Science Fiction Studies

#107 = Volume 36, Part 1 = March 2009

David M. Higgins

Colonialism and Ideological Fantasy

John Rieder. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. xii + 183 pp. $24.95 pbk.

Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction stands beside Patricia Kerslake’s Science Fiction and Imperialism (2007) in its refreshing and long-overdue examination of the relationships between science fiction and empire.1 Given the vitality of postcolonial studies and the contemporary resurgence of American economic, military, and political imperialism in the Middle East, it is no surprise that sf scholarship is moving in this direction. At a time when the world is witnessing new variations of old imperial ideals and practices, Edward Said’s call (in Culture and Imperialism [1993]) for a sustained examination of the relationships between cultural production and imperial practice is more relevant than ever, and Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction stands as an exemplary stride in this direction.                

Reider begins from the axiom that “colonialism is a significant historical context for science fiction” (2), and he notes that sf emerges in the late nineteenth century during the most aggressive phase of Western imperial expansion; sf first becomes visible in imperialist countries (primarily France and England), and then it quickly gains popularity in other nations pursuing imperial projects (including the United States, Germany, and Russia). He opens with the aggressive assertion that “no informed reader can doubt that allusions to colonial history and situations are ubiquitous features of early science fiction motifs and plots. It is not a matter of asking whether but of determining precisely how and to what extent the stories engage colonialism” (3).                

This is a striking introduction; less ambitious studies might settle upon the basic proposition that colonialism provides a determinate historical context for emergent sf. Rieder goes much further: he posits a fundamental relationship between sf and colonial history, and this assertion (along with his welcome unwillingness to apologize for sf as a legitimate object of study) allows him to accomplish a much deeper critical analysis of sf’s entanglement with colonial history and discourse. Rieder’s aim is not simply to establish a relationship between sf and colonialism; instead, he sets out to “decipher” in much greater detail the genre’s mixed and contradictory colonial messages (3).                

The threefold trajectory of his approach—to consider how sf “lives and breathes” in a colonial context, to examine how it “reflects or contributes to” this context, and to analyze ways in which it may “enact” challenges to colonial ideology—offers a methodological foundation that goes well beyond merely reading the influence of colonialism on early sf (3). Additionally, his method avoids the move to demonize sf as repository of juvenile ideological propaganda while also avoiding the tendency to glorify sf as an essentially critical or utopian genre. Rieder argues that sf, like any cultural production, is a product of both historical context and individual creativity, and its ideological offerings can therefore be compensatory, critical, or both.               

From this foundation, Rieder develops arguments that demonstrate a careful engagement with early sf texts. In the opening chapter, he suggests that H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) offers a reversal of what he calls “the colonial gaze.” Adapting Laura Mulvey’s theory of “the male gaze,” Rieder suggests that the colonial gaze is a framing apparatus that “distributes knowledge and power to the subject who looks, while denying or minimizing access to power for the object, the one looked at” (7). If representative photographs such as Alonzo Gartley’s Native Hawaiian Fisherman with Throw Net (1903) exemplify how the colonial gaze frames subaltern subjects as anachronistic representatives of the West’s universalized past, The War of the Worlds presents an extrapolative reversal where Westerners find themselves the objects of a violent Martian gaze as they are scrutinized by hostile aliens who embody the possibilities of the West’s technological and evolutionary future. Wells offers Western readers the nightmarish sense of what it might feel like to be victims of the colonial gaze rather than its bearers.                

Rieder usefully notes, however, that Wells does not offer a “postcolonial” reversal of the colonial gaze:

The Wellsian strategy is a reversal of positions that stays entirely within the framework of the colonial gaze and the anachronism of anthropological difference, but also highlights their critical potential.... Although it does not demystify the colonial gaze by bringing it into contact with history, as autoethnography would, nonetheless it estranges the colonial gaze by reversing the direction of the gaze’s anachronism ... and setting the hierarchical difference between observer and observed swinging between the poles of subject and object, with each swing potentially questioning and recoding the discursive framework of scientific truth, moral certitude, and cultural hegemony. (10)

To the extent that Wells offers readers a sense of what it feels like to be the object of the colonial gaze, his science fiction engages in colonial critique. At the same time, however, Rieder observes that this critique is not “postcolonial” in the sense that it creates space for subaltern voices; if postcolonial auto-ethnography might attempt to create dialogue between subjects in inequitable positions, Wells’s portrayal instead leaves the “object” of the colonial gaze speechless, drawing its critical power from a dramatization of the violence of this enforced speechlessness.                

This is an impressive reading of War of the Worlds; Rieder shows that early sf can offer critical perspectives on colonialism and imperialism, yet he distinguishes between this criticism and work that might be more properly called “postcolonial” by reserving such a term for texts that create greater possibilities for the recovery of subaltern voices and fictions (such as those he examines in his concluding chapter) that consider the changing nature of twentieth-century imperialism in non-colonial contexts.                

Later in the introduction, Rieder draws on Lévi-Strauss to suggest that analyzing the historical emergence of science fiction as a recognizable genre enables the study of the myths of colonial fantasy. This leads to Rieder’s central thesis: science fiction emerges as a recognizable genre during the nineteenth century in an atmosphere of colonial and imperial endeavor, and the repetitive motifs and patterns that make the genre recognizable represent ideological reflections of the contradictions of colonialism.                

Many summaries of Rieder’s study will inevitably seize upon the succinct statement that provides his core thesis: “science fiction exposes something that colonialism imposes” (15). Although this is a quotable moment, and it represents the general sense of his argument, such a statement (while useful for a cover blurb) almost does injustice to the intricacy of Rieder’s argument as a whole by leaving the “something” that colonialism “exposes” undefined. The thesis is better represented by Rieder’s later assertion that “science fiction addresses itself to the ideological basis of colonial practice itself, by engaging various aspects of the ideology of progress” (30).                

Rieder outlines four contradictions inherent to this ideology of progress, and he suggests that these contradictions are best understood as what Žižek calls “ideological fantasies,” or “beliefs that we consciously disavow, recognizing them as untrue, but nonetheless support in practice” (30). The first is the ideological fantasy of racism: “We know well that the racial other is a human being just like ourselves, but we behave under the assumption that the other is a grotesque parody of humankind” (30). This racial fantasy is vital for the ideology of progress because it suggests that colonial masters are racially superior to the colonized subjects they rule or master. Full recognition of the humanity of the “other” would make colonial subjugation difficult to justify; therefore, colonized peoples are treated as inhuman or subhuman anachronisms (exemplars of Western man’s primitive past) in order to legitimize their paternalistic and violent (mis)treatment.                

The other three contradictions are variations on a similar theme. Rieder highlights the discoverer’s fantasy (“we know very well that there are people living in this land, but we act as if it were empty before our arrival”), the missionary fantasy (“although we know that our arrival disrupts and destroys the traditional way of life here, we believe that it fulfills the deep needs and desires of all right-thinking natives”), and the anthropologist’s fantasy (“although we know that these people exist here and now, we also consider them to exist in the past—in fact, to be our own past”) (31-32).                

One objection to the term “ideological fantasy” in this context might note that it relies on the assumption that colonizing agents “know” certain things to be true (that the other is a human being, that colonial penetration disrupts indigenous ways of life, etc.), but “act as if” this were not the case. This is a questionable epistemological claim—it is both strangely optimistic and strikingly cynical to suggest that imperial agents “know” right from wrong yet choose to act as if wrong were right. Scholars concerned with the history and philosophy of imperialism, such as Robert Young, might argue that the very status of “knowledge” concerning colonial conditions is precisely at stake in such narratives. Do colonial adventurers and administrators really “know” that racial others are human beings “just like ourselves”? What is the epistemology of this knowledge—how is it produced and/or suppressed?                

Rieder’s implication is that such “knowledge” may be contradictory at the level of individual experience, yet imperial societies as a whole nonetheless act as though it is absolute. The distinction between individual and collective knowledge is where a compelling definition of ideological fantasy emerges. To take a contemporary example: individual citizens in the United States may have “known” that President Bush’s claim that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq was contested and contradictory, yet as a nation the US “acted as if” this knowledge were certain, and therefore the nation’s collective actions were guided by ideological fantasy. In many ways, the US invasion of Iraq can be seen as a contemporary variation of the “missionary fantasy” that Rieder describes.                

Rieder demonstrates that science fiction “exposes” the contradictions of the ideological fantasies that support and sustain the colonial ideology of progress. Sometimes this “exposure” is conscious and deliberate on the part of an author; other times it is an unintended consequence, something observable from the vantage of a critical reader, even when the author is more fully committed to a colonial paradigm. “Exposure,” then, is the product of the pervasive repetition of motifs within the genre as it emerges into recognition. With this critical framework established in the opening chapter, Rieder moves into an analysis of how specific ideological fantasies of colonialism are “exposed” in his subsequent considerations.                

The second chapter, “Fantasies of Appropriation,” focuses on lost-race narratives; in Rieder’s estimation, these are an intersection of neo-medieval romances and imperial adventure tales. From the eighteenth-century quest romance or imaginary voyage, the lost-race genre inherits both a tendency toward social satire (exemplified by Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels [1726]) and a rival emphasis on colonial domination and acquisition (exemplified by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe [1719]), and this dual inheritance is observable in emergent sf texts such as Ludwig Holberg’s Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum (translated in English as Journey to the World Under-Ground, by Nicholas Klimius in 1742), “Adam Seaborn’s” Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery (1820), James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), She (1887), and Allan Quatermain (1887), Frank Aubrey’s The Devil-Tree of El Dorado (1897), Robert Ames Bennet’s Thyra: A Romance of the Polar Pit (1901), Captain S.P. Meek’s “Submicroscopic” (1931), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), Thomas Janvier’s The Aztec Treasure House (1890), and A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool (1919).                

Rieder’s formative argument is that lost-race fictions disguise “taking” as “receiving”; such narratives frame colonial appropriations in foreign lands as the “recovery” of something that had previously been lost. From this pivotal reversal, other reversals follow: the “penetration” of a foreign land is framed as “return” and conquest is understood as recovery (40). Rieder suggests that “the social contradiction that the stories repeatedly ‘solve’ ultimately lies between colonial claims to the territory’s resources and land, and the competing claims of the indigenous people” (40). Each narrative dramatizes an imperial fantasy in which colonial appropriation is framed as the rightful reacquisition of political, sexual, economic, or cognitive resources that once belonged to the racial ancestors of the colonial invaders.                

Rieder’s third chapter, “Dramas of Interpretation,” centers on “impossible facts” in emergent sf and the “riddles” they present with regard to “the protagonists’ confrontations with enigmatic others and the reader’s confrontation with generic borders” (61). Rieder suggests that impossible and equivocal facts, such as Valdemar’s strange assertion that he is “dead” in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), imply “entire fictional worlds whose assembly depends in varying measures on rational cognition and ideological fantasy, and these scientific and ideological energies engage the stories, or entangle them, in the discourses and ideologies of colonialism” (61).                

Although this argument can be difficult to follow at first, the chapter grows more engaging as Rieder turns to a close analysis of other literary texts. In addition to Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” he also examines Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland (1884) and H.G. Wells’s “The Country of the Blind” (1904), and he argues that the pivotal character in each of these stories is a “dislocated subject” who communicates impossible facts across an abyss of subjective experience. Valdemar’s “I am dead” utterance is an impossible statement from the reader’s standpoint, and Rieder therefore suggests that it should be read as “an imaginary voyage that tests the limits of communicability across the transforming effects of the voyage itself” (65). He observes a similar situation in Flatland, where A. Square attempts to communicate his impressions of a three-dimensional world in his two-dimensional home, and in “The Country of the Blind,” when Nunez attempts to describe visual phenomena to people who have never been able to see. In each case, the transformation in subjectivity from one “world” of experience to another makes translation between such worlds impossible.                

At first glance, it may be difficult to understand the stakes of this argument for a discussion of science fiction and colonialism. What do dislocated subjects such as these have to do with colonial experiences? This is perhaps the most challenging moment in Rieder’s analysis, and it seems to me that his dense (but useful) citation of Darko Suvin and Mark Bould here might be supplemented with references to Robert Young’s White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (1990) and Brian McHale’s Constructing Postmodernism (1992). McHale argues that sf is a literature of plural ontologies; if many modern fictions reify the notion that a “correct” epistemology can apprehend its proper ontological object, science fiction asserts multiple and incommensurable ontological worlds. This assertion of multiple, valid, and incommensurable realities challenges the “ontological imperialism” that Young argues is a central characteristic of imperial modernity (13).                

From this perspective, the irreconcilability of the “facts” provided by the “dislocated subjects” in these examples has striking implications; colonial and imperial narratives are often founded on the notion that greater scientific-rational knowledge offers colonial agents power and authority over ignorant and superstitious natives. In such a colonial paradigm, “the one-eyed man” should be king in the county of the blind because his greater capacity for vision gives him the right to be king. All of Rieder’s examples, however, complicate such “ontological imperialism” by arguing that Western scientific rationality cannot accurately read and interpret all phenomena and experiences. The voyage from one world of experience to another (even if this is an imaginary voyage) has “transforming” effects that limit communicability between the alternate subjective worlds.                

In chapter four, “Artificial Humans and the Construction of Race,” Rieder notes that racist discourse is woven into the fabric of early sf narratives, and the chapter examines how sf conceptualizes “race” in stories about artificial humans. Rieder’s discussion of The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) forms the heart of this examination. He begins from the observation that the novel portrays a world in which bodies are destinies: Moreau attempts to evolve and civilize beasts, and he ultimately fails because bodies (and racial differences) cannot be altered by science or cultivation. Moreau is a colonial fantasy, he argues, in which a quasi-benevolent white master attempts to civilize animals and turn them into men at the colonial periphery. Rieder’s subsequent analysis goes much deeper. He suggests that Moreau offers

a literalization of the racist ideological fantasy that guides much colonial practice: we know very well that non-whites are human beings, but we behave under the assumption that they are grotesque parodies of humankind. Moreau’s practice actually unfolds the ideological terms in reverse: he knows very well that his experimental subjects are not humans, but by laboriously transforming them into grotesque parodies of humankind, he arrives—without any apparent intention of doing so—at the role of colonial master. (106-107; emphasis in original)

Moreau, then, exposes the contradictory operations of colonial ideological fantasy. The strength of Moreau, in Rieder’s view, lies in its ability to expose “patterns and motives of misrecognition.... Wells grasps and exposes an ideological attitude, in the relation between Moreau and the Beast People, that makes what appears to be irresponsible cruelty from one perspective look like the pursuit of noble enterprise from another” (108).                

The concluding chapter, “Visions of Catastrophe,” is one of the most engaging in the volume. Rieder argues that “Visions of Catastrophe” in emergent sf narratives are reversals of the “Fantasies of Appropriation” discussed earlier. If “Fantasies of Appropriation” dramatize outward colonial explorations and exploitations, “Visions of Catastrophe” are disaster narratives in which the imperial homeland is portrayed as the “victim” of colonial invasion.                

Rieder examines three trends in sf disaster narratives: first, he notes straightforward reversals, such as War of the Worlds, in which the mighty are humbled; these are stories in which the imperial metropolis is invaded from the outside in a straightforward reversal of colonizer/colonized relations. Second, Rieder considers revenge stories in which the “home” is invaded, but where the invasion serves as a catalyst for “purification” (internal unification across nation/class lines against the common enemy) and subsequent “hyperbolic violence” (usually genocidal revenge against the aliens). Finally, he examines “contagion” stories; these are an innovation in catastrophe narratives that first appear in the 1930s and 1940s. In contagion narratives, aliens invade not to destroy, but to infiltrate and conquer from within by means of covert assimilation.                

Examples of the contagion disaster narrative include John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (1938), a story in which aliens assimilate and infiltrate in order to “leave the world indistinguishable from its former self externally but also entirely alienated (so to speak) internally” (147), and Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore’s “Vintage Season” (1946), a story in which time-traveling alien tourists infiltrate a small town on the verge of catastrophe in order to observe the spectacle (and to write a symphony). Rieder suggests that these stories are fundamentally different from previous sf disaster narratives: “instead of natives being massacred by super-weapons, a surreptitious or invisible foreign presence transforms signs and values, empties out older cultural artifacts and rituals, and refills them with fundamentally different motives and assumptions” (148). In this sense, contagion narratives reflect “anxieties concerning America’s economic and cultural inundation of the postcolonial world, about the invisible but ever more pervasive power of new forms of multinational capitalism, or about the hybridization of the postimperial homelands” (148).                

Rieder suggests that contagion stories (which I might refer to as infiltration narratives) offer “a postcolonial framework of imagining imperial hegemony and cultural difference” (147). This is an appropriate invocation of postcoloniality. Contagion stories are not postcolonial in the sense that they recover the lost voice of colonized others who cannot speak; rather, they are postcolonial insofar as they reflect and respond to the continuation of imperialism beyond the twilight of territorial colonization. Rieder’s final comments here leave me interested to consider in much greater depth how such infiltration stories function in many other works. In the end, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction is an insightful and engaging analysis of the complex “something” that sf “exposes” about colonialism. The depth of Rieder’s understanding of both colonialism and science fiction is to be admired, and I suspect that this book will become a landmark work cited by scholars in multiple fields.

                1. A few exemplary articles have addressed the connections between sf and empire: see Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.’s “Science Fiction and Empire” and Gwyneth Jones’s “Metempsychosis of the Machine: Science Fiction in the Halls of Karma.”Despite the quality of these shorter examinations, book-length studies on the topic have until now been surprisingly absent.

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “Science Fiction and Empire.” SFS 30.2 (July 2003): 231-45.
Jones, Gwyneth. “Metempsychosis of the Machine: Science Fiction in the Halls of Karma.” SFS 24.1 (Mar. 1997): 1-10.
McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Young, Robert. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. New York: Routledge, 1990.

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