Thu
Aug 23 2012 2:00pm
Some Thoughts on Anthropological Science Fiction as a Sub-Genre

After reading A Woman of the Iron People (post) I started thinking about anthropological science fiction as a sub-genre. The central concept that would define it is: one lone traveler, from a spaceship culture that is recognisably connected to our future, as an outsider exploring the culture of a planet populated with low-tech and culturally fascinating people. There may be other people from the spaceship culture around, but the lone traveler is central.

There isn’t a human colony on the planet—if there is then this can shade into the “wish for something different at the frontier” sub-genre (post) and there’s certainly some overlap. It also has overlap with the classic first contact story. There are also stories where there are a small group of humans on a planet, usually with different agendas of anthropology versus exploitation, like Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s Lear’s Daughters (post). And there are stories about people who aren’t interested in examining the lower tech culture so much as getting what they can out of it and changing it in the process, like in H. Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen and Jerry Pournelle’s King David’s Spaceship.

But I’m most interested in the lone anthropologist version, and I’ve found a pile of examples.

It’s possible that Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman is in this sub-genre, but I haven’t read it and can’t get hold of it.

The first book I have read in this precise sub-genre is Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, (1968) though it’s possible to argue that Rocannon’s World (1966) is also doing this. Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist and so perhaps the idea came naturally to her—I’m assuming a certain degree of influence—and that everyone else read Le Guin and thought that this would be an awesome kind of story to write.

Other examples are Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed (1983), Walter Jon Williams’s Ambassador of Progress (1984, post coming soon), Eleanor Arnason’s A Woman of the Iron People (1991), Kate Ellott’s Jaran (1992, post), Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite (1992) and Amy Thomson’s The Color of Distance (1995).

When thinking about all of these books together the appeal for me is always the alien culture. There’s one person, one stranger, who finds the culture strange in ways in which it would also be strange to us, they are thrust into it to try to understand how it works, and we all figure it out together. I love that. Then there’s the question of whether, or how much, the anthropologist goes native.

Of the books on my list, the most alien aliens by a long way are Thomson’s in The Color of Distance. They are immensely alien and the book deserves its own post. All the others are either explicitly human colonies (Ambassador of Progress, Ammonite) or really surprisingly human-like despite being completely alien (Golden Witchbreed, A Woman of the Iron People) and the Gethenians of The Left Hand of Darkness are neither a human colony nor absolute aliens but a Hainish experiment, as Earth also is. I’ve always thought this was a wonderful conceit. But generally, while there may be biological differences, the differences the anthropologist is busy noting tend to be mostly in regards to social organization.

In general, the future high tech world is kept off-stage—the point is the immersion in the low tech culture. The anthropologist misses things we would miss—coffee, hot showers and comfortable beds, not sonic cleansers and antigrav beds. The same goes culturally, the future culture is generally assumed to be the default of the time the book was written. Of course, in older books this can feel strange when our culture has already moved on. I’m not thinking so much of the writing on ancient floppies in Ammonite so much as the rigid sex roles of Genli Ai’s expectations. When the other humans are brought onstage, as at the end of The Woman of the Iron People and in Ancient Light, the sequel to Golden Witchbreed, then you’re heading into very different territory.

While making this list I noticed an interesting thing about gender. Apart from Le Guin’s books, all the anthropolosists in all of these books are women. The representatives of high tech culture, the everyperson from a world closer to our own, just happens to be female in all five of my examples. Also, only one of the authors, Walter Jon Williams, is male. Is this a story that’s particularly attractive to women? On the one hand, I love it, so I guess... But what does that say about men? I mean, come on, who doesn’t want to be the first person to travel on another planet and come to truly understand an alien culture? The stories do have a tendency to be interested in gender in the investigated cultures too—The Left Hand of Darkness, of course, but Golden Witchbreed, Ammonite and A Woman of the Iron People all also have gender as a weird and interesting thing about their cultures.

One of the things that seems to me to be on the edges of this sub-genre is the Margali section of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Shattered Chain (1976) where Madga Lorne, Terran agent, travels through Darkover in disguise. It has the same kind of feel even though she isn’t the only Terran on the planet. She’s always making culture notes for the Terrans in the same kind of way. I wonder if this influence along with Le Guin had the kind of positive role-model effect we always hear that things can have. That people thinking of writing about an anthropologist among aliens would just naturally start thinking in a feminist direction?

Talking about this with Alison Sinclair, who uses this theme, along with a lot of other things, in Legacies (post) (1995) she suggested that it might be a version of the heroine’s journey.

Lois said that traditionally in most cultures men went out and came back again, off to have adventures and then home to settle down and inherit from their father, whereas women went out and didn’t come back, inheriting from strangers—their husband’s parents.

These anthropologists are leaving their own culture and traveling into a strange culture and finding a family there. That does feel right. It’s surprising how often the protagonists do “go native” and settle down on the planet. I find this an intriguing thought. (Spoilers ahead for The Left Hand of Darkness!) It’s a particularly intriguing thought when I think about Genly Ai, who is a man, who doesn’t find a family and doesn’t settle down but who does love Estraven. If you start looking at Genly as a heroine looking for love there’s an odd romantic pattern there, with Estraven from the beginning the person he dislikes and who he should be trusting. But Genly is a man, and Estraven, for all his pronouns, is something else entirely.

It’s also especially interesting when thinking about another book that almost fits — Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Seeing Ender as on a heroine’s journey in that story rather than a hero’s journey makes a lot of sense. I wonder if I could re-read it?

So, does anyone have any examples from before 1966 or after 1995? Or other examples generally? Or any more theories as to what’s going on with the gender thing?

[Picture of the Grand Gulch Rincon Petroglyph via]


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

51 comments
Emily Cartier
1. Torrilin
Is there a reason why Maya Kathryn Bonhoff's stories about Rhys Llewellyn don't get mentioned? I mean, yes, Rhys usually works with his team, and no, not all the stories are first contact... But it's definitely Anthropologists! In Space!
Jenny Thrash
2. Sihaya
In college my anthroplogy advisor took on the task of leading an anthropology/English elective class on the subject of science fiction. Among the required reading was Speaker for the Dead, Left Hand of Darkness, one of the books from Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (can't remember which one - I really didn't like it), And Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Now, our subject was anthropology, not anthropologists, so it was a bit different, but I find the overlap cool.
wiredog
3. wiredog
Cyber Way by Foster is sort-of anthropological. Also a police procedural. Which I guess is the same thing.
wiredog
4. JennS
Interesting article! I was an anthropology major as an undergrad and I always felt like what drew me to the topic initially was at least partially my interest in sci fi/fantasy. What is world building if not a sort of anthropology? (at least if it is done well...) I haven't read some of these books, and the ones I have read I haven't read in a while, but I will defintely need to go look them up. I'm not sure why "anthropologists in spaaaaace" should be any more interesting to women, but I do think that once you are thinking about writing that sort of story, examining gender roles is a natural fit. It's certainly one of the things anthropologists look at. And it's something we're already used to discussing in larger society - as long as feminism has been a thing, journalists have spilled a lot of ink discussing what a woman's role in society should be and how it has changed. There's been some discussion of how men's roles have changed too, but it seems to be more of a counterpoint - part of the topic of feminism. That women might be more drawn to continuing this discussion through fiction seems unsurprising?
I would be interested to know if there are any new examples of this sort of book. Certainly talking about gender has not become less interesting, but has the idea of being an anthropologist? I think it has a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it, at least for fiction. (then again, I have not read a book with an honest-to-goodness spaceship in it for a while, so maybe I've just haven't been looking at the right books)
Oh, and as wiredog points out above, if you want to look at forensic anthropology (rather than cultural anthropology, which seemed to be the focus of your article) you'd probably find a lot more anthropologists...?
S Cooper
5. SPC
Le Guin's The Telling is on the fringes of this too, published in 2003, and with a female protagonist, to boot. With the world having already been severely corrupted by its first contact, I would guess in some ways it's closer to the experience of anthropology as it's practiced now.
Matthew Brown
6. morven
Some of C.J. Cherryh's work is like this too, though I don't think she's had any actual anthropologists take up this role. Most of the Faded Sun trilogy is like this, with the lone human immersed in an alien culture. The Foreigner series, also, though I haven't read much of that.

Her Chanur books are from the point-of-view of aliens but have a lone human aboard, who's kind of this, but that's not the only focus of those.

She's certainly rather into the "lone emissary from humanity among the aliens" trope, though sometimes the alienness is a strange human culture, like that of 40,000 in Gehenna, a culture descended from clone soldiers abandoned on a planet.

It's an interesting subgenre, that's for sure.
Clark Myers
7. ClarkEMyers
Somebody wrote
Biggle’s main themes across all his work are anthropology, music and the effects of colonialism.
The Silent Language by Hall was mined for story ideas pretty well.
There have been any number of stories, mostly shorts IIRC filing the numbers off the days when the typical Navaho family was the parents, the children, the sheep and the anthropolgist - see also the story of Ishi.

Mostly my reaction to much of the message has been like my reaction to Card's Speaker for the Dead - all the other sciences are superscience but commonplaces of information gathering already present in today's big brother is watching world are left out to make a had I but known mystery for the reader. See e.g. David Drake's The Sharp End - replay of Dashiel Hammet, Kurosawa and Clint Eastwood - with improved data gathering and information technology helping to modify a society. Planet of the Damned by Harry Harrison (arguably a thinly veiled social commentary on people lacking the higher functions of their brains who menace their home planet with cobalt bombs) uses a sort of hero's quest after specifically discussed scientific methods - mostly statistical analysis involving sampling and analysis - fail and more information from participant observation is necessary.
wiredog
8. cleo
I can think of a post 1995 book for you, but it's by one of the authors you already mentioned. The Telling by Ursula Le Guin was published in 2000. It's another Hainish book and it fits your sub-genre, I think.

The heroine Sutty is a Terran observer for the Ekumen on the planet Aka. She's lesbian and picked Aka because the culture accepted homosexuality. By the time she arrived at Aka, they'd had a revolution and outlawed homosexuality and much of the previous cultural beliefs. She's not the only Ekumen observer, but she goes up river by herself to observe remnants of the older, suppressed culture. She doesn't go native, exactly, but I think she fits with the heroine's journey.
Brian McCullogh
9. webmccullogh
Chad Oliver was my first exposure to what was called anthropological science fiction in the 1960's. It has been almost 40 years since I read his books but NESFA Press published three omnibus editions (2003 - 2008) of most of his work.
wiredog
10. dmw100
Anyone else ever read Floating Worlds by Cecelia Holland? Fits the category like a glove....
wiredog
11. DaveMB
Transfigurations by Michael Bishop, which I read soon after it came out in 1979 and never again since, was very much in this genre. Wikipedia classifies five other works by Bishop as "anthropological novels".
Del C
12. del
Apart from Bohnhoff's character being an embarrassingly lazy "Celtic" cardboard collage (Welsh name, Irish accent, ginger sideburns, kilt)? I found the anthropology failure of Llewellyn so jarring I couldn't concentrate on the supposed anthropology.
Zack Weinberg
13. zwol
There's an inverse of this genre as well, in which the viewpoint characters are from a culture that's under covert observation by anthropologists from another (usually much higher tech) culture. They discover the anthropologists and have to decide what to do next.

The best example I know is Patricia McKillip's Moon-Flash, which is brilliant (the link is to an omnibus edition including the sequel, which is not quite as good); the only other example that comes to mind is Robert Silverberg's Kingdoms of the Wall, not remotely as good but still worth reading.
Nicole Lowery
14. hestia
The heroine's journey in many of these books also makes a good counterpoint to the oft-told hero's journey where the hero "goes native" by becoming the leader and savior of the low-tech civilization.

By letting the main character learn about the civilization on the civilization's own terms, instead of imposing his or her own cultural expectations, we tend to see a much more nuanced culture.
Shelly wb
15. shellywb
I'd include Elizabeth Moon's Remnant Population in this. It's from the late 90s I think. The human is a lone older woman who doesn't want to leave a planet, and she finds a whole civilization there with her that had been ignored the way she had been.

It seems from my reading experiences that men in these situations get pitted against future or more advanced societies, and women find themselves in primitive ones. I have no idea why though, and leave that to better minds to unravel.
wiredog
16. CarlosSkullsplitter
Jennifer Pournelle's Outies is close to this. I think it's a more than worthy sequel to The Mote in God's Eye. Two aspects: the anthropologist on a newly rediscovered human world (an updated riff on Pournelle/Piper), and then the anthropologist encountering a previously unknown, very low technology alien settlement. The book caught Keri Hulme's attention.
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
Torrilin: The reason is that I haven't read them. The world is full of books I haven't read. I'm not even ashamed of this -- I'm glad, as it means that there are always new things turning up. I'll look out for these.

Cleo: I've only read The Telling once and I remember it being one of the more message-y Le Guin's. I could read it again. Thank you for reminding me of it.

Morven: I don't think any of the Cherryh quite fit. I thought hard about whether to mention the Atevi books as an almost.

Zwol: Good thought. Sylvia Engdahl's Far Side of Evil and Enchantress of the Stars too. It's ages since I read those. Hmm.
Emily Cartier
18. Torrilin
Del, I read that as very deliberate... it's exactly the sort of fake Celtic that a large share of Americans do to get in touch with their "roots". You'll see similar behavior in pretty much any immigrant group that imagines they would be nobility back in the "old country". It's a tempting fantasy, and I can understand the allure... sadly, I don't get to share it, since my family has pretty good records. (my understanding is Americans are by no means the only ones to share in this silliness too... we're just more obvious about it)

I also liked that while Rhys is really rather silly, not all the humans have the same culture, or the same reaction to their culture. There's pretty clear illustration of at least 2 other human cultural groups to go with all the alien cultures.

Jo, heh, sorry! I read most of them as a teen when they were first published in Analog and we've seemed to have a lot of overlap, so it surprised me that they were missing.
wiredog
19. Jmiked
I'll second the mention of Chad Oliver. Not only was his science fiction anthropology-based (mostly with an anthropologist main character, as I recall), but for years he was the Chairman of
the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin and did numerous field trips to various locations in Africa. One of the first SF books I read back in the mid-fifties was his Shadows in the Sun (1954). It made a huge impression on me. I recently picked up the two NESFA collections of his short fiction and I'm enjoying reading some of
the works that I hadn't had the opportunity of reading previously.
wiredog
20. HelenS
Where would you put Out of the Silent Planet? I realize philology is a lot more restricted than anthropology, but it has some of the same atmosphere to me.
wiredog
21. LK
Would Jacqueline Lichtenberg's Dushau trilogy fit? The characters are pretty much on the run, but the heroine is learning about and how to fit in to the Dushau society.
wiredog
22. MJN9
I really like this sub-genre and wish I could find more to read, especially in e-book format.
Doris Lessing's "Canopus in Argos" books have stuck with me for a long time, and seem to fit the patterns you described.
wiredog
23. Tehanu
I have a minor quibble - the two societies in The Left Hand of Darkness are not "low-tech" or "primitive" compared to the society Genly Ai comes from. The main difference (well, other than the gender stuff) is that they don't have space travel.
Karen Lofstrom
24. DPZora
Heinlein's 1950s juvenile Citizen of the Galaxy features a female anthropologist who's clearly modeled on Margaret Mead.
Aquila G
25. Aquila1nz
Yes, one of my very favorite subgenres.

An edge case: Theodora in Gate of Ivory - like Tess (Jaran) she's stranded rather than arriving to first contact/study/evaluate, and she's not an anthropologist, but she does study folklore. But then I wonder if Cordelia Naismith is an edge case too, and I think I'm just wandering into the outsider inserted by the author as observer and explainer, for different plot reasons than anthropological sf. So not all lost colony fiction is anthropological sf? Pern certainly isn't.

Yes, I'd say the Atevi books are an almost, mostly for their focus on language as cultural barrier. Of course Cherryh circles around the ideas all the time with her alien aliens and her alien humans and explorations of outsiders and split loyalties.

My example that (I suspect very intentionally) reverses one aspect of it: Mission Child by Maureen McHugh. Janna is not from Earth, she's indigenous? semi-indigenous? to the planet (I'm thinking the planet was a lost colony type, but I can't really remember) but her upbringing and experiences in a time of change leave her with an outsider's anthropological-like eye as she travels her own planet.

The other book that popped up when I poked my anthropological sf tag on librarything is The Sparrow - it's definitely in dialogue with these other books, but doing different things again. And failing to be in dialogue as well.

And another book is ticking at my brain: Nancy Kress' An Alien Light. Which is something else again. Psychological sf?
wiredog
26. Matthew David Surridge
Would David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus count?

There's something kinda close in Robert Paltock's 1751 book The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, A Cornish Man. It's not unlike Robinson Crusoe, except for the society of winged folk. Not really anthropological as you're talking about, though.

Actually, it sounds a lot like you're describing More's Utopia. And to some extent Gulliver's Travels. Are the spaceships absolutely essential?

Oh, and how about Delany's Ballad of Babel-2?
wiredog
27. Matthew David Surridge
Whoops, that should be "Ballad of Beta-2". Sorry about that.
Jo Walton
28. bluejo
Matthew: The stories where somebody wanders around Utopia saying "Ooh" and "Aha!" and "How true, why did my own unenlightened people never think of that!" are something different -- the stranger isn't so much anthropologist as tourist, and the writer generally has a very visible agenda.
wiredog
29. Arin
I wish that this wasn't the term used, as it uses really a very dated notion of anthropology. Anthropology has moved on since the early part of the last century, and you have plenty of examples which do not involve high-tech to low-tech.

I prefer alternate-ethnographies, to be honest. Where the focus is on the culture in question, and there is no pseudoOther.
wiredog
30. DGSpillman
Great subject, pretty good comments. As an Anthro. grad. and a retired Med. Anth. professional; and now a full time novelist, I can tell you that this is a lucrative worm-hole for all action genre's. Also Sci-fi probably needs a shot in the arm, both in participant-observer back story and the philosophical-religious implications of other life contact/ongoing-relationship with humanity. By the way good comment Arin.
William S. Higgins
31. higgins
You need to suggest this as a panel at the next con you attend.
wiredog
32. Mary Kay
I live this type of SF. My first was probably A Mirror for Observers by Pangborn. Though the observers are alien & the observed are humans.

Is it too simplistic to suggest this type appeals to women because we live our lives in an alien culture -- that of men?

MKK
Kenneth Sutton
33. kenneth
The Sparrow also came to mind for me, as well as Karen Traviss's Wess'Har series (which inverts the technological relationship).
brightening glance
34. brightglance
Charles Oberndorf's *Foragers* would also belong to this category.
Gavin Dix-White
35. GLDWhite
The Eye of the Queen by Phillip Mann has two male ambassadors to an extremely alien humanoid culture.
wiredog
36. lorq
Le Guin's Always Coming Home could be considered an interesting "outlier" on this list. In that novel, the anthropologist-figure, Pandora, is from our own present (basically she's Le Guin herself), and the low-tech alien society is actually a high-tech/low-tech hybrid human culture on an Earth of the distant future. And of course the whole book is structured as a kind of ethnographic archive of stories, songs, and poems produced by this future culture.
wiredog
37. DapperAnarchist
It's a short story, not a novel, but I would consider 'The State of the Art' by Iain M. Banks to fit this model - however, there, the advanced anthropologists are not from Earth, but from other humanoid species, and the primitives are us. Quite literally, as it's set on Earth in the 1970s. Indeed, much of Banks' work fits in anthropologists, and even features a community who do nothing but "imitative" anthropology - they mimic the races they encounter, trying to understand them.
wiredog
38. RandolphF
Anthropological sf was a major form in the 1950s, which was also a heyday of the field of anthropology. Gordon Dickson wrote a lot of it. Hmmm, so did his friend Poul Anderson, when he wasn't being political. And of course there is the middle section of Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy.

Cherryh's work, of course, is steeped in anthropology. Consider 40,000 in Gehenna. Cyteen is the flip side of this: anthropology and imagined psychology as the basis for an engineering discipline.

This is sending me back to books I haven't thought of in decades; I would need to dig in my library for more examples.
wiredog
39. dancingcrow
Elizabeth Bear's Carnival? In some ways closer to The Gate Into Women's Country, but there is an entire world to be explained by the visiting diplomats....
Pamela Adams
40. Pam Adams
How about Rebecca Brown Ore's Becoming Alien?
wiredog
41. David G. Hartwell
More than a bit surprised to find no mention of Michael Bishop, who, along with Oliver and Le Guin, pretty much defined the subgenre of anthropological SF up to the mid-80s. "Death and Designation among the Asadi", and several important novels, novels, culminating in Ancient of Days. People used to talk a lot about Le Guin & Bishop, not just Le Guin. To have read no Bishop is as big a hole as no Oliver or no Le Guin, I think.
Jo Walton
42. bluejo
David: I have read one Bishop, a horror novel called "Who Made Stevie Crye" which still fills me with dread thinking about it twenty-plus years later. I appreciate that it is very good, but it's one of the books that made me realise that horror is really so very much not for me. I've avoided him after that traumatic experience -- how horrific is his SF?
wiredog
43. James Davis Nicoll
Wait, Jo, does this mean you have not read Brittle Innings, perhaps the finest baseball novel featuring [SPOILER REDACTED]?
wiredog
44. James Davis Nicoll
Oh, right: I cannot use square brackets here. Well, they contained SPOILER so you weren't meant to derive information from the contents anyway.
wiredog
45. Otterdaughter
I can think of one accidental anthropologist SF story:
People of the Sky by Clare Bell

On a related topic, I really like the SF archaeology stories such as:
A Whisper of Time by Paula Downing
Ancestor's World by A.C. Crispin
wiredog
46. Otterdaughter
It comes to mind, now that I think a bit longer, that there is a large subset of SF that takes humans (individually or as a small group) and thrusts them into an alien culture in which they must insert themselves into the rites/rituals of said culture in order to solve a problem. This is anthropology of a sort, is it not?

Quick examples from my bookshelf include:
Silent Dances by A. C. Crispin
Uhura's Song by Janet Kagan
wiredog
47. splurph
The story that popped into my mind was Lloyd Biggle's The Still Small Voice of Trumpets a fondly remembered book that I haven't read in years and years.

And I love Holland's Floating Worlds and was happy that someone mentioned it.
wiredog
48. RebeccaR
@20. HelenS
I was going to say "Out of the Silent Planet" too! It's the first of C. S. Lewis's sci-fi trilogy. The hero, a man called Ransom, is kidnapped and taken to Mars by two unpleasant men who have invented the first space ship, but he escapes from them. For most of the novel it's just him, living with the Martians, and learning about their culture. It's true that as a Celtic philologist he's mostly interested in philology, but that's part of anthropology too, if you agree that learning a language involves learning a mindset. There's a fantastic scene near the end where he has to translate the speeches of the malevolent humans who bought him there into the Martian's language and realises there just aren't words for "march of progress" and suchlike.
Jo Walton
49. bluejo
James: No, I have not read _Brittle Innings_, though lots of people have told me it's good. Also, baseball is one of those incomprehensible American sports...
wiredog
50. Michelle Harmon
I want to put in a second vote for Mission Child by Maureen F. McHugh, and also Rainbow Man by M. J. Eng.
wiredog
51. neroden
Most of LeGuin feels anthrolopological, even the ones without explicit anthropologists (and this probably isn't coincidental), but the extreme example is probably Solitude, where the entire plot is driven by an overly zealous anthropologist (the mother of the narrator).

I suspect Margaret Mead was a subconscious influence on the choice of female anthropologists in fiction.

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