Book recomendation: fiction by authors who excell at anthropology + psyc
November 18, 2017 7:52 PM   Subscribe

I love reading fantasy and science fiction, but my two favorite books are actually slightly off from the norms for these genres: "hyper-realistic culture-focused fiction" is what i'll call the target genre for this book search. All recommendations are welcome! :) And if you can tell me a bit about why the book(s) you recommend fit this category, that too would be much appreciated! :)

To kick things off, here are two of my current favorite books that are extremely strong examples of "hyper-realistic culture-focused fiction:"

1) The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
2) The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

I think what these books have in common is that there are at least two cultures (either new + old or involving people from two parts of the world) that the author portrays in great detail, drawing out how the cultures clash and evolve in compelling, realistic ways.

Other media in the same ballpark:
1) Many/most of Asimov, and Dune
2) Treason + Lovelock by OSC
3) The gods must be crazy (a movie)

And I want to find much more to read in this vein. Thanks! :D
posted by ch3cooh to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Golden Witchbreed is a story about a female anthropologist who goes to a planet on a diplomatic mission but becomes enmeshed in the local culture. There's a sequel but, as usual with sequels, it's not very good.
posted by MovableBookLady at 7:59 PM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

State of Wonder
posted by Mchelly at 8:01 PM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Have you checked out the Malazan series? Its author was trained as an anthropologist (and an archaeologist), and I think it shows in the story. MANY cultures, MANY different points of view, plenty of clashes ... it's a huge series that takes time to get through, but I thought it was really interesting and enjoyable.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:09 PM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
posted by Mchelly at 8:11 PM on November 18, 2017

Best answer: There's a good chance you're already familiar, but from your description The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin should be up your alley.
posted by Gymnopedist at 8:13 PM on November 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Definitely got to recommend The Sparrow

You might enjoy the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, which takes places during the time when Christianity was coming to Norway in the 14th century
posted by Ideal Impulse at 8:13 PM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Pretty much everything Ursula LeGuin, although Always Coming Home is by far the most overtly anthropological!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:13 PM on November 18, 2017 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Forgot one more great example:

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Stunning in how it portrays a barbaric, Spartan, god-laced Greek landscape. And the brutal, strength and war-loving culture of the Greeks is juxtaposed brilliantly against the modern world's reinterpretations of the Illiad and our own heroic traditions. ("Our own" being Western culture where naked brutality is shameful, homosexuality is taboo, and heros are expected to be modest.)

A very self-aware book as well:
Odysseus inclines his head. "True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another." He spread his broad hands. "We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?" He smiles. "Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.
posted by ch3cooh at 8:16 PM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would also recommend the sequel to The Sparrow, Children of God, which further explains the specifics of the clash of culture.
posted by tiger tiger at 8:23 PM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ian Banks has written The Culture series of which I've read the first two books, and I've enjoyed. From wikipedia: "The main theme of the novels is the dilemmas that an idealistic hyperpower faces in dealing with civilizations that do not share its ideals." The description of the first book, Consider Phlebas: "The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction, cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. "

The series has culture clashes all over the place in ways that are really interesting. It's usually the subtext, though, for a broader plotline in each book, and in the process Banks dwells quite a bit on the science and technology being implemented. Not boring, always in a way that gives explanations for things that are happening, and (seemingly) giving plausible descriptions. I will say, though, the two books I've read have had a bit of a "dark side" to them at key places, with some very violent depictions. I could see some people not liking that.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:33 PM on November 18, 2017

Nicola Griffith's Ammonite.
posted by rtha at 8:41 PM on November 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas - fiction about prehistoric people written by an anthropologist

Ancillary Justice
(and the other two books in the trilogy, which have even more stuff about different cultures) by Ann Leckie
posted by Redstart at 8:49 PM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Anything by Martha Wells, but especially The Books of the Raksura—fantasy with an anthropological bent. It's about a matriarchal society of winged shapeshifters, whose culture is similar to ours (they're humanoids), but also fascinatingly alien, since it has its roots in hive behaviours. Totally unlike the usual fantasy tropes.

In The Cloud Roads, the first book of the series, the protagonist is re-introduced to his people after growing up alone & orphaned. The rest of the series is about him learning their ways, trying to fit in, and finding his place. There's also a lot of journeying—and thus contact with a multitude of civilizations and creatures, all with their own highly developed, complex, carefully-drawn ways of life. (Martha Wells has a degree in anthropology, and it shows.)

Lots of culture clash; lots of negotiation and reconciliation. One of the books' primary themes is how the Raksura find a way to understand and coexist with a rival species, one they've been warring with for generations.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 10:07 PM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence. The books differ in how deeply they delve into various cultures and cultural conflicts - I think you'd enjoy starting from Two Serpents Rise.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:25 PM on November 18, 2017

Try C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series; it centers on the lone human ambassador to the alien race who own the planet he lives on, and he frequently struggles to understand them despite training for years for his position, because they think in ways that are pretty inhuman.
posted by tautological at 10:43 PM on November 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Euphoria by Lily King is "a fictionalised account of a brief period of field work [by ethnographer Margaret Mead] along New Guinea’s Sepik river in 1933."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:05 PM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might also enjoy Matt Haig's The Humans, in which an alien comes to earth and has to blend in. He spends a lot of time studying humans and trying to understand them.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:08 PM on November 18, 2017

The Dark Eden trilogy shows the development of a human society on an alien planet that has no contact with Earth. A lot of it is about culture clashes between different factions developing opposing beliefs.
posted by KateViolet at 11:27 PM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

China Mievilles EmbassyTown should also fit the fill. Alien language, politics and philosophy, amongst other things.
posted by ninazer0 at 12:17 AM on November 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

Aliette de Bodard's Xuya stories, another vote for Nicola Griffiths's Ammonite and John Crowley's Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr
posted by dhruva at 5:25 AM on November 19, 2017

I'd recommend A woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason, which is sff-anthropology. A first contact story that is really well told, I picked it up because of this article by Jo Walton.
I'd also recommend The Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein, which is great although I haven't finished the series yet.
I'd second the recommendation for Ammonite, I think I read that because of a different thread here and I really loved it.
posted by Fence at 7:42 AM on November 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Anything by the very unjustly neglected Zenna Henderson.
posted by Weftage at 8:14 AM on November 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Michael Bishop, mentioned in a previous Anthropology/Literature thread.
posted by ovvl at 9:15 AM on November 19, 2017

I've enjoyed reading the Sector General Series. Seems to tick your boxes. One of the main characters runs the psych department of the hospital and there is a huge mix of different cultures and first contact stories. Also, The Long Trip to a Small Angry Planet, both recommended previously here on mefi. Or, you like to listen to your books, Long Trip is available as an audio book and nicely read.
posted by BoscosMom at 9:18 AM on November 19, 2017

The recent passing of Julian May has lead me to reread The Saga of the Pliocene Exile
The two cultures within are an ancient alien race (that basically become the basis for our faerie/boogieman mythologies) and humans from a future galactic society that are fleeing to the past for every imaginable reason.
The worldbuilding is exceptional, and cultural anthropology plays a huge role in how the story unfolds. I think it would be right up your alley.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:30 AM on November 19, 2017

There seems to be a good bit of overlap in recommendations between this thread and another recent thread in the Green. You may find that one fruitful.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:59 PM on November 19, 2017

I second the recommendation of Lily King's Euphoria, especially the audiobook version. I absolutely loved it.
posted by merejane at 6:28 PM on November 19, 2017

Jean Auel Clan of the Cave Bear series and Michael Gear People of the Earth series, if you want pre-history. Great research and might be up your alley.
posted by Enid Lareg at 6:37 AM on November 20, 2017

The Rook, Daniel O'Malley. Impossible to put down.
posted by subajestad at 2:21 PM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Warning: controversial because of how it engages with its homophobic, imperial, colonial force. But, roughly: it's about a girl from a people who were conquered by an imperial force in her childhood, and how she chooses to engage with the colonizer. It is also a deeply unhappy book, in case you want a pick-me-up.

I also recommend, with reservations, Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. It kind of seems like a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" book and you might bounce off hard, but you might like it. It's about a Utopia in which people have four forms of 'membership': geographic/linguistic/racial (generally unimportant, but still relevant), their 'bash (a semi-adopted family in which they are raised or currently live), and their Hive (chosen at adulthood), which is basically a statement of ability and interest on their part, and finally their job (often unimportant, sometimes vital). Almost everyone in the book has conflicting obligations at one point or another because of this system.

Ditto-ing Le Guin, Mieville, Iain M. Banks (try Use of Weapons or Look to Windward), The Sparrow (although I strongly recommend AGAINST Children of God, honestly), and the Ancillary series (where the two primary cultures, much like in Banks' books, are the ships and the humans who live on them).
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:12 AM on November 21, 2017

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