Postcolonialism and Science Fiction: An Introduction

Toronto scholar Jessica Langer has just published a fascinating book called Postcolonialism and Science Fiction. In this excerpt from the book's introduction, she defines what that means, and explores some of the major themes in postcolonial SF. Langer currently works as an adjunct professor in the humanities, and has published widely on postcolonial theory and practice and science fiction literature, film, video games and other media.

Elephant-Shaped Holes

On 23 May 2005, I met writer Nalo Hopkinson in a Swiss Chalet restaurant at Bathurst and Bloor in Toronto, Canada, the city where I was born and where Hopkinson moved from Jamaica when she was sixteen. She was kind enough to allow me to tape our conversation. We chatted over chicken and chips about her books, my research, and race and postcolonialism in general. Soon, the conversation moved to the relative lack of voices of colour and postcolonial voices in science fiction. "It's like the elephant in the room," Hopkinson said. "Actually, no; it's like there should be an elephant, but instead, there's an elephant-shaped hole."

This image has provided a prevailing referent for me throughout the process of writing this book. Often, where there might be postcolonial science fiction, there is instead a real or perceived silence. Sometimes this is because science fiction itself is seen as aligned with colonialism and therefore anathema. Sometimes, as in the cases of Japan and India, the volume of science fiction in a particular language available in English is merely a fraction of a larger body of cultural production. In this case, there is not an elephant-shaped hole; rather, the elephant is merely invisible to those who cannot or choose not to see it.

Other times, perhaps more often, there are institutional barriers to the publication of science fiction by postcolonial writers and/or writers of colour. Sherryl Vint (2004) has questioned the relative lack of Black writers in science fiction, blaming this lack partially on a perceived lack of readership.

Many science fiction writers have embraced the Internet as an alternative publishing tool, both for their science fiction writing itself on websites like Strange Horizons and using self-publishing tools like Lulu.com (Charles R. Saunders, in particular, published his book Dossouye (2008) on Lulu, demonstrating that even more well-known authors are using these technologies), and for their other writing on blogs, message boards and newsgroups like the Carl Brandon Society, which provides a space for the promotion of speculative fiction by writers of colour. Because of these developments, it is unsurprising that so many science fiction writers and fans have been taking part in such heated, and necessary, discussions about the state of the genre and its attitude towards postcolonial science fiction of all kinds. It seems to me that the Internet is essential, not only as a publishing tool but also as a space in which to build alternate communities. The elephant-shaped hole here is being filled, not by traditional publishing channels, but through the Internet, new media and other novel methods of idea transmission.

As well, there is the inherent instability of both categories, that of the "postcolonial" and that of "science fiction", which I address throughout this book. The instability of science fiction is not a weakness but rather a strength: it has shown itself capable of including a wide variety of texts and voices, including those characterized by hybridity in genre, in its purview. It has not been shaken but rather has grown richer. Its instability does not put it in a position to topple and shatter. Rather, its edges have been blurred and smudged, and it has shown itself flexible enough to include the subversion, both generic and ideological, that postcolonial science fiction represents. Postcolonialism, similarly, is best seen as a changeable, flexible set of practices and discourses. This is not to turn it into a vague "postcolonial aura" as Arif Dirlik (1996) warns; rather, postcolonial criticism and theory can only be strengthened through their application to new relevant contexts. This elephant-shaped hole is being filled bit by bit in academia, in mainstream publishing and through grassroots movements and technologies like the Internet.

Postcolonialism and Science Fiction: An IntroductionS

The Stranger and the Strange Land

Most readers will be familiar with the classic oppositional science fiction tropes of the grotesque bug-eyed alien bent on Earthly domination and the beautiful but empty planet, ripe for colonization – or, of course, the dangerous planet whose inhabitants dare to fight back against the lantern-jawed colonial hero. Several studies have addressed the parallelism between historical and science-fictional "alien" encounters, the most comprehensive and recent being John Rieder's exploration of this period in science fiction and history, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008). The figure of the alien – extraterrestrial, technological, human-hybrid or otherwise – and the figure of the far-away planet ripe for the taking are deep and abiding twin signifiers in science fiction, are perhaps even the central myths of the genre. They are, to riff on the most famous work of Robert A. Heinlein, one of science fiction's most famous writers, the Stranger in a Strange Land. Aliens, including humans – who are, of course, alien to those aliens – and strange, foreign, other planets – which includes, of course, our own Earth, from the perspective of the alien. What the alien signifies, of course, varies greatly, as does the signification of the similarly central intergalactic terra nullius.

These two signifiers are, in fact, the very same twin myths of colonialism. The Stranger, or the Other, and the Strange Land – whether actually empty or filled with those Others, savages whose lives are considered forfeit and whose culture is seen as abbreviated and misshapen but who are nevertheless compelling in their very strangeness – are at the very heart of the colonial project, and their dispelling is at the heart of the postcolonial one.

How, then, can a genre so steeped in, so built upon, the Stranger and the Strange Land in its diegetic reality work to undo them in our consensus reality, what Darko Suvin calls our "zero world"? Rather than shying away from these colonial tropes, these twin giants of the science fiction world, postcolonial science fiction hybridizes them, parodies them and/or mimics them against the grain in a play of Bhabhaian masquerade. The figure of the alien comes to signify all kinds of otherness, and the image of the far-away land, whether the undiscovered country or the imperial seat, comes to signify all kinds of diaspora and movement, in all directions. Their very power, their situation at the centre of the colonial imagination as simultaneous desire and nightmare, is turned back in on itself.

Excerpt from Jessica Langer, Postcolonialism and Science Fiction, 2011, reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.