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SFF: Publications : Essays

Postcolonial Science Fiction

Dr Michelle Reid (Oxford University Library Services)

This paper comes at right the beginning of my research project into postcolonial science fiction. Traditionally, science fiction is a genre characterised by ideals of expansion and colonisation, but it also has the great potential to imagine "otherness" and other ways of being; postcolonial approaches to science fiction seem long overdue. Yet I believe we're only just beginning to work out what these are. My current thinking is that we have to do more than apply existing postcolonial theories to sf writing - we need to examine what makes science fiction so strongly identified as a literature of empire and expansion, and how this might be resisted and subverted from within the genre itself. In this paper I am going to argue that representations of technology are key to an idea of postcolonial science fiction as they identify the genre as Westernised, but also provide the main imaginative power of sf as a mode of writing. I will illustrate this using a story from the recent anthology So Long Been Dreaming.

So Long Been Dreaming, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, was published in 2004. It contains science fiction stories written exclusively by people of colour and it is the first ever collection entitled "postcolonial science fiction and fantasy". The anthology acts as a focus point, drawing together writers from a wide variety of backgrounds (including India, Caribbean, and Mexico) and bringing together various examples of what postcolonial science fiction might be. The interrogation of race, discrimination, social evolution, expansion and conquest is not new in sf writing, and over the last few years a handful of critics have started studying the work of individual authors, such as Amitav Ghosh or Kim Stanley Robinson, from postcolonial perspectives (see Claire Chambers, "Postcolonial Science Fiction: Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome", and Elizabeth Leane, "Chromodynamics: Science and Colonialism in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy"). But this complex nexus of ideas has not yet been brought together in coherent form as a lens through which to view the genre; So Long Been Dreaming suggests that postcolonialism could provide such a lens. As such, the anthology is not a neat, self-contained thematic collection; instead it acts as a vital start point and focus for future directions.

In her introduction to So Long Been Dreaming, Nalo Hopkinson stresses the difficulty facing the writers in the anthology: How to subvert the dominant Westernised codes of science fiction whilst also using the genre's imaginative potential to find self-expression beyond these codes. She modifies Audre Lorde's famous quotation, stating:

In my hands, massa's tools don't dismantle massa's house - and in fact, I don't want to destroy it so much as I want to undertake massive renovations - they build me a house of my own (8).

Postcolonial theory has already identified a number of such "tools", or strategies for constructing productive spaces, gaps, and disjunctions to "renovate" the dominant English language and literature of the empire. Strategies such as:

  • Appropriation: capturing and remoulding the language, making it "bear the burden" of the colonial experience.
  • Writing back to the imperial centre: rewriting major canonical works of English literature to resist and challenge the assumptions of the source-text. (for example, Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea as a response to Bronte's Jane Eyre).
  • Mimicry: how the colonised adopt the language and forms of the empire but in doing so alter and distort the dominant meanings so they reflect back to the coloniser a displaced image of his/her world which is unsettling to the colonial authority.

There are some problems with identifying general writing strategies, such as mimicry and appropriation, as it assumes all postcolonial writers write the same way, and it denies important contrasts between literature from different countries. But they are still useful tools to look for and they can productively be applied to science fiction. However, it is a fairly one-directional approach to use existing postcolonial reading / writing practices on sf texts.

Instead I also want to consider: What can science fiction writing do that other forms of postcolonial writing can't necessarily do? This approach offers positive strategies but ones that pose their own problems and considerations:

  • The colonisation of other worlds: Science fiction doesn't have to work within, existing colonial history. We can project a world completely different to our own into other times and spaces that doesn't have to be subject to the same assumptions or colonial legacies. This can provide a distance or freedom from existing colonial narratives or a chance to replay and re-examine power relationships. But the colonisation of other worlds raises the question of how these imagined worlds relate to "real world" colonial legacies and situations. We should examine the connections more closely and not assume that science fiction merely provides a series of allegories or variations on the theme of colonisation.
  • Aliens as others: In science fiction, complex gradations of identity can be displaced onto human versus alien confrontations. Racial, cultural and national differences can become supplanted by an encounter with a different species, in which human differences are elided by the assumption humanity will unite against an external alien "other". This strategy of literalising otherness can encourage the mainly white, Western science fiction audiences to examine prejudices and assumptions that they might be reluctant to face head-on. However, we should not presume an easy one-to-one correspondence between the alien and our constructed others.
  • Postcolonial futures: Uppinder Mehan in the afterword to So Long Been Dreaming argues that postcolonial writing often examines the present reality as legacy of colonial past but it rarely considers future. He argues that postcolonial peoples need to imagine their futures or risk having them written by others. Many science fiction futures are still implicitly white and Westernised, but science fiction also offers a powerful means of imagining communities based on alternative social models that indicate the possibility of breaking out of cycles of colonial dominance.

All those strategies merit further consideration, but I think representations of technology are the key to an idea of postcolonial science fiction; it is the genre's fascination with technology that identifies it as a literature of empire, but it is science fiction's technological imagination which provides the means of questioning the association between technology and Western world views that supposedly underpin the genre.

Science fiction, perhaps like no other literature, focuses on representations of science and technology; not only as it they are now but also how they could be. In contrast, postcolonial writing traditionally focuses on language, narrative and discourse as a means of circulating power between the coloniser and the colonised. The roles and representations of harder technology are often overlooked. Yet, thinking back to Nalo Hopkinson's quotation about "massa's tools building her a house of her own", it is significant that the coloniser's power is represented by an image of deploying technology to occupy and possess the land. Historians such as Daniel R. Headrick stress that tools like machine guns, steam ships, undersea cables, and vaccines were vital in the spread of nineteenth century European imperialism (Headrick, The Tools of Empire, 11-12). Michael Adas develops these arguments, stating that physical tools did not only help to spread and maintain Europeans' imperial presence, but Europeans' perceptions of their own technological superiority were used to justify their dominance of other countries (Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men, 6-7). With the Industrial Revolution, technological advancement became a key standard by which Europeans judged non-Western cultures, and a crucial means of securing ideological, as well as material, control. Adas argues that the association between the development of technology and the driving force of imperialism continues today in the spread of global capitalism (402-17).

As the representation of science and technology is one of the defining aspects of sf writing, it is often considered a Western form. In the article, "Science Fiction and Empire" (2003) Istvan Csicsery-Ronay goes as far as suggesting that science fiction is the ultimate myth of technoscientific empire, meaning all sf takes place in a cosmos (world view) in which the development of technology provides the momentum for imperial expansion and control (238). He maintains that the laws and rights of technoscience govern the genre even when they are questioned or shown negatively (241). I think this totalising view underestimates the potential that science fiction offers for resisting the drive of technological expansion from within the genre itself.

Nisi Shawl's story 'Deep End' from So Long Been Dreaming depicts the all-encompassing means of control offered by technology, but this is destabilised both by localised points of resistance and by the gaps and disjunctions such technological forms create themselves. The story is told from the point of view of prisoners being transported to a prison-colony planet called "Amends". Their punishment is the journey itself, because in order to travel the vast distances to the planet, the prisoners have to forfeit their physical bodies and have their minds uploaded into "freespace". On arrival at Amends they have the choice to either remain in freespace, or be downloaded into cloned bodies and build settler communities on the planet. The ironic twist is both choices involve incomplete freedoms. If the prisoners stay in freespace they remain in a virtual environment that is ultimately controlled by their captors. Yet if they choose to download into cloned bodies, then the bodies are not their own, but those of the rich, white authorities against whom they rebelled. The idea of downloading black minds into white cloned bodies offers a very literal take on ideas of mimicry in which the colonised subject reflects back a distorted image of the coloniser.

In his article "Of Mimicry and Man" (1984), Homi Bhabha discusses how, as part of the so called "civilising mission", the colonial authorities wanted their colonised subjects to imitate the manners, language, and society of the imperial centre. However, they wished this imitation only to be partial, so their colonised subjects remained separate and still requiring British rule. Bhabha identifies this ambivalence as "the effect of a flawed colonial mimesis, in which to be Anglicized is emphatically not to be English" (italics in original, 87).

The condition of mimicking the coloniser can be transformed into a strategy of resistance that exploits the uncertainty of the colonial authorities. By adopting the language and forms of the empire, the colonised subjects can reflect back to the colonisers a distorted image of their world which is unsettling to their authority. It is not just about copying or imitation, but about displacement; reflecting back an image that is subtly but distinctively different. As Bhabha says, "almost the same, but not quite" (89). He then transforms this into the expression "almost the same, but not white"(86 + 89), emphasising the visual aspect of mimicry in which the supervisory gaze of the coloniser is returned back in a distorted and defiant form by the appearance of the colonial subject who is always disturbingly similar but yet never quite "white or right" enough (89).

In "Deep End" the cloned white bodies reconfigure this visual aspect of mimicry as the clones reflect back a exact copy of the white authorities' appearance. However, these white bodies are primarily shells. Although they are inhabited by the prisoners minds, it does not mean that this difference has been fully internalised or absorbed. Similarly, for the prisoners, inhabiting the white bodies is not necessarily an act of destabilising resistance, as they are in effect trapped in a bodily prison.

The prisoners' minds are a means of animating the clones in order to transport these bodies across the vast reaches of space. The white authorities place value on spreading their DNA, not their culture or society, into space. Their main intention is for their genetic code to be replicated, and there is little pretence at the so-called "civilising mission" used to justify nineteenth century imperial expansion. The story empties out such a civilising mission, exposing it as entirely hollow, and shows the colonisation of space as a base means of dissemination.

The extent to which the black prisoners are subject to the technology of the white society that imprisons them is represented by Dr Ops, the avatar of the Artificial Intelligence in charge of all the ships systems. Dr Ops, whose name suggests both control of operations and a panopticon, appears as:

[A] lean-faced Caucasian man with a shock of mixed brown and blond hair. He worn an anachronistic headlamp and stethoscope and a gentle kindly persona (13-14).

The AI appears as a deceptively benign authority figure in the image of the white society it represents. The avatar introduces another level of mimicry in which a technological construct is made to appear human. But, this Caucasian appearance masks the extent to which the white society is distanced from its technological means of control. The AI is their only representation on the ship or the colony planet. The white authorities way back on earth are reduced to passive observers.

Moreover, Dr Ops can't fully determine how individual prisoners interpret or appropriate their cloned bodies. The main character Wayna claims possession of her cloned body, saying it was hers, she earned it. Significantly, this act of resistance is not based on hybridity. Wayna does not regard herself as a hybrid of body and mind, but draws strength from the disjunctions between her mental and physical forms. She regards her claimed body as a tool that she has to train and look after to make it work effectively. This tool gives her the ability to live on Amends and have the chance to build a new life; she regards it as her point of entry and means of experiencing a new world which is also her own.

Importantly, the technology in "Deep End" is more than just a metaphor for mimicry; it is also an artefact in itself which prompts us to consider how new technology might radically reconfigure ideas of mimicry. The story confronts issues of cultural and racial coding raised by advanced technology like cloning, AIs, and uploaded minds. Technological constructs, such as artificial intelligences and androids, are often assumed to have neutral identities, but this neutrality usually implicitly means whiteness. "Deep End" racializes technology. The story asks where is identity located and can technology encode and transfer parts or all of this identity. Indeed, Wayna meets a fellow prisoner also in a cloned body, she notes "He sat closer than she'd expected, closer than she was used to. Maybe that meant he'd been born Hispanic or Middle Eastern. Or maybe not" (17).

Also, "Deep End" questions the supposed manifest destiny of humanity's colonisation of space. Science fiction often takes the very long-term view that survival of the species will require humans to develop the means of moving away from Earth and our solar system. "Deep End" raises doubts about the mechanisms for covering such distances and asks who is surviving and in what form? In the story, the development of technology, such as cloning and freespace, extends the reach of colonisation, but also opens up new tensions and ironies that impact on both coloniser and colonised, and their images of each other.

In the afterword to So Long Been Dreaming, Uppinder Mehan argues that one of the key strategies employed by the writers in the anthology is "to radically shift the perspective of the narrator from the supposed rightful heir of contemporary technologically advanced cultures to those of us whose cultures have had their technology destroyed and stunted" (270). "Deep End" certainly makes that shift. But to end with I wish to consider another strategy offered by science fiction; the possibility of imagining the kinds of technology that societies would develop if they weren't heavily influenced by Western paradigms. This goes beyond questioning the rightful heirs of technology, to imagining the creation of an entirely different technological legacy.

I briefly want to mention an example from the book Midnight Robber (2000) by Nalo Hopkinson (a co-editor of So Long Been Dreaming). This novel starts on Touissant, a planet colonised by Caribbean, African, and Asian diasporas. The community is connected by an AI network called Granny Nanny. This AI provides an interesting contrast with Dr Ops from "Deep End". The name Granny Nanny signifies a different set of cultural references; it provides an interesting slippage between ideas of nanotech, the spider-trickster Anansi, and the slave revolt leader Granny Nanny of the Maroons. But the differences are more profound than name changes. The configuration of the technology, its role, and attitudes towards it are entirely different. Like its slave-leader namesake, Granny Nanny provides a means of protection, organisation, and unity. The capricious, trickster nature of Granny Nanny is regarded as a vital aspect of the system, as opposed to a dangerous flaw. Traditionally, AIs are often regarded with fear and suspicion in science fiction, as they can become god-like and supplant the dominant human societies that create them. In contrast, the vast majority of the Touissant community do not regard Granny Nanny as a figure of surveillance or suppression. Instead, all-pervasive technology is seen as a means of freedom, relieving the need for humans to carry out any physical labour; an attitude to technology perhaps influenced by the legacy of slavery. The fact that Granny Nanny allows small communities of pedicab runners to live outside the Web's control, asserting their right to use only non-connected "headblind" tools and do physical work, is seen as a measure of the system's receptiveness to difference. Touissant residents think the pedicab runners are ridiculous, "But the Grande 'Nansi Web had said let them be. It had been designed to be flexible, to tolerate a variety of human expression, even dissension, so long as it didn't upset the balance of the whole" (10).

Postcolonial writing often confronts a double-bind; the wish to subvert the dominant codes of the empire, and the wish to find expression beyond or away from those codes. In science fiction, the representation of technology is the key to this double bind; it identifies the genre as Westernised, but also provides the main imaginative power of sf as a mode of writing. There is great possibility for postcolonial approaches to sf based on analysing images of technology - for example something I haven't talked about is the use of the fantastic to destabilise Western scientific world views. In science fiction, technology provides both the means of writing back to the power base of empire, and writing forwards towards new paradigms.

I was supposed to give this paper at Worldcon, but I was unable to do so. Instead, I gave a modified version of it at "Science Fiction(s)", University of Nottingham, August 19, 2005. Many thanks to Edward James, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and especially Farah Mendlesohn for their guidance and support.

Works Cited

Adas, Michael, Machines As The Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Dominance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

Bhabha, Homi K., "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse" [1984], in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 85-92.

Chambers, Claire, "Postcolonial Science Fiction: Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome", Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 38.1 (2003), 57-72.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan, "Science Fiction and Empire", Science Fiction Studies, 90 (July, 2003), 231-45.

Headrick, Daniel R., The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

Hopkinson, Nalo, Midnight Robber (New York: Aspect, Warner Books, 2000).

Hopkinson, Nalo and Uppinder Mehan, eds., So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004).

Leane, Elizabeth, "Chromodynamics: Science and Colonialism in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy", Ariel, 33.1 (January, 2002), 83-104.

Shawl, Nisi, "Deep End", in So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004), 12-22.