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The anthropologist Leon E. Stover says of science fiction's relationship to anthropology: "Anthropological science fiction enjoys the philosophical luxury of providing answers to the question "What is man?" while anthropology the science is still learning how to frame it".[1]: 472  The editors of a collection of anthropological SF stories observed:

Anthropology is the science of man. It tells the story from ape-man to spaceman, attempting to describe in detail all the epochs of this continuing history. Writers of fiction, and in particular science fiction, peer over the anthropologists' shoulders as the discoveries are made, then utilize the material in fictional works. Where the scientist must speculate reservedly from known fact and make a small leap into the unknown, the writer is free to soar high on the wings of fancy.[2]: 12 

Charles F. Urbanowicz, Professor of Anthropology, California State University, Chico has said of anthropology and SF:

Anthropology and science fiction often present data and ideas so bizarre and unusual that readers, in their first confrontation with both, often fail to appreciate either science fiction or anthropology. Intelligence does not merely consist of fact, but in the integration of ideas -- and ideas can come from anywhere, especially good science fiction![3]

The difficulty in describing category boundaries for 'anthropological SF' is illustrated by a reviewer of an anthology of anthropological SF, written for the journal American Anthropologist, which warned against too broad a definition of the subgenre, saying: "Just because a story has anthropologists as protagonists or makes vague references to 'culture' does not qualify it as anthropological science fiction, although it may be 'pop' anthropology." The writer concluded the book review with the opinion that only "twelve of the twenty-six selections can be considered as examples of anthropological science fiction."[4]: 798 

This difficulty of categorization explains the exclusions necessary when seeking the origins of the subgenre. Thus:

Nineteenth-century utopian writings and lost-race sagas notwithstanding, anthropological science fiction is generally considered a late-twentieth-century phenomenon, best exemplified by the work of writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Bishop, Joanna Russ, Ian Watson, and Chad Oliver.[5]: 243 

Again, questions of description are not simple as Gary Westfahl observes:

... others present hard science fiction as the most rigorous and intellectually demanding form of science fiction, implying that those who do not produce it are somehow failing to realize the true potential of science fiction. This is objectionable ...; writers like Chad Oliver and Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, bring to their writing a background in anthropology that makes their extrapolated aliens and future societies every bit as fascinating and intellectually involving as the technological marvels and strange planets of hard science fiction. Because anthropology is a social science, not a natural science, it is hard to classify their works as hard science fiction, but one cannot justly construe this observation as a criticism.[6]: 189 

Despite being described as a "late-twentieth-century phenomenon" (above) anthropological SF's roots can be traced further back in history. H. G. Wells (1866–1946) has been called "the Shakespeare of SF"[7]: 133  and his first anthropological story has been identified by anthropologist Leon E. Stover as "The Grisly Folk".[8] Stover notes that this story is about Neanderthal Man, and writing in 1973,[1]: 472  continues: "[the story] opens with the line 'Can these bones live?' Writers are still trying to make them live, the latest being Golding.[9] Some others in between have been de Camp,[10] Del Rey,[11] Farmer,[12] and Klass.[13]"

A more contemporary example of the Neanderthal as subject is Robert J. Sawyer's trilogy "The Neanderthal Parallax" – here "scientists from an alternative earth in which Neanderthals superseded homo sapiens cross over to our world. The series as a whole allows Sawyer to explore questions of evolution and humanity's relationship to the environment."[14]: 317 

Authors and works

Chad Oliver

Anthropological science fiction is best exemplified by the work of writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Bishop, Joanna Russ, Ian Watson, and Chad Oliver. Of this pantheon, Oliver is alone in being also a professional anthropologist, author of academic tomes such as Ecology and Cultural Continuity as Contributing Factors in the Social Organization of the Plains Indians (1962) and The Discovery of Anthropology (1981) in addition to his anthropologically-inflected science fiction. Although he tried, in a superficial way, to separate these two aspects of his career, signing his anthropology texts with his given name "Symmes C. Oliver", he nonetheless saw them as productively interrelated. "I like to think," he commented in a 1984 interview, "that there's a kind of feedback ... that the kind of open-minded perspective in science fiction conceivably has made me a better anthropologist. And on the other side of the coin, the kind of rigor that anthropology has, conceivably has made me a better science fiction writer."[5]: 243 

Thus "Oliver's Unearthly Neighbors (1960) highlights the methods of ethnographic fieldwork by imagining their application to a nonhuman race on another world. His Blood's a Rover (1955 [1952]) spells out the problems of applied anthropology by sending a technical-assistance team to an underdeveloped planet. His Rite of Passage (1966 [1954]) is a lesson in the patterning of culture, how humans everywhere unconsciously work out a blueprint for living. Anthropological wisdom is applied to the conscious design of a new blueprint for American society in his Mother of Necessity (1972 [1955])".[15] Oliver's The Winds of Time is a "science fiction novel giving an excellent introduction to the field methods of descriptive linguistics".[16]: 96 

In 1993 a journal of SF criticism requested from writers and critics of SF a list of their 'most neglected' writers,[17] and Chad Oliver was listed in three replies. Among the works chosen were: Shadows in the Sun,[18] Unearthly Neighbors,[19] and The Shores of Another Sea.[20] One respondent declared that "Oliver's anthropological SF is the precursor of more recent novels by Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Bishop, and others";[citation needed] another that "Chad Oliver was developing quiet, superbly crafted anthropological fictions long before anyone had heard of Le Guin; maybe his slight output and unassuming plots (and being out of print) have caused people to overlook the carefully thought-out ideas behind his fiction".[citation needed]

In the novel Shadows in the Sun the protagonist, Paul Ellery, is an anthropologist doing field work in the town of Jefferson Springs, Texas—a place where he discovers extraterrestrial aliens. It has been remarked that:

Not only are these aliens comprehensible in anthropological terms, but it is anthropology, rather than the physical sciences, that promises a solution to the problem of alien colonization. According to the science of anthropology, every society, regardless of its level of development, has to functionally meet certain human needs. The aliens of Jefferson Springs "had learned, long ago, that it was the cultural core that counted-the deep and underlying spirit and belief and knowledge, the tone and essence of living. Once you had that, the rest was window dressing. Not only that, but the rest, the cultural superstructure, was relatively equal in all societies (115; emphasis in original). For Ellery, the aliens are not "supermen" (a favorite Campbellian conceit): despite their fantastic technologies, they are ultimately ordinary people with the expected array of weaknesses – laziness, factionalism, arrogance – whose cultural life is as predictable as any Earth society's. Since they are not superior, they are susceptible to defeat, but the key lies not in the procurement of advanced technologies, but in the creative cultural work of Earth people themselves.[5]: 248 

A reviewer of The Shores of Another Sea finds the book "curiously flat despite its exploration of an almost mythical, and often horrific, theme".[21]: 202  The reviewer's reaction is not surprising because, as Samuel Gerald Collins points out in the 'New Wave Anthropology' section of his comprehensive review of Chad Oliver's work: "In many ways, the novel is very much unlike Oliver's previous work; there is little moral resolution, nor is anthropology of much help in determining what motivates the aliens. In striking contrast to the familiar chumminess of the aliens in Shadows in the Sun and The Winds of Time, humans and aliens in Shores of Another Sea systematically misunderstand one another."[5]: 253  Collins continues:

In fact, the intervening decade between Oliver's field research and the publication of Shores [1971] had been one of critical self-reflection in the field of anthropology. In the United States, qualms about the Vietnam war, together with evidence that anthropologists had been employed as spies and propagandists by the US government, prompted critiques of anthropology's role in systems of national and global power. Various strains of what came to be known as dependency theory disrupted the self-congratulatory evolutionism of modernization models, evoking and critiquing a world system whose political economy structurally mandated unequal development. Less narrowly academic works such as Vine Deloria, Jr.'s, Custer Died for Your Sins (1969), combined with the efforts of civil-rights groups like the American Indian Movement, skewered anthropology's paternalist pretensions. Two major collections of essays -- Dell Hymes's Reinventing Anthropology (1972) and Talal Asad's Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1973) -- explored anthropology's colonial legacy and precipitated a critical engagement with the ethics and politics of ethnographic representation.: 253 

At the conclusion of his essay, discussing Chad Oliver's legacy Collins says:

The lesson of Chad Oliver for sf is that his Campbell-era commitments to the power of technology, rational thinking, and the evolutionary destiny of "humanity" came to seem an enshrinement of a Western imperialist vision that needed to be transcended, through a rethinking of otherness driven by anthropological theory and practice. Above all, Oliver's career speaks to many of the shared impulses and assumptions of anthropology and sf, connections that have only grown more multifarious and complex since his death in 1993.: 257 

Ursula K. Le Guin

It has often been observed that Ursula K. Le Guin's interest in anthropology and its influence on her fiction derives from the influence of both her mother Theodora Kroeber, and of her father, Alfred L. Kroeber.[22]: 410 [23]: 61 [24]: 1 

Warren G. Rochelle in his essay on Le Guin notes that from her parents she:

acquired the "anthropological attitude" necessary for the observation of another culture – or for her, the invention of another culture: the recognition and appreciation of cultural diversity, the necessity to be a "close and impartial observer", who is objective, yet recognizes the inescapable subjectivity that comes with participation in an alien culture.[22]: 410 

Another critic has observed that Le Guin's "concern with cultural biases is evident throughout her literary career", and continues,

In The Word for World is Forest (1972), for example, she explicitly demonstrates the failure of colonialists to comprehend other cultures, and shows how the desire to dominate and control interferes with the ability to perceive the other. Always Coming Home (1985) is an attempt to allow another culture to speak for itself through songs and music (available in cassette form), writings, and various unclassifiable fragments. Like a documentary, the text presents the audience with pieces of information that they can sift through and examine. But unlike a traditional anthropological documentary, there is no "voice-over" to interpret that information and frame it for them. The absence of "voice-over" commentary in the novel forces the reader to draw conclusions rather than rely on a scientific analysis which would be tainted with cultural blind spots. The novel, consequently, preserves the difference of the alien culture and removes the observing neutral eye from the scene until the very end.[23]

Le Guin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness[25] has been called "the most sophisticated and technically plausible work of anthropological science fiction, insofar as the relationship of culture and biology is concerned",[26]: 472  and also rated as "perhaps her most notable book".[27]: 244  This novel forms part of Le Guin's Hainish Cycle (so termed because it develops as a whole "a vast story about diverse planets seeded with life by the ancient inhabitants of Hain").[28]: 46–47 [note 1] The series is "a densely textured anthropology, unfolding through a cycle of novels and stories and actually populated by several anthropologists and ethnologists"."[29]: 183  Le Guin employs the SF trope of inter-stellar travel which allows for fictional human colonies on other worlds developing widely differing social systems.[30] For example, in The Left Hand of Darkness "a human envoy to the snowbound planet of Gethan struggles to understand its sexually ambivalent inhabitants".[31]: 180  Published in 1969, this Le Guin novel:

is only one of many subsequent novels that have dealt with androgyny and multiple gender/sex identities through a variety of approaches, from Samuel R. Delany's Triton (1976), Joanna Russ's Female Man (1975), Marge Piercy's Woman at the Edge of Time (1976), Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series (1962–1996) and Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy (1987-89). Though innovative in its time, it is not its construction of androgyny itself that is remarkable about Le Guin's text. Rather, it is her focus on the way that the androgynes are perceived and how they are constructed within a particular discourse, that of scientific observation. This discourse is manifested specifically in the language of anthropology, the social sciences as a whole, and diplomacy. This focus, in turn, places Le Guin's novel within a body of later works – such as Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed novels (1984-87) and C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series (1994-96) – that deal with an outside observer's arrival on an alien planet, all of which indicate the difficulty of translating the life-style of an alien species into a language and cultural experience that is comprehensible. As such, these texts provide critiques of anthropological discourse that are similar to Trinh Minh-ha's attempts to problematize the colonialist beginnings and imperialistic undertones of anthropology as a science.[23]

Geoffery Samuel has pointed out some specific anthropological aspect to Le Guin's fiction, noting that:

the culture of the people of Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness clearly owes a lot to North-West Coast Indian and Eskimo culture; the role of dreams of Athshe (in The Word for World is Forest) is very reminiscent of that described for the Temiar people of Malaysia; and the idea of a special vocabulary of terms of address correlated with a hierarchy of knowledge, in City of Illusions, recalls the honorific terminologies of many Far Eastern cultures (such as Java or Tibet).[30]

However, Fredric Jameson says of The Left Hand of Darkness that the novel is "constructed from a heterogeneous group of narratives modes ...", and that:

... we find here intermingled: the travel narrative (with anthropological data), the pastiche myth, the political novel (in the restricted sense of the drama of court intrigue), straight SF (the Hainish colonization, the spaceship in orbit around Gethen's sun), Orwellian dystopia ..., adventure story ..., and finally even, something like a multiracial love story (the drama of communication between the two cultures and species).[32]: 267 

Similarly Adam Roberts warns against a too narrow an interpretation of Le Guin's fiction, pointing out that her writing is always balanced and that "balance as such forms one of her major concerns. Both Left Hand and The Dispossed (1974) balance form to theme, of symbol to narration, flawlessly".[27]: 244–245  Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the novel The Left Hand of Darkness is steeped in anthropological thought, with one academic critic noting that "the theories of [French anthropologist] Claude Lévi-Strauss provide an access to understanding the workings of the myths" in the novel.[33] Later in the essay the author explains:

Unlike the openended corpus of actual myths that anthropologists examine, the corpus of myths in The Left Hand of Darkness is closed and complete. Therefore, it is possible to analyze the entire set of Gethenian myths and establish the ways in which they are connected. Kinship exchange, in the Lévi-Straussian sense, comprises their dominant theme. In them, Le Guin articulates the theme of exchange by employing contrary images – heat and cold, dark and light, home and exile, name and namelessness, life and death, murder and sex – so as finally to reconcile their contrariety. The myths present wholeness, or unity, as an ideal; but that wholeness is never merely the integrity of an individual who stands apart from society. Instead, it consists of the tenuous and temporary integration of individuals into social units.: 181 


  1. ^ Hainish series of novels: Rocannon's World (1966) Planet of Exile (1966) City of Illusions (1967) The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) The Word for World is Forest (1972) The Dispossed (1974)


  1. ^ a b Stover, Leon, E. "Anthropology and Science Fiction", Current Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Oct., 1973)
  2. ^ Stover, Leon E. and Harrison, Harry (eds.). Apeman, Spaceman (London: Penguin, 1968)
  3. ^ Urbanowicz, Charles F. "Cultures: fact or fiction?" Presented at the discussion For the Anthropology House Forum known as "El Mundo" on November 11, 1976. "Available on-line"
  4. ^ Sills, Yole, G. Review Apeman, Spaceman: Anthropological Science Fiction, Leon E. Stover and Harry Harrison (eds.), American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Aug., 1969)
  5. ^ a b c d Collins, Samuel Gerald. "Scientifically Valid and Artistically True: Chad Oliver, Anthropology, and Anthropological SF", Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Jul., 2004)
  6. ^ Westfahl, Gary. "Hard Science Fiction" in Seed, David (ed.). A Companion to Science Fiction (Malden: Blackwell, 2008)
  7. ^ Aldiss, Brian W. and David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, (London: Victor Gollanez, 1986)
  8. ^ Wells, H. G. "The grisly folk," in Selected short stories, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968 (1921), pp. 285-98)
  9. ^ Golding, William. The inheritors (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962)
  10. ^ De Camp, L. Sprague, "The Gnarly Man" in The Wheels of If and Other Science Fiction, (Chicago: Shasta, 1948 (1939)), pp. 194-222.
  11. ^ Del Rey, Lester "Day is done," in Groff Conklin (ed.) Operation Future (New York: Permabooks, 1955 (1939), pp. 138-54)
  12. ^ Farmer, Philip Jose "The alley man", in The alley god, (New York: Ballantine, 1959), pp. 7-53.
  13. ^ Klass, Morton "In the beginning," in Leon E. Stover and Harry Harrison (eds.) Apeman, spaceman, (New York: Berkley, 1970 (1954), pp. 133-48).
  14. ^ Barbour, Douglas. "Canadian Science Fiction" in Seed, David (ed.). A Companion to Science Fiction (Malden: Blackwell, 2008)
  15. ^ Stover, Leon E. "Anthropology and Science Fiction", Current Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Oct., 1973), pp. 471-474
  16. ^ Meyers, Walter E. "Linguistics and SF" Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 96-97
  17. ^ "Unjustly Neglected Works of Science Fiction", Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Nov., 1993), pp. 422-432
  18. ^ Oliver, Chad. Shadows in the Sun. New York: Ballantine, 1954. Rpt. New York: Crown, 1985.
  19. ^ Oliver, Chad. Unearthly Neighbors. 1960. New York: Crown, 1984.
  20. ^ Oliver, Chad. The Shores of Another Sea. 1971. New York: Crown, 1984
  21. ^ Barbour, Douglas. "Review: Crown's Classics of Modern Science Fiction" Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Jul., 1984), pp. 200-203
  22. ^ a b Rochelle, Warren G. "Ursula K. Le Guin" in David Seed (ed.) A companion to Science Fiction (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008)
  23. ^ a b c Fayad, Mona. "Aliens, androgynes, and anthropology: Le Guin's critique of representation in The Left Hand of Darkness", Mosaic: a Journal for the interdisciplinary Study of Literature. Winnipeg: Sep 1997.Vol. 30, Iss. 3
  24. ^ Bucknall, Barbara J. Ursula K. Le Guin, (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981)
  25. ^ Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace, 1969)
  26. ^ Stover, Leon E. "Anthropology and Science Fiction" Current Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Oct., 1973)
  27. ^ a b Roberts, Adam. The History of Science Fiction, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan , 2005)
  28. ^ Harris-Fain, Darren. Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction. The Age of Maturity, 1970-2000, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005)
  29. ^ Collins, Samuel Gerald. "Sail On! Sail On!: Anthropology, Science Fiction, and the Enticing Future", Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, (Jul., 2003)
  30. ^ a b Samuel, Geoffrey."Inventing Real Cultures: Some Comments on Anthropology and Science Fiction. Part 2" Archived 2010-12-18 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ Pringle, David. The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, (London: Grafton Books, 1990)
  32. ^ Jameson, Fredric. World Reduction in Le Guin in "Archaeologies of the Future. The Desire Called Utopia and other Science Fictions", (New York: Verso, 2005)
  33. ^ Walker, Jeanne Murray. "Myth, Exchange and History in The Left Hand of Darkness", Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Jul., 1979), pp.180-189