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.


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