Notes from Readercon: Anthropology, Protagonists, and Horror

Greetings from Readercon!

Since I’ve been traveling so much the last few months, I really debated whether I wanted to attend the Con this year.  After my first day here, however, I can say I’m thrilled I chose to come.  I’ve only attended 3 panels so far, but already I feel stimulated and inspired.  In fact, this is my primary reason for attending this particular Con year after year.  The panels are (typically) thought-provoking and often help me step outside the little insular writing box I’ve been in, providing outside stimulus and new perspectives.

So, here’s a sneak peek at what’s been going on.

I attended two panels on Friday.  The first was “Anthropology for Writers”, which you might guess I’d be pretty interested in.  I went in suspecting the panel wouldn’t offer me anything new (but hoping it would).  What I got instead was a lot of key ideas that were so much a part of my way of seeing the world that I hadn’t even consciously realized how valuable they could be for writing.  I think this tends to happen to anyone who specializes in a particular topic; we internalize the most critical, basic observations of that field and can’t get out of our own heads and really appreciate them.

A few things brought up:

When it comes to culture, people say they do one thing (and may even believe it to be true) but actually do something else entirely.  This is a basic assumption in Anthropology and one I take for granted as true…so much so that I never even considered it a tool for fiction writing.  But, of course, it is — especially when it comes to worldbuilding and character action as a means of revealing that worldbuilding.

We internalize our culture — it’s not something we tend to reflect on or discuss in daily life.  Many of us never even consciously consider our “cultural” beliefs until they are challenged.  This is important to keep in mind when working worldbuilding into fiction.  Characters aren’t going to walk around saying “that’s not how we do this” or “as you know, we believe that”.  We internalize the rules and act accordingly; if we want our characters to be believable, they must too.

and, a final gem:

The way we remember the past is very different from what actually happened in the past.  This as true of the way we construct our own histories (how we remember events from our childhood, for instance) as it is of the way we remember and make meaning of our cultural histories.  The example given, which I think is a great one, is that of King Gilgamesh.  What we know historically about Gilgamesh (a real Mesopotamian king) is pretty short on detail, but the historical myths we’ve created and passed down over the centuries about his adventures (from the Epic of Gilgamesh, most of which likely never occurred) are something else entirely – richer, more interesting, and more revealing of ourselves than of Gilgamesh.  Our novels can benefit immensely from keeping this way of cultural “remembering” in mind.

The second panel I attended yesterday was Reimagining Protagonist Agency and it focused on what it means for a protagonist to be “active” versus “passive”.  Questions raised included:

how important is it for a protagonist to have agency?  Can a passive protagonist truly have a story? and, what middle ground is there between these two extremes?

More interesting for me, though, was a comment made by John Clute about why we cling to active protagonists.  He suggested that protagonists who really “protag” (meaning they go out and ACT in the world, making things happen) appeal to us in part because they make reading easy for us.  We immediately have someone to identify with.  The protagonist serves as our guide through the landscape of the story, translating for us, leading us, and making decisions for us.  The protagonist is someone to root for and shows us what to want in terms of story outcome (since we identify with the protagonist, we want whatever it is they want).  All of this makes for easier reading, in which we (as readers) have no real need to make decisions or interpret what’s happening in a meaningful way.  Does this make us lazy readers?  Does it make having a strong, active protagonist out to save the world a writer’s trick for snaring their readers?  I don’t know, but I sure found the idea interesting.

The final panel I’d like to mention in what is rapidly become a long post (sorry!) is the one I attended this morning, called Horror and the Social Compact.  The basic premise under discussion here was the idea that horror emerges when the social compact is violated.  The social compact can be described as an agreement we make with each other in which we give up certain freedoms and commit to abide by shared rules in exchange for protection and a sense of security.  When that compact is broken in some way, we not only feel betrayed — we also feel the terrifying potential for the horrific to happen.

I don’t read or write a lot of horror (though, my first published story was horror), so these ideas were new to me, and very interesting.  The panel explored the various ways social compacts could break down (on a wide scale, which some suggested would result not in horror but in dystopia) or on an individual level, and on how often stories that focused in on this were set in isolated places (a boarding school, a space station adrift in the black, a building cut off from the world in a catastrophe, etc.).  Also posed for discussion was the horror to be found when individuals realize the extent to which the web of the social compact constrains their individual freedom – that social rules make it impossible for us to escape from a horrific situation.

So, as you can see, there’s quite a diversity of compelling discussions going on.  I’m finding it extremely stimulating (last night I skipped out on the parties and went back to my room, wrote about 1K and really interrogated the outline for my current novel).  All synapses are firing.  I suspect Con fatigue will set in any time now, but for now I’m riding the wave!

More to follow…but for now I’m off to a panel titled Un/Orthodox Genre.  Which could mean anything!

Writers as armchair anthropologists

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a post in my series on anthropology and Fantasy/SciFi, so I thought I’d kick off Sunday with a consideration of some of the awesome sources of writing inspiration anthropology can provide.  To read the other entries in this series, click on the “anthropology 101” tag.

Inspiration comes from all sorts of places, both likely and unlikely.  My most recent flashes of inspiration occurred during a poker game, in the middle of the pas de deux at Swan Lake, and at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  I’ve blogged about the importance of travel and experiences in a writer’s life, but sometimes time and finances don’t cooperate.  Enter inspiration drawn from the travel and experiences done for you by anthropologists and archaeologists.

The first anthropologists were called “armchair anthropologists” because they stayed at home and used the reports of explorers and adventurers as source material.  Nowadays, anthropologists spend their careers traveling to far-flung locales themselves (or even not-so-far-flung ones) to live among other cultures or to excavate the ruins of ancient societies.  They discover cultural beliefs and practices ranging from the bizarre and beautiful to the reassuringly familiar.  These insights can be fodder for writerly inspiration and allow us the chance to play at armchair anthropology.  Here are a few fascinating cultural practices you might like to mine for ideas:

Interested in the intersection of magic and technology?  Consider looking into cargo cults.  Arising primarily in the south Pacific following WWII, cargo cults found their genesis in the sudden arrival (and equally rapid departure) of American military personnel.  Soldiers brought technology and material wealth into previously isolated and low-tech island communities, who came to believe the cars, planes, radios and refrigerators had been magically summoned from the spirit world (mostly because they arrived in cargo planes from the sky).  After the soldiers left, some Pacific Islander communities engaged in magic and rituals designed entice the return of Westerners and their goods.  Some of these rituals were based in traditional religious practice, while others included things like ritualistically building airstrips and “control towers” to summon cargo planes from the sky.  Sound crazy? Tragic? Fascinating? Like fodder for some interesting sci fi?  Here are a few links on cargo cults from good old Wikipedia (including a good bibliography for further reading) the Smithsonian.

Maybe your cup of tea  isn’t technology, but music.  Consider then the Molimo, or voice of the forest, of the Mbuti pygmies of Zaire.  The tropical rain forest is the heart of Mbuti culture, providing everything these largely nomadic peoples need…so much so that the forest is considered a living spiritual entity.  The molimo is a long, hollow trumpet stored in a secret place deep in the forest.  When Mbuti life is thrown out of balance (for good or ill), the molimo ceremony is conducted.  It can last for several days, or up to a month or more, and is designed to wake up the forest.  Each night the community gathers to sing.  The song of the molimo answers from the forest, sometimes drawing closer to the camp, sometimes farther away.  Eventually, when the time is right, those bearing the molimo burst into the camp, trumpeting wildly and dashing around the fire before vanishing again into the forest.  A sacred musical instrument that must be fed and watered, is believed to be the voice of the forest, and is capable of restoring balance in society?  Awesome.  If you want to know more, Colin Turnbull wrote the classic ethnography “The Forest People”, or you can check out Wikipedia or UConn‘s pages.

Another practice to consider is the Kula Ring in Papua New Guinea.  The Kula Ring is all about gift-giving, social status, and the creation and maintenance of social obligation.  Best known among the Trobriand Islands, the Kula Ring revolves around the exchange of kula, red shell necklaces and white shell armbands.  These gifts are purely symbolic and are traded around the islands from partner to partner (necklaces traveling clockwise and armbands counterclockwise around the “ring”); the more exchange partners you have, the higher your status.  Individuals will travel great distances in their canoes to participate in the exchanges and elaborate negotiations through lesser forms of trade spring up as members compete to entice new partners and enhance their social standing.  The Kula Ring has been long- and well-studied, if you want to know more, read up on Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic ethnographies, Marcel Mauss’ discussions of gift-giving, or start with this catch-all Wikipedia entry.

I could go on here, but three seems like a good start for now.  Out of curiosity, I’d love to know if these cultural practices are new to you or if you’d heard of them before.

Encounters with the Other

This is the second post in a series on intersections between anthropology and speculative fiction.  A common interest shared by both is first contact.  In discussing anthropological considerations of first contact, I hope to provide useful tools for your fictional accounts, a bit of inspiration, or, at the least, fifteen minutes of procrastination.

So here goes.

Anthropologically speaking, first contact is all about how cultures construct, perceive, and interact with an unknown “Other” (and, yes, the “others” in Lost are a classic example).  Ideas about a cultural other are usually built from tiny bits of inaccurate or distorted information.  As a result, encounters are often fraught with the potential for miscommunication and conflict.

Cross-culturally, factors that tend to play a crucial role in shaping first contact encounters include:

  • Technology (especially technologies relating to transportation and warfare)
  • Religious ideology
  • Communication (language barriers and translators, in particular)
  • Physical appearance
  • Disease
  • Political considerations

These elements appear again and again, across cultures and through time, so let’s take a look at each in turn.  Just to have a touchstone, I’ll drawn on the first contact encounter between the Spanish (specifically, the Conquistador Hernan Cortes) and the indigenous peoples of Central America as an example.

When they talk about technology, anthropologists generally mean any kind of tool made by humans to assist them in adapting to their environment.  So, yes, computers and all that count, but so do stone tools and shields and weapons and ships.  Because it includes things like transportation and weapons, technology is usually front and center in determining when and how first contact encounters occur.  For example, without ship-building technologies, the Spaniards would not have encountered the Maya and Aztec when they did, nor would they have been able to assault the island city of Tenochtitlan.  When constructing your fictional first contact stories, always consider how technologies might limit or define the nature of the encounter.

Religious ideologies are also a big one – in many cases, such ideologies are the trigger for one culture to go out and encounter another in the first place.  In some cases, the religious motivation might be learning, exploration, or teaching.  In other instances it might be to conquer and convert.  Because religious ideologies are rooted in faith and often tied to beliefs about morality, they can shape first contact encounters in profound ways.  Take the Spanish conquest as an example.  When they arrived in Mexico, the Spaniards believed they had a mandate to convert any peoples they encountered.  The Maya and Aztec, who believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses, had a tradition of incorporating new deities into their worship; they were happy to include the Christian god in their rituals, which was not at all what the Spanish had in mind.  From religious misunderstanding, chaos ensued.

Communication is another critical element in first contact scenarios, one that involves the need for both literal translation and cultural interpretation.  Translators often come to play roles of exaggerated importance.  Take Dona Marina, the bilingual woman taken as a interpreter (and later as a lover) by Cortes.  Able to speak both Mayan and Nahuatl, Dona Marina would translate to Alguilar (a Spaniard who lived for some time among the Maya), who would then translate to Cortes.  This three-way game of linguistic telephone left plenty of room for both literal and cultural misunderstanding.  Only when Dona Marina learned Spanish was Cortes able to fully draw upon her keen understanding of the languages and cultures of the people he was attempting to conquer.  Some argue to Marina’s insights and advice gave Cortes a critical advantage against the Aztec.  When writing fiction, we should not overlook the importance of translators, or of their ability (or lack thereof) to translate languages and place the translated words in cultural context.

Physical appearance is probably one of the things people think of first when discussing first contact.  Things like skin, eye, and hair color, costume and dress, body decoration and jewelry…these all play a role in setting two groups apart from one another.  They are the canvas upon which cultural “otherness” is first drawn.  Beyond this, however, their importance will vary.  In some encounters, physical appearance is used as a gloss for “humanness” and a justification for enslavement or murder.  In other encounters, differences in appearance fade away almost immediately.  Remember that these types of differences may be shocking only at the onset of an encounter.

When one culture or group visits another and makes first contact, they often carry with them diseases to which they have immunity, but to which the people they are visiting have had no exposure.  Such was most certainly the case during the Spanish conquest, during which almost 90% of native populations were killed by smallpox and other Old World diseases.

Finally, political considerations can play a huge role in how first contact encounters unfold.  In the case of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec, political motivations drove both sides and ultimately contributed to Spanish victory.  Cortes was personally motivated to increase his own fortunes, which inclined him towards bold (even reckless) actions.  These behaviors caused the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, to act with even greater caution than he might have, giving Cortes the time he needed to defeat a larger native force.  Furthermore, Aztec policies of conquest and expansion in Central America left a large disgruntled native population who were only too eager to side with someone promising to free them from Aztec rule.  As a result of this political instability, Cortes was able to manipulate huge numbers of natives to join his cause and swell his otherwise very small army.   Had this not been the case, Cortes’ campaign might have turned out quite differently.

Taking the aforementioned factors into account when writing fictional first contact stories will lend them depth, complexity, and a feeling of authenticity.  If you’re looking for an example of a novel that does this particularly well, I’d recommend Mary Doria Russell’s book “The Sparrow.”  Her story centers on a Jesuit mission to an alien planet and she weaves religion, communication/translation, physical differences, and political considerations together in an intricate exploration of tragic misunderstanding between human and alien.

Alright…I think I’ve gone on about this long enough for one post 🙂

If you have questions or thoughts, post them in the comments!  I’d love to know what you think, as well as what (if anything) you’re finding useful.

Fiction and the art of anthropological maintenance

This will be the first in a series of posts discussing anthropology and speculative fiction.  I’ve decided to do this series for several reasons.  First of all, anthropology is my field of study (specifically, anthropological archaeology), so I’ve got a bit of expertise here.  Second, and more importantly, the discipline lends itself well to speculative fiction.  In fact, many great sci fi and fantasy authors have anthropological backgrounds (Mary Doria Russell, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kurt Vonnegut, Gregory Keyes, Octavia Butler, and Chad Oliver, among many others).  In this post I’ll discuss some basic concepts we’ll need for future discussions.  All of the posts on this topic will be tagged as anthropology 101.

So, a brief primer.

Quickly, for those who aren’t familiar, anthropology is the study of humanity.  It is composed of 4 sub-disciplines: cultural anthropology (the study of living cultures), archaeology (the study of past cultures), physical anthropology (the study of human evolution, human biology & primatology with reference to human cultural adaptation), and linguistics (the study of language and its role in the transmission of culture).  So, basically, anthropology covers everything to do with humans and how they interact with each other and with the natural world.  Useful, eh?

Focusing as it does on the varied and splendid world of human cultures, anthropology provides fertile ground for writers, especially those looking to create imaginary but authentic-feeling worlds.  Living and ancient cultures can serve as inspiration for fictional ones, while anthropological perspectives and methods (cultural relativism, participant observation, and ethnography, for instance) provide tools for world-building and character development.

Some concepts:

Cultural relativism is the idea that no one cultural viewpoint or practice is better or worse than any other.  This concept is at the core of modern anthropological method and allows ethnographers objectivity when studying a culture different from their own.

Participant observation is an ethnographic technique in which the anthropologist observes cultural practices and comes to understand their meaning by taking part as much as possible in the culture which he or she is observing.

An ethnography is the end product of (typically a year of) cultural anthropological research.  In it, the anthropologist presents their data and interpretations.  Traditional ethnographies include detailed observations on kinship, religion, material culture/technology, politics, subsistence, economy, gender/age roles, arts/music, and language.  In conducting research and preparing an ethnography, an anthropologist brings two perspectives to bear: the etic and the emic.

The etic perspective revolves around the anthropologist’s interpretations as an objective, scientific observer – an outsider.  Here an anthropologist explains practices and behaviors with reference to larger theories about culture.  Conversely, the emic perspective is the insiders view of their own culture.  Here the anthropologist attempts to understand how a cultural participant makes meaning.

As I’ll discuss in upcoming posts, these methods and perspectives can be immensely useful in:

1. building fictional cultures that feel authentic and fleshed-out

2. writing first contact stories, in which insider and outsider perspectives both play a role in the conflict

3. helping us get inside our characters’ heads and see through their eyes

4. finding inspiration for fictional cultures or characters – by drawing on real cultures (whether living, recently squashed by globalism, or ancient) we save ourselves the trouble of starting from scratch (truth really is stranger than fiction, after all)

5. getting a look at how technology really works: past cultures are a veritable laboratory for the invention and implementation of new technologies (as well as their consequences).  Just because many of these examples aren’t high tech or space-age doesn’t mean they can’t inform how we develop such fictional technologies (and more importantly, how they’ll impact society).

6.understanding how developments (think especially technological ones – on the small scale, things like specific tools, on the large scale, things like agriculture) impact cultural development

7. creating imaginary languages

8. and, generally, helping us think more deeply about how cultures work, how they help us adapt to specific environments (e.g. what works in particular settings, and why), and how people tend to interact with each other (based on race, class, gender, age, and cultural affiliation).

So…stay tuned!  Up first will be an anthropological look at first contact.

ps. let me know in the comments if you think this series will be useful, and if there are any topics you’d particularly like me to discuss.