The Cultural Anthropology of Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands

In Other Lands Book Designs Cover with Bookmarked Logo and Fotor Background

Sarah Rees Brennan’s 2017 book In Other Lands is a finalist for the World Science Fiction Society’s Award for “Best Young Adult Book,” which will be awarded during the Hugos Awards ceremony at WorldCon. And it is a finalist for the “Young Adult Book” Locus Award as well! I read the book the moment it came out (and a couple of times since), and I have been feeling pleasantly vindicated as it gets more and more recognition.

Book Cover for Sarah Rees Brennan's In Other Lands YA Novel

The book follows Elliot, a thirteen-year-old British boy, through a hole in our world that transports him into another one. There, he forms strong friendships and fraught alliances with overachieving beautiful peers, and points out some hard truths about the world they inhabit, such as their apparent proclivity for training children to be warriors and their unquestioning assumption that certain non-human races are inherently monstrous. The Border guard trains both soldiers and councilors, ostensibly to protect the Borderlands from incursion from our world, but they also spend a lot of time subduing other races. Elliot, a pacifist, joins the “council” training.

The Publishers Weekly starred review for In Other Lands calls it a “hilarious, irreverent, and multilayered coming-of-age fantasy” that tracks several years of Elliot’s experiences living in the school in the Borderlands, but going home to our world over the summer. This assessment of the book is accurate: it is indeed hilarious and irreverent in its commentary on the tropes of the portal fantasy genre, as well as a good coming-of-age story about characters we instantly care about. You should read it; it is very good and you will laugh aloud many times. You might also weep a couple times, perhaps embarrassingly in public.

However, In Other Lands isn’t just a funny, well-crafted, and self-aware portal fantasy. It is also, impressively, a remarkable example of some key cultural anthropological principles that explain how societies function and how people function (or don’t function) within a society. Brennan’s novel uses its exploration of tropes in portal fantasy to investigate what assumptions we make about what is “natural” in a culture, which ultimately leads up to an anthropological critique about the supposed societal necessity of war. My point here, and the thing that I think makes In Other Lands so meaningful and successful, is that these various tenets of cultural anthropology are intricately expressed in the novel through the ways that Elliot approaches the magical world beyond the portal, and the way it functions before and after he gets there.

In tacitly addressing these topics, Brennan employs some traditional portal fantasy tropes and subverts others. Elliot is bisexual, and his fluid sexuality becomes analogous to the way he can traverse the boundary between our world and that of the Borderlands, such that many of the classic descriptors of portal fantasy begin to read like descriptions of sexuality. For instance, part of Farah Mendlesohn’s defining explanation of the genre in Rhetorics of Fantasy is that “portal fantasies are structured around reward and the straight and narrow path” (5). Brennan plays with that, not only by presenting us with a protagonist who explicitly rejects a straight or narrow sexuality, but also by presenting readers with a world that does not offer Elliot a single quest narrative in which he can help good triumph over evil by, for instance, engaging in battle or finding a magic cup. Neither he, nor his story, is straight or narrow.

When Elliot arrives in the Borderlands, he does so as a savvy, well-read contemporary kid with a cell phone, an appreciation for central heating, and a knowledge of what happens in portal fantasies that has been introduced to him as formative literature. On the other side of the Border, he is extremely gratified to learn that there are indeed elves, dwarves, mermaids, trolls, and harpies living their magical lives, and he makes it his mission to learn about them. But his knowledge is not totally accurate. For example, he needs to be reminded that things like sorcery and healing potions don’t actually work in the Borderlands. This creates a layered effect of self-referentiality, noteworthy because not only are the author and the reader aware that this is a portal fantasy, but so too is one of the characters.

Prior experience with portal fantasies in our world thus gives Elliot the ability to approach the world of the Borderlands as a cultural anthropologist might. He is fascinated to learn all about the new world’s social hierarchies, interactions between groups, harpy gardening, and mermaid sign language, and he pursues these many interests with the genuine belief that it is all worthwhile and that no race is inherently lesser than others. This is another way that Brennan interrogates the tropes of the portal fantasy. When Elliot gets to the Borderlands, he doesn’t find “good guys” he can join or lead, arrayed against the “forces of evil” he can rail against. Rather, Brennan problematizes this formulation by presenting the Borderlands as populated by a range of races, all of whom have a mix of good and bad qualities as individuals rather than stereotypes in a simple us-versus-them paradigm.

However, Elliot’s beliefs and actions stray far from the social norms constructed by the people of the Borderlands. Early in the book, after a teenaged Elliot struggles to get a treaty signed in a way that would not disadvantage non-human races, we learn that he “sometimes felt like the kid in the magic book who was always whining along the lines of ‘Should we go find that giant ruby of ultimate magic, though? Isn’t it dangerous?’ Everyone knew that kid eventually turned evil” (45). Elliot does not turn evil, but here he is pointing out some cultural blind spots of the Borderlands, as well as the portal fantasy genre: questioning the status quo is not welcome, pragmatism can be seen as heartlessness, and pacifism can be seen as a lack of valor.

Image copyright AZ Quotes, Quote said by Ruth Benedict

Ruth Benedict, one of the founders of cultural anthropology, developed an approach she called “cultural relativism,” which writer Michael Austin states “proposes that values are always situated within a cultural context and that a tremendous amount of what people call ‘human nature’ must be attributed to the influence of culture.” In a similar vein, In Other Lands examines how a society’s values might intersect with their cultural context.

Physical prowess and success on the battlefield are both prized in the Borderlands, but they are not enough to override other individual attributes considered less desirable in this society. For instance, race and gender trump the Borderlands’ otherwise strict military meritocracy. Commander Woodsinger, a woman of color who is originally from our world, is a really good military commander. Her competence and fairness lead both to military victories and to loyalty from her troops and students. We see her handle difficult situations well, over and over again.

However, in the Borderlands, Commander Woodsinger suffers a near coup. And when she calls for reinforcements from her supposed allies, “everybody knew reinforcements might be slow in coming: that the other fortresses might be hoping that a woman would be replaced, and they would later reprimand the [attacking] colonel and leave it at that. Colonel Whiteleaf [who is suspected of leading the coup] was still honored for his valiant deeds in a battle against mermaids twenty years ago, but apparently no one cared about Commander Woodsinger’s valiant deeds last year. This was the reward someone got for being a war hero if they weren’t the kind of war hero people wanted” (165).

Similarly, the character Luke Sunborn suffers discrimination because his lauded identity markers are weighted against his non-lauded ones. He is introduced as the very handsome son of a famously overachieving family, all of whom are remarkably good soldiers. He seems to be following in their footsteps, and he is idolized for his looks, leadership abilities, kindness, and physical prowess both on the battlefield and the sports field. But late in the book, it is revealed that Luke is not a miraculously adept and handsome human, but rather that both his good looks and some of his physical prowess come from the fact that he is actually half human, half harpy.

When his parentage is discovered, Luke suffers from this revelation, because harpies are considered near-monsters by the majority of the human population. This discrimination suddenly materializes against Luke, even though he had been celebrated for all these markers of difference bestowed onto him by his heritage mere months before. But as Benedict also notes in her cultural relativist theories, “the possible usefulness of ‘abnormal’ types in a social structure, provided they are types that are culturally selected by that group, is illustrated from every part of the world.” Luke’s peers wanted to believe a golden-haired pure human could do all the things he could, and not that he was mixed with a magical race that they dislike.

However, the revelation of Luke’s parentage presents an opportunity for the humans of the Borderlands. Elliot is extremely close to Luke and he wants peace between the warring races. At the same time, he doesn’t want to achieve it through the system of colonial oppression he intuits from day one as the norm in the Borderlands. Elliot thus finds himself struggling to help achieve racial tolerance and to get his loved ones, who are all soldiers, to help him establish peace instead of enabling more war.

Image copyright AZ Quotes, Quote said by Margaret Mead

This struggle deftly shows how Brennan works with another theory in cultural anthropology: Margaret Mead’s idea that war is replaceable in the landscape of human experience. Mead, who had been one of Benedict’s students at Columbia, posits in her 1940 text “Warfare: an invention – not a biological necessity” that “warfare, by which I mean organized conflict between two groups as groups, in which each group puts an army … into the field to fight and kill, if possible, some of the members of the army of the other group – that warfare of this sort is an invention like any other of the inventions in terms of which we order our lives.” She argues that this is a “social invention” akin to the cooking of food or the practice of marriage because it is not universal. She points out that there are groups of people who do not employ this invention, solving problems by means other than putting groups of people against each other in war.

Therefore, Mead states, “if we despair over the way in which war seems such an ingrained habit of most of the human race, we can take comfort from the fact that a poor invention will usually give place to a better invention … a form of behavior becomes out-of-date only when something else takes its place, and in order to invent forms of behavior which will make war obsolete, it is a first requirement to believe that [such] an invention is possible.”

Even as he practices the cultural relativism of Benedict, Elliot also embodies Mead’s theory as he attempts to phase out the need for war in the Borderlands through methodical changes, like improving their system of writing treaties. At the beginning of the novel, treaties in the Borderlands are documents that facilitate the legal suppression of non-human races, as these documents are drawn up by human soldiers to determine terms for other races conceding defeat post-battle. However, with a lot of hard work from Elliot and his good friend Serene (who is a total badass teenage elf warrior as well as a diplomat), eventually the definition of “treaties” begins to transition to meaning documents agreed upon by all sides after much discussion between diplomats. Elliot also forms diplomatic relationships with representatives of other races who become his correspondents, and it is implied that if these lines of communication remain open in the future, treaties could be renegotiated as situations evolve without the need to go to battle first. Perhaps understandably, then, when Elliot learns Luke is half harpy, he is elated, not only because he loves both magic and variety, but also because of the opportunity Luke’s parentage provides for opening up lines of fruitful communication between humans and harpies.

Specifically, Elliot thinks that, “if they made a treaty with the harpies, that would give the [overwhelmingly human] Border guard breathing room to work out last year’s lousy arrangements between elves and humans. They were at peace with the dryads and the mermaids, and the elves and dwarves’ alliance was working better than any alliance with any people ever before. A solid treaty with the harpies, and it would be possible to approach the trolls. Peace was possible, across the whole of the Borderlands, not peace everlasting but peace for years, peace enough so that all of the groups in this land past the Border would know what it was like to live with and work with each other. They could all learn about each other, and every piece of knowledge about each other gained would take them a step further away from being enemies” (345). We see a social innovation rather than a strict social invention in this strategic line of thinking, but the evolution of the innovation seems like it might, with vigilance, phase out the necessity of war in the Borderlands over time.

Ultimately, Brennan also subverts Mendlesohn’s formulation of the portal fantasy one last time at the end of In Other Lands when Elliot decides to stay. Within this book, the Borderlands are a real place, not just a metaphor for the problems in Elliot’s world or an escape from them. Elliot’s eagerness to learn about and enjoy the unique cultures of the Borderlands allows him to select a real life to be lived there. Elliot stays there because he loves it, and the people in it, and because he believes in his difficult, uphill battle to phase out the need for war in it.

And that might be the most important part of this book that makes it such good, fun reading for so many reasons. Brennan uses Elliot’s self-awareness to comment on the genre of portal fantasy, critiquing readerly assumptions about it. In so doing, she also lets readers examine the ways assumptions about our own world might create similar unquestioned assumptions about how the real world operates. Therefore, since Elliot acts like a cultural anthropologist in the Borderlands, in ways that are good for him and good for his new land, perhaps that tells readers that we should all behave this way in our own world as well: be suspicious of received wisdom that the dominant culture is inherently superior, and approach every new culture enthusiastically as though you have something to learn from it.

Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter and dog. She teaches writing and literature at Suffolk County Community College where she studies comics, kids' books, adaptations and visual culture. She is a former Pubwatch Editor for WWAC, and frankly, there is a lot more gray in her hair than there was when this profile picture was taken.