The Books of My Numberless Dreams

A Question

Posted on: August 15, 2007

I guess I could have asked this on Niall’s blog (on the open thread?) but since I’m already in my dashboard, and on the off-chance that he and Dark O aren’t my only readers who enjoy SF, it’s going here. As I mentioned before, Hopkinson in the introduction that, “To be a person of colour writing science fiction is to be under suspicion of having internalized one’s colonization”. How is colonisation typically portrayed in science fiction novels? I didn’t know that it was a popular “meme” but as soon as it was pointed out I assumed that the opposite would be the case. Colonisers would typically be seen as the eeeevil, dominating power (gross, green aliens probably) and the reader was meant to cheer for the valiant, brave and good colonised citizenry. Or the author would get uppity and decide to create a more complex dynamic but, either way, colonising was bad, mmm’kay? I guess that wasn’t the case. Or is she addressing something else?

On a different note, I drank the kool aid and am back with Don Quixote (as it is about to go into another “interpolated novel”, Zeus preserve us).

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8 Responses to "A Question"

It will be worth it–just keep going…

Hmmm. One of the more memorable sci-fi take on colonisation I recall is CJ Cherryh.

In CJ Cherryh’s “Forty Thousand in Gehenna” she uses the colonisation to explore how socio-environmental factors shape psychology. In the book, human colonisers arrive in Gehenna and come into contact with the native creatures, called the Calibans – reptilian creatures with (of course) a alien intelligence. Contact with an alien culture and psychology gradually warps the development of each new generations of humans to something more akin to their culture.

Cherryh is a sociological thinker and she uses planetary colonisation – that metaphor for that confrontation with the Other – to explore the inherent instability of human psychology and human cultural system. Colonisers arrive, assured of their power and technological superiority. But contacts with an Other culture unhinges us, changes us – because the human system is not as stable as we believe. It is an open system constantly under threat.

When in doubt, haul out the Clute & Nicholls!

COLONIZATION OF OTHER WORLDS. The idea of colonizing the other wolrds of the Solar System has had an uncertain history because the optimism of sf writers has constantly been subverted and contradicted by the discoveries of ASTRONOMY. The attractions of the idea have, however, always overridden cautionary pessimism, and the reluctant acceptance of the inhospitability of local planets has served only to increase interest in colonizing the worlds of other stars (–> GALACTIC EMPIRES).

The example of the British Empire was insufficient to inspire many early UK sf writers to speculate about its extension into space. […] HG WELLS used the example of the UK’s colonial history as an analogy for the Martians’ conduct in The War of the Worlds (1898) but never considered the idea of mankind’s colonizing Mars. […] The avoidance of the notion may be connected with a sense of shame about the methods employed in colonizing terrestrial lands; the parallel which Wells drew between the European invasion of Tasmania and the brutality of the POLITICS of colonization has always been a key issue in sf stories, even in the US PULP-MAGAZINE sf that made the conquest of space its central myth. Early cautionary allegories include Edmund HAMILTON’s “Conquest of Two Worlds” (1932) and Robert A HEINLEIN’s grim “Logic of Empire” (1941), although it was not until the 1950s that such lurid polemics as Avram DAVIDSON’s “Now Let Us Sleep” (1957) and Robert SILVERBERG’s Invaders From Earth (1958) could be published, and not until the 1970s that mature and effective moral tales like Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth (1970) and Ursula K. LE GUIN’s The Word for World is Forest (1972) became commonplace. These stories of genocide, slavery and exploitation are the harshest critiques of human behaviour found in US sf; they often embody a strong sense off guilt regarding the fate of the inhabitants of pre-Colombian North America. Mike RESNICK’s bitter study of spoliation in Paradise (1989) is an effective transfiguration of the history of Kenya.

Key points in the rest of the article: (1) when it comes to the relationship between colonies and parent world, history provides more attractive models (at least for US writers; UK writers tend to be a bit less enthusiastic); (2) a celebration of the pioneer spirit is common; (3) colonization stories can be broken down into “realistic” stories and “romances”; in the latter “the alien worlds are exotic Earths, little different from the distant lands of travellers’ tales. Human and humanoid alien co-exist. The politics of exploitation is not the focal point of the story but may serve to turn the wheels of the plot as the hero, alienated from his or her own kind, champions the downtrodden natives against the horrors of vulgar commercialism.”

I think the summary is: sf wants to think colonization is unreservedly awesome but somewhat grudgingly acknowledges that it doesn’t always work like that. Individual writers may well be more or less gung-ho about it, but that’s the trend.

Amcorrea you may be right. 😉 I think the key to finishing this for me is taking breaks whenever the repetition becomes too much, because I’m really enjoying the book again.

Dark O oooOOOooo. That story reminds me of England after the Norman invasion. Suddenly, aliens don’t seem like such a horrific aspect of SF stories anymore. Heh.

Niall that was brilliant, thank you! and the information, in the end, not so surprising. I went to a geek uni so I figured there had to be dozens of copies of that book in the libraries: turns out I’m right!

I agree with the point Niall makes. However, and I could be way off base, but in my experience, women sf writers and writers of color tend to be more aware of the pitfalls of colonization and the often bad outcomes.

Have you read Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Series? If not, I highly recommend it.

Stefanie, that’s fair — the Encyclopedia in fact makes the same point. (I wasn’t going to type out all several thousand words!) All the Butler I’ve read is good, though I haven’t tackled Xenogenesis; a more recent example might be Tricia Sullivan’s Dreaming in Smoke. Or, come to think of it, Ian McDonald’s Chaga and Kirinya.

I’m one of your readers who SOMETIMES enjoys sci-fi. I even read two sci-fi writers who are people of color: Samuel R. Delaney (I think you’d love him, by the way) and Octavia Butler.

Thanks for the recommendations Niall! And do tackle Xenogenesis sometime. I still think about it even after I read it years ago.

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