Friday, June 1, 2012

Teaching Anthropology through Science Fiction and Fantasy

Book orders for the Fall were due today, and I turned in my strangest list ever: nine science fiction and fantasy novels. I'm teaching a new class that introduces students to anthropology through speculative fiction, my first foray into teaching with literature. 

The class covers four major topics: 1) gender roles, sexuality, and family structure; 2) social organization and governance; 3) race, ethnicity, and culture contact; and 4) religion, ritual, and belief. For each topic, we'll read theoretical articles and ethnographic examples of documented cultural variation (past and present), as well as two novels. The students will analyze the novels for the unspoken assumptions by the authors (for example, based on the plot and characters, did the author believe certain gender roles or racial classification systems to be inherent to human societies?), and compare those assumptions to the ethnographic and archaeological literature. In the process, the students will have to consider their own assumptions about what traits make us human.

The class project is a world-building exercise. Students will create their own speculative human societies, with specific focus on our four major topics. They will have to justify the choices they make through reference to the anthropological literature, so they aren't given unlimited license for creativity. Students must engage big questions, like "are there inherent social differences between males and females?" or "what rules, if any, govern and limit human behavior and social organizations?". Our focus on speculative fictions means that students can think about how technology, or alternative rules of physics, or magical powers could change these limits and rules (what happens to gender roles if men are biologically capable of bearing children? what happens to racial classification systems if people are capable of changing their physical appearance and/or their very genes at will?) This class project is similar to the world simulation approach to Intro to Cultural Anthropology described by Mike at Savage Minds, but without the simulation, just the world-building. 

Picking the novels was hard. I wanted both science fiction and fantasy novels, both classic and new books, and a diversity of authors (to the extent that's possible). I limited my choices to books about human societies, so as not to confuse our discussions with the addition of aliens. The final reading list is a mixed bag of books I love, books I like, and books I don't care for much, but which I chose because they will generate discussion. 

Here's the list. I'd love suggestions for future editions of this class!

Gender roles, sexuality, and family structure:
Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold (one of my all-time favorite authors)
Glory Season by David Brin (not my favorite book, but good for opening discussions about family structure)

Social organization and governance:
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (just read my first Banks novel. How could I have missed this?!)
The Earthsea Cycle  (first two books), by Ursula K. Le Guin (Le Guin's not my favorite author, but I had to include her. You do know the K stands for Kroeber, right? As in the daughter of Alfred?)

Race, ethnicity, and culture contact:
Who Fears Death? by Nnedi Okorafor (Okorafor needs to write more adult fiction)
Beguilement (The Sharing Knife Book 1) by Lois McMaster Bujold (Bujold again!)

Religion, ritual, and belief:
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller (An oldie but goodie. Actually, finding appropriate books about religion was hard. Either the books had an ax to grind - think Philip Pullman - or were proselytizing - think C.S. Lewis - or, in the case of many fantasy books, the existence of supernatural forces was eminently provable, in the form of gods walking the earth or legitimate prophecies. I think the nature and function of religion would be quite different in a society where people frequently sit down to tea with their god, so I avoided those books.)
Dune by Frank Herbert (another classic)

So what gems of literature did I miss?


  1. You should look into Samuel Delany for gender explorations. His books (I.e. Dhalgren) explore all forms of sexuality and "contact" but they do tend to be long - maybe too long for a class...
    Also, Kim Stanley Robinson's mars trilogy for social organization as it shows the process of the creation of a new society. Also kind of long though... maybe just the first one...
    My former professor at KU, Don Stull, used to teach a simar class - unfortunately before my time there. It's a great idea and I hope I can teach one someday. Good luck! :)

  2. This is a fantastic idea! I very much look forward to reading updates on how your class goes.

  3. I am sure that you will get lots of great suggestions, but here is the null case. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart set in Berkeley, CA looks at how the few people who survive a pandemic find that they need to make up reinvent your 4 categories, that have died out along with most of the world's population.


  4. Thanks for the suggestions! I'll have to do another post with all of the great sounding books that I've heard about, through the comments here, Facebook, and private e-mails. Thanks!

  5. I think a great one would be "Speaker for the Dead" by Orson Scott Card. It's the second book in the Ender's Game series, but could easily be read on its own.

    A couple of the central characters are Anthropologists (Also called "Xenologers" in the book, the term used as they are working with an alien civilisation). The book addresses the study of other cultures, the fear that can arise through cultural misunderstandings, as well as highlighting that there are ethical considerations and responsibilities regarding how and what anthropologists may publish about their findings. It also looks at how human beings relate to "otherness" and how we define boundaries of same vs alien (In human terms as well, not just extra-terrestrial).

    It may be worth a read to see if it fits in with your curriculum!

    (Also, "The Left Hand of Darkness" by La Guin may be a good one regarding gender roles, with lots of focus on the human visitor's cultural observations of significant differences between his human culture and the seemingly androgynous alien culture he is an emissary to. Though like you, she's not my favourite author!)

    1. Both excellent suggestions, and actually I considered using both of those books for the class. Speaker for the Dead only narrowly lost out to Dune (close call there!). I'm going to keep Speaker in the back of my mind for next time, if the books I chose this time don't work out.

      The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the assigned books in a Science Fiction Literature class being offered in the English department during the fall. I could have still used the book, but I've never liked The Left Hand of Darkness as much, so I was glad to have an excuse not to assign it.

  6. For alien ethnography I'd suggest "The Algebraist" by Mr Banks. It has one unfortunate bit of cheese, but otherwise is brilliant.

    "Saturn's Children" by Charles Stross explores gender identity in some rather novel ways, but the robots may be too saucy for academic audiences.

    I almost forgot: Dan Simmons "Illuim" and "Olympos." Best ever reboot of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

    Doug G.

  7. Thanks, Doug! I hadn't read any Banks before someone recommended The Player of Games. I appreciate more suggestions by him. I really enjoyed Player. I'll have to check out the others, too. It's nice to have some reading lined up for the summer.

  8. Oh I wish I had come across this sooner! I just wrote a post on SF/F recs for anthropologists the other day:

    The Left Hand of Darkness isn't one of my favorites either, but I think her short stories that deal with the same universe in a much shorter format in Birthday of the World are brilliant. It is brutally anthropological (and I'm pretty sure intended at least partly as a critique of anthropology as a discipline) and some of the stories are just ... well you should read it. Like, SERIOUSLY. Even if you don't like it yourself, it was basically written for a class like the one you're teaching (especially on gender, sexuality, and family structure). Also, I think her book The Telling is fantastic for religion (also it's lyrical, gentle, and romantic where the Left Hand of Darkness is clinical and alienated). Just like, seriously. Way better than a Canticle for Leibowitz, even though I LOVE that book.

    On culture contact I would suggest the short story Lingua Franca from the collection So Long, Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. And Susan Vaught's Stormwitch could be good for race. It's urban fantasy set back in the day so it doesn't have the same world-building element (and obviously Butler's Kindred is a better known story about race in the U.S.). However, I think Octavia Butler's short story Bloodchild (alien world, humans as breeder slaves) is probabbly the best choice of all (though its devastating).

    You're not listing it as a theme, but I also think age is a pretty critical social organization not represented here (McMaster Bujold's Paladin of Souls made me think of it even though it's not really about aging), in which case you could read Scalzi's Old Man's War and Orson Scott Card's short story "Geriatric Ward".

    Off to get The Player of Games from the library now ...

  9. I love the idea of using science fiction and fantasy novels to introduce topics in anthropology. what academic articles did you have the students read in conjunction with the novels?

  10. Hello!!I am creating a list of upcoming anthropology classes about geeky topic for the blog The Geek Anthropologist and I found your post. I would love to learn more about the class you gave and I'm sure our readers would as well. Let me know if you would be interesting in guest blogging on The Geek Anthropologist, we'd love to have you over!