Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Misreading "Colonialism" in Science Fiction

John Rieder, who teaches at the University of Hawaii, came out four years ago with a book called Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, which picks up where Edward W. Said left off in Culture and Imperialism (1993). Said's argument was that every aspect of Western culture is part of an Orientalist discourse aimed at justifying colonial exploitation of non-Western peoples. 
Even Jane Austen, according to Said, was an apologist for slavery. But Said doesn't mention science fiction, so Rieder rang in with a book-length case that the genre originated as vehicle for propagating demeaning colonialist images of non-Western peoples. He can find plenty of examples, because there really were incredibly racist and imperialist ideas in some sf in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But that's not enough; whatever wasn't overt,  in past or more recent times, must have been covert or unconscious propaganda of the same kind. Thus Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) becomes an exercise in the "construction of race" rather than a gothic tale of hubris in the attempt to create life; and Catherine Moore's "Vintage Season" (1946), in which tourists from some inhuman future visit the scene of what they know will be a disaster in our time, is somehow really about Cold War fears of Communism. 
Rieder isn't aware of, or simply ignores, any examples to the contrary, such as anti-racist, anti-colonial sf like that of Leigh Brackett, which appeared in Planet Stories. In “Citadel of Lost Ships” (1943), she 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."
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 racist readers wrote to Planet Stories that the Kraylen ought to be liquidated, Brackett denounced them in no uncertain terms:
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.

But I recently found a much earlier example, and more startling for that, in Timeslip Troopers, Brian Stableford’s rendering for Black Coat Press 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; hence the anachronistic play on Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) in the translation. Nobody knows anything 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 they 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 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…[i] 
Captain Marcel Renard and his company, outraged by the state of affairs, make short work of the Spaniards and, after a brief counterattack by the Catholics, 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.”[ii]) 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 local nuns are hot for them, but they also bring the clap. They act in reckless disregard of 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 after 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,”[iii] 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 saw 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, whether social or religious, that reduce people to Believers and Unbelievers and treat them accordingly. And that includes ideological movements like that of Said and Rieder,

[i] Varlet, Théo, and André Blandin, Timeslip Troopers, trans. Brian Stableford, Black Coast Press, 2012, p. 92.
[ii] Ibid., p. 155.
[iii] Ibid., p. 208