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When Worlds Collide: Anthropology in Science Fiction and Fantasy

February 21, 2017

A portal is opened. A spacecraft lands on an uncharted world. A protagonist stumbles on a pride of werecats. While drifting in space, a captain encounters a new people.


These are a few of the examples of our world meeting with the fantastic creations authors present to their audiences in science fiction and fantasy genres. We are fascinated with the concept of meeting an exotic people. What language do they speak? What customs does our protagonist have to learn?


This post in many where I discuss various topics where anthropology can help bring depth and realism to different peoples and worlds.


First of all, I get the question all the time: What is Anthropology? Anthropology is the study of people and their closest non-human ancestors through time. That's pretty big. So let's talk a little about the various branches of anthropology and how each one might come in handy in brief.


Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology (or ethnography) analyzes cultures. Cultural anthropologists look at how society interacts along with customs and practices of a people. This can range from living among people in a culture very different cultures to an internal analysis why we do what we do in our own.


How is it useful?

Probably the most useful of them all, in my opinion, to story writing. Any time a culture comes in contact with another, you may wonder how those two might think of each other. To aliens, we're the aliens. Our practice of wearing underwear might be odd. (“Why? You already have one covering...”) Similarly, how would we feel of a people who make it their practice to strap a rock to their head? Maybe it's got a spiritual significance.


Ethnography might also be useful in that you may find ideas for cultural practices. For example, in Chronicles of Everen series, we have the Anoni. They are a matriarchal society, meaning the women are the heads of the household. By studying existing matriarchal societies, I can come up with realistic ideas of how a matriarchal family or society might work. I still add a heavy amount of creativity but inspiration abounds!



Forget what you've seen on Indiana Jones. Archaeology is literally the study of the things people leave behind. From that, we try to put together clues about who they were, often having to draw conclusions from analogies. Archaeologists spend a lot of time doing surveys (read: walking in fields) and doing sample digs and soil/material analysis.


How is it Useful?

Archaeology deals a lot (crossing over with) the different levels of society. It might give some realistic ideas of what a hunter-gatherer people might live like in your story. It can also give you ideas for how a people may have shifted from a hunter-gather to a kingdom level society. What kinds of technology and advances may have spurred the change? Additionally, in science fiction and fantasy both, we run into the possibility of finding ruins of a people gone. How are these sites dealt with? Do you dig them up (and destroy them by doing so) or preserve them?


Physical Anthropology


Physical anthropologists study evolution, similarities between us and our non-human and hominid ancestors. They're also consulted in some police cases to analyze remains to see if it was human or not. Physical anthropologists can study group dynamics of bonobos or they can do analysis on skeletal remains.


How is it Useful?

For most of my work, I lean on physical anthropology when I'm considering the evolution of a people. What kind of environment would a people have to live on for evolution to select for wings? What kind of physical attributes does a people gain if they live in the caverns of a world? In fantasy, those people that look like human or are shifters, did they share a common hominid ancestor?

Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic Anthropologists look at language and communication. Some specialize in written languages, alive and dead, and some try to preserve the languages that are dying out as we speak.


How is it useful?

This one can be a lot of fun to play with, making up new languages and writing systems. Be careful! Not every person wants two paragraphs in elvish. However, language is a barrier often. In science fiction, sometimes we get around it with translator technology or maybe there's a magic spell in fantasy. However, how we use language can change how we think.


In conclusion, there are a lot of applications for anthropology in science fiction and fantasy. It can help you develop your cultures, create new worlds, and give an idea of what might happen when two or more gather together. I hope to go into more depth in each of the areas and concepts that may be of use for authors in the coming weeks.



Part II: Ethnography

Part III: Physical Anthropology

Part IV: Archaeology

New! Part V: Linguistic Anthropology

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