on February 14, 2012

Heinlein, "Stranger in a Strange Land" - whether it's good or not is a matter of opinion, but some would say so.
posted by emilyw at 2:50 AM on February 14, 2012

This TVTropes page might also help. (Warning: TVTropes.)
posted by kagredon at 2:50 AM on February 14, 2012

The orginal Gullivers Travels outline two nations who go to war over something the outsider Gllive sees as trivial. I beleive that it's availibe as a free ebook from gutenberg press.
posted by Faintdreams at 2:54 AM on February 14, 2012

Was just coming in to suggest Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell! The fairies are the most convincingly alien personality I can think of.

The War With The Newts

posted by Erasmouse at 4:03 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

More Ursula K Le Guin - The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness?
posted by pmcp at 4:16 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Anton Chigurth - No Country for Old Men
The Judge - Blood Meridian
posted by nathancaswell at 5:12 AM on February 14, 2012

L'Étranger, Albert Camus
posted by StoneSpace at 5:26 AM on February 14, 2012

Gwyneth Jones' White Queen is a first contact book that does a really good job of showcasing these human/alien interactions where no-one really understands each other.

The Sparrow is another excellent (and distressing) first contact novel.
posted by lillygog at 5:30 AM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

I also came in to suggest "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell. There's aliens involved and the greatest tragedies of the book come from irreconcilable misunderstandings, despite the main character's best efforts. Awesome book that I still think about years after I've read it.
posted by ninjakins at 5:37 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

C.J. Cherryh is pretty good at this. Her Foreigner series takes place on a planet where a smallish community of humans lives among a humanoid race that looks superficially like us, but evolved from herd-type animals rather than hierarchical pack hunters. Their societies and interpersonal relationships are all based on interdependence and associations that can only be intellectualized (not felt) by the human protagonist, even though he lives and works among them.

In her Chanur series, you've got the kif, who are pretty much the exact opposite. They're hierarchical individual hunters, loyal only as long as they think the kif in charge is stronger, more powerful, or better positioned. The instant a kif thinks he has something to gain by it, he will betray you, and by his and his society's standards, his actions will be right, proper, and expected.

Both series show characters struggling with alien mindsets, and they're some of the best I've found that illustrate John W. Campbell's "Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man." (A little sexist, I know, but the guy was born in 1910.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 5:41 AM on February 14, 2012

I keep going to this well on MeFi, but I love the complete and total otherness defined by Terry Bisson's short story "They're Made Out Of Meat".
posted by Rock Steady at 5:55 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Embassytown" by China Mieville is about, in part, the inability of language to communicate fully to another being, and the breakdown of language as it tries to express the untranslatable. This is a feature, not a bug!

"The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon" is a fantastic nonfiction read, the random musings of a female courtier in Heian-era imperial Japan. Sei is arguably the world's first blogger! And she makes a fascinating narrator, talking about the timeless beauty of nature in one entry, and in another seriously considering some noble worthy of death for wearing the wrong color sleeves or whatnot.
posted by nicebookrack at 5:56 AM on February 14, 2012

I've read a few sci-fi books in the last year where language is a big barrier between cultures, infact where it reveals a fundamental difference between cultures. Both have been mentioned but are worth repeating.

First, there is Embassytown by China Mieville that has already been mentioned - recommended but its language was so alien that it never quite seemed convincing. Worth reading though for the way in which Mieville conveys the alienness of the aliens in this book is extraordinary, you can only ever see them out of the corner of your eye, never quite a clear image of what you are looking at - but yet at the same time they are extraordinarily vivid. The effect is profound and elevates the whole book.

Second, and a strong recommendation is "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
about an ethnographer working to translate the language of an alien species - where there is a profound gulf that will twist your mind wonderfully.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 6:12 AM on February 14, 2012

Lem's book Fiasco also explores this. His several treatments of the theme are more explorations of human misunderstanding than the hypothetical Others.
posted by lathrop at 6:27 AM on February 14, 2012

Metropole is a fantastic book by Ferenc Karinthy about a linguist on the way to a language convention, who gets stranded in a land with a language he can't understand. Great book, but hard to find.
posted by OrangeDrink at 7:06 AM on February 14, 2012

It's not a great sci-fi classic, but John Barnes' Earth Made of Glass shows a diplomatic standoff between two incompatible human cultures, one based on Tamil culture and the other on Mayan culture.
posted by zadcat at 7:13 AM on February 14, 2012

What about Jim Jarmusch's stuff? Lots of his films have people with widely different cultural attitudes trying to get along or in contrast to one another.
posted by pmcp at 8:00 AM on February 14, 2012

For "mutually irreconcilable" - Brave New World
posted by RobotHero at 8:45 AM on February 14, 2012

As mentioned upthread, The Sparrow is a wonderful, devastating book that tackles exactly these issues.
posted by thebrokedown at 9:14 AM on February 14, 2012

Ford Prefect from the Hitchhikers Guide "trilogy" has a refreshing outsiders view of humanity that I found outstanding when I read them as a kid, and is still funny now that I'm grown.
posted by Sphinx at 9:49 AM on February 14, 2012

I'll throw some non-fiction in. Some of this is theoretical and some of anecdotal or both.

I'm currently reading some Edward T. Hall. He has a lot of info about or cultural/human limitations when it comes to interacting with those of different cultures.

Beyond Culture is the book I'm reading now.

More book by Mr. Hall

For theory and a more quantitative read. Geert Hofstede is the reigning king of this school.
posted by Che boludo! at 11:40 AM on February 14, 2012

Flatland: a romance of many dimensions, for a true classic (1884).
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 1:39 PM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Things
posted by Artw at 2:28 PM on February 14, 2012

(Late to this thread, but...) Little Big Man is a novel by Thomas Berger about a boy who comes of age while getting seesawed back and forth between the Plains Indians and the encroaching white American culture in the 1800s. It was subsequently made into a film with Dustin Hoffman.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:00 PM on March 9, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you for the responses! This is an interesting list.
posted by Bufo_periglenes at 1:24 AM on May 19, 2012

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