Thursday, July 11, 2024

Virtual Book Tour: Cargo of Bones by Z. Lindsey


Top 10 fictional cultures in literature

As an anthropologist, I love a good fictional culture. I like seeing what people make as priorities and how people alter or completely reinvent real-world traits. So here are my favorite fictional cultures from fantasy and scifi literature. 

Who am I missing? 

10. The Fremen, Frank Herbert - I had to put them on the list because they’re so famous, and the way that Herbert shows the sacredness of water for their people is incredible. Plus, who doesn’t remember the stillsuits? Herbert was attempting to critique the White savior narratives that were popular at the time, such as the story of Lawrence of Arabia, but he still ends up falling into some magical native tropes that haven’t aged super well. It’s a good example of why writers should try to make fictional cultures distinct from real-world cultures, or risk putting stereotypes in their works.  

9. Dinotopia, James Gurney - A world where people live in harmony with dinosaurs; how could you hate it? Dinotopia is a beautiful place, and the illustrations help to give it a cohesive feeling that is vaguely Mediterranean but not quite. Besides the dinos themselves, I love the unique costumes the people and dinos alike rock, and the sense of festivity that overlays it all. But to be honest I barely remember any of the details besides dinosaurs and pretty clothing, which is why they’re only number nine on the list. 

8. Oz, L. Frank Baum - if you’ve just seen the movie, you might be surprised to see this on the list. There was little to Oz in the movie--a group of dwarves who are happy about accidental manslaughter, a few corn fields, a deep forest, and a big city where everyone wears makeup that probably has lead in it. But if you’ve read Wicked, you already know there’s a lot more under the surface, and L. Frank Baum’s original books paint a much more complex picture of his world, full of high-stakes politics and pockets where unexpected culture traits have sprung up. With the Nomes of Ozma of Oz, for example, Baum apparently intended to create a culture based on toxic masculinity--stone people who melt down at even the metaphorical idea of femininity in the form of an egg. 

7. The Labyrinth, The Labyrinth - This one speaks to the diversity possible within cultures, because the creatures of the labyrinth all seem very different, yet they are clearly from the same world. And I know The Labyrinth is not technically a book, but Brian Froud’s book Goblins, which explores the labyrinth in-depth, adds a ton of cultural material to it. My favorite is the descriptions of goblin theater, which were marathon events that could go for days at a time, full of improvised monologues, where performers might actually die. If you’re developing a fantasy world and you haven’t considered what theater is like in your world, you’re missing out. 

6. Innsmouth, H.P. Lovecraft - Of all the weird ideas H.P. Lovecraft came up with, few stayed with us quite like his frightening fish-human hybrids from the town of Innsmouth. While they’re not quite as famous as Cthulhu himself, when I think of Lovecraft, I usually think of bulging eyes peering out of dirty brick buildings in a cold, slimy coastal town. Innsmouth is a type of syncretic culture, as we’d say in anthropology. It’s got elements of human culture and elements of Deep One culture mixed in the same way the people have mixed. To visitors, this creates a sense of offness about things. We only ever see it from human perspectives, but I wonder if the Deep Ones would also think something is weird about the poeple of Innsmouth. “I heard Frank met some human lady. He’s probably sleeping in beds and driving around in automobiles. Disgusting.” 

5. The Ninth House, Tamsyn Muir - With such a high concept, Muir needed to create a unique world, and she excelled phenomenally. It’s so intricate, really, with the hierarchy of houses and the Emperor God, but it’s handled elegantly in a way that focuses on the characters and their needs more than the ins and outs of the world itself. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to get lost in it--yes, it’s a complex place, but Gideon’s somewhat simple nature helps us to just go with it. 

4. The Nikan Empire, R.F. Kuang - Kuang’s empire is exquisitely detailed. She’s answered all the important questions about culture, like what do people think of outsiders, and Kuang deeply explores the subculture of shamanism. But what’s probably most interesting about the world is how Kuang unabashedly mixes elements of modern-day beliefs with her fantasy, as in a chemical weapons attack and the fact that drug addiction is explored in a visceral way. Writers often try to deny that their fantasy works have elements of contemporary beliefs in them, but all fiction has the author’s personal philosophies imbued in it to some extent, even if the authors themselves don’t always see it. With Kuang, she has openly included contemporary problems in a fantasy work, and it creates a truly unique (and dark) world. 

3. The necropolis Litharge, Neil Gaiman- Neil Gaiman creates some fabulous cultures in his works, but I choose this one because of how little time we spend with them, and yet how deeply we understand their culture. Over the course of little more space than one issue of a comic book, we meet Petrefax and experience his world as a journeyman undertaker from a city that collects the secrets of death and dying. They have a sort of Victorian decadence in their appearance, and all their clothes are rumpled and battered. I can’t give away too much about the culture without spoiling a major plot point in the series, so if you haven’t read it, you’ll have to take my word that Gaiman develops a more dynamic and unique culture in ten pages than most writers pull off in ten volumes. 

2. Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin - Ursula Le Guin was the daughter of a famous anthropologist, and it shows in her descriptions of culture. Previously, I think, fantasy and scifi writers might drop some big ideas, but not really explore them all that well. I remember reading a pulp story from the 1940s where it’s revealed that earth is a destination on an alien tourist circuit, which is a fun idea, but there’s absolutely no development of this awesome concept. In the first book, Le Guin tells a coming-of-age story in a quick and readable way, but she also clearly spent a lot of time thinking, “What would shipping be like in a land with magic winds?” The cultural stuff, like true names, never overwhelms her work, and it’s always there to assist in plot and character development. But it’s some of the most well-thought-out culture in fantasy, and it created a higher standard for writers. 

1. The Shire, J.R.R. Tolkien - For the food alone, hobbits top this list. Hobbits eat six meals a day, and Tolkein makes sure we know this. It’s not irrelevant information, either--it helps us understand the heroes of his stories as people.  

As an anthropologist, I could legit put together an ethnographic study of hobbit culture from the information Tolkien gives us about his heroes, and it starts in the first paragraph of The Hobbit. At the start of The Hobbit, we learn a surprising amount about hobbit culture in a few words. Bilbo lives in a hobbit-hole, “and that means comfort.” This is a description of culture, because every hobbit we meet feels the same way about their homes. Sure, some are probably messier than others, but they share a love of warm fires, and dinners without their plates getting cracked. And while I wouldn’t want to live among most of the cultures on this list, I think most humans could do with a few weeks of hobbit-style living every now and again.

Devil bureaucrat Essie Darkenchyl and her friends barely survived the jungle, but now they're going straight to Hell--AKA her hometown!

“What’s happening now?” Two Rabbit shouted. 

“Looks like some kind of sheep,” Merritt said. 

Essie’s eyes shot open. 

“Sheep?” Two Rabbit asked. 

She still couldn’t move. She was staring at the sky again. Purple storm clouds. 

“Essie?” the doctor asked. “Are you awake? You hear me? You’re bleeding to death! For Aro’s sake, let down that shield or aura or whatever you’re projecting.”

He was just out of sight. They were all out of sight. Essie desperately tried to sit, but it only made the storm clouds choke in on her faster.  

“Whoa!” Connie said. “Those are some mean sheep.”

“Sand sheep?” Boon asked. 

Their voices made her head throb. She tried to follow, but couldn’t. It sounded like nonsense.

“By Aro—the sheep stepped on that guy’s crotch!” Merritt shouted. “Please don’t say we’re being rescued by sheep.”

“That’s if they don’t attack us, too,” Boon said.

“Holy Mother,” Two Rabbit said. “I’ve never seen a sheep spit like that.”

“Ohhhh.” Essie smiled as much as she could. “Llamas.”

Then she passed out.

Zac Lindsey is an anthropologist and a linguist who focuses on the Maya people of Quintana Roo. Since childhood, he's had a not-so-secret love of weird, silly, and well-structured fantasy. When other people's parents were reading them picture books, his mom was reading him Terry Brooks. He typically writes hopeful and character-driven fantasy. 

Today, he lives in Quintana Roo, Mexico with his wife, daughter, and various stray cats. 



Amazon link to the first book:

Z. Lindsey will award a randomly drawn winner a $25 Amazon/BN gift card + a digital copy of the book via Rafflecopter.


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