Science-Fiction, Imperial Fantasy and Alt-Victimity »

POLITICIANS AND political scientists know the power of narratives: there is a lot of talk about who is in control and how to change ‘the narrative’. But neither of the two groups tend to wonder where these stories are actually, you know, being told. In his new book, Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alternative Victimization, David M. Higgins offers a fascinating look at the process by which such stories are generated and transformed into cultural references and societal roadmaps.

Higgins examines a particular group of narratives about power and identity, a group that is aptly described in its title: stories that use sci-fi iconography to express fear of the other and resentment of the loss of power, thus giving a boost to a number of reactionary movements, from Brexit and Trump cult to anti-feminist internet troll. Higgins traces the origins of a set of powerful tropes in print science fiction of the 1960s and early 1970s; it then follows their dissemination through media and electronic culture as well as their uses in political rhetoric and advertising. Her choice of decade may seem unnecessarily limiting – why not go back to the gothic origins of sci-fi or move forward to survey the contemporary scene? – but it makes perfect sense as he guides us through the paranoid visions of Philip K. Dick, the heroic illusions of Frank Herbert Dune (1965) and JG Ballard’s Crumbling Empires, then shows how these and their contemporaries provided the imagery, language, and narrative tropes that continue to shape behavior and define the terms of debate.

What is reverse colonization? Higgins offers several formulations of the term in different contexts, but it is essentially a form of projection in which those who have inflicted colonial domination on others imagine themselves to be victims of the same injustice. Stories of overthrow can have different purposes, including inviting those in power to feel compassion for others, but Higgins is particularly interested in instances in which “modern reactionaries […] have mobilized a powerful political sentiment by identifying themselves as victims and by presenting themselves as revolutionary insurgents struggling to achieve heroic liberation against all odds. His main examples are not themselves reactionary – even Robert A. Heinlein, whose Starship Troopers (1959) flirts with fascist ideas, was liberal on many issues, including race and gender equality. Yet, through a certain chemistry, even anti-colonial tales can serve the purposes of the alt-right. As Higgins writes,

Today’s reactionary appropriation of righteous and anti-imperial victimization – the feeling that white men, in particular, are somehow colonized victims fighting insurgent resistance against an oppressive establishment – depends on a logic of science fiction that dominated the imperial fantasy during the 1960s and has continued to gain momentum since.

This process should be familiar to anyone who has ever listened to discussions on the Internet in which the red pill / blue pill pattern of The matrix (1999) is invoked. Higgins documents some of these discussions, in which writers whose opinions are as far removed as possible from the creators of this film demonstrate their belief that “our side” is the one that took the red pill and saw the truth. Some of the book’s most disturbing evidence concerns Red Raiders such as Elliot Rodger, whose resentment towards women, filtered through sci-fi accounts, led him to murder six people and injure 14 others. Rodger left a manifesto in which he expressed his identification with such characters as Anakin Skywalker.

SF critic John Rieder, whom Higgins quotes, demonstrated the relationship between colonialism and shared narrative structures and science fiction world-building conventions. In other words, the empire has always been there: it feeds the narrative engines of the genre and guides its trajectories. More generally, popular culture scholars, from Henry Nash Smith to Janice Radway, show that popular genres act like age-old myths – collective narratives that embody a society’s anxieties, aspirations, and beliefs about them. These myths are most effective when they are the least noticed – when they are dismissed as “mere entertainment”. This is not the first time that science fiction has been linked to the aggressive tendencies of Western culture (the book by H. Bruce Franklin in 1988 War Stars: the super-weapon and the American imagination comes to mind), but Higgins’ work breaks new ground in its meticulous tracing of connections between the celebrations of the Conquest and the resentful tales of victimization. First, expressions of fear that the same could be done to us: HG Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898) approached the theme with a subtlety and self-doubt lacking in the many “yellow peril” stories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, the many Superman stories (a trope favored by publisher John W. Campbell) of the 1930s and 1940s offered escape and self-justification to nerdy techies.

In the time Higgins is focusing on, the collapse of colonial empires coincided with calls for personal liberation through meditation or pharmaceuticals. So we end up with Valentine Michael Smith in Heinlein’s Stranger in a strange land (1961), Paul Atreides in Herbert’s Dune, the deadpan watchers of decay in JG Ballard’s disaster stories, and the many oppressed repairers and traders of Dick’s crumbling realities. Higgins reads these writers sympathetically and quotes them effectively; his criticism is addressed to those who abuse their narrative techniques and their themes. Some of the connections he unearthed surprised me. I was particularly impressed with a reading of Patrick McGoohan’s SF series The prisoner (1967-’68) alongside visionary / paranoid Dick Exegesis and the equally cracked essay by neo-reactionary philosopher Nick Land on “Dark Enlightenment”. From the latter, Higgins draws direct links to far-right politics, militias and the “sovereign citizens” movement represented by land grabbers such as herder Cliven Bundy.

Using humane methods on materials more often claimed by the social sciences, Higgins reminds us that stories and their creators help us make sense of historical trends and events. We can go even further by applying the metacritical tools of contemporary criticism. While avoiding most of their jargon, Higgins uses ideas from Slavoj Žižek, Donna Haraway, and Samuel R. Delany to reveal the inner workings of the history of reverse colonization. For example, he identifies the power of Michael Moorcock’s scientific fantasies in their kinship with empire-excusing stories like that of Bernard Porter:. “

Despite the disturbing nature of many of Higgins’ examples, his book is a joy to read: expansive, informative, and full of twists and turns and ironies. His concluding chapter acts as an antidote to some of the toxicity he discovers. Under the title “Alternatives to Imperial Masochism,” he reminds us that the very narrative structures employed to defend privilege and express resentment against women and foreigners can also be used to resist warmongering and exploitation. This is the book he didn’t write: About Joe Haldeman and Ursula K. Le Guin and Shaun Tan and the Indigenous writers around the world who began to discover the power of the science fiction imagination. The effective check against alternative victimization is something like the “survival” of Gerald Vizenor or what Native American scholar Grace Dillon calls biskaabiiyang, “back to ourselves”. As Higgins notes, “Many native speculative fictions reveal that many of those who have suffered the most damage from the practices of imperialism in the real world often reject entirely the politics of victimization which is the central obsession of Western fantasies of reverse colonization. Ending on this hopeful note, Higgins suggests that illness involves healing. The way to fight Imperial Fantasy is to tell the same story better.


Brian Attebery is the author of Decoding Gender in Science Fiction and, more recently, Stories About Stories: The Fantasy And Revival Of The Myth.

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