Friday, December 25, 2015

Anthropology’s Three Questions

Visitors to the website may have noted that we publish short speculative fiction, particularly within the genres of SF, fantasy, horror, and. . . *anthropological fiction.”

The editor is a little fuzzy on what the latter actually entails, but luckily one of our First Readers has a degree in Anthropology, and some understanding has trickled down to the rest of us as we’ve read through hundreds of submissions to our open calls.

We recently attended the retirement party of close friend and Cultural Anthropology Professor Paul Shankman of the University of Colorado, who regaled us with reminisces about his career. Shankman, as we all call him, wrote “The Trashing of Margaret Mead,” a rebuttal to the controversy over the famous Mead’s methods, and is a recognized expert on pop culture.

Shankman explained that his love for the field of Anthropology boiled down to a thirst for exploring three basic questions:

1. Who are we?
2. Where did we come from?
3. Where are we going?

Those questions sound awfully similar to ones speculative fiction seeks to answer, don’t they?

It helps account for why we’ve been delighted when familiar heroes like Elvis Presley or Neil Armstrong show up in our stories. Or, when stories about primitive or advanced cultures reveal universal and timeless truths about what it means to be human. We’ve been transported by alternate histories that show how our tendencies may have taken us down a different path. Stories framed with an anthropological angle make us think, and we hope they give us a better awareness of where humanity is heading.

An emphasis on “cultural concerns” doesn’t mean that fantasy doesn’t have a place in our anthologies. On the contrary, fantasy and imagination are important parts of being human. We like stories featuring scientific extrapolation, artificial intelligence, or acknowledging intelligent species other than humanity.

So, while our goal is to provide fun and diverting fiction that crosses an array of genres, we also would like the work to be meaningful and relevant. We find stories are often best when they address one of those three questions, or at least give us something or someone we can take personally. It’s finding the universal in the specific. That’s what we mean when we say, “anthropological.”

As our “staff anthropologist” sums it up: “Anthropology is something we can all relate to, from our earliest ancestors to our distant descendants. Ultimately, we’re all related.”

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