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?