Saturday, August 16, 2014

Malice and Mindlessness in Missouri


 Contact: pierce07446@hotmail.com


Today is Sept. 10. A lot has happened since I posted a rant August 16 about the furor over the shooting of a black teen by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri. But one thing hasn’t changed in more than three weeks since then: the dishonesty and cynicism of partisans on both sides who seek to aggravate and exploit the situation.

One example is a widely-circulated photo purporting to show serious injuries inflicted on Police Officer Darren Wilson by Michael Brown before Wilson shot him. It was soon exposed as disinformation; the man in the photo was not Wilson but a race car driver, already deceased:


It hasn’t been determined, as far as I can tell, just who was responsible for circulating this disinformation, but I think it was probably done in support of a Fox News story posted Aug. 20 by Hollie McKay. I don’t know whether McKay was duped by somebody in the police department trying to spin the story, or just by some troll trying to pour fuel on the fire. But as of Sept. 10, she hadn’t taken down her original story, only the comments. Does that mean she still stands by it?


Another example of deliberate disinformation was a racist rant, supposedly by the wife of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. Jackson himself has a lot to answer for; it was his release of a video showing Brown’s strong-arm theft of cigars from a convenience store, with its implied message that Brown deserved to be killed, that touched off major riots by black people in town – rather than the shooting itself. But the alleged rant was actually by some woman in St. Petersburg, Florida, with no connection to Jackson or Ferguson.


Not only that, but David Emery at About News observed: “PolitiFact.com writer Aaron Sharockman traced the original tweet attributing the quote to the police chief's wife to a Twitter account associated with the hacktivist group Anonymous.” That’s right, a group that purports to fight for truth and justice was smearing Jackson’s wife, obviously in hopes that people would harass her – and maybe stage further riots.

Incidentally, I checked today, and Anonymous still hadn’t retracted an earlier assertion that the cop who shot Brown was Bryan Willman rather than Darren Wilson. One black activist who accepted that story posted that there was a communications specialist by that name with the St. Ann police department, and I see he hasn’t taken down his post – for all I know, Willman is still being harassed. A conservative campaign to defend Willman in the Brown case still has a Facebook page, but the conservative focus now is, naturally, to defend Wilson, but after collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars, that effort turned out to face legal and other embarrassments:


You all know that the White House made a show of force at Brown’s funeral, and that Attorney General Eric Holder has launched an investigation of the Ferguson police – which may be expanded to other police departments in St. Louis County. Like, there aren’t any other police departments in the whole country that have problems with race? New York, for example? But it’s Ferguson that has made the national headlines, and with the Democrats facing trouble in mid-term elections, the party wants to exploit that to get out the black vote – as the liberal New York Times reported quite bluntly:


You can be sure the Republicans, Fox News and right wing bloggers will be working just as hard get out the conservative white vote – and even limit the black vote. But the lines have been drawn in Ferguson itself: tempers are so high that, regardless of the facts of the case, anything short of a murder conviction and a long prison term for Darren Wilson will be seen as a miscarriage of justice by blacks – and anything short of his total exoneration likewise seen as a miscarriage of justice by whites. As Ferguson goes, so goes the nation, and few seem to dare challenge those who spread distrust and division for political gain:


Below is my original rant, posted August 16:

You all know what happened Friday [Aug. 15]. Ferguson, Missouri Police Chief Thomas Jackson made a big thing about releasing a video of Michael Brown, the young black man later killed by an officer he identified as Darren Wilson, pulling a strong-arm robbery at a convenience store. Within hours, angry young blacks were looting and vandalizing that very store:


Things had been peaceful since Missouri Governor Jay Nixon had the Highway Patrol take over security in the town, and appointed a black officer, Capt. Ron Johnson, to supervise the operation. When Chief Jackson released the video, he implied that Wilson had been on the lookout for Brown and his friend Darian Johnson, rather than picking them out at random. Jackson later admitted that Wilson hadn’t been aware that Brown was a robbery suspect, but by then the damage had been done: people believed that he had released the video only to give the impression that Brown was a hardened criminal who deserved to be killed. It turns out that the Justice Department had feared just that, warning Jackson that it would “roil the community further:”


Jackson claimed that he released the video only in response to pressure by the media, but that can’t be credited. Few if any of the press people even knew about the robbery, let alone its connection with Brown. I strongly suspect that the real reason was pure spite – that Jackson was pissed off about the Highway Patrol taking over “his” town. But the spitefulness wasn’t limited to Jackson and the white establishment. I Googled a bit, and came across a website that shows an instance of the radical black reaction: Look for the comment by Matt S. Bashaw:


Bashaw: “Wow cool a black cop marching with the crowd. He's just like guy from BP that comes on tv and kisses everybody's ass whenever they dump a million or gallons of oil somewhere. Fucking Uncle Tom and they're buying it.”

Chances are there is more vitriol like that spread by the social media, or just word-of-mouth. One thing I’ve noticed is that some of the rioters were wearing black ski masks – just like the kind of cops who smash their way into homes and apartments (sometimes the wrong ones) looking for drugs… or even the “soldiers” of Hamas and other radical Islamist groups.

One thing about the world of the Internet is that people take anything that appears on it for gospel – at least, if it ties in with a gospel they already believe. When Anonymous, which revels in exploiting any news of violence that is perpetrated or excused by the authorities only in hopes of instigating further violence, falsely identified Bryan P. Willman as the shooter, people on both sides took the bait. Below is a post by a black man who figured he’d located that Willman, a communications supervisor for the police department in St. Ann, a 13 to 15-minute drive from Ferguson. Right, this Willman would suddenly hop in his car and drive to another town just to shoot somebody there? DDot Omen’s post was still there late Saturday afternoon, long after the Anonymous story had been discredited. 


But guess what. A conservative named Robert Rich also took Anonymous’ word for it that Willman was the man. Like Omen, he posted the picture supplied by Anonymous – only to promote a Facebook page intended to rally fellow conservatives to Willman’s defense. Rich had the wrong man, but he was absolutely certain what had gone down. And like Omen, he hadn’t made any update or correction as of Saturday afternoon:


As of 4:12 p.m. Saturday afternoon, the Facebook site had attracted 378 likes. You’d think there wouldn’t be even that many stupid people. But our times have encouraged a trend that seems to unite too many self-professed conservatives and liberals, and advocates of any number of causes: a deadly combination of malice and mindlessness. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Reading William Patterson on Robert A. Heinlein

 
The Story on the Heinlein Story

I’ve just finished reading Volume 2 of William H. Patterson Jr.’s Robert A, Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century. There are a lot of things to say about it, and others have already said some of them. In the Washington Post (June 25, 2014), for example, Michael Dirda touches the familiar bases of the juvenile novels, Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, and the strange turns in Heinlein’s thinking – he could celebrate military service and the virtue of sacrifice and hippie-style free love, “be a confirmed nudist and member of several Sunshine Clubs as well as a grass-roots Barry Goldwater Republican.” Dirda sums the book up thusly:

Like his fascinating but long-winded first volume, the second half of Patterson’s biography is difficult to judge fairly. Packed with facts both trivial and significant, relying heavily on the possibly skewed memories of the author’s widow, and utterly reverent throughout, volume two emphasizes Heinlein the husband, traveler, independent businessman and political activist. Above all, the book celebrates the intense civilization of two that Heinlein and his wife created. There is almost nothing in the way of literary comment or criticism.

Dirda’s on target for the most part, but he’s off the mark when it comes to the matter of literary comment and criticism. Patterson goes practically hog wild in trying to apply currently fashionable ideas of criticism, or at least the jargon associated with them, in his defense of Heinlein’s later works that garnered him a mainstream best-seller audience but which genre sf fans regarded (in Dirda’s words) as “bloated, preachy, cutesy and dull.” So I’ll start with that.

1. Postmodern Posturing by Patterson

I’d written the passage below, part of my update of Imagination and Evolution, long before I read Patterson’s biography:

Beyond the issues of Theory with a capital T as opposed to the actual experience of literature, there are a number of common problems with the study of fiction in general and science fiction in particular. One is the issue of canonicity, and that has been argued almost to death. It is tied in with what might be called a Calvinist approach to fiction. Unconditional election, as preached by John Calvin in the 16th Century, was the notion that some people are destined for salvation, others for damnation – and that there is nothing they can do to alter their fate. Shakespeare is the most obvious literary counterpart, even if some critics may grudgingly admit to his “difficult” plays.
The most prominent example of Calvinist canonization in genre science fiction is Philip K. Dick, whose every word now seems to be treated as sacred writ. His religious visions as well as his novels are taken seriously, and he has been an influence on postmodernist thinkers like Jean Baudrillard. A number of his works have been filmed – reverently if not too faithfully – and more are on the way. He is the subject of not only biographies but TV documentaries. None of the other contenders for canonization, like Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem or Gene Wolfe come even close to his acclaim.
One challenge to Calvinist canonicity is what might be called the Whig theory of literature. Just as the Whig theory of history assumed inevitable progression to the ultimate fruition of liberal democracy, critics often assume a similar progression in literature to the culmination of… once it was the 19th Century novel as exemplified by Leo Tolstoy, then the social novel of Henry James, later the experimental novel exemplified by James Joyce, or the modernist novel of Virginia Woolf, and so on. Nowadays the Whig theory favors fabulists and postmodernists like Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon; for any contemporary writer to be compared to them is high praise, and perhaps even a sales boost.
Both the Calvinist approach and the Whig theory fly in the face of common sense. Any well-read science fiction fan knows, for example, that Heinlein, who wrote some of the best sf ever, also wrote some of the worst. That same fan also knows that Neal Stephenson hasn’t rendered Heinlein obsolete, any more than Pynchon rendered Joyce or Woolf obsolete, or Joyce and Woolf replaced Tolstoy and James, or Tolstoy and James turned Jane Austen or Charles Dickens into mere relics. The evolution of literature is a cumulative process.

I’d naturally expected the biography to be sympathetic, and that it is — so much so that a lot of it borders on sycophancy. What I hadn’t expected was that Patterson, who himself died shortly before it came out, would embrace both the Calvinist and Whig theories in his discussion of Heinlein’s fiction. Not only did Heinlein rarely if ever write a bad story or a bad book, but in his later years he was an “experimental” writer and postmodernist par excellence. Here is Patterson on The Number of the Beast (p. 406):

 …just as experimental, just as different, as anything he had ever done—only more so. Metafictive in a postmodern way, the distinction between reality and the worlds of fiction was not just blurred, it was obliterated.

In previous instances, he praises I Will Fear No Evil for “crafting a New Wave kind of story that worked as a story” (p. 304), and goes on to proclaim it “his first postmodern novel, that plays with several metafictive levels of storytelling” (p. 311) because the events may be real or just a hallucination. He is just as fulsome about Time Enough for Love: “more of a virtuoso turn than anything Heinlein had ever done before—some of the finest pure writing he had ever done” (p. 334), and singles out for praise an opening riff on Vincent McHugh’s Caleb Catlum’s America, blank verse in the style of James Branch Cabell and the “tremendously affective” story of adorable Dora.
I can still remember my disappointment when Time Enough for Love came out, because it was supposed to be the finale of the future history series. Heinlein’s original chart for it had indicated a story called Da Capo, which would have been about “civil disorder, followed by the end of human adolescence and beginning of first mature culture.” Nothing of that materialized in the novel, and even the loose ends and challenges to humanity raised in Orphans in the Sky and Methuselah’s Children (the fate of those who left the generation ship, the Jokaira gods) were casually “resolved” off-stage. No, the “story” was all about the “wisdom” of Lazarus Long, and his experience with all the ways of love — including traveling back in time to fuck his mother.
A Freudian would have had a field day with that back in the fifties, but by the seventies it wasn’t even shocking — only silly. The whole novel suffers from what a friend and fellow Heinlein fan called “acute sentimentality and terminal logorrhea.” I quipped in a review of my own that “anyone hunting for ways to improve the novel should have declared open season on ‘dear.’” That endearment recurs in Friday, a better novel which Jo Walton, in a 2009 retrospective, called “the worst book I love” (What Makes This Book So Great, pp. 209-11) — mainly because she could admire the title character (an artificial person passing as human) and the complex background (a balkanized world where multinational corporations fight wars). Even so, Walton balked — as many readers did — at the idea of the tough action heroine getting raped and later forgiving and even marrying her attacker. But she had an overall problem with the storytelling… or lack of same:

Every sentence and every paragraph and page and chapter lead on to the next, but it’s just one thing after another, there’s no real connection going on. It has no plot, it’s a set of incidents that look as if they’re going somewhere and don’t ever resolve, just stop. It doesn’t work as an emotional plot about Friday growing up, though it’s closer to working as that than as anything else. (Even as that—well, I really have problems with the way she forgives the rapist, if that’s supposed to be maturity.)  It really doesn’t work on any of the other levels you can look at it on.

Patterson (p. 426) faults Marxist critic H. Bruce Franklin for having missed the riffs on Robinson Crusoe (Friday’s name, and her relationship with Kettle Belly Baldwin) and Candide (after her travels in the balkanized world, she is cultivating her garden at the end.). He might make the same complaint about Walton. But he misses the real point: doing riffs on old classics doesn’t necessarily make for a new classic. And Patterson is disingenuous in arguing that the only reason genre sf fans didn’t admire Heinlein’s later works is that they had “taken him outside genre comfort zones” (p. 426) — as if that had never been done by Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Alice (“James Tiptree”) Sheldon, Thomas M. Disch, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, John Varley, David Gerrold and Samuel R. Delany… not to mention the British New Wavers like J.G. Ballard.
Walton was harder on Heinlein’s later books for their solipsism, and for effectively trashing some of his classics. There had been a foreshadowing of this in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, in which one of the characters turns out to be Hazel Stone, “later” to appear in The Rolling Stones. Silly, but no great harm. Kettle Belly Baldwin had appeared earlier in “Gulf.” More serious, but still nothing to complain about. In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, however, Heinlein brings back Lazarus Long (who had previously co-starred with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter in The Number of the Beast), Jubal Harshaw, Hazel Stone (Again, under a cover name, serving in something called the Time Corps — which is trying to rescue Mike the computer), and walk-ons from Glory Road and Starship Troopers. But Walton was especially put off by his very last novel:

To Sail Beyond the Sunset spoils the short story “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” which is one of my favourite of Heinlein’s short stories. If you want me to hate something, give me a sequel to something I love that invalidates the original work. I do not believe that George [Strong, D.D. Harriman’s business partner] from “The Man Who Sold the Moon” was involved with Maureen [mother of Lazarus Long], the central character from To Sail Beyond the Sunset. If he had been, the story would have been different. No. No, no, no. This is a retcon that absolutely repels me.

Literary solipsism is a stupid idea, and Heinlein isn’t the only offender: the worst thing Isaac Asimov ever did was to combine the robot and Foundation series, which end up with Hari Seldon being kibitzed by R. Daneel Olivaw and even marrying a robot. It’s even more annoying than the seemingly endless sequels and sidequels and prequels to Dune by Frank Herbert and others, ditto those to Ringworld by Larry Niven and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (Both have taken on collaborators). I don’t think any of these have been treated as masterpieces. And I can’t imagine that the likes of Jonathan Lethem (who embraced Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow as a model for the genre) would be persuaded by Patterson’s use of academic jargon that the late Heinlein was a postmodernist experimental writer.

2. Heinlein: Always Right… Or Only a Blight?

Patterson’s hagiography goes beyond the fiction: Heinlein has to be right about everything. This becomes absurd at times, as in the straight-faced reporting of his obsession beginning in 1958 that America was being sold out to the Communists, and that the Soviet Union was sure to take over the country in a few years — or else nuke us unless we all built fallout-shelters. Not only that, but Patterson invites us to share Heinlein’s sense of personal betrayal by other sf writers who came out against those ideas or, later, the Strategic Defense Initiative — Arthur C. Clarke was among them. (It’s ironic that one well-known sf writer of the Heinlein school with the same mind-set but the opposite ideology has been devoting a lot of his time and energy lately to warning that the Tea Party is on the verge of imposing a religious-capitalist dictatorship akin to that of Nehemiah Scudder in the future history.)
Patterson casually mentions that Heinlein believed that Roosevelt had deliberately allowed Japan to attack Pearl Harbor in order to get America into World War II (p. 114-15), and flirted briefly with the John Birch Society because he believed some of its ideas (p. 174) — only, decades later, regarding I Will Fear No Evil, he quipped: “With any luck it will be condemned both by the [Students for a Democratic Society] and the John Birch Society.” (p. 311). But Patterson also points out that Heinlein actually opposed the war in Vietnam as a “proxy war ... fought with conscripts.”(p. 291). He had also opposed a foreign policy of “arming one set of dictators against another” (p. 128) — Yugoslavia’s Marshall Tito was the case in point at the time, but Patterson suggests he later agreed with Jerry Pournelle about the folly of “propping up anti-Communist dictatorships in the Third World.” (p. 422). While Heinlein described himself as a libertarian, he found fault with the types who had come to his works via Ayn Rand as too “doctrinaire” to be worthy of any respect (p. 390).
Of course, it’s widely believed today on the Left that Heinlein was a fanatic racist/fascist, largely on the evidence of Farnham’s Freehold, which combined his fallout shelter mania with a botched attempt to do a Swiftian reversal on racism — centuries after a nuclear holocaust, blacks rule over whites and even practice cannibalism. It was supposed to be ironic, but it was so simple-minded it was a godsend to the kind of critics who could congratulate themselves on seeing he’d shown his true colors. But Patterson informs us that Heinlein had admired Harry Truman for integrating the U.S. military and standing up to the Southern racists in the 1948 Democratic convention and general election. He also details his fight with Alice Dalgleish at Scribner’s over inclusion of non-whites in his juvenile novels — in the case of Tunnel in the Sky, he had to work around her to drop hints that the hero was black. We had already known that the protagonist of Starship Troopers was a Filipino, and that in Tramp Royale, written in the fifties, he had denounced South African apartheid. Can we seriously believe that a dyed-in-the-wool racist would have gone to that much trouble to concoct a cover story?
And then there’s the story behind the story of what was to become Heinlein’s most famous — and in some quarters infamous — novel: Stranger in Strange Land. Patterson recounts that it went through a number of false starts and seeming dead-ends before it finally gelled more than ten years after it was first conceived as a variation on Rudyard Kipling’s story of Mowgli, only with a boy raised by Martians instead of wolves. It soon became a cult classic, introducing “grok” to the language and being embraced by hippies who fancied themselves as water brothers — and even inspiring a religion based on The Church of All Worlds of its hero Valentine Michael Smith… But after the grisly Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969, there were claims that it was the inspiration of Charles Manson. 
As Patterson notes, Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson, couldn’t find any such connection, and Heinlein isn’t even mentioned in Bugliosi’s account of the case, Helter Skelter — which took its title from one of the Beatles songs that obsessed Manson, who read into a prophecy of race war. Bugliosi went into great detail about how Manson interpreted or misinterpreted the lyrics of that and other Beatles songs, and also theorized that Manson might have borrowed some ideas from the Process Church, a splinter group of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology cult that had nothing to do with Stranger. But rocker/poet/social activist Ed Sanders wrote a book called The Family (1971), asserting Manson was indeed a disciple of Heinlein, even carrying a copy of Stranger in his backpack; and when the uncut version of Stranger finally came out after Heinlein’s death, sf contrarian Rudy Rucker took Sanders’ “cool” account for gospel in a piece for the Los Angeles Times (Dec. 23, 1990). That prompted a response by libertarian sf writer J. Neil Schulman (Jan. 20, 1991), who had written Manson in 1981 and been told by a fellow prisoner billing himself as “sort of Charles’ personal secretary” that Manson had denied ever having read the novel. As keeper of the Heinlein flame, one would expect Patterson to avoid any hint of a connection.
Only, he shares the startling revelation that Heinlein, in the late summer of 1969, got a crazed letter from a young woman in Inyo County, “the margins filled with decorative drawn fancies,” wanting his help because she and her friends were being chased by police helicopters— her name was “Annette or Nanette or something,” Virginia Heinlein recalled nearly 20 years later. Heinlein telephoned the sheriff’s office, which confirmed police were chasing down a group of young people, but wouldn’t elaborate. (pp. 312-13). As Patterson concludes, the woman was probably Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. Her Wikipedia entry shows drawings from a wall in one of her apartments, and recounts that she later worked on a book about the Manson family that included “intricate drawings.” At the time Fromme wrote to Heinlein, Charles Manson had been arrested but not yet connected with the Tate-LaBianca murders. The thing is, the only possible reason she could have had for writing was that she knew of him as the author of Stranger. Another member of the Family, Mary Brunner, is reported to have named her son by Manson “Valentine Michael,” although that isn’t certain. She eventually split with Manson and turned state’s evidence, getting off with a seven-year jail term — after serving which she changed her name and she and her son dropped out of sight.
If Fromme and Brunner were familiar with Stranger, had they learned of it from Manson himself? It’s possible that Brunner, as a college graduate, environmental activist and librarian at Cal-Berkeley, had already read it before she even met him. Published too late for Patterson to have read, let alone comment on, is Jeff Guinn’s Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (2013), which goes far beyond Helter Skelter in detailing the lives of Manson and his Family. In the London Review of Books (Nov. 7, 2013), Christian Lorentzen wrote that Manson had actually “read” Stranger while serving time at McNeil Prison for forging a check in 1961. But Guinn himself (p. 69, note p. 416)) didn’t believe that Manson had actually read Stranger or any other books (He was so close to illiterate that he was said to have thrown out his prison mail because he couldn’t read it!); rather, he must have listened to other inmates talk about “one of the most popular novels among the literate cons… Its themes of alienation, government deceit and redemption for the despised resonated with the incarcerated.” In a previous stint at another prison, Manson had taken a course on Dale Carnegie, and at McNeil he also heard about Scientology. But after summarizing Stranger, and the elements Manson apparently adopted from it, Guinn makes no further mention of Heinlein, moving on to Manson’s “most influential teachers of all” — the Beatles, of course.

3. The Heart of the Matter, and Matters of the Heart

Heinlein had groused about his problems with Scribner’s editor Alice Dalgliesh in Grumbles from the Grave, but Patterson goes into more detail. This may be the best part of the biography, for what were then considered mere boys’ books but are now called young adult novels were truly revolutionary in their treatment of family and society — from the teenage girl who has divorced her parents in The Star Beast to the young man in Red Planet who has to defy his parents when he learns the adults ruling a human colony on Mars are up to no good. In Farmer in the Sky, the hero has a troubled relationship with his remarried father, his stepsister later dies, and he ends up going against his father’s wishes — no matter that they are otherwise reconciled. In Starman Jones, a young man has to escape a wicked stepfather and his mentor is a criminal — yet the story is about coming of age and accepting responsibility in the best sense. Reading how hard Heinlein had to fight for the integrity of these novels shows him at his best.
Patterson also recounts Heinlein’s troubled relationships with other publishers, especially Shasta — which published the books of the Future History series but in shoddy editions, paying him very little and even selling subsidiary rights it didn’t own. There are also details that we haven’t read before of Heinlein’s involvement in the movie Destination Moon, which might have turned into a musical comedy or worse but for his persistence. Of less interest are accounts of Heinlein’s work with producers of projected sf TV series that never materialized (One did lead to another movie, Project Moonbase, about which Patterson seems to realize, the less said the better). We also learn that he didn’t think much of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and early TV series loosely inspired his Space Cadet — although it was head and shoulders above other shows like Captain Video and Space Patrol. For some reason, Patterson doesn’t mention that “The Green Hills of Earth” “Requiem,” “The Roads Must Roll” and “Universe” were adapted for radio by Dimension X, and a loose TV version of ”The Green Hills of Earth” appeared on Out There. Patterson does mention minor non-sf works like a couple of stories about a teenage girl written for girls’ magazines. One annoying thing is that sometimes we don’t get any context the first time some minor work is mentioned, and that it may be confusingly cited by different working titles in different passages.
Another point Patterson makes is that Heinlein was quite catholic in his sf tastes. In 1953, he listed his favorite recent sf novels as Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, Fredric Brown’s What Mad Universe, Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky, L. Sprague de Camp’s Rogue Queen and George Orwell’s 1984. (p. 93). His mainstream tastes included Voltaire, Cabell and later John (Giles Goat Boy) Barth. He was generous towards fellow sf writers in need, as with loans to Philip K. Dick and free story ideas for Theodore Sturgeon. Nor did he see other writers only through a political lens: Asimov was poles apart from Heinlein in that regard, and I can remember a phone conversation in which he tried (in what he must have considered an “understanding” way) to account for that by Asimov being a “Rooshin Patriott.” Yet years later (1982), when he was writing Job: A Comedy of Justice, he still admired Asimov for his wit and imagination, and even wrote him a letter crediting him having supplied the inspiration (Way back in 1939!) for the novel by opining that Satan hadn’t gotten a fair shake in fiction. (p. 428), When Joe Haldeman came out with The Forever War, an obvious critique of Starship Troopers, Heinlein didn’t take offense but told Haldeman that his novel “may be the best future war story I’ve ever read!” (p. 368). Would any of today’s sf writers of the hard Right or hard Left offer such praise in the same or similar circumstances?
But the heart of Patterson’s narrative the story of Heinlein and Virginia Gerstenfeld, who from her letters and interviews that the biography heavily relies on must have been one of the most loving couples of all time. In theory, at least, theirs was an open marriage — Heinlein had believed in that sort of thing early on — but there isn’t any indication that either of them sought or took outside opportunities during their forty years together. Only, when he first became involved with Ginny — according to an Appendix based on correspondence at the time by Grace Dugan Sang, a friend whose name surfaced after the first volume of the biography was published — he told his then-wife Leslyn, who still lived with him, that it was “nothing more the other affairs which she had condoned” (p. 480); in any case it was over and he was still “terribly in love” with Leslyn even though she was an alcoholic who was making his life miserable. Leslyn moved in for a time with Sang (now Mrs. Howard Wurtz) and complained about how Heinlein “had carried on with Ginny and yet denied her both men and alcohol.” (p. 485) For many years to come, Leslyn deluged friends and acquaintances of Heinlein with poison-pen letters, trying to get even.
Once they were married, Bob and Ginny shared everything. Well, not quite. One revelation in the Patterson biography may relate to his fiction. Heinlein was always big on Motherhood, beginning with his juveniles. In Red Planet, the terms for coming of age are clearly defined: “[A]ny man old enough to fight is a man and must be treated as such—and any girl old enough to cook and tend babies is adult, too.” In Tunnel in the Sky, women take part with men in survival training, but they are evidently expected, like the sister of the protagonist, to throw over any career rewards of such training for the duties of childbearing. Then there’s adorable Dora in Time Enough for Love, and motherhood signals redemption for the heroine in Friday. Heinlein believed in survival of the fittest, but in strict Darwinian terms that means survival and reproduction — Heinlein never fathered any children, and John W. Campbell once berated him for shirking his “social responsibility” in that regard (p. 118). But Ginny knew at the time that he couldn’t have children: a test of his sperm had revealed that there were “no wrigglers living in it at all.” Fearing that he “would have been devastated,” she never told him, hoping he would believe it was just a matter of “mutual infertility.” (p. 119) But it’s hard to believe that he didn’t suspect the truth.
Patterson goes into great detail about other matters, including Heinlein’s innovative designs for their homes in Colorado Springs and, later, Santa Cruz, CA, their financial hardships before he hit the big time with Stranger, and their travels around the world — of which there were more after those recounted in Tramp Royale — appearances at sf conventions, and annoyances like a rather pretentious book about him by Alexei Panshin. And then there are their medical problems, especially his but also hers — the reason they had to move to California was the belated discovery that she suffered from anoxia on account of the thin air in Colorado. But while Heinlein’s own health crises are covered in clinical detail, Patterson doesn’t address the possibility that peritonitis and then a serious blockage of blood flow to his brain had something to do with the decline in the quality of his writing in I Will Fear No Evil and other works, or that his 1978 carotid bypass surgery helped him recover for a time with Friday and Job. And while reporting that he and Ginny had psychic experiences, Patterson downplays Heinlein’s acceptance — for a time, at least — of the notorious Bridey Murphy reincarnation story (Heinlein had believed, or wanted to believe, in reincarnation going back to Beyond This Horizon.).
So it goes. Patterson has had his say, and we’ll have to make of it what we will. But what are we to make of Heinlein? Should we go by what Patterson, or any other biographer or critic says about him? No. Should we even go by what Heinlein said about himself? Again, no. What we should go by is what Heinlein wrote in his stories, what made them appeal to us. Jo Walton gives an example in her Tor.com blog  (Feb. 10, 2010): the opening of The Door into Summer:

One winter shortly before the Six Weeks War, my tomcat, Petronius the Arbiter, and I lived in an old farmhouse in Connecticut. I doubt if it is there any longer, as it was near the edge of the blast area of the Manhattan near-miss, and those old frame buildings burn like tissue paper. Even if it is still standing it wouldn’t be a desirable rental because of the fall-out, but we liked it then, Pete and I. The lack of plumbing made the rent low and what had been the dining-room had a good north light for my drafting board. The drawback was that the place had eleven doors to the outside.

That’s from the fifties. But Heinlein could still write well in the sixties. One passage I particularly remember is from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where Manny muses about what to make of Mycroft, the computer that has woken up on his watch, and ends with a witty interjection:

Am not going to argue whether a machine can “really” be alive, “really” be self-aware. Is a virus self-aware? Nyet. How about oyster? I doubt it. A cat? Almost certainly. A human? Don't know about you, tovarishch, but I am. Somewhere along evolutionary chain from macromolecule to human brain self-awareness crept in. Psychologists assert it happens automatically whenever a brain acquires certain very high number of associational paths. Can't see it matters whether paths are protein or platinum.

("Soul?" Does a dog have a soul? How about cockroach?)

Q.E.D.
 
Contact: pierce07446@hotmail.com




[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_K._Dick

Friday, June 27, 2014

I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends


Contact: pierce07446@hotmail.com


Dwight Decker is what some call an “independent scholar.” In science fiction fan circles, he might be called a “sercon” (serious constructive) fan.

Whatever one calls him, he’s the kind of researcher we need more of, in a time when a lot of academic sf criticism has bogged down in pretentious jargon and ideological cant and slant. I’m reminded of David Barton, who relies on selective quotations, specious logic and confirmation bias to “prove” that Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were fundamentalists who believed in a Christian state. Academics also tend to privilege secondary sources over primary texts, resulting in tiresomely Talmudic commentaries on commentaries on commentaries that lose sight of the original subjects.

I’m an independent scholar myself, presently working on an update of my history of science fiction, Imagination and Evolution. I&E, as another independent scholar Harvey Satty (an authority on Olaf Stapledon) dubbed it, originally appeared in four volumes from Greenwood Press between 1987 and 1994. A lot has happened in sf since then, but a lot has likewise happened in sf research – thanks to Project Gutenberg and other online e-book sources, print-on-demand editions of proto-sf works of all sorts, and translations of a good deal of classic sf never before available in English, I can get a better impression of how the genre has evolved from its earliest years into today’s global phenomenon.

But I couldn’t manage without the help of other independent scholars, and Dwight is truly a prime example. He’s my expert on early science fiction in German, Danish and other languages that has not been translated, let alone studied. He has previously translated comic books and Perry Rhodan space operas, and has done a lot of business translation. He is presently working on a CreateSpace book centering on a translation of Eberhard Christian Kindermann’s Speedy Voyage of an Air Ship to the Upper World (1744), an obscure but historically important German story about a trip to Mars – well, actually a supposed moon of Mars that Kindermann thought he had just discovered (With help from a friend, Dwight himself discovered that on the date the German astronomer claimed to have observed the moon, which he described as rather fuzzy, Mars was right next to the Crab Nebula! There'll be more about the self-absorbed Kindermann in the new book.).

Five years ago, he broke entirely new ground in translating Vilhelm Bergsøe’s “Flying Fish ‘Prometheus’” (1870), a Danish work so much like today’s steampunk that he was able to sell it the next year to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology Steampunk II (2010). In 2009, for The New York Review of Science Fiction, he wrote the first account of Julius von Voss’ Ini (1810), a major German sf novel that had fallen into obscurity but has since been republished. More recently, although few realize it yet, he has revolutionized the history of sf by discovering connections between two other German works, A.K. Ruh’s Garlands Around the Urns of the Future (1800) and Volume III of Heinrich Zschokke’s The Black Brothers (1795). Garlands appears to be the very first true sf novel set in the future, but it was clearly influenced by Zschokke’s work, which in turn was a variation of the futuristic utopia invented by Louis Sebastien Mercier with L’An 2440 (1771) – The Black Brothers III is still mostly lecture and philosophizing, but has elements of storytelling.

One language Dwight doesn’t know is Polish, but he has helped me a great deal with the Lunar trilogy of Jerzy Zulawski – On the Silver Globe (1903), The Conqueror (1910) and Old Earth (1911). That’s because the trilogy has been translated into German, and while it may not seem legitimate to translate from a translation, Ursula K. Le Guin has done that with the Spanish translation of Squaring the Circle, a collection of fantastic stories by Romanian author Gheorghe Sasarma. Zulawski may have been influenced by German writer Kurd Lasswitz, author of Two Planets (1897). Like Two Planets, the lunar trilogy is very philosophical – the humans who survive a trip to the Moon in the first volume migrate to the far side, where they find a hostile native civilization but also carry the evils of their own past with them, as the eldest among them realizes:

I left the room and contemplated for a long time the terrible irony of human existence that had followed us from the Earth to the Moon. I thought of O’Tamor, that poor old dreamer! As he had pictured it in his imagination, the children of Thomas and Martha, protected from the bad influences of earthly civilization, would grow up here on the Moon as an ideal kind of humanity, without the afflictions and without the differences that had been the source of all the eternal misery of mankind on Earth! I look at these children and it seems to me that the noble old dreamer O’Tamor left out of consideration the fact that the descendants of mankind would inevitably be the offspring of human beings and carry deep within them the seeds from which spring all the abominations of the earthly races. And isn’t the most terrible irony that Man takes his worst enemy deep inside himself along with him even to the stars? It’s a good thing that Tom doesn’t have a brother. So the age of war between brothers and slavery won’t dawn right away, and we will perhaps be dead by then and won’t have to witness it

In the second volume, another Earthman arrives hundreds of years later to find himself hailed as their liberator and redeemer according to a religion created by the daughter of one of the original settlers. But he meets an ironic fate, and becomes the center of a new cycle of legends. In the third volume, two lunar human make it to Earth and get involved in political intrigue. I don’t want to get bogged down in all the details here, but before I read Dwight’s summaries and excerpts, I had nothing to rely on but secondary sources – which offered a confusing and even misleading account of the events of the trology and their true meaning.

Dwight had already helped me with translations of some of Lasswitz’ essays, and he has done the same with some commentaries on sf by the French writer J.H. Rosny ainé. He knows his languages. But even more crucially, he knows enough about science fiction to tell what’s really important and what isn’t in an unfamiliar work, and to focus on the truly significant aspects.

When Dwight Decker writes about science fiction, he tells it straight.


.



Sunday, March 2, 2014

Caught in the Culture War

 Contact: pierce07446@hotmail.com



“It’s time for Science Fiction to Face up to Discrimination” (2013), David Barnett declared in the British newspaper The Guardian, where he argued that genre sf is still written and read almost exclusively by straight white males. Ironically, his piece was illustrated with a scene from Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly (2002) that shows white captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and black priest Derrial Book (Ron Glass) together. That series also featured several capable women characters in major roles. But Barnett may not have considered TV relevant. Anyway, he got right to his own point:
Science fiction loves a good paradox. Here's one for you: how can a genre that dreams up alien cultures and mythic races in such minute detail seemingly ignore the ethnic, religious, gender and sexual diversity right here on the home planet, here in the real world?[i]
Barnett cited a flap over the appearance of a picture of a bikini-clad woman on in the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and the dominance of men running sf cons, while quoting South African blogger Laura Smith as complaining that sf, or at least English-language sf, avoids giving voice as characters to “anyone who is POC [person of colour], female, gay, transgendered; settings and cultures that aren’t North American or European; non-western folklore and mythology."[ii]
It’s unlikely that Barnett, author of several small press novels as well as a journalist,[iii] could have read anywhere near as much sf as longtime fans. But it turned out he was an sf wannabe, having just broken into steampunk with Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl (2013), a rather self-congratulatory pastiche of Victorian popular fiction and its attitudes. He didn’t mention that to The Guardian, and the only work he cited as a case of discrimination was Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012), a fantasy adventure set on a world based on traditional Arab-Islamic mythology. Only, you wouldn’t know from his account that Ahmed won a Locus award for best first novel, and was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula;[iv] nor that he was published by a genre specialty house (DAW), with raves from genre writers – including white males.[v]  Maybe Barnett never checked any of that out.
Yet he seemed to know with absolute certainty that science fiction was all racist and sexist, as if there weren’t any women sf writers to speak of, let alone that they have won an increasing number of Hugo and Nebula awards in recent years. Winners from the 21st Century such as Connie Willis, Lois McMaster Bujold, Catherine Asaro, Elizabeth Moon and Jo Walton appeared to be unpersons to him. So did women writers of young adult sf like Suzanne Collins, whose The Hunger Games (2008) won a number of awards, including the Cybil for Fantasy and Science Fiction, and was adapted as a hit movie in 2012. 
Barnett also seemed to know with equal certainty that there had never been any significant black writers (Samuel R. Delany, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, the late Octavia Butler) or gay and lesbian writers (Delany again, David Gerrold, the late Thomas Disch, Nicola Griffith, Elizabeth A. Lynn and even Tanya Huff), let alone that black characters have appeared in sf by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, James Gunn and others, or even on the screen – notably Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: the Next Generation (1987-98), not to mention Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek (1966-69) and several movies. He might not have believed that gays and lesbians had been represented in the works of white writers like Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley before the Gay Liberation movement.
It’s unlikely that Barnett had encountered Frederik Pohl’s “Day Million” (1966), which centers on transgendered transhumans; or Gerrold’s Moonstar Odyssey (1977), a Nebula nominee in which children are born sexless and choose whether to be male or female at adolescence; or that Kim Stanley Robinson’s transgender lovers in 2312 (2012). Two decades before that, Maureen F. McHugh had won the Lambda and James Tiptree Jr. awards for China Mountain Zhang (1992), in which the protagonist is a young gay man of mixed Chinese and Hispanic ancestry in a future dominated by China (Would Barnett have even known about the Tiptree award, or the woman writing under a male name that it honors?). Chances are that most of what he knew, or believed that he knew, came from secondary sources – especially academic criticism that sees the genre through an ideological lens.
Science fiction critics used to be home-grown, and were usually sf writers before they became sf critics – as witness Damon Knight and James Blish, whose critical reviews were collected as In Search of Wonder (1956) and The Issue at Hand (1964, as by William Atheling Jr.), respectively. And there were literary historians who specialized in the genre, notably I.F. Clarke with Voices Prophesying War (1966) and The Pattern of Expectation (1979).
But things began to get more organized in 1970 with the founding of the Science Fiction Research Association, which sponsors annual conferences and keeps members up to date with research programs and projects. SF: The Other Side of Realism (1971) was the first modern academic book about sf. It was edited by Thomas D. Clareson, who taught English at the College of Wooster and had founded the sf journal Extrapolation in 1959. While his book included entries by several sf writers, notably Blish, Samuel R. Delany, Judith Merrill Brian Aldiss and Norman Spinrad, they were outnumbered by English professors.
Foundation, a British scholarly journal, was launched in England the next year, and R(ichard).D. Mullen, a himself a professor of English at Indiana State University (and a contributor to Clareson’s anthology), followed a year later with Science Fiction Studies, published in Canada by DePauw University. Academe began taking sf seriously enough that the number of scholarly works and critics contributing to them multiplied, and several launched degree programs. And while Delany established himself as a major figure in sf criticism with sundry commentaries and essays, and book-length studies beginning with The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977, revised 2009), most serious critical work in the field has been by academics – Darko Suvin may still be the best known, but there are hundreds of others. By this time the count of books at least touching on sf could have well be over a hundred.
There are at least two dozen scholarly book-length studies about Philip K. Dick alone, a couple in French and Italian and only one, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Novels of Philip K. Dick (1989) by a genre sf writer.[vi] Not only that, but he has been embraced as a prophet of postmodernism, which has become (along with neo-Marxism) one of the dominant schools of literary and cultural criticism; in 1991, Science Fiction Studies ran a piece by Jean Baudrillard that saw his role thusly:
It is hyperreal. It is a universe of simulation, which is something altogether different. And this is so not because Dick speaks specifically of simulacra. SF has always done so, but it has always played upon the double, on artificial replication or imaginary duplication, whereas here the double has disappeared. There is no more double; one is always already in the other world, another world which is not another, without mirrors or projection or utopias as means for reflection. The simulation is impassable, unsurpassable, checkmated, without exteriority. We can no longer move "through the mirror" to the other side, as we could during the golden age of transcendence.[vii]
Postmodernism took academic criticism by storm, and has been applied to both science fiction itself and sf criticism. In Postmodernist Fiction (1987), Brian McHale applies the theory to the works of Delany and Ballard, although he is more comfortable with Italo Calvino, Kurt Vonnegut and William S. Burroughs. Since then, the movement seems to have become an omnium gatherum for critiques of sf based on radical feminism, queer theory, culture theory and postcolonialism.
Marxist critic Frederic Jameson offered his take on postmodernism as a strategy for corporate control of culture in Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), and later applied that to science fiction, including Dick, with Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005). Jameson was already a mover and shaker in cultural theory, having founded the Marxist Literary Group (MLG) in 1969 as an affiliate of the Modern Language Association (MLA).[viii]
Even if the postmodernists and the Marxists didn’t see eye to eye  –Carl Freedman has tried to reconcile them through a syncretic process in Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000) – they seemed to agree that there was something rotten in the state of science fiction – in fact, any science fiction other than Marxist or postmodernist was reactionary.
Some of the ire of critics has been focused on particular schools of science fiction. Nicola Nixon, in a piece for Science Fiction Studies called “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?” (1992), challenged the claim of that movement to being culturally or politically radical, and she may have had some valid points. But in her rhetorical overkill and innuendo she associated it with the right-wing politics of Ronald Reagan and characterized its founders William Gibson and Bruce Sterling as arrested adolescent males obsessed with the “size of their dicks.”[ix]
This would certainly have been news to Pat Cadigan, a charter member of the movement, whose “Rock On” (1986) appeared in Mirrorshades, a showcase anthology edited by Sterling. That story became the basis of her cyberpunk novel Synners (1991), which won the Arthur C. Clarke award and was reprinted 20 years later as part of the Orion-Gollancz SF Masterworks series. It would also have been news to Marge Piercy, a feminist novelist, who credited Gibson and other cyberpunks as influences on her He, She and It (1991).[x] Nixon complained that Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1988) “presents Laura Webster, the central protagonist, as perpetually in need of rescue from prisons, would-be assassins, and terrorists”[xi] – without mentioning that it is Laura who ends of saving the world from a global terrorist cabal (Her husband David isn’t much use.). And, like, male heroes never suffer imprisonment or face would-be assassins?
Nixon’s diatribe against cyberpunk writers may have been occasioned by her resentment that they had gotten more publicity than first generation feminist sf writers like Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas and Sally Miller Gearhart – who had followed “a political and artistic trajectory from ’60s feminism to its enthusiastic articulation in specifically feminist utopias. Collectively they provided an often implicit and stinging critique of male SF writers’ penchant for figuring feminist power as the threat of the future.”[xii] But the only example of that “penchant” she had to offer was Parley J. Cooper’s The Feminists (1971), a work so obscure it probably wasn’t known to most male sf writers or readers. She apparently wasn’t aware of genre sf satirical stories of women-on-top like William Tenn’s “The Masculinist Revolt” (1965); but there haven’t been enough of those to make her case that male sf writers generally are terrified by any manifestation of female empowerment.
In a 1975 interview for the Youngstown State University Oral History Program, Leigh Brackett recalled that when she started writing sf, “Everybody in the field welcomed me with open arms.”[xiii] She may have had an androgynous name, but her fellow sf writers and most fans knew she was a woman. It was the same with C.L. (Catherine) Moore, and Andre (Alice) Norton. Readers certainly knew who Judith Merrill was. Merrill became a mover and shaker as anthologist and critic as well as writer, and while she took some lumps for her support of the controversial New Wave movement in the 1960’s, so did her male counterparts like Michael Moorcock. Not every female writer has made it big in science fiction, but neither has every male writer, and there isn’t any evidence that the men have ever ganged up on the women to hound them out of the market.
So who denounced women’s fiction in 2011 as “feminine tosh,” born of their “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”?[xiv] It wasn’t Larry Niven, or one of the cyberpunks, or even one of the authors of military sf (surely the most male-dominated subgenre, although it has also made room for Elizabeth Moon and Tanya Huff), but Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul. The fact that Naipaul was born in Trinidad, of Indian ancestry, raises the question of whether he should be included in the indictment of “Orientalism” as a syndrome of “imperialist” Western literature.
Edward Said, in Culture and Imperialism (1993) believes that “the [Western] novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other.”[xv] Even Jane Austen, by that definition, must have been a staunch colonialist; indeed, Said reduces Mansfield Park to an exercise in callous indifference to “the agonies of [slavery in] Caribbean existence.”[xvi]
But Said hasn’t gone unchallenged. Susan Fraiman, a neither white nor conservative professor of feminist theory, queer theory, the British novel and culture studies at the University of Virginia, came to the defense of his most controversial target with “Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture, and Imperialism” (Critical Inquiry 21.4, summer 1995). Gabrielle D.V. White, who has taught philosophy at the University of Leeds, devoted an entire book to the case for Austen as a critic of slavery in Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition: ‘A Fling at the Slave Trade’ (2006).
Shadia B. Drury, who teaches philosophy and political science at the University of Regina in Canada and is a critic of the radical Right,[xvii] finds fault with Said. First, the idea that non-Western peoples have been totally brainwashed by Western “Orientalist” discourse “presupposes a certain feeblemindness on the part of the dominated that adds insult to injury.” Second, it ignores the fact that prejudice is a two-way street. Arabs, she observes, have a pejorative term for Westerners, agnaby, connoting that they are “part man and part machine” with no depth or soul or feeling for family or children (Drury herself is of Egyptian Arab Christian origin,). Third, she argues:
Thanks to the scam being perpetrated by globalization, it is understandable that universal principles have fallen on hard times. But just because universal values can and have been used as instruments of domination, there is no reason to give up on them altogether. To do so is to undercut the moral ground that gives the critique of colonialism its traction.[xviii]
It is a commonplace among Said and other social critics of the Left that those whose who preached the “universal principles” of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries turned a blind eye to slavery and the slave trade, on which the power and prosperity of the West depended; and that 19th Century liberals saw nothing wrong with the colonial exploitation of Asia and Africa. Yet, even granting that, the ideals of the Enlightenment ended up biting the hand that fed them in the anti-slavery movement and other progressive causes. In seemingly benighted Victorian times, when imperialism was at its zenith, Europe found Belgian King Leopold’s Congo Free State more than it could stomach. Liberation movements of the 20th Century, moreover, drew in large part on Western ideals of freedom and democracy: if there had never been a Locke, there would never have been a Gandhi.
Paul Brian, professor emeritus of English at Washington State University, contends that “people struggling for freedom in oppressed nations are more likely to draw inspiration from the quintessentially European Enlightenment concept of rights under natural law than they are to turn to postcolonial theory.” Moreover, he complains, Postcolonial Theory is itself Eurocentric, inasmuch as “it singles out the colonial experience as the most important fact about the countries involved. Surely that experience has had many powerful influences; but this is not necessarily the framework within which writers from—say—India, who have a long history of precolonial literature, wish to be viewed.”[xix]
By coincidence, Samit Basu addressed that issue in the Sept. 30, 2013 issue of Strange Horizons, an online magazine devoted to sf and fantasy and discussion thereof. Basu is known for the GameWorld fantasy trilogy, described in a Wikipedia entry on the first volume as “a motley mix of eastern and western fantasy featuring a huge bestiary of creatures from mythic traditions from all around the world, both ancient and modern - vanars, dragons, manticores, rakshases and various others.”[xx] He made his US debut with Turbulence (2012), a superhero novel, and has also written for comics. But asked during a panel discussion on Indian sf and fantasy whether it should have a specific political agenda, he responded thusly:
I don't think there should be any such should-address topics for any nation in any genre. How is that different from the general ‘Indians should write about India’ nonsense? I’ve certainly never picked up a work of fiction because it addresses particular issues that I feel writers from a region/race should address.
I also wanted to add that I find the term post-colonial speculative fiction interesting but fundamentally off-putting. Why would I voluntarily call myself a post-colonial anything? It’s likely to induce eye-gleams among academics and complete eye-glazes among civilians. What do you all say when people ask you what you do?[xxi]
 Some prominent Chinese science fiction critics seem to feel the same way, to read between the lines of a special issue of Science Fiction Studies devoted to Chinese sf.
Nathaniel Isaacson took aim at Huangjiang Diasou’s Tales of the Moon Colony (Yuequi Zhimindi Xiaoshuo), “recognized as China’s first native work of science fiction,” which was serialized in 1904-5. Isaacson cited Said in support of his contention that Chinese sf was inevitably part of the “European imperial project” because it was impossible for China to respond to Orientalism with Occidentalism.[xxii] He also cited the seeming misgivings of Lu Xun, a translator of Verne’s novels over the impact of Western sf,[xxiii] and concluded that Chinese sf like Tales of the Moon Colony was “complicit with the imperial will to power” by delegitimizing Chinese culture (including queues, actually a Manchu imposition) in favor of foreign attire and drinking coffee.[xxiv]
Yet Chinese sf writer and scholar Yan Wu, in his introduction to the issue, contrasted Isaacson’s piece with one by Shaoling Ma on Xu Nianci’s “New Tales of Mr. Braggadocio” (1905). “While Isaacson adopts a theoretical perspective consistent with Western criticism, Ma has placed more emphasis origins and development of Chinese classical fiction.”[xxv] (Ma also takes an orthodox Marxist approach.)
Wu had collaborated with Xing He on “Chinese Science Fiction” An Overview” for Pathlight, a magazine devoted to “New Chinese Writing,” and didn’t seem to think its importation into China through translations like Lu Xun’s had been a surrender to imperialism. They simply noted that Lu had “declared the purpose of modern science fiction to be the popularization and spread of scientific knowledge, a proclamation that continued to guide the genre’s development in China for several generations.”[xxvi]
Further evidence that early Chinese sf writers weren’t mere patsies for Western imperialism comes in works like Wu Janrien’s The New Story of the Stone (1908), which imagines a future China founded on Confucian principles as the world’s leading nation. Like the ancient Greeks, the ancient and not-so-ancient Chinese regarded foreigners as barbarians – and some could be as blinkered as their Victorian European counterparts in their perceptions of the Other. In Biheguan Zhuren’s New Era (1908), China has become the world’s leading superpower by 1999 and conquers most of the world – its allies include Hungarians, on the basis of their (very distant) Mongol ancestry![xxvii] Then too, there has been speculation that China rather than Europe might have achieved global hegemony if it had kept up the Treasure Fleet program.[xxviii]
Despite such apparent flaws with Said’s thesis, the ideological critique of colonialism has become so pervasive that it is practically taken for granted that non-Western cultures never have had and never will have any problems that weren’t brought on them entirely by the West. In an op-ed piece for The New York Times about the racially charged Trayvon Martin case, for example, Isabel Wilkerson faulted Americans who “tend to think of the rigid stratification of caste as a distant notion from feudal Europe or Victorian India,”[xxix] as if there had never been a caste system in India before the British showed up. And if everything Western is pernicious, should the British be condemned as harshly for introducing cricket to India as for the Amritsar Massacre or the Bengal Famine of 1943? But this is going far afield from the issue of literature.
Said and his like are known among the intelligentsia, but are hardly household names to ordinary readers. Even in popular culture, however, their ideas have gained traction. James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar (2010), which pits innocent aliens against imperialist Earthmen, stands all the racist clichés of old-time Hollywood westerns (and presumably old-time sf) on their heads. Only Cameron is a white male, and while sf has traditionally been written by white males – no matter to critics that females are gaining ground now – the same can be said of most sf criticism. It is symptomatic of an ideology that makes it sort of a progressive white man’s burden not only to right old wrongs but to anoint and thus privilege those they deem to speak on behalf of the wronged: is Said truly the only authentic intellectual voice of what was once called the Third World?
Whatever their motivation, ideological critics like to have all their ducks in a row, so it isn’t surprising that some can find nothing but racism, sexism and other ugly isms in genre sf, as opposed to Avatar – with exceptions limited to genre authors who are not white males, living or dead, or at least have Marxist credentials. But their arguments tend to rely on the same sort of selective citations, confirmation bias and specious logic as those of right-wingers like David Barton that America’s founding fathers were fundamentalists.[xxx] In any case, the reality is far more complicated than most of those who condemn the genre wholesale – or defend it wholesale, for that matter – are willing to admit. There really is some bad history out there; it’s just that it isn’t the only history.
Anti-Semitism was embraced almost unthinkingly by many writers – including sf writers. Verne sent a stereotypical Jewish villain, Hakkabut, into space in Off on a Comet (1877) – and compounded that offense by joining the chorus of anti-Dreyfusards. Camille Flammarion’s Omega: the Last Days of the World (1894) includes a gratuitous scene in which a “noted American Israelite—a prince of finance,”[xxxi] faced with a global panic over a comet on possible collision course with Earth, can think of nothing but making a killing on the stock market. But even the supposedly progressive H.G. Wells’ In the Days of the Comet (1906) makes a point of having one Gurker, Jewish Chancellor of the Exchequer, confess his people’s sins:
“We Jews,” he said, “have gone through the system of this world, creating nothing, consolidating many things, destroying much. Our racial self-conceit has been monstrous. We seem to have used our ample coarse intellectuality for no other purpose than to develop and master and maintain the convention of property, to turn life into a sort of mercantile chess and spend our winnings grossly … We have had no sense of service to mankind. Beauty which is godhead—we made it a possession.”[xxxii]
Wells, generally regarded as the father of science fiction as literature, has come under increasing fire for racism and, especially his support of eugenics. What was supposed to be a selective breeding program in favor of intelligence was thoroughly discredited by the horrors of Nazi selective extermination, although its supporters once included such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, Emile Zola, Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes and Margaret Sanger – all regarded as progressive thinkers in their day and some still so regarded. Ironically, one of its most vocal opponents was Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton, generally regarded today as a reactionary crank.
Ursula K. Le Guin defends Wells against the charge of racism in her introduction to his “The Lord of the Dynamos” (1894), in which a black man named Azuma-zi is treated with contempt by his white boss at a power plant – “Holroyd liked a nigger because he would stand kicking”[xxxiii] – but worships the dynamo as a god and sacrifices himself to it. “If you stop reading at that word, you will miss the fact that the writer’s sympathy is with the black man, not the white one who beats him,”[xxxiv] Le Guin observes. But hers may be a minority viewpoint, as a number of critics have found evidence to the contrary in other works by Wells.  
Some of this is plain spin doctoring. In All Tomorrow’s Cultures: Anthropological Engagements with the Future (2008), for example, Samuel Gerald Collins cites a scholarly piece by P.A. Cantor and P. Hufnagel, “The Empire of the Future: Imperialism and Modernism in H.G. Wells” (2006). Cantor and Hufnagel put the case that The Time Machine (1895) simply can’t be about a journey to an imagined future but must rather be “a journey to the imperial frontier.”[xxxv] Collins picks up on that to argue that the Morlocks must thus truly represent neither the fate of the working class nor the devolution of humanity but only the “cultural Other, with the Time Traveller as Joseph Conrad’s Marlow or H. Rider Haggard’s Quatermain.”[xxxvi]
This sort of Talmudic commentary has reinforced an attitude towards genre sf as automatic and unreflective as racism itself. It has become axiomatic that sf writers can only channel the prejudices of their cultures, and are incapable of imagining anything beyond the here and now. Aliens, mutants, androids and robots in sf can never be anything but disparaging caricatures of the Other – nonwhites or women or gays or whatever. It is the task of critics to “interrogate” sf works; like suspects being grilled by the police, they must have something to hide.
Yet critics risk overlooking the obvious. True imperialists and racists have always been shameless about it. Jack London, surely an embarrassment to the Left because he was a revolutionary socialist rather than a reactionary, preached genocide in “The Unparalleled Invasion” (1910), which tells of a war against China – involving deliberate biological warfare as opposed to the accidental kind Europeans first brought to America. In David H. Keller’s “The Menace” (1928) and its sequels, black militants threaten America with a series of bizarre conspiracies. Besides being vile in its racist message, the series is ludicrous in its details, such as chemicals that can turn blacks white and vice versa – although it may have been a backhanded compliment to imagine blacks capable of producing a fool’s gold that passes ordinary tests, or a window glass that can drive people insane.  It isn’t that simple when we look at most science fiction, and especially classic sf and the minds of those who created it.
When Wells compares the Martian attempt to exterminate mankind, in The War of the Worlds (1898), to the “war of extermination” against Tasmanians by Europeans, he certainly isn’t approving the latter; and by “inferior races” he evidently means only inferior in power.[xxxvii] Even the attack on London by Black Police from South Africa in When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) is as much a condemnation of dictator Ostrog class for resorting to mercenaries to maintain his power as a crude racist screed against the Africans who have been promised “lordly times among the ‘poor London’ trash.”[xxxviii]
Yet Wells commits other transgressions that can’t be explained away. In Anticipations (1901), his first venture into futurology, he casually dismisses the “swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people”[xxxix] who, for whatever reason, cannot be assimilated into his New Republic – as other non-whites are expected to, by giving up their native languages, modes of dress and other cultural distinctions. These “swarms” are destined for extinction, although not deliberate eradication. Assimilation seems to be the bottom line again in “The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper” (1932). An Englishman of 1931 somehow gets hold of a paper from 1971, and recalls later – after having lost it – that one of the news items was about a roundup of brigands near Irkutsk by the Federal Police: “The fellows on both sides looked mostly Chinese, but there were one or two taller fellows, who might have been Americans or British or Scandinavians.”[xl]
Wells has also been damned for his remarks on Francis Galton’s manifesto for eugenics in The American Journal of Sociology (July 1904): “The mating of two quite healthy persons may result in disease. I am told it does so in the case of interbreeding of healthy white men and healthy black women about the Tanganyika region; the half-breed children are ugly, sickly, and rarely live.”[xli] It was a stupid thing for him to say; he must have known that miscegenation had been common elsewhere for generations without producing a plague of defective children. Yet his point wasn’t about race per se, but to take issue with Galton’s argument that apparent health was a sure sign of reproductive fitness: “On the other hand, two not very healthy persons may have mutually corrective qualities, and may beget sound offspring.”[xlii]
Perhaps the clearest expression of Wells’ actual viewpoint, at least in his early works, comes in A Modern Utopia (1905), at the end of a chapter on “Race in Utopia,” where his alter-ego has it out with a botanist who brings up the issue of miscegenation – the be-all and end-all for true racists then and for generations afterwards: 
“But you would not like,” he cried in horror, “your daughter to marry a Chinaman or a negro?”
“Of course,” said I, “when you say Chinaman, you think of a creature with a pigtail, long nails, and insanitary habits, and when you say negro you think of a filthy-headed, black creature in an old hat. You do this because your imagination is too feeble to disentangle the inherent qualities of a thing from its habitual associations.”
“Insult isn’t argument,” said the botanist.
“Neither is unsound implication. You make a question of race into a question of unequal cultures. You would not like your daughter to marry the sort of negro who steals hens, but then you would also not like your daughter to marry a pure English hunchback with a squint, or a drunken cab tout of Norman blood. As a matter of fact, very few well-bred English girls do commit that sort of indiscretion. But you don’t think it necessary to generalise against men of your own race because there are drunken cab touts, and why should you generalize against negroes? Because the proportion of undesirables is higher among negroes, that does not justify a sweeping condemnation. You may have to condemn most, but why all? There may be—neither of us knows enough to deny—negroes who are handsome, capable, courageous.”
“Ugh!” said the botanist.
“How detestable you must find Othello!”[xliii]
But Wells never wrote about an Othello in his own fiction, and neither did any other sf writers of his time. Another of the ironies of sf history is that the genre writer who came closest was Edgar Rice Burroughs, in Beyond Thirty (1916) – a short novel set in 2137, when Abyssinian and Chinese empires contend for control of Europe, where civilization never recovered from what was still called the Great War when the story was written.
Jefferson Turck, the hero, is commander of the aero-sub Coldwater for the Pan American Federation, and the first American to visit the Old World since travel there was proscribed in 1971. Captured by the Abyssinians in England, now a barbarian backwater, he is led to their fort:
I was escorted within the building into the presence of an old negro, a fine looking man with a dignified and military bearing. He was a colonel, I was to learn later, and to him I owe the very humane treatment that was accorded me while I remained his prisoner.[xliv]
Col. Abu Belik, commander of a cavalry unit under Emperor Menelek XIV, assures him that Abyssinia is “the oldest civilized country in the world,” its mission one of “carrying Christianity to all the benighted heathen of Europe, and Asia as well.”[xlv] Of course, he considers even white freemen (most whites are slaves) “inferior beings, creatures of a lower order”[xlvi] – and finds it hard to believe that blacks are second-class citizens in America. Patrician Abyssinians also lord it over the conquered tribesmen of the rest of Africa; still, they make good soldiers – and they can read and write. Turck finds it “apparent that the black race has thrived far better in the past two centuries under men of its own color than it had under the domination of whites during all previous history.”[xlvii]
Turck later sours on Belik when ordered to make a spectacle of himself as a personal servant at a banquet in New Gondar (formerly Berlin) for Emperor Menelek. He also reacts like a typical white American of Burroughs’ era when the fat old monarch wants to add Victory, a British girl Turck had fallen for but lost sight of after both were captured, to his harem. By that time, however, the Chinese are on the march, and the Abyssinians are getting the worst of it. Only, no Yellow Peril here; the Chinese Empire turns out to be an enlightened realm bringing peace and progress to the Old World. This sort of thing hardly seems the work of a rabid racist, even if it one presses the point, for example, that Belik is lighter-skinned than people from other parts of Africa – and there is more evidence on Burroughs side.
In his Barsoom series beginning with A Princess of Mars (1912), Burroughs had already portrayed black Martians as an aristocratic people who call themselves the First-Born, and paired Southern gentleman John Carter with the mixed-race Dejah Thoris – an interracial romance that made it to the big screen in 2012. Burroughs has also been credited with “The Black Man’s Burden,” a parody of Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” that appeared in 1899 in a local newspaper in Pocatello, Idaho (where he lived at the time), A typical verse reads:
Take up the white man’s burden;
Poor simple folk and free;
Abandon nature’s freedom,
Embrace his “Liberty;”
The goddess of the white man
Who makes you free in name;
But in her heart your color
Will brand you “slave” the same.[xlviii]
Yet Philip R. Burger, in his afterword to the 2002 University of Nebraska Press reprint of Burroughs’ The Moon Maid (1925), paints him as practically frothing at the mouth with racist venom. Perhaps Burger was annoyed by the fact that the fix-up novel originated as an anti-utopian depiction of a Communist future, “Under the Red Flag,” that didn’t find a market (He doesn’t seem puzzled as to why it didn’t, at a time when all true Americans were supposedly obsessed with the threat of the Bolsheviks.). 
“Under the Red Flag” was retooled as a story about Earth being conquered by invaders from the Moon, but for Burger this is a sham; he sees the Kalkars in the published version as obvious caricatures of the kind of “low-class Slavic laborers” and “dirty Jews”[xlix] true Americans at the time supposedly blamed for the Red Menace. Never mind that one of Earth’s defenders is Moses Samuel, described by Richard A. Lupoff in Master of Adventure, The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, as “a tragic, heroic figure, one of the most believable of all his characters,”[l] who suffers martyrdom at the hands of the Kalkars. Lupoff is himself a social and political liberal, and his survey, first published in 1965 and updated twice since, offers a far more sympathetic view of Burroughs than Burger’s.
But it’s not as if Burger couldn’t have found legitimate targets. Although science fiction generally used to be dismissed as “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff,” few today remember that the character in the comic strip and serial, movie and TV adaptations originated in Philip Francis Nowlan’s “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” (1928) and its sequel “The Airlords of Han” (1929), which appeared in Amazing Stories and had nothing to do with space travel but rather a war of liberation by white Americans against the evil Han – the Yellow Peril of a vintage Victorian future war novel writ exceeding large.
Nowlan was a 100% American for his time; all the heroes have Anglo-Saxon names (some of which were changed for the 1962 hardcover fix-up), and when Anthony Rogers first encounters Wilma Deering she is being attacked by “Bad Bloods” – half-breeds. The Mongols who conquered America while Rogers slept his way from 1919 to 2419 are called the “Yellow Blight,”[li] and their extermination is clearly intended to make readers stand up and cheer. Yet an epilogue takes a strange turn as Rogers recalls his post-war world travels with Wilma:
I never knew her to show to the men or women of any race anything but the utmost of sympathetic courtesy and consideration, whether they were the noble brown-skinned Caucasians of India, the sturdy Balkanites od Southern Europe, or the simple, spiritual Blacks of Africa, today one of the leading races of the world – although in the Twentieth Century we regarded them as inferior. This charity and gentleness of hers did not fail even in our contacts with the non-Han Mongolians of Japan and the coast provinces of China.[lii]
The Han? Turns out they were human-alien hybrids, which can’t strike today’s readers as anything but an attempt by Nowlan to weasel out of his hate speech (“Yellow Blight” is softened to “Mongolian Blight” only in the book edition.[liii]). As for that anecdote about Wilma, which contradicts his previous blanket racism, it would seem that either he had a change of heart after the first part of the story was published, or that somebody got on his case. Neither alternative supports the thesis that pulp sf writers and their fans were mere sock puppets for the racist ideology of the ruling class. That certainly wasn’t true of Edmond Hamilton’s “A Conquest of Two Worlds” (1932), which savaged racist imperialism in its bitter account of Earthmen’s subjugation and even extermination of the natives of Mars and Jupiter.
In Lawrence Mannings's The Man Who Awoke, a series that appeared in Wonder Stories in 1933, and was finally published as a paperback book in 1975, a white banker named Norman Winters sleeps his way into several epochs of the future Rip Van Winkle style. By the year 20,000, however, there’s no longer any white race, and a man from that time “greets” him thusly:
“So you are Winters! But how terribly different from a man you look! Almost like … an animal! You have teeth! And your skin is white like the belly of a fish, not like a brown human face at all.” And as if these differences made him somehow superior, he drew himself up proudly and disdainfully.[liv]
Only by 25,000, after Winters’ final awakening in a utopian era, race isn’t even worth mentioning – it’s no big deal, any more than the practice of free love. According to Jonathan R. Eller in Becoming Ray Bradbury (2011), pulp and slick magazine publishers alike were nervous nellies when it came to addressing race.[lv] But the writers found ways to address it indirectly. One example was Leigh Brackett, who married Hamilton in 1946 after forging her own career as a writer of sf, hard-boiled mysteries and screenplays (The Big Sleep).
In “Citadel of Lost Ships” (1943), which first appeared in Planet Stories, Brackett tells a story of a fugitive Earthman among the Kraylen, natives of the swamps of Venus who look vaguely reptilian – blue-white of skin and with crests that resemble feathers but aren’t – whose homes and lives are threatened by imperialists from Earth:
"There have been men in the swamps. Now word has been sent us. It seems there is coal here, and oil, and certain minerals that men prize. They will drain the swamps for many miles, and work them."
Campbell let smoke out of his lungs, very slowly. "Yeah? And what becomes of you?"
The Kraylen turned away and stood framed in the indigo square of the doorway. The distant drum sobbed and shouted. It was hot, and yet the sweat turned cold on Campbell's body.
The old man's voice was distant and throbbing and full of anger, like the drum. Campbell had to strain to hear it.
"They will take us and place us in camps in the great cities. Small groups of us, so that we are divided and split. Many people will pay to see us, the strange remnants of old Venus. They will pay for our skills in the curing of leshen-skins and the writing of quaint music, and tattooing. We will grow rich."
Campbell dropped the cigarette and ground it on the dirt floor. Knotted veins stood out on his forehead, and his face was cruel. The old man whispered:
"We will die first."[lvi]
Brackett is obviously drawing a parallel with American Indians and other non-Europeans robbed of their lands, resources and dignity; the reference to “camps” might even be a veiled allusion to the then-recent internment of Japanese Americans. But when a reader wrote Planet Stories that “we never feel any sympathy for the Kraylen, whose pitifully few numbers and decadent state invite LIQUIDATION,”[lvii] Brackett reacted angrily at such a seeming patent endorsement of genocide:
If that isn’t totalitarian reasoning, I never saw it. Under democratic law, any and every minority, so long as it functions within legal limits, is guaranteed the right to live, think, and worship as it sees fit. You might as well say we ought to LIQUIDATE the Mennonites, the Amish, or any other decent, peaceable group simply because they’re different … It’s well to remember one thing, when you are planning the liquidation of minorities. Human society is a fluid and unstable thing. And it’s frightfully embarrassing to wake up one morning and find that all of a sudden you have become—a minority.[lviii]
More than 30 years later, in an introduction to The Best of Planet Stories (1975), Brackett expressed her annoyance at what seemed to be a widespread prejudice against the kind of sf that had appeared in its pages – what she called “space opera,” although it is more properly called planetary romance:
A persistent myth flourishes about space opera which says that stories of the genre were all about troops of bug-eyed monsters, wooden men with ray-guns, senseless slaughter and a cretinous jingoism that portrayed the dominant Earthman happily tramping all over an assortment of extraterrestrials invariably portrayed as vile, low and menacing. I have even read supposedly eminent critics who went so far as to say that science fiction had failed miserably in that it had never considered alien psychologies or the problems of communication with alien intelligences—something that leads me to wonder what, if any science fiction these gentlemen have read.[lix]
Who those “supposedly eminent critics” were, Brackett didn’t say. This was long before Edward Said, who mentioned Jules Verne in passing but didn’t address sf as such in Culture and Imperialism. John Rieder, who takes Said’s critique of Orientalism for gospel, makes it his mission in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008) to amend that oversight, and it’s no surprise that, like his model, he finds exactly what he’s looking for.
Exposing overtly racist and colonialist texts and demolishing same is rather like shooting fish in a barrel, even if some of those fish are obscure works like Robert Ames Bennett’s Thyra: a Romance of the Polar Pit (1901), one of several lost race novels (a form Darko Suvin excluded from sf) Rieder skewers. But he wants to make the case that science fiction invariably justifies racism or colonialism. Thus, the quest for the North Pole in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), plus passing references to things colonial, are proof that the novel is really about the “construction of race” rather than the hubris of creating artificial life.[lx]
Without citing All Tomorrow’s Cultures, Rieder agrees with Samuel Gerald Collins that Wells’ The Time Machine is really about colonialism, arguing even that the weather of the year 802,701 A.D, is hot, not because the Sun is hotter or the Earth closer to it, but because Wells wants to evoke the tropical climate of Africa and portray the Eloi as primitive savages. Although the Time Traveller is at pains to avoid hard and fast judgments, Rieder sees him as contemptuous of the racial Other because he confesses to being as mystified by the world of the distant future as a “negro, fresh from Central Africa,” would be in London – as if Wells’ protagonist hadn’t put himself in the place of that African rather than that of “a European confronting the enigmatic inhabitants of savage Africa.”[lxi] And indeed (left out by Rieder), he remarks in the next breath: “Then, think how narrow the gap between a negro and a white man of our own times, and how wide the interval between myself and these of the Golden Age!”[lxii]
Perhaps Rieder’s oddest reading is that Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore’s “Vintage Season” (1946) is about “the transition between early-twentieth-century imperialism in crisis to an emerging postcolonial war system.”[lxiii] A classic story of visitors from an alien future who seek to preserve its existence by refusing to warn of a coming disaster that might have been averted, is reduced to a polemic about the post-World War II Red Scare and the challenge to American political and economic hegemony. Rieder brackets it with Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951) and Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) – both more generally regarded as inspired by fear of Communism.
There are whole schools of sf that Rieder leaves out. His only interest in George Griffith’s future war novel The Angel of the Revolution (1893), for example, is that what seems a revolutionary socialist cause on the part of the heroes “metamorphoses into a racist fantasy,”[lxiv] which leads naturally into the Yellow Peril theme. There isn’t any mention of the fact that the enemy in Griffith’s novel is Russia – let alone that there were dozens of future war novels in which European powers fight one another rather than the racial Other. Said’s doctrine mandates that Europeans always stand shoulder-to-shoulder against all the other peoples of the world. For Rieder, it mandates that sf writers be unanimous, or virtually unanimous, in their support of colonialism and imperialism. Although he does mention Hamilton’s “A Conquest of Two Worlds,” he complains that it is “resigned to the inevitability”[lxv] of genocide, and he has nothing to say about Brackett.
The scope of Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction is necessarily limited to Anglo-American sf, except for translations of Jules Verne. One can find examples of untranslated French sf that conform to the Said-Rieder thesis, notably future war fiction involving the Yellow Peril and even the Black Peril by Emile Auguste Cyprien Driant (Capitaine Danrit). Paul D’Ivoi, a successor to Verne, had a simple formula in some of his novels set in the Middle East or India: British colonialism bad, French colonialism good. But some recently translated French works are startling for their approach issues of colonialism and imperialism – not only for the time when they first appeared, but even today.
In Hareton Ironcastle’s Amazing Journey (1922), J.H. Rosny aîné seems at the beginning to be celebrating imperialism and the white race in a tale of exploration and adventure in what then remained of darkest Africa. After all, Ironcastle is introduced as a “perfect symbol of the type invented by Gobineau,” and his daughter Muriel is the kind of classic beauty “that once inspired the sculptors of goddesses.”
But Philippe de Maranges, a member of the expedition who takes up with Muriel, sees the war-like and cannibalistic Goura-Zannkas natives as no different from the ancient Assyrians, or the Hyksos who invaded Egypt. “This is a scene from olden times,” he says of a bloody battle that has just taken place between the blacks of that tribe and the Squat Men, an apparent evolutionary dead-end hominid species. Muriel holds out hope that such brutality will end one day, which brings this rejoinder from Phillippe:
Undoubtedly—but perhaps by virtue of the disappearance of the Squat Men and Goura-Zannkas, under the bullets, bombs or whips of white men… for our civilization, Muriel, is the most homicidal that has ever appeared on Earth. In the last three centuries, who have caused the disappearance of more peoples and populations than all the conquerors of antiquity and the Middle Ages. Roman destruction was child’s play compared with ours. Don’t you live, Muriel, in a land as large as Europe, from which you have caused the red race to disappear?
The white men of the expedition later meet their match in a realm where the counterparts of humans and familiar fauna and flora live under the strict but benevolent rule of sentient mimosas. It’s almost like something out of Avatar, but Rosny’s novel appeared as part of a series of roman aventures published in by Ernest Flammarion in France decades before the ascendancy of the sort of fashionable white liberal guilt that inspired the movie.
A lesser known French work, perhaps more startling, is Timeslip Troopers, Brian Stableford’s rendering of La Belle Valence (1923), a time travel novel originally written by André Blandin and then rewritten by Théo Varlet, an established sf writer, to secure publication.
The original title refers to both the Spanish city of Valencia and the oranges it was famed for, which would be hard to convey in a literal translation; thus the anachronistic play on Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) in the translation. Nothing is known about Blandin, although Stableford surmises that he must have been a French officer during World War I. It was he, in any case, who came up with the plot: French soldiers in the trenches near Metz in 1917 find a time machine in the basement of an old house, and learn to use it.
What follows seems at first only a variation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), but that’s an oversimplification. By mischance, the time machine takes not only its operators but the whole surrounding area – with a company of soldiers, their advanced weapons, even a British plane that has landed nearby – to the Valencia of 1341. That puts them in the same position, technologically, as the Spanish conquistadores in America – only the primitives are the Catholics and their Inquisition, and it is the Moors the time travellers side with. This was the age of Averroes, after all, not that of the ayatollahs. Tortorado, Dominican inquisitor of Valencia, loves to torture Moors and Jews; he has even forced the daughter of a Jewish merchant to convert and become his sex slave. And as the French arrive, he is pursuing a heresy case against a Franciscan monk, Geronimo:
His love of progress and Enlightenment, and his acquaintance with Moorish and Jewish scholars, had caused him to be accused of heresy by his rivals, the Dominicans. Arrested in the middle of the night the previous day, he had been subjected a few hours later to questioning by water…[lxvi]
Captain Marcel Renard and his company, outraged by the state of affairs, make short work of the Spaniards and, after a brief counterattack by Catholic forces, call in Moorish allies and restore the Emir to power. But that is only the beginning; the men from the future set out to bring the future to the benighted city, spreading the teachings of the European Enlightenment, launching a mini-industrial revolution and even introducing paper money. Renard fantasizes going beyond Valencia itself (“In six months, Spain will be ours.”[lxvii]) and even bringing about the French Revolution 400 years ahead of time.
But the French are running low on ammunition even as they are running high on hubris. Renard’s troops spend much of their time boozing and wenching – even the nuns are hot for them – but they also bring the clap. They show reckless disregard for local sensibilities, punishing those who disrespect them with menial labor; some even bust heads and loot homes on the slightest pretext. Geronimo, meanwhile, has gotten high on the thoughts of Rousseau and Marx, and is so full of himself that he welcomes a crown offered by the French as a new “pope.” It is all too much, too soon for what is essentially a conservative society. Resentment against the French and the ways they bring erupts into violence when the factories fail for want of raw materials, throwing people out of work; and Tortorado makes good on the opportunity to stage a counter-revolution.
“Progress is an admirable thing, but it can only be realized in a propitious atmosphere, in its own time,”[lxviii] Renard realizes too late – only a few of his men make it back to their own time, where they take a vow of secrecy about their ill-fated venture in liberation. And make no mistake about it; they did see themselves as liberators; critics of the Said-Rieder school who imagine that Western rationalism devalues only non-Western culture overlook the fact that the Enlightenment began as a challenge to the European social and religious order of its time.
Yet Renard and his men end up behaving just like the colonialists Said and Rieder condemn, and Timeslip Troopers can thus be seen as a critique of colonialism in the classic sense. But it can also be seen as a critique of the kind of supposedly benevolent efforts to bring peace and progress to non-Western cultures that are currently called “nation building.” In the same context, it can be seen as a critique of past and present revolutionary movements, social or religious, that reduce people to Believers and Unbelievers and treat them accordingly.





[i] http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/sep/06/science-fiction-racism-sexism-discrimination, retrieved Sept. 14, 2013
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Barnett, retrieved Sept. 28, 2013
[iv] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Throne_of_the_Crescent_Moon, retrieved Sept. 28, 2013
[v] Ahmed, Saladin, Throne of the Crescent Moon (DAW, 2013), front-end blurbs
[vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_K._Dick_bibliography#Book-length_critical_studies, retrieved Sept. 14, 2013
[vii] http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/55/baudrillard55art.htm, retrieves Sept. 24, 2013
[viii] http://mlg.eserver.org/about/a-short-history-of-the-mlg/, retrieved Sept. 26, 2013
[ix] http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/57/nixon57art.htm, retrieved Sept. 1, 2013
[x] Piercy, Marge, He, She and It, Alfred A, Knopf, 1991, p. 445
[xi] http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/57/nixon57art.htm
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Brackett, Leigh, Shannach – The Last, Farewell to Mars (Haffner, 2011), p. 546
[xiv] http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jun/02/vs-naipaul-jane-austen-women-writers
[xv] Quoted in Rieder, John, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, Wesleyan University Press, 2008, p. 3, from Said, Edward W., Culture and Imperialism, Vintage Books, 1994, pp. 70-71
[xvi] Said, Culture and Imperialism, p. 59
[xvii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadia_Drury, retrieved April 5, 2013
[xviii] Drury, Shadia B., “Have the Arab Revolutions Defeated the Orientalist Discourse?” in Free Enquiry, June-July 2011, p.13.
[xix] http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/anglophone/postcolonial.html, retrieved Jan. 15, 2013
[xx] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Simoqin_Prophecies, retrieved Oct. 11, 2013
[xxi] http://www.strangehorizons.com/2013/20130930/2menonsingh-a.shtml, retrieved Oct. 11, 2013
[xxii] Isaacson, Nathaniel, “Science Fiction for the Nation” Tales of the Moon Colony and the Birth of Modern Chinese Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies, March 2013, p. 33
[xxiii] Ibid., pp. 40-41
[xxiv] Ibid., p. 48
[xxv] Wu, Yan, “‘Great Wall Planet:’ Introducing Chinese Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies, March 2013, p. 6
[xxvi] Wu, Yan, and Xing He, “Chinese Science Fiction: An Overview,” Pathlight, Spring 2013, p. 37
[xxvii] Wang, David Der-wei, Fin de Siècle Spendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849-1911, Stanford University Press, 1997, pp. 306-312,
[xxviii] http://asianhistory.about.com/od/china/f/zhenghefaq.htm, retrieved Sept. 21, 2013
[xxix] New York Times Sunday Review, April 1, 2012, p. 8
[xxx] http://www.pfaw.org/rww-in-focus/barton-s-bunk-religious-right-historian-hits-the-big-time-tea-party-america, retrieved Sep. 17, 2013
[xxxi] Flammarion, Camille, Omega: The Last Days of the World, translator not given (University of Nebraska Press, 1999), p. 43
[xxxii] Wells, H.G., Seven Fanous Novels (Alfred A. Knopf, 1933), p. 818-19
[xxxiii] Wells, H.G., Selected Stories of H.G. Wells, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin (Modern Library Classics, 2004), p. 203
[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 201
[xxxv] Collins, Samuel Gerard, All Tomorrow’s Futures, Anthropological Engagements with the Future, Berghahn Books, 2008, p. 13
[xxxvi] Ibid.
[xxxvii] Wells, Seven Famous Novels, p. 166
[xxxviii] Wells, Three Prophetic Novels (Dover, 1960), p.184

[xxxix] Wells, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life And Thought. Harper, 1901, p. 342.

[xl] Wells, Selected Stories, p. 357
[xli] http://galton.org/essays/1900-1911/galton-1904-am-journ-soc-eugenics-scope-aims.htm, retrieved Sept. 17, 2013
[xlii] Ibid.
[xliii] Wells, A Modern Utopia (Penguin Classics, 2005), pp. 226-27
[xliv] Burroughs, Edgar Rice, Beyond Thirty, ERBville Press, 2008, p. 110
[xlv] Ibid., p. 114
[xlvi] Ibid., p. 115
[xlvii] Ibid., p. 116
[xlviii] Porges, Edward, Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Man Who Created Tarzan, Ballantine Books, 1975, Vol. 2, p. 1080
[xlix] Burroughs, Edgar Rice, The Moon Maid, University of Nebraska Press, 2002, p. 350
[l] Lupoff, Richard A., Master of Adventure: The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, University of Nebraska Press, 2005, p. 78
[li] “Armageddon 2419 A.D.,” Project Gutenberg download of text in Amazing Stories, August 1928)
[lii] Nowlan, Philip Francis, Armageddon 2419 A.D., Ace Books, 1963, p. 190; verbatim from Project Gutenberg download of text for “The Airlords of Han” in Amazing Stories, March 1929
[liii] Nowlan, Armageddon 2419 A.D., Ace Books, p. 96
[liv] Manning, Laurence, The Man Who Awoke, Ballantine, 1975, p. 119
[lv] Eller, Jonathan R., Becoming Ray Bradbury, University of Illinois Press, 2011, pp. 233-37
[lvi] “The Citadel of Lost Ships,” by Leigh Brackett.pdf, downloaded from On-Read.com, p. 4
[lvii] Planet Stories, Fall 1943, p. 126
[lviii] Planet Stories, Winter 1943, p. 121
[lix] Brackett, Leigh, ed., The Best of Planet Stories, Ballantine, 1975, p. 7
[lx] Rieder, op cit, pp. 99-101
[lxi] Ibid., p. 87
[lxii] Wells, Seven Famous Novels, p. 30
[lxiii] Ibid., p. 154
[lxiv] Ibid., p. 141
[lxv] Ibid., p. 143
[lxvi] Varlet, Théo, and André Blandin, Timeslip Troopers, trans. Brian Stableford, Black Coast Press, 2012, p. 92.
[lxvii] Ibid., p. 155.
[lxviii] Ibid., p. 208