Aliens: The Anthropology of Science Fiction

By George E. Slusser; Eric S. Rabkin | Go to book overview

5
Metamorphoses of the Dragon

George E. Slusser

The title of one of Ursula LeGuin's essays is a question: Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons? The question needs tending to. First of all, why Americans? They, LeGuin tells us, stand for technological man in general. And second of all, why afraid? What is there to be afraid of? Indeed, what does a dragon mean to technological man? To LeGuin, the dragon is the symbol of fantasy. Technological man, she claims, fears dragons, fears fantasy, because he has lost touch with the rhythms of organic life, the chthonian forces they represent. But this does not describe, to me, the development of technological culture, either in America or in the Western world. Western man, it seems, invented the dragon as its "natural" adversary for a specific purpose. He invented it as a learning device, as a means of developing strategies to harness and use the natural world -- in other words, as a technology. For by inscribing the dragon in our myths and fictions, we learn how to shape nature's wildness, its alien newness, into patterns of orderly change, of metamorphosis. Far from fearing dragons then, Western man has come to rely on them more and more.

But perhaps we rely on them too much. Or at least on the kind of dragon that operates to domesticate the potential alienness of the natural world. From the beginning of Western culture, man has interacted with dragons in various ways: he has slain them, mastered and ridden them, and finally (in a way that seems to unite East and West) coexisted with them. This latter sort of dragon lore is what LeGuin proposes. It is a mode every bit as technological as SF. Even though it is "soft," this machine is nonetheless a machine. LeGuin, however, does not see it this way. Her sense of SF is radically Cartesian. For there scientific man, in declaring himself different

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