Imperialist critique in Anglo-American science fiction
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 12:01 by Roland Ellis
In recent years, Anglo-American science fiction has been read as a form of literature that is complicit in the imperialist project—as “empire’s propaganda arm, its R&D lab”, as Gerry Canavan (2012) has noted. Although a number of influential ‘imperial turn’ SF scholars (John Rieder, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Andy Sawyer, Jessica Langer, David Seed) have acutely diagnosed the subgenre in this way, they have largely failed to identify and examine the longstanding tradition of incisive imperialist critique that also exists in this field. From another angle, critics who do not regard Anglo-American SF as ultimately complicit in colonialism (Adriana Craciun, Patrick Parrinder, W. Warren Wagar, Rob Latham, David Ian Paddy) tend to see only vaguely defined and historically transient imperialist contexts in this literature; or they read imperialism as a secondary context, a “hidden skeleton,” as one critic puts it, not worthy of further consideration. This thesis seeks to address the line of enquiry opened up in this critical gap, by re-examining certain key works of Anglo-American SF in relation to specific imperialist contexts. In chapter one, I look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) in 18th- and early-19th-century mercantile imperial contexts, from the exploits of the British Royal Navy to contemporary discourses of ‘classic’ colonial racism. In chapter two, H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The War of The Worlds (1897) are read as critiques of Victorian-era Social Darwinist imperialism, insofar as the latter is manifested in the morphological social ordering and biological racism put forward by both scientists and political imperialists. Chapter three focuses on J. G. Ballard’s early trio of eco-disaster novels, The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1965), and The Crystal World (1966), in the context of biopolitical imperialism, and the strict measurements, boundary markers and time-codes of eugenics that are so central to this model. And the final chapter begins by revisiting two more Ballard novels, Crash (1973) and Hello America (1980), by way of postwar American techno-spectacle imperialism, as defined by Edward Said and Jean Baudrillard. It concludes with a (focused and concise) survey of post-war American SF, considering this, too, in terms of American techno-spectacle imperialism, and in turn, reinforcing the overarching argument that there is a rich tradition of imperialist critique to be found in the sub-genre of Anglo-American SF.