As often mentioned here, I am no fan of post-modernist hyper-relativism. This is the idea that scientific truth is impossible and that all our ideas about the world are “socially constructed”, that is, that people negotiate agreements about what the world is like and thus determine what is real. Being a realist, I am convinced that there is a single real world out there, and that though not infallible, science is finding out a lot of true information about it. (Just as I am able to find out in a non-socially-constructed way whether there is any milk in the fridge.)

On the other hand, I am a fan of Ursula K. LeGuin. So I was irked when I read the last few stories in her otherwise fine 1994 short story collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. Here she introduces (and, luckily, promptly drops) a post-modernist warp drive for space ships, the “churten drive”.

In “The Shobies’ Story” and “Dancing to Ganaan”, we learn that the churten drive will take your space ship instantaneously to another place regardless of distance. Trouble is, you won’t arrive until everybody aboard the ship has negotiated an agreement about what the destination is like. In fact, the destination apparently doesn’t exist until such an agreement has been reached. Gah.

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Comments

  1. #1 Angela
    April 21, 2009

    I am a big Ursula K Leguin fan and have read nearly everything she has written. I’m not a scientist, but in the passage you quote above, I detect a wink and a nod to the absurd. I think she is making fun of social constructivism, playing with it, as she often does with all kinds of theories, philosophies, and lifeways in her stories.

  2. #2 Martin R
    April 21, 2009

    I don’t think she’s really discussing the status of science. She’s just happy, as a story-teller, to play with a theory that states that the world is told into being as a collective story.

  3. #3 Pierce R. Butler
    April 21, 2009

    Proposal: announce that the churten drive has been invented, but requires a critical mass of passengers to be effective as well as consensus among them to arrive at a destination.

    For the sake of efficiency, therefore, passengers should be chosen for each vessel with a high coefficient of mental compatibility; ergo, each ship’s complement will be selected according to religious affiliation.

    Once a like-minded cadre has been seated, each vessel will be sealed (no need to launch them into orbit or anything expensive like that, is there?) and monitored. Since the most desirable destination would be Heaven, outside observers will be able to determine which faith has greatest unanimity and validity by which ship(s) disappear first.

    Thumping and banging from within each hull can be considered as part of the process of reaching agreement, and should be measured but not disturbed (e.g., by opening hatches).

  4. #4 Johan Anglemark
    April 21, 2009

    Actually, if you posit an infinite universe where all possible worlds not only can but do exist, this scenario makes sort of scientific sense, doesn’t it?

  5. #5 zensunni
    April 21, 2009

    Why, are you positing that?

  6. #6 tbell1
    April 21, 2009

    If it’s like much of the rest of her work, the ‘science’ is just a device to play with the ideas she is really interested in…like how people can get along, negotiate, tolerate each others existence, and generally come to terms with others.

  7. #7 csrster
    April 21, 2009

    I’m always surprised when I wake up in the morning and the starship Heart of Gold isn’t sitting on the grass outside. After all, the likelihood of it actually being there is virtually nil (given a. the size of the universe and b. its being fictional). Therefore, being an infinite improbability ship, it ought actually to be there. Where did my logic go wrong?

  8. #8 mmr
    April 21, 2009

    I get frustrated with the social constructivism-bashing. The science wars are over. Read some current history of science literature. Social constructivism is simply an analytical tool in the humanities and social sciences, and it is absolutely necessary for studying (humanistically) scientific practice. It does equate to a philosophical stance on realism/antirealism.

    On your main point:
    I love LeGuin, but haven’t read this story. It seems likely to me that she’s not trying to make some kind of argument for antirealism, but that she is (like all the best science fiction writers) pursuing a thought experiment about society. It shouldn’t be judged on scientific correctness, but on literary grounds. Good scifi isn’t about super-accurate science, but about thinking about society and human values.

  9. #9 Warren
    April 21, 2009

    LeGuin is a fantasist as well as an SF writer, and also produced a damned fine interpretation of Tao Te Ching. She wants to propose a drive that requires consensus to operate, I say it’s well within her rights as a septuagenarian (and outstanding) storyteller.

    This, by the way

    Just as I am able to find out in a non-socially-constructed way whether there is any milk in the fridge.

    is brilliant, a single sentence that skewers everything wrong with post-modern relativism.

  10. #10 abb3w
    April 21, 2009

    Sounds similar to Barry Longyear’s SHAWNA drive, which he admits might be better classified as fantasy based on its premise of being able to get something useful out of philosophers….

    “It Came From Schenectady”, if you’re curious.

  11. #11 llewelly
    April 21, 2009

    In “The Shobies’ Story” and “Dancing to Ganaan”, we learn that the churten drive will take your space ship instantaneously to another place regardless of distance. Trouble is, you won’t arrive until everybody aboard the ship has negotiated an agreement about what the destination is like. In fact, the destination apparently doesn’t exist until such an agreement has been reached. Gah.

    I thought that story was a hilarious spoof of post-modernism.

  12. #12 Martin R
    April 22, 2009

    Said MMR: Social constructivism … is absolutely necessary for studying (humanistically) scientific practice.

    That may be so, but the meta-study field you mention has swamped large tracts of the primary study of archaeology in academe and drained it of resources. I think that sort of thing should be funded with money earmarked for lit-crit and history of scholarship. I want our departments to study the past, not archaeologists of the past.

    As for “It does equate to a philosophical stance on realism/antirealism”, I wonder if that sentence is missing a negation.

    Said Llewelly, I thought that story was a hilarious spoof of post-modernism.

    Maybe! Just like UKLG took the mick out of Doris Lessing in that Mars mission story in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. I can’t remember its name.

  13. #13 Colleen
    April 22, 2009

    Ah, the delightful Ms. LeGuin! Y’all do realize that her papa was Alfred Kroeber, right?

  14. #14 mmr
    April 22, 2009

    Martin R: correct… “not” was supposed to be in there. Whoops. Btw, I’m a historian, and I’ve never run across archeologists getting funded doing work in my field at my university. That does seem odd. To clarify, I was just trying to put a word in for constructivism. I think that scientists mistrust it based on a misunderstanding; “socially constructed” does not mean “not real.”
    (i.e. there really may be milk in the fridge, but your knowledge of it is in a way socially constructed, because somebody taught you as a kid that milk should be in a fridge and not, say, in a cow out back. Social construction is an analytical tool if your question is “Why did he look in the fridge?” It would be dumb to use if you just wanted a glass of milk.)

  15. #15 Martin R
    April 23, 2009

    MMR, academic archaeology in north-western Europe has been heavily influenced by post-modernist lit-crit and sociology since the mid-80s. It’s called “post-processual” or “contextual” or “critical” archaeology. Important names are Hodder, Shanks and Tilley. I have been actively fighting this tendency since I was 22.

  16. #16 CCBC
    April 23, 2009

    I’ve been waiting for somebody else to bring this up but since no one has, I’ll stick my neck out: is it possible that LeGuin is referencing (or satirizing) quantum physics here? The notion that something’s state or position is dependent on the observer is fundamental. Anyway, I know nothing about physics, I have read little LeGuin, and I avoid constructivism; that’s the trifecta of ignorance for this topic so, head bowed, I await enlightenment.

  17. #17 Martin R
    April 24, 2009

    They are similar concepts. But in LeGuin’s stories, it’s more like the people in the ship have to sit down around a spatiotemporally indeterminate camp fire and tell a long collaborative story in order to collapse their wave function.

  18. #18 Bardgrun
    February 27, 2011

    Who cares? It looks like someone has come close to actually making a kind of warp drive called STDTS – http://www.topix.com/forum/cleveland/TNGLUCKQACNTF2NSJ !

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