Introduction: Speculative Anthropologies

From the Series: Speculative Anthropologies

Photo by David Revoy/Blender Foundation, licensed under CC BY.

Anthropology is suspended in teleologies we ourselves have spun. Our versions of life now are inescapably inflected by how we think life is going to be.

—Samuel Gerald Collins

How might speculative fiction become not only a resource for imagining alternative worlds, but also a medium for remaking our presence in this world?

Most anthropologists we know read speculative fiction (SF) voraciously. We borrow this broad, mixed-up category of SF from Judith Merril, via Donna Haraway, inspired by Ursula Le Guin. We leave the term intentionally open, a gesture to the genre’s heterogeneity and the plurality of contemporary ethnography. We are more interested in the possibility of entanglement than in the hardening of categories: thus, SF encompasses a variety of legacies and trajectories, ranging from the speculative to the scientific. Whether we read traditional science fiction/fantasy, its antecedents in earlier works of social commentary, or some other permutation (see Haraway 2013), we cast a critical eye toward futurity and the possibilities and problems presented by otherness and afterness. What modes of knowledge production get reinscribed or reoriented through the traversal of alien worlds? How do the imaginative practices of SF allow us to propose alternative fields of engagement with the stories we tell and the materials we use to tell them, as well as opportunities to reconcile a tragic past and present with a hopeful future?

The attraction of SF for anthropologists and anthropology for SF lies in a shared concern with and commitment to difference. For anthropologists, SF’s alternative futures, otherwise presents, and counterfactual pasts—what Priya Chandrasekaran calls “thinking parabolically”—allow us to confront our world’s inclusions and exclusions from across imaginaries of difference and thereby challenge the taken-for-granted by pushing boundaries of the individual and society, the human and alien, the planet, and life itself. In its commitment to worlding and world-building, SF infuses anthropology with a heterotopic wildness of imagination. Meanwhile, anthropology offers SF its principled relativism and radical empiricism.

Of course, the novum of SF worlding (see Suvin 2016, 79–101)—the discontinuity from which fabulation unfolds—is always folded back to confront the here and now, on Earth. Ray Bradbury once said that people often asked him to predict the future, when instead he was writing to prevent a future that he would rather not come to pass. The promise of futurity is a necessary refraction of other potential presents and futures. In this prism of possibilities, we approach the speculative—a genre that is equal parts suspicion, prognostication, and observation. To speculate again in these times is to reckon with the ghosts of past misadventures and massacres, while acknowledging the potential for future mistakes—similar errors in alien guises. It is to surface the ambiguity of claims about the postmodern, posthuman, or anthropocenic. It is to disassemble Manifest Destiny and instead fashion new versions of exploration and nation-building—whether extraterrestrial or existential. Perhaps, as William Lempert suggests, we reconsider what it is to indulge in stories of conquest, particularly when certain narratives are effaced to accommodate alternative memories of race, ethnicity, state, and modernity. Or, as David Colón-Cabrera proposes, we reconfigure our diasporic models to circumvent colonialism and bondage and to interpose an intergalactic space free of oppression.

Tensions remain, of course. The search for difference is not enough, for, as Taylor Nelms writes, “the imagined tomorrow quivers, suspiciously, with today’s preoccupations. . . . Aren’t all SF worlds simply versions of this one?” This is to say that if, as Samuel Collins (2003) suggests, allegiances between SF and anthropology grew out of a particular understanding of difference—holistic, homogenous, homeostatic, clearly delimited—then perhaps anthropology and SF are in need of new understandings for new interfaces, new interstices. If “anthropology as social science is,” as Diane Nelson (2003, 250) writes, “the study of alien encounters,” then we need to attend to the freight that they carry. Works like China Miéville’s The City and the City can attune us to the unseen palimpsest of urban life in Ecuador. Or perhaps, as Patricia Markert and Jeremy Trombley indicate, leaning into the uncanniness of the worlds we already inhabit deconstructs our presumptions of normalcy.

Neither SF nor anthropology are simply sources of epistemic parallels or experimental alternatives to our reality, as David Valentine shows us. Both are actively, empirically intertwined with the heterogeneous lives of real people. For us, this was always the challenge—and pleasure—of SF: not the coherent tracings of butterfly effects, but the unsettling weirdness of the hybrid, the networked, the appropriated. In these spaces of transgression and congestion, we are asked to consider the (un)natural edifices whose instabilities disrupt notions of ecological complacency (Anderson); the ways that planners backcast (Badami) or that engineers imagine human behavior (Reddy); the work of speculative ethnographers (Oman-Reagan) or the recursive cycle of speculative technologies and the invention of modern medical devices (Applin).

At the intersection of SF and anthropology, there is a sense of epistemological humility about the kind of worlds we could or should inhabit. Yet epistemological humility should not be confused with futility: possibilities and potentialities still matter. We do not know what we are capable of, and that shouldn’t keep us from the pursuit of what ifs. This, at least, is the promise for which we read and write. Through the imaginative interpellations of SF, we gravitate toward new localities and means of presence: ecological, technological, Afro-futuristic. Facing the imminent prospect of both disaster and discovery, we must not fall into despair, but rather strive to provide tangible interventions to shape and repair the worlds we still hope for.

And so, we are committed to thinking through not just what kinds of stories anthropology and SF dare tell together, but who can and should tell them and how. As Donna Haraway (2016, 35) puts it, this time borrowing from Marilyn Strathern, the ideas we use to think through other ideas matter. If we are after other futures, then the intersection of anthropology and SF offers practical and political resources. The agencies at stake are compromised but nonetheless efficacious. The ambivalence is real. The present remains a tenuous proposition.


Collins, Samuel Gerald. 2003. “Sail On! Sail On! Anthropology, Science Fiction, and the Enticing Future.” Science Fiction Studies 30, no. 2: 180–98.

Haraway, Donna J. 2013. “SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far.” Ada, no. 3.

_____. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Nelson, Diane M. 2003. “A Social Science Fiction of Fevers, Delirium, and Discovery: ‘The Calcutta Chromosome, The Colonial Laboratory, and the Postcolonial New Human.” Science Fiction Studies 30, no. 2: 246–66.

Suvin, Darko. 2016. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Edited by Gerry Canavan. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang. Originally published in 1979.