Sundry Notes for an Abortive Ethnography of the Asadi of BoskVeld
January 19, 2008 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Where can I find good science fiction about alien ethnographers (or 'xenologists')?

I'm an anthropology student and sci-fi fan, and it just occurred to me that there must be loads of alien ethnography stories out there. The two I've read that I remember were Speaker for the Dead (natch) and Death and Designation Among the Asadi. I'd love to find more- got any recommendations?
posted by showbiz_liz to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
"Doctor to the Stars", by Murray Leinster
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:45 PM on January 19, 2008

Vernor Vinge, "Fire Upon the Deep" & "A Deepness in the Sky"
posted by parmanparman at 2:59 PM on January 19, 2008

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell)
posted by slenderloris at 3:22 PM on January 19, 2008

Seconding The Sparrow. There's also a sequel, Children of God, which digs even more deeply into the alien culture.
posted by miagaille at 3:28 PM on January 19, 2008

_Hellspark_ has a lot of this, particular to do with linguistics. It's almost a canonical example, in fact.

The Russell books have a mixed reputation among SF fans.
posted by Justinian at 3:32 PM on January 19, 2008

oh, Hellspark is by Janet Kagan.
posted by Justinian at 3:33 PM on January 19, 2008

There is a wonderful story by Ursula LeGuin (I'll keep searching for it-- her books are scattered all over the house, in the meantime, maybe someone else knows the title and collection it's in), about human ethnographers who realize that they have travelled into someone's dream where the dream society is becoming "real." I think the story is in "The Compass Rose" but I can't find my copy and don't recognize the name of the story from the table of contents.
posted by nax at 3:37 PM on January 19, 2008

The Left Hard of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. A good deal of her science fiction books are studies of alien human cultures (Left Hand, for instance, deals with the question of how a society of humans that have evolved to be hermaphroditic differs from our own.)
posted by The Bishop of Turkey at 3:40 PM on January 19, 2008

Oh, and Language Log has a series of posts about good portrayals of linguistic fieldwork in science fiction.
posted by miagaille at 3:43 PM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

"The Sykaos Papers Being an account of the voyages of the Poet Oi Paz to the system of Strim in the Seventeenth Galaxy..." by E. P. Thompson. (Available in paperback @ as "The Sykaos Papers".
posted by lungtaworld at 3:46 PM on January 19, 2008

The Eye of the Queen, by Phillip Mann. All about two contact linguists who go to live with an alien species.

Also, Golden Witchbreed, and its sequel Ancient Light, by the incomparable Mary Gentle. The story of an earth Envoy who goes native on the planet she's posted to.
posted by media_itoku at 3:55 PM on January 19, 2008

Seconding The Left Hand of Darkness. It was the first thing I thought of on reading your question. It probably helps that I just re-read it last year.
posted by JaredSeth at 3:55 PM on January 19, 2008

Ursula Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest.
posted by agentofselection at 5:39 PM on January 19, 2008

Tangent, but in case you hadn't already considered this, computer games like "Riven" combine science fiction with (virtual) hands-on anthropology as you often have to discover and figure out the symbols, meanings, and culture of the creators of the ruins you are trapped in, in order for you to use their devices to proceed.

"The Dig" might be another computer game of what you seek, but I haven't played it, so I'm not sure.

These two games are pretty old, so they're super-cheap - you can usually get them in $10 bundles of classic games.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:07 PM on January 19, 2008

Other good sets of Le Guin short stories are "Birthday of the World", or "Changing Planes". The first is more like her other stuff: the second reminds me almost of the book "Einstein's Dreams." But yeah - LeGuin and "The Sparrow" definitely seconded.
posted by ubersturm at 6:29 PM on January 19, 2008

Many of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels fit the bill.
posted by yogurtisgenocide at 6:40 PM on January 19, 2008

Le Guin was the daughter of a famous anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber, so she's going to come up a lot here. Always Coming Home is mainly an ethnography of the Kesh people in a future, post-nuclear-war Northern California; new copies actually came with a tape of Kesh music and poetry, too.
posted by mediareport at 7:26 PM on January 19, 2008

The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson directly follows an explorer's study of, and integration into, an alien culture. It's been a few years since I read it, but I remember it being pretty good.
posted by andeles at 8:25 PM on January 19, 2008

The main character in The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks is a sort of combination-anthropologist/diplomat living among gas-giant dwellers.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:41 PM on January 19, 2008

Samuel Delany's The Ballad of Beta-2 is a must.
posted by zadcat at 9:03 PM on January 19, 2008

I just checked out The Algebraist but haven't started it yet. What I am reading is "White Queen" by Gwyneth Jones. Checked it out because of Bruce Sterling's descriptive "genuinely weird". Fits the bill.

I second Amy Thomson, I think there is more from her on this theme.
posted by pointilist at 9:18 PM on January 19, 2008

The entire Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds is about this topic both directly and tangentially. Archaeologist finds ruins of an intelligent civilization on an alien planet, wonders why such things are so rare, hijinks ensue. I love these books, but some people hate Reynolds, YMMV.
posted by biscotti at 10:26 PM on January 19, 2008

Here is Howard Waldrop introducing Chad Oliver, who is probably the best-known writer of anthropological sf besides Ursula Le Guin. His work is unfortunately difficult to find, but it's really, really good. You should look for it.
posted by cgc373 at 12:42 AM on January 20, 2008

Not exactly ethnography, but the related field of linguistics is key in Samuel R. Delaney's Babel 17. I know the Le Guin story Nax is referring to, but can't for the life of me recall/recognise the title. SF characters are often forced to become amateur xenologists and/or diplomats, (as in James Tiptree Jnr's Up the walls of the world), does that count?
posted by Coaticass at 2:30 AM on January 20, 2008

Nthing all the Le Guins thus far mentioned, though I'd caution that her 'alien' societies (at least in the Hainish Cycle) aren't really 'alien' per se - they all share a common ancestry with Earth's humans (and thus all have two arms, two legs, two eyes, etc.), and are thus more speculative anthropology (i.e. 'what if human society worked like this?') than xenology ('how would beings with four arms/six legs/asexual reproduction deal with this?').

That said, I do overwhelmingly second the recommendation of The Birthday of the World, especially the closing novella, Paradises Lost, which is a gloriously lush and detailed depiction of a colony ship and the society and religion that evolves to keep the 'middle generations' happy, mixing dispassionate description of social structures with the story of those actually living out these rules of love, sex, coming of age and death. A little less anthropological, but no less worth reading for it, The Telling is the story of an Earthling ethnographer who is sent to find remnants of an indigenous society crushed beneath a totalitarian regime - a history with which she is all too familiar, though neatly inverted (at home she was the subject of religious repression; here the repression is in the name of science and rationality).

Also, not something I've read myself as yet, but I keep hearing Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos series being mentioned as excellent socio-cultural SF. Anyone confirm?
posted by aihal at 6:21 AM on January 20, 2008

H. Beam Piper wrote a bit in this vein. There's his short stories "Naudsonce" and "Omnilingual," and his (young adult) novel Little Fuzzy is a long argument about whether or not a newly-discovered species is sentient and possesses culture.
posted by steef at 6:34 AM on January 20, 2008

The Canopus in Argos series requires an extreme love of Doris Lessing, as she was an utter neophyte at science fiction when she wrote them (and admitted as much). So as science fiction they fall short in a lot of ways. But I actually love these books, especially because it made a major mainstream writer concede that "genre" books are also literature.

Anyway, not sure if they meet the OP's needs, but anyone reading them, start at the beginning, with Shikasta, which is actually an extension of the Martha Quest series (known collectively as Children of Violence, and my favorite books of all time)
posted by nax at 6:40 AM on January 20, 2008

Still looking for the Compass Rose. I'll be back if I find it!
posted by nax at 6:40 AM on January 20, 2008

Sort of related, though musically, instead of a book is the Roger Waters album "Amused to Death" it's a concept album about alien anthropologists observing humanity. Yeah, it's cynical and heavy handed, but it's a pretty ambitious topic.
posted by Phoenix42 at 11:05 AM on January 20, 2008

The Xenogenesis series by Octavia E. Butler, first book in it is Dawn, is more of an alien anthropologist observing (and changing) humans. It manages to be deeply, unsettlingly, alien.

I also enjoyed some of Vernor Vinge's stories: A deepness in the sky and The Witling. In the first, the anthropologist (or perhaps more of a linguist? it's been awhile since I've read it) is a minor character, but with interesting dilemmas. The latter features anthropologists as the main (only?) storyline.
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:03 PM on January 20, 2008

Another Iain M. Banks book, Look to Windward, features a secondary storyline about an anthropologist studying a very alien civilization/ecosystem in a gas "bubble" many light-years across.
posted by mbrubeck at 7:24 PM on January 20, 2008

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