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Once again I appeal to my learned Friends as a body to supplement my lack of erudition.  In the coming semester (a few shudder-making days from now) I am going to teach a course in genre writing, F&SF.  One of my contentions about fantasy novels, and scienc-fantasy and future-world novels too, is that the society of the disatnat future, or an alien species, or another planet, or an alternate universe, ought to be at least as complex and unlikely-seeming (to Western European/American-culture-based writers in English) as the societies, mentalities and cultures that humans have in fact produced.  So this year I am going to ask my students to read one book of travel, history, cultural anthropology, or similar account that will illustrate this contention, and shame them out of concocting another pseudo-medieval non-society peopled by folks like themselves (and a few dragons and vampires, also much like themselves). 

I've been saving up some titles, among them Allan Villiers' Sons of Sinbad, about Arab dhow sailors around 1900; and Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines; and Frances Yates's The Art of Memory; and Clifford Geertz's Negara.  Maybe George Lakoff's Women Fire and Dangerous Things (how to think like an alien).  There's a book about how Polynesian sailors cross uncharted Pacific distances by reading the water surace, bird flight, light at differnt times of day, etc., but I can't remember the title. 

I'd like to include a few titles for those as interested in scientific possibilities, but of these I am even less able to suggest any -- I mean I've read the reviews and can recognize the concepts, but have no titles, and no guidelines.

So any ideas, in any of these categories -- unlikely but actual human thought-systems; daily life in unexpected human realms; weird science; historical backwaters or forgotten empires? 

Comments

( 61 comments )
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morbidloren
Jan. 6th, 2007 01:39 pm (UTC)
One for the list
One book that changed my perception of another culture was China: Alive in the Bitter Sea by Fox Butterworth. I don't know if it's still in print, though. It was a very powerful description of the paranoia in post-Mao China.

I hope you'll post the whole reading list. It sounds fascinating!
tomsdisch
Jan. 6th, 2007 01:39 pm (UTC)
Strange Behaviors
Well, you mined Carlo Ginzburg yourself to good effect (The Night Battles)
The Worm and the Cheese); there are many books on the courtisan culture of Venice, including new studies from a feminist perspective; Michener's The Floating World is a great, simple narrative history of the geisha and theater world of the Japanese woodblock prints, which can be supplemented from Donald Keene's anthologies.

Barbarian and nomadic cultures tho interesting are almost by definition ill-documented. We know mostly what kind of belt buckles they favored. Perhaps a tale of a town of bronze buckle makers on a major invasion route and the poor old maker of mouse noodles working for them to pay for herthirteen sons' circumcisions, each of which has to paid for with a separate buckle featuring a special magical gemstone of arcan significance, keyed to a sign of the zodiac, so that the twelve can be name for them: The Amethyst of Aries, the Jade of the Gemini, etc.

Balzac did a whole novel set against the 19th century renovations in the technology of papermaking. The first writer to do the same for Silicon Valley could make a bundle.

What of the artist who did those books, City, Pyramid, Cathedral, about how those feats were accomplished. Who built the first meadhall with a large high unpillared central interior? We take such spaces for granted. The psychology of architecture, from the warren to the dome, has never been treat in an interesting way in either SF or fantasy, where it would seem to be an elephant in the living room. There is Hugo, Notre Dame, and Golding's Spire. I've never read Irving's The Alhambra, which is non-fiction and so a good bet for where to dig.
mastadge
Jan. 6th, 2007 01:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Strange Behaviors
The Cathedral author is, I believe, David MacAuley, author also of The Way Things Work.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 6th, 2007 01:51 pm (UTC)
Heian Kyo
In the category of unlikely-but-real cultures: reading the literature of Heian-period Japan really opened my eyes to the poverty of imagination of so much genre writing. Ivan Morris's The World of the Shining Prince is an introduction to the period. The 1,120 pages of The Tale of Genji would be a lot to add to any reading list, but The Pillow Book, Kagero Nikki (titled The Gossamer Years in the Seidensticker translation), or Sarashina Nikki (title As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams in the Morris translation) are much shorter, at about 250, 150, and 100 pages of text respectively.
nightspore
Jan. 6th, 2007 02:03 pm (UTC)
A few years ago I spent some time looking into exploded systems -- science that turns out not to be true but that was elegant and complex in its day, belying the whiggish idea that only misguided people not thinking clearly would think such things. Material on aether (which I was interested to see Pynchon read up on a lot in Against the Day) was really fascinating; there are a few history-of-science collections out about it now. And Ian Hacking has an amazing and surprising piece on microscopes -- on how wrong it is to think that they help us see more "closely," the way telescopes do, what is really visible. History of science in general is full of plausible, elaborated, brilliant, and now completely foreign systems. (I wonder if string theory will meet the same fate.) People who reconstruct Aristotle's arguments do a lot of the same thing. I do a lot with history of math, but that's probably too abstract for what you're looking for: still Aristotlean mathematics, which is wrong but which raises compelling and original questions, is fascinating. As is intuitionist mathematics, which had an important run (and to some extent still does) in the twentieth century.
crowleycrow
Jan. 6th, 2007 02:30 pm (UTC)
Actually, in a moment of synchronicity, I had just thought of Ian Hacking before getting your reply -- not the microscope article but the Mad Travellers book and his study of multiple personality disorder: antique psychology and mental diseases no longer in evidence.

If you come up with a good title about an abandoned scientific system, let me know. Of course I'm including YAtes's Art of Memory.
exploded systems - sheherazahde - Jan. 7th, 2007 02:09 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: exploded systems - crowleycrow - Jan. 7th, 2007 03:31 am (UTC) - Expand
janetmk
Jan. 6th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC)
I'd suggest a recent book 1491 by Charles Mann about the civilizations that thrived in the Americas before the Europeans brought disease and distruction.
mouseworks
Jan. 6th, 2007 03:11 pm (UTC)
Second this one
1491 also has a great bibliography. The two cultures that stuck most in my mind were the Incas where women channelled the dead but still present Incas and the Mayan temple with the sound tubes and devices for the production of miracles.
Re: Second this one - tomsdisch - Jan. 6th, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
...and a third - burnin_tyger - Jan. 21st, 2007 10:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
matt_ruff
Jan. 6th, 2007 02:52 pm (UTC)
It's thick, but Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin has some very SFnal moments.

On a slightly different tack, there's Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars.and Island of the Colorblind.
sheherazahde
Jan. 6th, 2007 03:00 pm (UTC)
Non-fiction
Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches by Marvin Harris
Cultural Materialism, he talks about the environmental basis for culture: why cows are sacred in India, why Jews don't eat pigs but Polinesians do. I think he gets off track when he starts talking about witches and messiahs at the end of the book. But thecows, pigs, and wars sections sound like what you are asking for.

Politics of Experience by R.D. Laing
Politics of the Family by R.D. Laing
How do we decide if a person is "sane". How do we drive them insane. He has some very interesting cross cultural examples conflict resolution and family structures.

The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

What does it mean to be "dead"? What is the function of secret societies? Trial by ordeal, magic, religion?

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
shewhomust
Jan. 6th, 2007 03:34 pm (UTC)
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou is a wonderful fund of the actual details of life - if we must have medieval fantasies, let's at least have less of the "pseudo"!
mattboggan
Jan. 6th, 2007 07:40 pm (UTC)
Actually, Leroy-Ladurie's book was one of the rare best-seller in historical anthropology in which field so many French historians distinguished themselves. I have always been fascianted by this approach to history, i.e., trying to understand a past society by forgetting what we take for granted. For instance, Jean-Claude Schmitt, in Le corps, les rites, les rêves, le temps, explains that the word "religion" should be banned from our vocabulary when studying the medieval mindset, because what we call today religion has a very different meaning and encompasses a whole cultural (secularized) view of religion and the place of God in society (thanks to the Enlightenment). So, Jean-Claude Scmitt approaches what we would call medieval religion as a mytholody and rites. Indeed, what is the Christian religion but another mythology, i.e. stories told and/ or written by men in which God (gods) is a character and which give an explanation to the world we live in and thereby legitimates the way society is organized. Rites, because Christian religion produce rites that insure the remembering of these stories (the mass) and the conformity of the people to the society set by these stories. I fear it hasn't been translated however (I don't find a translation in English in Amazon although a title on the history of the youth seems interesting, but I didn't read it). Jean-Claude Schmitt uses the same approach to understand the relationship between the dead and the living during the Middle Ages (a very interesting section of the book is the study of the Mesnie Hellequin also called Wild Hunt or L'Armée furieuse, das Wuntendes Heer).

Lucien Febvre's Les rois thaumaturges uses basically the same approach (although he largely precedated Jean-Claude Schmitt) to explain that strangest of belief -- that the kings of France were thought "thaumaturges", i.e. they had the power to heal the "écrouelles" by touching them. This miraculous power came from the ceremony of the sacre during which they received the onction of the holy oil in the cathedral of Reims (in commemoration of the baptism of Clovis in A.D. 496).

Of course, Tom Disch has already quoted Carlo Ginzburg's work, which you already seem to know since it appears in AEgypt.

Maybe Lawence of Arabia's book?

A wonderful thesis in anthropological Greek history (also in French): Philippe Ellinger, La Légende nationale phocidienne. Artémis, les situation extrêmes et les récits d'anéantissement, Paris, BCH Supp. 1993. It explains the role of Artemis, the Greek goddess, in the very special wars in ancien Greece, what we could call the total wars, in which the vanquished cities were destroyed, all the men killed and the women and children reduced in slavery. I fear it will be very hard to find.

(no subject) - mattboggan - Jan. 6th, 2007 07:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Jan. 6th, 2007 09:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
belief - (Anonymous) - Jan. 8th, 2007 05:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mattboggan - Jan. 12th, 2007 01:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
toolmaker
Jan. 6th, 2007 04:23 pm (UTC)
Reading first person accounts of first contact situations has been eye opening for me, as well as reading primary material from earlier times (wills. what is important enough for people to mention in them?), revolutionary documents from Latin America, legal documents.

Last year I read the memoirs of Cabeza de Vaca about his lost expedition and travel through Florida, Texas, and into Mexico. Bernal Diaz has a diary of his time spent with Cortez.

Back in school, after taking a physical anthropology class I wanted to read more about hunter gatherer societies so I found a book by Marjorie Shostak called Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman which was pretty fascinating.

Mark Plotkin's ethnobotanic Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice book is about his time studying ethnobotany in South America.

But I do not think you should necessarily limit things to human experience and cognition. In school I took classes in animal behavior, ethology, perception, and learning about these things introduced me to alien minds.

What might it feel like to have a mind that sleeps in halves, like a Dolphin? The sensory world of animals that hear things at different speeds -- what sounds like one note to us is many to these.

Think of the experiences of those who see into the infrared or ultraviolet or can perceive the polarization of light and use it to orienteer.

In my neuroethology class I read about the sensory experiences of electrogenic and electroreceptive fish and how they use them for signaling, sensing the environment, jamming, &c.

I wish I could recommend some books on perception and animal cognition, but nothing leaps to mind. Perhaps you could ask for advice.

Oh, and I just thought of Oliver Sacks and Luria and others who write case studies about patients with neurological conditions. Getting back to human experience, then, these types of readings also give insight into alternate states of mind.
sheherazahde
Jan. 7th, 2007 01:53 am (UTC)
Animal behavior
Oh Yes, I read a greeat book about animal behavior (if not cognition) "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex" by Olivia Judson
(Anonymous)
Jan. 6th, 2007 04:34 pm (UTC)
As far as the Polynesian sailors, the popular one is Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki (http://www.amazon.com/Kon-Tiki-Across-Pacific-Thor-Heyerdahl/dp/0671726528/ref=pd_sim_b_2/103-6494968-4005411). You might mean one more scholarly than that, though, but that's the one that came to mind. Hope that helps.

Scot
mark_argent
Jan. 6th, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC)
Mark Kurlansky, The Basque History of the World. The Basque have existed for centuries as a people without ever having a country, and their language is unrelated to any other in Europe.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 6th, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC)
I would suggest Hav (Faber & Faber 2006) or Last Letters from Hav (1985) by Jan Morris

A relevant passage from the (otherwise awkward) frame story to The Blue Star by Fletcher Pratt, articulating a notion of "corresponding development": "If you're going to eliminate gunpowder and everything that came out of it, you'll have to replace it with something. After all, a large part of the time and attention of our so-called civilization have been spent in working out the results of the gunpowder and steam engine inventions [. . .] There would have to be a corresponding development in some other field, going 'way beyond where we are."
raydavis
Jan. 6th, 2007 06:02 pm (UTC)
One of the most fascinatingly alien books I own is A History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, written in and largely about the middle of the Dark Ages. In Lewis Thorpe's translation, Gregory describes events with authority and apparent hard-headed rationality -- but what he describes...! Conveniently for your purposes, it's a Penguin and in print.

Back when I was trying to write fiction, the idea of using that voice in dark fantasy fascinated me. Maybe one of your students can succeed where I couldn't.
crowleycrow
Jan. 6th, 2007 09:36 pm (UTC)
Good one, and it has also reminded me of The Waning of the Middle Ages, Huizinga. Amazing stories there too.
anselmo_b
Jan. 6th, 2007 06:20 pm (UTC)
I cannot provide you with one single source, but some research on present day Japanese culture should deliver some good food for thought about what we take for granted regarding the equality of humans in our so called globalized world. Did you know that the Japanese have several sets of counting words which are applied depending on the form and characteristics of what is to be counted? This reveals fundamental idiosyncrasies in the way of perceiving the world which have consequences much more profound than differences in dress, taste, or social custom.
Texts that always make me wonder at the paradox of beings as human as one can possibly conceive and who are at the same time totally alien and lacking in experiences common to ours, are the epic of Gilgamesh and the book of Exodus, especially the story of the manna.
The theory of Preformationism and the preoccupations and thoughts that led to it are a nice example of serious scientific activities that are quite foreign to us, although only relative distant from us in time since they appeared in our own western culture.
Another one would be Herodotus' Histories, which also has the effect on the reader of inducing a sense of intimate relatedness and total alienation.
mattboggan
Jan. 6th, 2007 07:42 pm (UTC)
Herodotus, of course!
shaolingrrl
Jan. 6th, 2007 06:43 pm (UTC)
Jonathan Spence has many good books about China, and they often focus with varying degrees of intimacy on the clash of Eastern and Western cultures. The Question of Hu discusses what happened to one of the first Chinese to come to Europe (it essentially drove him nuts). The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci follows a Jesuit's adventures among the Ming in the late 16th century. God's Chinese Son is about the Taiping Rebellion, a fascinating time in Chinese history and an excellent example of a disastrous melding of concepts from two different cultures.

There's lots of classical Chinese literature out there, too, like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Heroes of the Marsh, and Journey to the West, but taking on one of those is a pretty big job.

As for scientific possibilities, a fascinating ecosystem can be found in tropical rainforests--more specifically, rainforest canopies. A really good introduction that's on my desk right now is The High Frontier: Exploring the Tropical Rainforest Canopy, by Mark W. Moffett. Highly recommended.

Hope these help--
crowleycrow
Jan. 6th, 2007 09:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks -- and this also reminds me of Spence's Death of the Woman Wang, a short enough one for my students, though the Ricci one was fascinating.
memegarden
Jan. 6th, 2007 08:08 pm (UTC)
When I was in college I took a particularly wonderful class in sociolinguistics. I'm trying to remember the names of the books we read.

We read several about the Kaluli people of New Guinea:
The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers
The Give and Take of Everyday Life
Sound and Sentiment

...and a couple on American Pentecostalists, none of which I can currently remember titles of, unfortunately.

andesmusings
Jan. 6th, 2007 10:25 pm (UTC)
We, the Navigators....Pulawat Atoll
David Lewis__We, the Navigators__stories of the ancient blind man who navigated by hanging his balls in the water...


and cognitive science/anthropology masterpiece __East is a Big Bird__, Gladwin


East is a Big Bird came into my life at the same time as Songlines, and I consider it formative.



Re: We, the Navigators....Pulawat Atoll - crowleycrow - Jan. 6th, 2007 11:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
As to the Scientific... - andesmusings - Jan. 7th, 2007 11:19 am (UTC) - Expand
denydenydeny
Jan. 6th, 2007 10:49 pm (UTC)
HBO documentary "Living Dolls" on YouTube. Explores the world of child beauty pageants. I'm sure there must be a book somewhere on the origin of these pageants in the eugenics movement & "Fitter Family" competitions popular in the 1920s? Anyway, the link is: http://youtube.com/view_play_list?p=370BD9A4DEE8DD4B
al_zorra
Jan. 7th, 2007 12:15 am (UTC)
Out of everything I've ever read nothing is as weird and as evil as the accounts of eye-witnesses to the slave nation of San Dominque before the Revolution, and then what came later was even more so. A close second is the culture of the slave states of the U.S., who became the confederacy. You get in there and read the primary sources and dig deeper and deeper and deeper and this includes documents written by Thomas Jefferson and almost all the founding fathers, and honestly, the shock and disgust you feel that human beings could talk and think and behave like that about other human beings ... but that was just it, they were animals, and not the same as us. Yet we f*cked them, ate the food they prepared, had them raise our children and did anything to them we wanted. And they were our walking bank accounts on top of it.

Love, C.
mouseworks
Jan. 7th, 2007 07:10 am (UTC)
I got a lot out of some biology books
Walker's Mammals of the World (Johns Hopkins University Press and now on line).

Mammalian Radiations

and The Oxford Companion to Animal Behavior which explains the physics of senses.
marconiplein
Jan. 7th, 2007 01:36 pm (UTC)
I think there is at least one good book out there about the Mongols.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 7th, 2007 03:48 pm (UTC)
Rather than Lawrence of Arabia's self-invention, I'd recommend Wilfrid Thesiger, The Marsh Arabs (1964), a well written account of a vanished way of life.
sheherazahde
Jan. 7th, 2007 04:05 pm (UTC)
Genre Writing
While I agree with your basic premise that there needs to less unimaginative, formulaic, SF&F writing. I'm not sure that your approach cuts to the root of the matter.

If I was teaching a class on SF&F writing I would want to impress on the students that the strength of this genre is in exploring ideas. They should not start their novel with a plot outline, a map, or a language but with an idea they want to explore. They should not write if they do not have anything interesting to say.

crowleycrow
Jan. 7th, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC)
Re: Genre Writing
I take your point, and SF has always been about ideas or concepts -- I'd say a great number, maybe the majority, of SF stories over its history are just about as good when summarized as when read, because the value is in the concept.

But fantasy fiction can exist for its own sake, merely as invention, or purely in an aesthetic realm. It's the ideas that are in, say, the Narnia books that are valueless; the inventiveness is all. A summary of Lord of the Rings would be worse than useless.
Re: Genre Writing - sheherazahde - Jan. 8th, 2007 05:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Genre Writing - (Anonymous) - Feb. 9th, 2007 02:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
walkingscarlet_
Jan. 7th, 2007 10:53 pm (UTC)
Vance?
Would you ever recommend Jack Vance to a student as an example of how to populate a world?

If an author were writing a story that was human in all its aspects (other than the use of magic) and it was set on another planet, is it all that necesssary to create such a different society? Or does a more 'alien' society, even if it were derived from human experience, simply make the human tale more interesting to read?

I want your teaching notes!!!
herr_ziffer
Jan. 8th, 2007 12:32 am (UTC)
Strange Books
Robert Graves's The White Goddess is a great example of strange fiction. I you aren't aware of it, the poet believes (?) he has found the key to understanding the grammar of 'all' poetry. (Come to think of it, JC does know it because he has Pierce Moffett ask 'why does the devil have cloven feet?" in Aegypt.)

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is always struck me as an excellent piece of fantasy that happens to take place in our world, between cultures.
betweentimes
Jan. 8th, 2007 12:37 am (UTC)
Last year Sweetser and Nunez published an article in Cognitive Science on Aymara language and gesture. Amerindian communication is significant for its unusual (unique?) metaphoric mapping of temporal notions on to spatial concepts. The article could be a useful companion to Lakoff for thinking about the relationships between language, culture and cognition.

"Contrary to what had been thought a cognitive universal among humans – a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies’ orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind – the Amerindian group locates this imaginary abstraction the other way around: with the past ahead and the future behind."

The original article can be found here. An overview of the research can be found on the UCSD site.
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