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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fantasy is Colonial, Modern Science Fiction is Postcolonial?

Examining trends in genre fiction is an impossible task. Fantasy and science fiction are constantly moving, the latter more so than the former, and yet I have been noticing something within both genres (a shifting theme for the latter, and a staple for the former) that I want to examine and understand. Readers are welcome to challenge me on this, and in fact I hope you do, because I have not been reading in these genres as long as some of you have, and you may, as a result, see trends and themes differently.

One tendency I have seen in fantasy is that of the building or collapsing of empires/nations/peoples via a colonialist or imperialist method. Recent examples include The House of the Stag by Kage Baker and even Karen Miller’s The Innocent Mage/The Awakened Mage duology, along with a great many epic fantasy series, in which invasions of empires play a prominent role. Villians, thus, tend to be imperialist in nature, interested in one of two things: 1) the subjugation or destruction of a people, and 2) the acquirement of new properties (i.e. land) for an existing or emerging empire. Looking back brings us to The Lord of the Rings, which contains an example of a colonialist extermination/enslavement that ultimately fails, except insomuch as the Hobbits are concerned, since they are not only colonized by the forces of Mordor (or, more specifically, Saruman’s forces, if memory serves me), but also subjugated as a people.

Science fiction, however, has a shifting agenda. Its early and middle-aged works focused heavily, as I have described before, on imperialist or colonial issues, particularly in relation to galactic empires. Some newer works have done much the same, such as Old Man’s War by John Scalzi and a handful of other authors doing what might be called “tribute” works, though no offense is meant by that term. But recent developments seem to point to a more postcolonial approach. By that, I mean that the story deals more with the after effects of a cultural rupture in which the colonist, whoever that might be, has either ceded control to the indigenous body, or collapsed its colonialist structure and turned into something less concerned with matters of empire and more concerned with what you might call “traditional governing.” So, the colonized may not longer be colonized because the colonizer is no longer there, or because power has shifted, for whatever reason, so that the colonialist structure no longer exists (though the latter is, for all intensive purposes, a rarity even in our world). The best example I can think of this occurring is in Tobias S. Buckell’s novel Sly Mongoose, which, while not always directly focused on the fallen empire, manages to offer a science fiction view of the end of empires and what the colonized goes through to survive or re-establish control. There’s a certain brutality to it, because Buckell’s novel is not set in a world that is distant from its colonial past. Other novels, I’m sure, exist, though I have to admit that I am blanking on them at this time.

The point of this is that there seems to be a far more likelihood of postcolonialism existing within science fiction as a theme than there is for fantasy. Fantasy seems to be occupied with the act of colonizing, in some for of another, while science fiction seems to want to dismantle the colonial structure. It seems fitting that fantasy cannot imagine its postcolonial future, and that its cousin genre must do so. One reflects an imagined past, a medieval fantasy (outside of urban fantasy), while the other is almost always looking forward. The genres compliment one another, even if it was never meant for them to do so.

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  1. First, I would challenge you to define your versions of colonial/postcolonial more clearly, as it appears to me that you're using a more temporal and event-driven approach to defining these terms rather than looking at the themes and content of the stories themselves. Postcolonial writing can certainly exist while an imperial body is still in power, but for me it has a tendency of looking at the problems inherent in hierarchy, dominance, structures of control, and binary symbolism--instead using multiplicities, and multivocal discourses to critique the colonial body.

    As almost "textbook" recent example of this in fantasy, I would hold up Emma Bull's Territory, Nalo Hopkinson's New Moon's Arms, and Neil Gaiman's American Gods & Anansi Boys. I wouldn't discount urban or contemporary fantasies from the running either, though even epic fantasy can embody these qualities. I would argue that Jacqueline Carey's Sundering duology is a postcolonial response to Tolkein (and other fantasies in the same vein) in many ways.

    Anyhow, I respectfully have to disagree with you. Rather, I think it depends which works you are familiar with, and your definitions of what constitutes colonial vs. postcolonial.

  2. Ugh... wrong ID--bleh.

  3. I think your question about the New weird and this issue of colonialism and fantasy can go hand in hand. Larry's suggestion to check out Vandermeer's New Weird anthology is a great place to start.
    But also, Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen is very much a postcolonial work in its themes and concerns. Like him, Jay Lake grew up in a place where imperialism was very much a daily issue (Fiji, I believe: I forget about Lake). Also, the work of M. John Harrison, ESPECIALLY his recent Nova Swing, can be read in this way, almost demand it.
    I think Sara is right about the blurry line between colonial/postcolonial - the distinction is that the latter comments on the colonial situation selfconsciously. So even something like Forster's Howard's End can been seen as a postcolonial novel, as it asks 'who will inherent England' now that the imperial and class structures are collapsing and new peoples are entering the imperial centers?'
    I think new sci-fi is actually in trouble of reclaiming in a negative way its colonial heritage. The new space opera boom, while dealing more ambigiously with the themes of Henlien and his ilk, like McDonald and Alistair Reynolds, end up not as critical as they might think they are. On the other hand, the New Weird fantasy (with China Meiville as the archtype), rooted as it is the New Wave of the 1960s has consistently shown itself to be much more postcolonial in its leanings. I ramble now, so its time to get back to my other writing...

  4. Sara: I was dealing intentionally with a temporal approach to (post)colonialism, because that is the easiest to convey to those who are not familiar with the terms. It's much easier to define colonialism by referring to British imperialism (India, America, etc.) than it is to start getting into the endless discussion of where colonialism actually ended (it never did, and I could certainly argue why if anyone is interested). Postcolonialism is easiest to define when pointing people to its etymology (post and colonialism, so after colonialism), and then using England or some other nation again to mark the point in which empires either withdrew or fell. Typically colonialism is a relatively recent or "modern" idea, but one could certainly argue that colonialism has been around for well over a thousand years.

    But I agree with you that postcolonialism CAN exist within a colonial body (novels from South Africa have, quite rightly, dealt with what might be called a postcolonial view of Apartheid, etc.). But I really want to relay what my argument in a way that doesn't leave readers utterly confused. Though I would argue that postcolonialism is not necessarily concerned with the present conditions of colonialism (as you described--hierarchy, dominance, etc.), but with what exists when such things crumble. The majority of postcolonial writing that I have been exposed to concerns itself with how people deal with the end of colonialism itself (how do they react to the colonizer leaving (violence, social upheaval, confusion, resurgent traditionalism, etc.) or, in the case of Hawaii and the Native Americans, how do they react to having colonialism "end," but not really (resistance, radical political movements, alcoholism, etc.)).

    I need to read every single one of those books you just mentioned.

  5. Tim: Tobias S. Buckell grew up in similar conditions, and his novels very much reflect what might have been some of his actual experiences.

    I agree that writing concerned with colonialism often is more selfconscious of the colonial situation (whether it be in regards to the invasion itself, or a post-invasion in which control has shifted to the invader). Postcolonialism can be selfconscious as well, but my past experience seems to point to a need to examine the mundane, rather than the grandiose (not in SF, just fiction in general). By that, I mean that the themes are centered on how individuals perceive the new order, whatever that might be, rather than how that order develops or comes to be, and as a result we see individuals experiencing "daily" life. When the Shark Bites by Rodney Morales, for example, is a mixture, because on the one hand it focuses on several characters who are just "normal people," who go through the daily tribulations of existing in a postcolonial state (Hawaii)(postcolonial in the sense that America said it was over and made them a state). There are characters in it who do engage in other activities, such as resistance, etc., but they are not necessarily the center stage of the novel itself, in my opinion.

    I'm rambling too, though, and getting myself confused. Too much running through my brain. Thanks for you comment!

    Thanks for the recommendations. I'll have to pick those up. This is offering me new directions in my research. (Same to you Sara J.)

  6. Oh, believe me, Forster is very much about the Mundane. You also got me thinking about Jamacia Kincad, who focuses on much the same.
    I guess by self conscious, I was meaning more that the writer is conscious about how odd the colonial situation is, unlike works which are strickly colonial (which may note consciously the colonial situation, but its perplexity; it is not a problem for those writers). This is something along the lines of Ashis Nandy's brilliant essay, The Intimate Enemy... I think... its been a while.
    I forgot about Buckell! though he sits on a shelf somewhere around here.
    Oh, you mentioned you are at one of the U Floridas. A year or so ago, I had the fortune of meeting Professor Ginway at a conference. I don't know if she teaches at the same school you are attending, but if she does and you haven't run into her yet, she is someone to look up. Does some work on Brazilian sci-fi.

  7. I see what you mean. I think that was what I was trying to get at, but maybe I described it poorly.

    Buckell is quite good. His work is probably obvious in some ways, but he writes what I like to call adventurous science fiction w/ powerful themes. While he pays a lot of attention to action and the flashy sides of science fiction, there is a serious undertone which can be easily gleaned. They're good for not being afraid to ask tough questions without bashing you over the head with them.

    And yes, Professor Ginway is at the University of Florida, where I am. I will definitely be looking her up! Thank you!