Re: Is Levi-Strauss essential? was It still works? Avoid it anyway.

Stephanie Folse (
Wed, 15 Jan 1997 22:07:49 -0600

On 16 Jan 1997, Dan Goodman wrote:

> Going back in the comment chain: Is it necessary for a science fiction or
> fantasy writer to know about Levi-Strauss's work in order to construct
> believable societies?

I don't think so. Plenty of believable societies out there (in books),
and I doubt all the authors have even *heard* of Levi-Strauss, much less
read his stuff. Also, it might be hard to find a fictional society which
all, or even most, readers think is believable. Case in point: I've got
a BA and an MA in anthropology, while one of my friends has a PhD in
military history. We differ widely on what we find believable: you could
feed me just about anything about a military society and I'd take it, but
Dave would criticize it up and down. OTOH, don't get me started on *any*
book that takes as a main focus the idea that evolution somehow is
allowing humanity to tranform into something "higher" or "better."

> And -- what anthropological literature IS useful to science fiction and
> fantasy writers?
> I've been recommending T.N Luhrmann's Persuasions of the Witch's Craft.

I have a problem with this because of Luhrmann's (IMHO) snide attitude
towards the belief system of her informants. She makes a point, in the
introduction, of saying that she does not believe in magic or the religion
of the people she did her participant observation with, and seems to take
great delight in pointing out how that group's world-view "twists" (my
word) chance or coincidental events into thngs that have meaning or were
somehow called for or created by the group's magical workings. What she
seems to have missed is that *her* personal beliefs are
completely beside the point. I think (it's been a while since I read the
book) that she tells the reader that to try to demonstrate her
objectivity, but the result is that she swings to the other end of the
bias spectrum -- appearing almost actively hostile to her study subjects.
And, if she had instead done fieldwork with a Siberian shaman or a
Texas/Mexico-border curandera, would she have felt it necessary to explain
that she didn't beleive in animism/Santeria/voodoo/whatever belief system
her subject followed? I think not.

As for recommendations, I am only 15 pages into _The Elizabethan
Underwold_ by Gamini Salgado, and I'd suggest anyone writing in a vaguely
Renaissance-like world pick it up. There's also Carlo Ginzburg's _The
Cheese and the Worms_ and, um, his book on witches (I forgot the title).
No matter what anyone says of the truth/fiction aspects of his source
material, they are fine fodder for fantasy.

Also, Emmanuel LeRoy Lauderie's _Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error_.
Lauderie gained access to original documents of the Inquisition dealing
with the rooting out of heresy in a small mountain town in France. His
interpretation of the town has been questioned, but heck, we're talking
using it to write *fiction*, and it shows a rather different view of a
medieval society than we're used to seeing. Lauderie aso has a few
obvious preconcieved notions -- the one I remember is that he's rather
homophobic, and tries to show the townspeople with that attitude when it's
rather obvious that they don't care one way or the other. The "gay"
(actually bisexual, from the evidence) townsman (I forgot his name) is
also singled out with surprise on Lauderie's part when Lauderie talks
about the rather high level of literacy found among the townsfolk. The
quote, from memory, runs more-or-less like: "Even the homosexual [name]
read Ovid." Like your sexual preference affects your literacy rate?

Anyway, it's still a good book for someone who wants to read about a
non-stereotypical medieval town.

--Stephanie Assistant Curator
South Dakota State Historical Society
Is not general incivility the very essence of love?
--Jane Austen