The first place I went to research The Firelight Isle was Anthropology, a discipline that previously I knew very little about, but that informs the writing of one of my old favourites (Ursula Le Guin, who I’m sure everyone who knows me is sick of hearing about), and one of my new favourites (Carla Speed McNeil, whose Finder series is one of the most original and absorbing pieces of comicbook storytelling that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read)! If there’s any company I’d love The Firelight Isle to share, they’re it, so it seemed like Anthropology was the place to start.
A bit of googling later and I found this podcast of a lecture series held at Berkeley on the History of Anthropological Thought by Rosemary Joyce. It took me around a month to get through all the sessions and make notes, and I can say my mind is properly blown! I haven’t had the chance to read any of the course material, but even without that context, it’s a lecture series so packed full of insight and knowledge that I feel like my way of seeing the world has both crystallised and been shoved spinning at the same time.
The impression that the course gave me, solidified by the closing words of the lecturer, was that Anthropology’s unique concern is that of generating knowledge about ourselves whilst understanding the perspective with which we generate knowledge about ourselves. It tries to account for the similarities we share as animals of a common species, whilst striving never to reduce or explain away the complexity, individuality and multiplicity of our histories, persons and cultures. It seems to be a discipline that is happy to admit that it’s very much in progress, and that if it were ever to claim to collectively have “the answer” about humankind, there would be something unaccounted for. It’s a science that has taught me there are many ways to do science, and that the job of each science is to examine and develop its own particular method in order to produce the best possible results in its field. Here are some of the notes I took on a whiteboard whilst listening (being able to pause and rewind a lecture is a pretty awesome thing):
Rather than introducing specific ideas to me, the course has instead given me a sort of philosophy of culture: a filter through which to examine the ways in which I’m going about inventing my own culture. This means that many of the things I was taking for granted whilst writing The Firelight Isle no longer feel so certain, and I’ve suddenly got lots more questions to prompt new elements in the story and the world. I’ve also now got the confidence and some of the knowledge needed to tackle some more specific Anthropological books that I’ve been hoping to read.
The book that I’m currently reading is Homo Hierarchicus, a theoretical piece about caste systems (something that I wanted to feature in the story), and I’m pleased to say that the lecture series has given me enough grounding to not only read it, but actually bring to bear some cultural criticism on the author’s point of view, giving me lots to think about with regards to how I was implementing the caste system in Sen and Anlil’s society. As a result I’ve now moved away from some basic ideas like having the characters refer specifically to “caste”, or having a very rigid, linear structure of hierarchy.
Whilst Homo Hierarchicus is an interesting read, it seems very detached from the culture it’s studying, and I’m hoping to move onto some ethnography (more specific accounts of living cultures) next in the hopes of finding more specific inspiration.