Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction

John Rieder

Wesleyan University Press 2008
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
Exploring connections between early English-language science fiction and the discourses and ideologies of colonialism, Rieder looks at lesser-known works as well as acknowledged classics of the genre.

An introductory chapter considers definitions of science fiction and colonialism, touches on some theory, and introduces some of the key writers and works of the period. Rieder's outline is:

"that many of the repetitive motifs that coalesced into the genre of science fiction represent ideological ways of grasping the social consequences of colonialism, including the fantastic appropriation and rationalization of unevenly distributed colonial wealth in the homeland and in the colonies, the racist ideologies that enabled colonial exploitation, and the cognitive impact of radical cultural differences on the home culture."

As this may suggest, the language of Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction is academic, but it is not particularly theoretical. Figures such as Derrida, Lacan, Wallerstein and Jameson are mentioned, but only incidentally; no knowledge of literary theory is assumed. And Rieder doesn't attempt to argue a single thesis, but rather surveys a whole range of ideas and connections. Some illustration is provided by a handful of striking full-page halftone reproductions of magazine covers.

Chapter two, "Fantasies of Appropriation" looks at "lost race" exploration stories, which Rieder classifies into an earlier satirical and utopian tradition and later "romantic", adventure-oriented works. It covers tropes such as civil wars, princesses and hidden treasures, the use of quasi-scientific ethnographic material, and narratives that toy with outing themselves as hoaxes. Works by H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle feature prominently here.

"Dramas of Interpretation" explores "the protagonists' confrontations with enigmatic others and the reader's confrontation with generic borders — the riddles posed by early science fiction's impossible facts". The works that feature here include Edgar Allan Poe's "The Facts in the Case of William M. Valdemar", Edwin Abbott's Flatland, Henry Hudson's A Crystal Age, H.G. Wells' "The Country of the Blind" and The Time Machine, and Jack London's "The Red One".

"Artificial Humans and the Construction of Race" focuses on Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau but also looks at its precursors. Rieder places these in the context of the racist ideologies and scientific racism that dominated up until the Second World War; he also considers themes such as missing links, hybrids and cyborgs, and hypertrophied brains.

The final chapter, "Visions of Catastrophe", covers depictions of invasions, hyperviolence and genocide, and themes of contagion and cultural vulnerability. Key works here include H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, George Chesney's The Battle of Dorking and Richard Jefferies' After London.

Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction is too academic for a mass audience, but will appeal to those curious about the cultural and ideological context of authors such as H.G. Wells and his contemporaries. It has inspired me to reread some of the science fiction I read as a teenager, but also introduced me to a range of writers and works I hadn't known about.

August 2008

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%T Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction
%A Rieder, John
%I Wesleyan University Press
%D 2008
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780819568748
%P 183pp