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Science Fiction a fanciful way to tell stories of colonialism  Part 1

· 6 min read

Science Fiction: a fanciful way to tell stories of colonialism : Part 1

TEHRAN- Throughout history, humans have harbored a fascination with envisioning the world of tomorrow and its potential appearance, a concept that has been imaginatively translated into literature through the genre of science fiction. Unlike utopian visions, sci-fi narratives frequently paint a future that is far from peaceful and perfect, often portraying scenarios involving alien invasions, malevolent empires, authoritarian dystopias, and the exploration and colonization of new territories – which can sometimes more closely resemble the past than the future.

Science Fiction: a fanciful way to tell stories of colonialism : Part 1

Alien Others

‘Other’ has always been one of the constant elements of Sci-Fi; They are often non-human beings such as robots and aliens who play the role of villains. The encounter with the ‘Other’ in the pages and on the screens of Sci-Fi texts and films, reveals yet another way to understand the genre’s relationship with imperialism. 

In an interview with Tehran Times, Muslim-American author and analyst Kevin Barrett said Hollywood’s use of aliens to represent ‘Other’ nations and cultures reflects the American historical experience. “The U.S. was founded by Northern Europeans, mainly Protestants, who viewed the ‘red-skinned savages’ and ‘primitive negroes’ as radically different from themselves.”

He stated that the taboo against miscegenation reflects that ‘Othering’.

In her book “Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality”, Christine Cornea points out: “the alien, monster or robot of science fiction may provide an example of Otherness, against which a representation of ‘proper’ human subjectivity is established, interrogated and, on occasion, problematized.”

In postcolonial studies, the ‘Other’ is not only situated as the aberrant of the imperialist norm, but significantly by the denial of the ‘individuation’ that is the right of the norm only. In Sci-Fi ideas about human subjectivity and identity have traditionally been established in a comparison between self (human) and Other (non-human) characters. 

This dichotomy can be seen in contemporary Hollywood Sci-Fi cinema, not least in the depiction of the Na’vi aliens in Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) and the prawns in Blomkamp’s “District 9” (2009), but also in the inhabitants of the planet Nibiru in Abrams’ “Star Trek: Into Darkness” (2013).

 Barrett explained as the U.S. expanded to become a globe-straddling empire, it kept encountering foreign peoples and cultures who needed to be ‘Othered’ so as to justify killing and exploiting them and stealing their resources.

“This extreme ‘Othering’ in the U.S. national character largely explains Hollywood’s use of aliens as tokens of other human nations and cultures,” the author noted.

Dreams of conquest, nightmares of invasion

Sci-fi, especially, has expressed narratives centered on imperialism and colonialism. John Rieder in his book “Colonialism and the Emergence of Science-Fiction” noted that most scholars believe that “the period of the most fervid imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century is also the crucial period for the emergence of the genre (Sci-Fi).” 

“Science fiction comes into visibility first in those countries most heavily involved in imperialist projects—France and England— and then gains popularity in the United States, Germany, and Russia as those countries also enter into more and more serious imperial competition,” he added. 

Early Sci-Fi is often inescapably entangled with Euro-American imperial fantasies. It articulates imperial fantasy through dreams of conquest and nightmares of invasion and destruction. representations of encounters between European travelers and non-Europeans—such as Thomas More’s “Utopia” (1516) and Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726)—form a major part of the genre’s prehistory.

Vampires and Martians, critics of colonialism

Evolutionary theory and anthropology, both profoundly intertwined with colonial ideology and history, are especially important to early Sci-Fi from the mid-nineteenth century on. They also serve as frameworks for the Social Darwinian ideologies that pervade early Sci-Fi.

As Rieder points out, England was among the colonial countries from which Sci-Fi began to emerge. The iconic example of colonialism-inspired Sci-Fi is that most important of Sci-Fi stories, H.G. Wells's “War of the Worlds” (1898). At the outset of novel, Wells asks his English readers to compare the Martian invasion of Earth with the Europeans’ genocidal invasion of the Tasmanian natives, thus demanding that the colonizers imagine themselves as the colonized.

“Before we judge them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

Here the Martian conquest is presented as analogous to, and even as just retribution for, Britain's colonial genocide. As has been visited on them, so shall it be visited on us.

Barrett believes that H.G. Wells seems to have made his aliens conspicuously non-human in appearance and inhuman in behavior as a critique of the inhumanity of British colonialism. 

“The ‘stiff upper lip’ British went out of their way to avoid meeting their colonial subjects on a basis of human equality.” He explained that to many ‘natives,’ the British must have seemed rather like the Martians depicted in “War of the Worlds”.

Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897) is one of the other stories that metaphorically presents and criticizes British colonialism. Dracula is a symbolic foreigner who is more racially virile than his victims; his vampirism functions as a predatory racial alchemy that threatens the presumed supremacy of white racial identity. 

Stephen Arata’s essay “The Occidental Tourist,” argues that Dracula can be read as a critique of British imperialism, particularly if Stoker’s position as a transplanted Irish subject is taken into account.

 “In Count Dracula, Victorian readers could recognize their culture’s imperial ideology mirrored back as a kind of monstrosity. Dracula’s journey from Transylvania to England could be read as a reversal of Britain’s imperial exploitations of ‘weaker’ races, including the Irish.”

Barrett highlighted that Sci-Fi emerged as a branch of literature that both exalts science and the power it brings to conquer and colonize, and also critiques the scientific worldview and accompanying imperial-colonial adventures.

To be continued.