Social Science Fiction

Anthropological Fiction

Ursula Le Guin at the PEN USA Annual LitFest Awards Gala
Ursula Le Guin at the PEN USA Annual LitFest Awards Gala. Michael Buckner / Getty Images

One of the things an archaeologist really needs is a good imagination. Let's face it; every day we start with a few pottery sherds, burnt and blackened seeds, bone splinters and broken rock and from that rebuild an idea of a people, with diets and customs and political systems. Sometimes it's hard to come by, this font of imagination, and all of us have our methods of refreshing the well. Me, I read what Ursula LeGuin calls "social science fiction."

Oh, sure, I like space opera, like Star Wars; but all that is simply cops and robbers in space or the war against good and evil. There's a good guy, there's a bad guy, there's a pretty girl, there's a shoot em up and the good guy wins. And, of course, I love sword and sorcery, like the Lord of the Rings. There's a quest, there's a wizard, there's a warrior, together brains and brawn team up to find whatever it is they're looking for. Eh, I've seen those movies, read those books a thousand times. No, I gotta have more than that.

"Social science fiction," I don't suppose this will come as shock to anyone, has its roots in the social sciences. The author infuses her (and yes, it's mostly her) fiction with ideas from anthropology, linguistics, kinship, cultural studies, sociology, psychology, studies of the human character.

Ursula K. LeGuin

Like Ursula K. LeGuin. Although as an ex-English major I think looking into some writer's background to find out the underlying meaning of their words is a pointless and annoying way of understanding writing, I'll confess that I do know that the "K." stands for Kroeber.
Ursula LeGuin's father was pioneer anthropologist A. L. Kroeber; but that's beside the point. My favorite LeGuin novel is The Lathe of Heaven, closely followed by The Left Hand of Darkness.

The Lathe of Heaven is about George Orr, a fellow whose dreams effect reality; and that's not a misspelling for affect.
He discovers that his dreams actually change the world, both events and the people who create them, and he ends up at a psychiatrist's office when he can't stop it. The psychiatrist decides that he can save the world from ourselves by controlling George's dreams. But--can you really control a dream?

The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of an ambassador to the planet Gethen. The people on Gethen change sexes monthly over the course of their adult lives, and much of the story is told from an inhabitant's point of view. It's a difficult story, because the inhabitant falls in love with the ambassador, and undergoes a sex change that has nothing to do with surgery. This book is not about alien sex, boys and girls, it's about how our personal worlds are shaped by our gender.

Octavia Butler

I love Octavia Butler, and was personally heartbroken when she died in March 2006. She wrote a couple of series, but my favorite has to be the Patternist series, that begins (within the logic of the series) with Wild Seed (1980). The plot of these several books centers around Doro, a genetic mutation, I suppose, who is immortal, and who sustains his immortality by taking over other people's bodies. Because this leaves him unimaginably alone--he has no family, no friends, no lovers that last long enough--he begins his own genetic experiment, searching the world for extrasensory talents and mating those people, in an attempt to build himself relatives.
He is not a sympathetic character, and his family despises and fears the control he has over them. Subsequent novels follow the family in greater detail, as they grapple with their own power and enslavement. One way to look at the Patternist series is sort of a jazz riff on the process of domestication, with some very dark elements indeed.

In 1995, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Butler a "genius grant." I can't think of anyone I'd rather have seen get one. Well, maybe me.

Kate Wilhelm

Kate Wilhelm has a couple of books in this genre I like a lot. In Juniper Time (1979), a post-apocalyptic novel, astronauts discover a message floating in space and are desperate to have it translated, because if it's a trick from an "enemy" human political group, that's one thing, but if it's a message from outer space, if it's a message of hope from some beings that are more highly evolved than us and can save us from ourselves....



The Clewiston Test (1976) concerns a biochemist who has identified a truly miraculous cure for pain. The only problem is the nasty side effects--increasingly antisocial behavior, and a growing dislike and suspicion of others escalating into violence. She is badly injured in a car accident and may--or may not--have tested the painkiller on herself. The reactions of her husband and her colleagues to this situation, and her relationship to her primate experimental subjects, makes a sneaky treatise on the ethics of science and society.

Wilhelm has done a number of mysteries, science fiction, and plain old novels over the years which I've enjoyed; my favorite of these has got to be Oh, Susannah!, in which the protagonist suffers from amnesia with confabulation. Oh Susannah! makes me laugh like an idiot everytime I read it (which sounds a little heartless until you crack the book). I've owned probably half a dozen copies over the years, but I always give them away to people I like who like to read.

"Take this, you'll love it!" I cry. I have yet to get a single one of those copies back.

Suzette Haden Elgin

Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue trilogy (Native Tongue, Judas Rose, and Earthsong) is probably the most radically feminist of the books I've described. Set in the future, the book details a time when men and women are separated into castes, such that women develop their own language called Láadan.

Essentially, the books are about language, in all of its forms, and the power it can provide. Interestingly enough, she's probably best known for her several books on her project called the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, in which she recommends the Boring Baroque Response as a defense against verbal abusers, tyrants, and just plain crabby people.

Ahhhhh, I feel better already.