I love literary fiction with an anthropological bent. I studied anthropology in graduate school, and I find it fascinating when authors can create an entirely new culture (here’s lookin’ at you, Tolkien), and, more importantly, include characters navigating that culture from an etic or emic perspective (observing from inside the social group or outside the social group). Here are some of my favorite anthropological novels:
In this post-apocalyptic novel, about 500 people live on Eden, a sunless planet. Eden was founded by an astronaut couple that was left behind when the three other astronauts they were travelling left them to go back to Earth to get help. This new colony on Eden, now generations away from the original ancestral couple, has a religion that is centered around this mythologized rescue ship, believing someday the astronauts will return, a common resurrection and salvation story. John Redlatern, a 15-year-old resident of Eden, speaks out at the “Anny Versry” celebration, encouraging everyone to move away from where they’ve always lived and explore the rest of the planet. He is exiled for his heresy, and he and a coterie of friends leave their home and set out to find the rescue astronauts and seek new resources. Beckett adroitly handles linguistic evolution to reveal the culture of the residents of Eden, and uses this culture to experiment with the anthropology of how religions are founded and what drives their inspiration. It’s a great book, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel. Highly recommended.
In Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, evangelical minister and former crackhead, Peter, is sent on assignment to the faraway planet of Oasis to be the new preacher to the natives, an alien species no one knows much about. The natives have requested a new minister to teach them about the bible. The whole story is essentially how Peter deals with being away from his wife, Bea, and how he interacts with the innocent and inquisitive Oasans. The message of this book is really one of misinterpretation and how ignoring depression and loneliness isn’t healthy. There is exquisite world-building in the Oasan settlement. Their culture, language, and interpretation of Christianity when they’ve never experienced life on Earth is fascinating.
This book. Wow. Set in 1930s New Guinea during the birth of cultural anthropology, Euphoria is loosely based on the lives of anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson. This is the story of their love triangle, set against the backdrop of budding ethnography in a humid, primal setting. Euphoria raises the question of when you’re studying a culture, do you learn more about others, or about yourself? Euphoria is gritty and intimate, a book full of tastes, smells, and sounds. This book is full of passions: passion for inspiring work, for the euphoria of discovery, and overwhelming mania of obsession. It’s one of the best books I read in 2015.
This is the next book in the Ender series, but you don’t need to have read Ender’s Game in order to understand Speaker for the Dead. In Speaker for the Dead, Ender is sent to a new planet, Lusitania, which was colonized and is now populated by “pequininos,” or more commonly, “piggies,” a curious, mysterious species. Scientists called “xenographers” and “xenobiologists” live on Lusitania to study the piggies to learn about them without influencing their culture or introducing them to new technology (very Boasian, right? See cultural relativism). The story really gets going when some xenographers are killed and disemboweled by piggies, and a well-respected piggie is subsequently disemboweled, on purpose, it seems. Several days later, a tree is found growing from the piggie corpse (you can ignore that link now for cultural relativism), and that’s when the xenographers realize that the piggies are more complex than they expected. Ender is summoned to Lusitania to “speak the deaths” of the dead xenographers and during his time there he studies the piggies and learns of their symbiotic relationship with the environment of Lusitania. There’s also a love story woven in. An imaginative book with an anthropological perspective.
The Mosquito Coast is one of my favorite books ever. Narrated by 14-year-old Charlie Fox, the story centers around Charlie’s father, Allie, who is disillusioned with the American Dream and believes that greed and consumerism are destroying the country. Inspired by the Honduran immigrants on the farm where he works, Allie uproots his family to the Honduran jungle, convinced they can live Swiss-Family-Robinson-style in a self-sustaining utopia. At first, Allie’s inventions and contraptions to create a livable environment in the jungle are wonderful, but soon his delusions of resourcefulness devolve into madness. Charlie is torn between loyalty to his father and confronting the reality that their situation is quickly becoming dangerous. And please, don’t judge the book by the movie. I love Harrison Ford, but the book has so much more substance.
These are some of my favorite “anthropological novels”. If you’d like to recommend others, I welcome all comments!