Science fiction and fantasy recommendations for linguistic anthropologists

After my first post on SF/F books and anthropology, I decided I had a lot more to say. Today, I will say it about things I think linguistic anthropologists* (or, you know, anyone who likes thinking about people and language) should read.

Lingua Franca, as I mentioned previously, is by Carole McDonnell in So Long, Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s a short story about people who adapted to life on a loud world by becoming deaf and using sign language but now face the loss of that language and their whole way of life thanks to mouth-speaking traders and a new technology for hearing. This is a story that I would probably have any new linguistic anthropology student read, just so they could start thinking about the same things linguistic anthropologists think about.

Trade Winds by devorah major, also in So Long, Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. Unsurprisingly, about cross-cultural communication. Not as good as “Lingua Franca”, but you just checked out the book anyway, might as well read this one, too.

Embassytown, by China Miéville. Primarily appealing just because it’s so metalinguistic. This central premise of this book is language – or more specifically, extreme differences in language. And yet … Well just check out Jonathan Crowe’s review.

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. It’s delicious cyberpunk and a sci-fi classic, but the thought experiment underlying the plot is all about the power of language, though how language is communicated is somewhat different (hint: it’s communicable!).

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Valuable in its exploration of the phenomenology of semiosis. Lol. Jk, I mean it’s cool because she takes the old Tolkien idea of Essentially True Words as having magical power to a whole new level. Is it how language works? No. Does it have something potentially fascinating to say about what language means to humans? I think so …

Leave your own scifi/fantasy recommendations for linguistic anthropologists in the comments!

*Linguistic anthropologists are not like Henry Higgins, whatever BJG‘s parents might think. They are betwixt and between academic disciplines and enjoy everything from weird sounds and gestures to the reasons for saying “y’all” in political speeches.

A reading break from reading for anthropologists

I love to read, but I only have a limited amount of work reading in me. I don’t, for example, read books on the biological anthropology of aging at breakfast (that’s when I read children’s books – this morning I read Wonderstruck). At the coffeeshop, I like to take an unimportant but difficult book to read a couple of pages of (I’m slowly working my way through Being and Time that way). When I crawl in bed at night, it’s always genre fiction (I just finished Huntress last night). It is only during my “work day” that I read for work. But even then, I sometimes need a break.

Gray Heroes: Elder Tales From Around the WorldAs interested as I am in the gendered paradoxes of Ecuadorian development, if I try to read for more than an hour without stopping, I fail. On the other hand, if I take a break by playing online, it’s really hard to get back to work. So, instead, I take a break by reading something else. Preferably something fun, but relevant; it can’t feel like work, but it can’t be so addictive that I stop working altogether. The solution, I have found, is folktales.

Folktales are good, because they are short, but not as addictive as short form genre fiction. And the best part, if you are an anthropologist, is that they are tangentially (very tangentially unless you actually study folklore) related to your topic. My research reading is about lifespan, age, citizenship, ecuador, sociolinguistics, and modernity, but when I finish a chapter I celebrate by reading one of the folktales from Gray Heroes: Elder Tales From Around the World, edited by Jane Yolen*.

Not everyone likes to read this much. Some people, completely unreasonably, prefer real life. Other people feel like their energy for fun reading is sucked away by their work reading. But if you are like me, and love to read, but sometimes need a break from your work reading, maybe you should think about what kind of folktale collections your library can offer you.

* She is a prolific writer in many genres, but her folktale collections are almost always delightful and accessible. Her website boasts she has been called the Aesop of the twentieth century.

Notetaking Rubric for Comps and Everything Else

In my second year of grad school, I took a class with the estimable Eithne Luibheid. In addition to teaching an excellent course on Gender, Sexuality, and Transnational Migration, she also provided us with a notetaking rubric she expected us to use while preparing our presentations on the readings. It was excellent, although I only used it on and off while I was writing my Master’s thesis. Now, immersed in the mind-numbing sea of reading for my comprehensive exams, I rely on that rubric (forked for my purposes) like a fisherman relies on her nets. So, here it is, that you too might find some use for it.

[begin with a complete citation of the book or article you read, obviously in your field’s preferred format]

[both the first and the last note I take; key if you, like me, totally forget stuff like this eventually]
[make sure to note the page number]
[I only write this one in if I have a strong opinion about it, but keeping it separate helps the rest of my notes stay more on point]
[an incredibly valuable reminder; noted throughout reading and after]
[while Dr. Luibheid suggested making content notes here, I generally use this space to note important references listed in the reading so that I can follow up with them later]
[this should be self-explanatory]

It is also worth noting, since I’m talking about notetaking, that I use Evernote for all my notetaking. It’s a free program and it syncs between devices (in my case, I usually take notes on my computer, but when I travel I use my iPad, and when I’m stuck somewhere and thinking about my work I like to be able to access my notes on my smart phone – this makes that much easier).

Fantasy recommendations for anthropologists

As has now been established, I am an anthropologist. But I am also a big science fiction and fantasy fan*. Often, I feel like these two things are very closely related to each other. Plenty of science fiction has anthropologists (some even point to a subgenre) and anthropology is a science that is the writing of fictions (Geertz is groaning in his grave at that one). I bet Donna Haraway would agree with me, though, because have you ever seen that crazy (awesome) chart on page 229 of Modest_witness@second_millennium.Femaleman_meets_oncomouse: Feminism and Technoscience? She totally mentions The Left Hand of Darkness, He, She, and It, and the Xenogenesis Trilogy, all three of which I adore and you should certainly read. She’s not the only one who makes SF/F references either, but I have forgotten the others. I am determined that when I am a grown up anthropologist, I will also find ways to include such references in my publications too. But now that I have a blog, why wait?

I keep an evolving list of fantasy-for-anthropologists at, but you may not yet be interested in following that link. Allow me to convince you.

The Telling, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin, Grand Master of Science Fiction (no really, it’s a thing), is undoubtedly the best starting place. Much of her work has an undeniably ethnographic style, but if you want to read some beautiful short form ethnography to get started, check out The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. The worlds and universes are more exploratory than imaginary, and they are studied by the narrators and clearly beloved of the author. But that is a book of short stories about places, times, and people’s she spent a lifetime writing about and for many a coherent and compelling genre novel (though I’m sure she would not approve of my use of the word) is more appealing. If that is the case for you, you should begin with The Telling. If I were rich and had more time, I would buy a copy for every anthropologist I know. Of course, it is no surprise that her work should be so anthropological, she is the daughter of two anthropologists (her father, Alfred Kroeber, founded the anthropology program at Berkeley) and her brother became an anthropologist, too. But I admit, I have never read her family’s work, whereas hers has shaped my worldview.

LeGuin is undoubtedly the cultural anthropologist’s go-to author, but I can be more specific! If you are a linguistic anthropologist, allow me to recommend the short story “Lingua Franca” by Carole McDonnell in So Long, Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. A medical anthropologist should probably start by watching the movie Gattaca, (about a future in which eugenic genetics are more encompassing) but I’m also a big fan of Cory Doctorow’s dystopian short story “The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away” about a bio-surveillance state and Robert Silverberg’s “Caught in the Organ Draft” in the devastating collection Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories (which, incidentally you can check out for yourself thanks to the awesome Baen Free Library).** A physical anthropologist interested in age (like me) may find Orson Scott Card’s “Geriatric Ward” of interest (although that hardly approximates my intensely emotional reaction to the story). Archaeologists actually make me think of mysteries (because of the Amelia Peabody books and Summer of the Dragon by Elizabeth Peters), but I’m sure there’s good stuff out there***.

And look, other people think so too. Like, anthropology professor Charles F. Urbanowicz who said,  “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!” (It’s a blog, I’m totally allowed to cite Wikipedia).

Of course, maybe you already agree with me. Maybe you actually have a book you want to recommend to me! In which case, to the comments!


*I’m also a fan of children’s books, but that’s another post
**I feel like this isn’t my best possible medanth rec – I may have to write about this again another time.)
***I love Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey’s The Ship Who Searched, which begins at an archaeological dig, but I’m not sure if there is really a lesson for archaeologists there the way the other stories are actually useful for anthropologists.