First I wanted to be a scientist, an inventor, and a spaceman. The word astronaut hadn’t been invented yet. By the time I reached high school John Storer, Peter Mathiessen, and Marston Bates had converted me to ecology. I entered college majoring in biology; following their rules, I took chemistry and math the first year and enrolled in Biology 201 at the beginning of year two. I lasted less than a week, because the whole department was DNA crazy. In the words of Marston Bates, they were only interested in “skin-in” biology, while I was only interested in “skin-out” biology. They were wearing white lab coats; I wanted to wear khaki.
Ten years later, everyone would have been studying ecology. My timing was a fortunate misfortune, because twenty years later the study of ecology had degenerated into fighting with government bureaucracy to save what little of the wild remained. Diplomacy is a skill I never had and never wanted, so it’s a good thing my life didn’t lead me down that path.
Anthropology was the closest thing to behavioral biology that MSU offered. I switched majors and it served me well. I spent two summers on archaeological digs which taught me I didn’t want to be an archaeologist. I did want to look like one. My roommate and I took our first archaeology class in 1967. Professor Cleland was tall and lean, with close cropped hair and a full red beard. We went back to the dorm and threw away our razors. I never went back to bareface, which came in handy a year later when the Summer of Love occurred and suddenly there were hippies everywhere.
All this, you understand, was years before Indiana Jones put on his hat and picked up his whip.
My interests within anthropology soon narrowed down to South Asia, that is from Pakistan, through India to Bhutan and from Nepal to Sri Lanka, including overseas populations in places like Trinidad and Fiji. I mined that knowledge heavily in A Fond Farewell to Dying and made two of the main characters in Cyan Dravidian Indians from Trinidad.
Although I spent a lot of energy studying Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, the religion around which I built Jandrax came from a more personal source – from growing up a fundamentalist and then bailing out.
The core concept of Anthropology is culture.
Putting it as simply as possible, we do not see with our eyes or hear with our ears, but every sensory perception is filtered through our cultural upbringing. We have an internalized vision of what the world is like, and every perception is censored by that view.
That is a quote from a paper I gave at Westercon 34 in Sacramento, California in 1981, in which I summarized what the study of anthropology and the writing of novels had taught me about creating alien cultures. Thirty-five years later, it stands up well to the test of time, so I am presenting it on this website. It starts today in Serial.
It’s called How to Build a Culture. Pop over and give it a look.