* Social psychology in McAuley's SF

Reading Paul McAuley’s Gardens of the Sun (2009) I am greatly impressed with his ability to describe futuristic technology (for example the physics involving new spacecraft or the creation of a new species through genetic technology), which is quite unlike the (mostly very silly) science talk in movies or television series that do SF. However, since I know nothing about fields like physics or molecular biology I cannot judge whether his descriptions would remain as credible as they are when looked at with the eye of an expert. Since McAuley is a biologist by training his story may at least hold with regard to that field, but how about for example his thoughts about the propulsion of space crafts or the construction of habitats in space? I don't know.

Half way his Gardens of the Sun one of the protagonists (Sri) is stimulated to get acquainted with the literature on the functioning of the human brain with regard to emotional control and social relations. While I know almost nothing about neuroscience either, I am not entirely unfamiliar which social psychology. So how did that affect my appreciation of McAuley’s description of Sri’s study into that field?

First of all, Sri’s investigation leads her to conclude that basic emotions like joy, distress, anger, fear, surprise and disgust are mostly expressed within milliseconds, without any intervention of the higher functions of the neocortex. This comes from the field of neuroscience, which currently is very much in development. Sri connects it with the ‘sable tiger hypothesis’, the idea that these emotions are hard wired in this way because that was evolutionary useful when humans were still being hunted by predators. I'm not sure that it is entirely true though, since I've seen counter claims that state that more elaborate cognitive appraisals do play an important role.

Leaving that one aside, Sri considers other emotions, love, guilt, shame, embarrassment, pride, envy, jealousy and ‘... the pleasurable feeling of acceptance by others that the Japanese called amae’ (p. 201). Sri goes on to consider amae.

[Of the higher cognitive functions] amae was the most interesting. Even though there was no word for in Portuguese, English or any of the other major Western languages, it was definitely universal. Sri knew it as the feeling she had after making a successful presentation to her peers. Approval, belonging, being valued (p. 202).

That is not amae as I know it. I would agree that the feeling of belonging is universally important, but that is a different concept. Amae refers specifically to the behavior to appeal to and depend on another's indulgence (Lebra, 1967). The feeling Sri has after a successful presentation, is not amae, it is pride in the sense of Cooley and Scheff - a feeling that indicates both self respect and acceptance by the group. While I think McAuley is on track when he emphasises belonging, amae is a much more specific concept involving usually hierarchical relations with one person depending on the care and benevolence of another (ibid). So, while the direction of Sri's thought was not necessarily wrong, conflating amae with a sense of belonging or perhaps even interdependence is distracting to say the least. Unfortunately, the references to amae continue for a number of pages.

Almost at the end of the character Sri's exploration of social emotions, McAuley describes an interesting custom specific to the culture of the so called Outers - the people that populate the moons of Jupiter and Saturn in his book. He calls it ‘wanderjahr’ - (a German word that corresponds with ‘journeyman years’ in English) which used to point to an institution practised in the middle ages in Europe - and to some extent still is in Germany. The original institution has to do with an apprentice traveling for a number of years before he would be allowed to make his masterpiece. McAuley has modified the concept to a transition period which all youngs Outers go through, to

...leave home and travel from moon to moon. Supporting themselves with menial jobs, they discovered what excited and engaged them, experienced every variation of Outer culture, and learned how to get along with every kind of person. And because this taught them to be open-minded and tolerant, and made them feel that they belonged not to any single social subgroup or city but to the entire Outer System...

In the book this custom is disrupted by occupation of the moons, leading to maladaptive behavior of the young people affected. The fictitious custom reminded my of an article by Ruth Benedict, in which she reviews some variations between cultures she knew of, regarding the way transitions were dealt with, specifically the transition from the role of a child to that of an adult. One dimension she discusses is the transition from a ‘non-responsible status role’ to a responsible one. In some societies this transition may be very gradual, because in those even as children people are responsible for certain tasks, albeit tasks that are suited to the abilities of their age, and grow slowly into more responsible jobs. Benedict contrasts this with societies were the transition is very sudden, with some youngsters being unable to switch from being dependent to being totally independent. I think McAuley’s ‘wanderjahr’, while fictitious, is also an interesting custom that bridges the transition to adulthood (and some other functions as well), and was pleasantly surprised to find it in an SF novel.

Takie Suguyama Lebra, 1976. Japanese patterns of behavior. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press (p. 54).
Charles H. Cooley, 1956 [1922]. Human nature and the social order. Glencoe: The Free Press.
Thomas J. Scheff, 1994. Microsociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.