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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Science Fiction and Empire, and Other Thesis Considerations

Most of you already know that I am attending the University of Florida’s graduate program in English. Having arrived in Florida, I’ve become quite aware of the relatively short space of time I have to design and write an acceptable thesis in order to earn my M.A. The biggest concern for me isn’t so much the time, but the topic.

I have a lot of interests in relation to science fiction. I’m particularly curious about the relationship between racism and the human/Other dichotomy in science fiction and (post)colonialism. But my curiosity extends into other areas, such as the building and collapsing of empires, and related subjects. In fashioning my M.A. thesis I've come to some interesting observations. For instance, why are imperialist structures of empire so prevalent within science fiction? What about these kinds of empire constructions function so well in the science fiction genre?

Historically, American imperialism rose and “fell”—because it never truly fell, in all fairness—at around the time that science fiction came into existence, assuming, of course, that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first true science fiction novel or story. By the time that American imperialism had, generally speaking, fallen out of favor and much of the world began to de-colonize or dismantle their empires, science fiction had come into its own, evolving from its early pulp roots to a genre filled with serious examinations of potential futures.

Heinlein, Asimov, et al., all played a role in establishing the grand galactic empires, many of which were highly imperialistic. It would be fair to say that these individuals, many of them fairly well-educated (particularly Asimov, who was a scientist of some notoriety), were influenced by a particularly insidious American habit. Such habit transferred into the capitalist structure, much to the dismay of those capitalists who see the system as flawed, but ultimately beneficial when properly maintained, such as myself. Imperialism, unfortunately, transferred from the empire-building tendencies of the nation to the capitalist tourist engine that permeates much of the more desirable vacation spaces in the world (notably the Caribbean).

Historically, it makes a lot of sense that science fiction would be inherently obsessed with structures of empire and imperialism, because, as is often stated, the genre is indebted to its written past and present. Whether or not I will study this issue further, I cannot say. There is much to consider in the next year, and ironing out the kinks will a part of that. Focuses change, interests adjust, but one thing will remain true: science fiction and empire will continue to a be a curiosity of mine.

P.S.: I should note that much of what has been said here applies to British imperialism and empire as well. I simply chose American imperialism as an example through which to relate my understanding of empires in science fiction. Also, I’m speaking primarily from a more “classics” perspective. Recent endeavors into issues of empire have been more in-depth that previous standards of science fiction literature.

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  1. Awesome post, Shaun. :) I actually learned something from this - and you reminded me of my AP History Class last year. I hope you do decide to pursue this issue further - it's very interesting.

  2. Naturally writers from the seventies should be considered, especially. I think of Joe Haldeman and Heinlein, both whom have imperial structures in their novels, and both of whom explore their respective structures in fascinating ways. (Even though Heinlein preaches militaristic bunkum. More like Heil-Hitler-ein, amirite?)

  3. Elia: Thanks. I'm considering pursuing it further, but I question whether it is something I can cram into a Masters Thesis. It's a big subject and might be better suited to a PhD. dissertation...

    Riadan: Parallels between Vietnam and science fiction are readily apparent in Haldeman's work, particularly Forever War.

  4. You might want to consider the direct connections too. Jule Verne was employed by the French Societie Geographique, wrote propaganda for it to promote imperial expansion. Of course, George Orwell, along with Kipling, were employed by the British Empire in India, and H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds as a critique of colonial policies of indigenous exploitation. It's not limited to the end of the 19th and the early 20th centuries, either. I have been trying to make a case that people like Ian McDonald (River of Gods and Brasyl) have implicitly taken up the banner of imperialist science fiction. McDonald has stated he wrote River of Gods due to his appreciation of Kipling's Kim (perhaps the archtypical colonial novel).
    Even the more demure versions of empire have found their way into science fiction. Star Trek's Federation is, fundamentally, and empire, and of course Firefly seems to argue that such an empire, no matter its claims to democracy and freedom, is still an oppressive structure.

  5. Tim: That is an astute observation. I will definitely consider that. I forgot about Orwell's connection to colonialism. That has, of course, been analyzed before, I just can't remember where.

    I don't know if Firefly argues that empires are always oppressive, just that empires which are so unwilling to compromise must resort to extreme methods to maintain control.