Science Fiction Studies

#149 = Volume 50, Part 1 = March 2023


David Higgins

Science Fiction and Native Epistemologies

Miriam C. Brown Spiers. Encountering the Sovereign Other: Indigenous Science Fiction. Michigan State UP, 2021. xl+143 pp. $39.95 pbk & ebk.

Encountering the Sovereign Other argues that Indigenous science fiction approaches encounters with alterity from a richly ethical perspective informed by the spatial and communal grounding of tribally specific Native worldviews. If Euro-American colonial perspectives are often characterized by violent dynamics of abjection that define the self in contrast against an alien Other (and are driven by a spatial bias privileging outward expansion and a temporal emphasis on future-oriented progress), Miriam C. Brown Spiers suggests that tribally informed Indigenous worldviews, in contrast, can enable individuals “to accept the presence of an Other without feeling threatened, without getting swept up in a narrative of Progress and assimilation” (xxxviii). Furthermore, people with Indigenous values may be “more likely to allow lived experiences to inform their decisions, whereas those raised in Euro-American culture are more likely to try to force reality to fit into their preconceived notions of how the world should be” (xxxviii).

This is a vital difference, Spiers argues, because it can engender dramatically different responses to encounters with alterity. She observes examples of this in Indigenous science fiction, where Native characters are often “better prepared to accept and respond to elements of cognitive estrangement than their non-Native counterparts” (xxx). When encountering what Darko Suvin describes as the “strange newness” of a science-fictional novum (Suvin 4), for example, Spiers notes that sf characters with conventional Euro-American worldviews “often refuse to acknowledge that a problem exists because it does not fit into their fixed notions of the world; meanwhile, Native characters recognize the presence of a novum, assess its effects on the community, and react accordingly” (xxx). Indigenous science fictions, in other words, envision ethical encounters with sovereign Others, and Native characters can often interact with strange Others in full and mutual reciprocity rather than reducing Others to mere negative reflections of the self.

The book’s four chapters each offer close readings of key texts that exemplify this tendency. Spiers first examines The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan (1999) by William Sanders, a novel in which a Cherokee Gulf War veteran (Billy) and a Kazakh scientist (Janna) cultivate cross-cultural alliances and affinities in order to defeat a radiation monster summoned by colonialist New Age trash magic. Next, she turns her attention to Stephen Graham Jones’s It Came from Del Rio (2010), which tells the story of a US citizen named Dodd Raines who flees to Mexico after a failed bank robbery and eventually becomes a radiation monster himself after attempting to smuggle moon rocks across the southern border. Raines’s transformation illuminates the coloniality of both race and citizenship, Spiers argues, and his journey provokes readers to recognize the personhood of Others who are dehumanized as they attempt to cross national boundaries.

After this, she offers a reading of Field of Honor (2004) by D.L. Birchfield—a “shukha anumpa” or “Choctaw hogwash” alternate history in which a paranoid Vietnam veteran (Patrick Pushmataha McDaniel) discovers a hidden Choctaw community that has avoided removal to Oklahoma by retreating into underground caverns (49). This community, Ishtaboli, preserves Choctaw custom and heritage, eschews colonialist Euro-American cultural norms, and supports people from other non-Choctaw tribes by recognizing and honoring their unique cultures and traditions.

Finally, Spiers concludes with a discussion of Riding the Trail of Tears (2011) by Blake M. Hausman, a story in which digital spirits (known as Little People or Nunnehi) subvert a VR re-enactment of Cherokee removal in order to help the novel’s protagonist (Tallulah) to disrupt the continuing cycle of violence that requires her to perform Native identity for tourists and endlessly repeat a debilitating narrative of Cherokee defeat and victimization. Spiers argues that the novel’s recognition of digital Cherokee as real people “reinforces an Indigenous perspective in which nonhuman creatures are recognized as peoples who are deserving of respect and compassion,” and this encourages readers to “acknowledge the humanity of the Other and respond ethically to the Other’s demand” (82-83).

Overall, Encountering the Sovereign Other is an excellent work of scholarship that builds vital connections between key critical trajectories in Native literary studies and science-fiction theory. One of the most thought-provoking moments, for me, comes in the Coda, where Spiers explains why she defines “Indigenous science fiction” somewhat narrowly as Native storytelling that consciously and deliberately interacts with the tropes of mainstream Euro-American science fiction (i.e., rockets, robots, radiation monsters, virtual reality, etc.) rather than following Grace Dillon’s more expansive gesture to include Indigenous works that do not reference such tropes as “slipstream” texts that also deserve to be regarded as science fiction.

Spiers recalls that in 2014—while speaking on a panel discussing science and Indigenous knowledge at the Native American Literature Symposium—an audience member asked her if “the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman, the Lakota culture hero,” might be regarded as a work of science fiction (102). She knew immediately that her answer was “no, absolutely not,” and over time the reason for this answer became clear to her: “if I categorized her story as science fiction, I would effectively be saying that she is not real—and, by extension, implying that all Indigenous religious figures are fictional” (102).

Drawing on the work of Dean Rader, a respected voice in Native literary scholarship, Spiers argues that “labelling texts that reflect Indigenous worldviews as ‘science fiction’” can run the risk of “trivializing Native voices and communities, of reducing lived experiences to primitive superstitions” (xvi). This danger exists because, in Rader’s words, “Indian invention tropes are neither scientific nor fictional,” but instead arise out of the organic totality of Indigenous knowledge and worldviews (86). Rather than considering a broad range of Native stories that include fantastical elements as possible examples of alternative science fiction, as Dillon does, Brown Spiers therefore limits what she is willing to describe as “Indigenous science fiction” to works by Native authors that deliberately engage with recognizable sf tropes (specifically radiation monsters, alternate histories, and virtual realities in her chosen texts).                  This is all very reasonable, and Spiers is correct that it is important to avoid any approach that might trivialize Indigenous cultural worldviews or enable them to be dismissed as naïve, superstitious, or unreal. And yet I find myself wondering what it might look like if we took a moment to privilege Dillon’s voice over Rader’s and see where this reverse thought experiment might take us. Grace Dillon is, after all, an Indigenous (Anishinaabe) woman, and Rader—for all that he is a deservedly respected voice in Native literary scholarship—is a male-presenting scholar who does not personally identify as Indigenous in any public context I have been able to uncover. This is not to disparage Rader’s brilliant intellectual work or his demonstrated commitment to supporting Native voices; it is simply that, while reading Encountering the Sovereign Other, I find myself wondering what it might mean to treat Dillon herself as a sovereign Other—to approach her voice, in other words, as a vital instance of Indigenous intellectual alterity that can prove staggeringly insightful if accorded a certain kind of critical sovereignty.

Admittedly, I know and deeply respect Grace, and I have had the opportunity to learn from her firsthand during our many conversations at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. Based on these conversations, I find myself inclined to push back (in a friendly way) against Rader’s assertion that the fantastical “Indian invention” tropes in Indigenous literature are not “scientific.” Does that not depend (I can imagine Grace asking) on what we mean by “scientific”? As over a decade of critical work in Black, Indigenous, and Postcolonial science and technology studies has shown, there are countless empirically grounded and epistemologically valid non-Western ways of understanding the world that fall outside what China Miéville has notably described as “capitalist science’s bullshit about itself” or the commonplace mainstream vision of Western technoscience that fortifies “capitalist modernity’s ideologically projected self-justification” (240). 

To say that seemingly fantastical elements within Indigenous narratives—such as spirits or ancestral beings—are not properly scientific depends on a Western attitude toward science that estranges the sacred from the material in a way that carries profound colonialist baggage. What if, instead, we started from Dillon’s presumption that Indigenous scientific literacies offer alternative valid epistemological insights that run counter to the profit-driven, colonialist presumptions of Euro-American technoscience? If we accord Indigenous worldviews meaningful epistemological sovereignty and refuse to dismiss the sacred as unscientific, perhaps a new critical possibility might emerge: in the face of a question such as “can we read the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman as science fiction?” one might respond “yes—perhaps—but only if we can expand our sense of science to include Indigenous ways of knowing and interacting with the world. To think of White Buffalo Calf Woman in science-fictional terms would require expanding one’s sense of what is ‘real’ to include realities that Western technoscientific rationality categorically denies.”

This is not to say that Spiers’s answer (“no, absolutely not”) is wrong: in the context of defending Native intellectual and creative work from pop trivialization, her inclination to refuse to label White Buffalo Calf Woman as science fiction makes perfect sense. At the same time, Dillon’s perspective points toward an even more radical possibility: perhaps regarding certain kinds of Indigenous storytelling as science-fictional offers us an intervention that not only disrupts our sense of how science fiction is conceptualized as a genre, but also challenges us to undermine the notion that Euro-American technological modernity determines the horizon of what counts as “science” in the contemporary world.

Interestingly, Spiers’s own critical approach throughout Encountering the Sovereign Other supports this more radical methodology. She offers, for example, a welcome reminder that Suvin’s own description of the “cognitive” within science fiction encompasses both “scientifically methodical cognition” in a traditional Western sense (Suvin 66) and also “alternate kinds of cognition, such as the Indigenous epistemologies that determine the underlying logic in many works of Native science fiction” (Spiers xxv). Suvin’s notion of the cognitive, in other words, is not just limited to what Miéville calls “capitalist science’s bullshit about itself,” but instead includes “intrinsic, culturally acquired cognitive logic” that can be acquired in a multitude of different ways (Suvin 66). Spiers thus shows that Suvin himself “establishes a definition of sf that includes non-Western forms of cognition and thus makes room for an Indigenous understanding of science as a holistic framework encapsulating a variety of disciplinary approaches that usually remain distinct within a Euro-American worldview” (xxvi).

If the “science” in “science fiction,” then, can be regarded as more than just rockets and robots (and other recognizable technological artifacts of Western capitalist modernity), a strong case can be made that “Indigenous science fiction” might well include narratives that go beyond straightforward engagement with recognizable Western sf tropes (such as radiation monsters, alternative histories, and virtual realities). Spiers herself even notes, drawing on the work of John Rieder and Hans Robert Jauss, that genre categories are fluid formations constituted by historical communities of practice (xxii). This suggests that what counts as a “recognizable” science-fiction trope is determined by social consensus (like pornography—we know it when we see it), and Dillon’s move to broaden what we currently think of as science-fictional tropes to include things such as, say, sacred entities from Indigenous traditional worldviews might therefore accomplish a deeply worthwhile epistemological intervention. From this less restrictive approach to the definition of science fiction, all of Spiers’s excellent arguments about the capacity of Indigenous sf to imagine encounters with sovereign Others and to showcase productive engagements with radical alterity might achieve even wider reach and broader purchase, and I hope that her future work (and the work of other scholars in this area) will continue to pursue these interesting and useful avenues of inquiry.

Miéville, China. “Afterword: Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory.” Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould and China Miéville. Wesleyan UP, 2009. 231-48.

Rader. Dean. Engaged Resistance: American Indian Art, Literature, and Film from Alcatraz to the NMAI. U of Texas P, 2011.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale UP, 1979.

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