Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: Science Fiction and Empire

[Patricia Kerslake. Science Fiction and Empire. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007.]

I'm deep in end-of-term mode at the moment, with one big paper and a few smaller things to finish before it's done, and then book edits to deal with immediately after that. But I'm stealing a few minutes to do a quick review as I haven't blogged in awhile.

The final paper that I'm writing this semester is looking at science fiction and other utopian and speculative forms through a postcolonial lens, with the intent of seeing if I can say anything about a role for speculative fiction in catalyzing anti- and postcolonial possibility in the cultural imaginations of those of us who are passive beneficiaries of empire. I'm quite cautious about making any but the most modest claims about this, but I'm starting from Edward Said's observation in Culture and Imperialism that "the enterprise of empire depends on the idea of having an empire ... and all kinds of preparations are made for it within a culture" (11, emphasis in original). The idea is that if preparations are made for empire (and Said was quite concerned with literary preparations in particular) then perhaps there is some role for analagous preparations in moving beyond empire. Not sure exactly what I'm going to say about that yet, but I read this book (somewhat selectively but intensively) as part of that work.

The book contains some quite useful ideas and engages with a range of texts that in some senses is quite broad -- it includes many classics of the genre from the U.S. and the U.K. -- but in other senses is somewhat narrow -- it pays no attention whatsoever to the emergence of explicitly postcolonial science fiction or science fiction from formerly (or currently) colonized peoples. This tendency to focus on cultural production from the heart of the empire is not exactly unknown in postcolonial studies -- just look at Said, for instance -- but it is still a little disappointing. In any case, the book begins by looking at the role of the Other in science fiction, goes into some of the mechanisms through which empire is used in the genre, and then goes quasi-chronologically through several key moments, starting with sf from the classic imperial age and on through some very contemporary writers with different ways of relating to empire. There is definitely material in here that I'll use -- maybe some of the stuff on the Other, definitely the sense of sf being complicated and ambivalent in relation to empire but its potential as a tool for working through ideas and legacies of empire, probably some of the details of how that has worked at different moments.

I was unsurprised but disappointed that there was not a more materially grounded exploration of how exactly ideas in literature might have an impact upon a culture. Based on the readings in the course that I'm writing this paper for, it seems quite common for postcolonial literary scholars to be sure that their texts of interest are not only shaped by societies steeped in empire but go on to shape those societies in turn, but nobody quite spells out how that works in a convincing way.

Also, as useful as this book's literary insights are, and as keen as its grasp of some aspects of historical empire, there were also a few politically dubious things that only showed up later in the book. I suppose an earlier clue was the complete absence of any recognition that colonial histories do not just include the formerly colonized (or neo-colonized) so-called Third World but also still actively colonized indigenous peoples in settler societies. But the last chapter of the book said some pretty awful things about empire as social phenomenon (as opposed to literary phenomenon) that boiled down to erasing the contemporary realities of empire and colonization, completely for indigenous peoples and almost completely around Iraq and Afghanistan and other contemporary Western exertions of imperial power outside the borders claimed by settler states. As well, she presents some half-baked and largely unsupported ideas about empire as a transhistorical and psychological essence of humanity -- I may be exaggerating slightly, but it frames it in a way that downplays the role of social organization and implicitly reassures those of us who are complicit in it that, well, it's just what humans do, and whatchagonnado.

Those problems aside, for the issues that are the actual focus of the book's scholarship, it seems quite good. I'm sure I will make considerable use of it. On a more frustrating note, it also made me want to just set all of this school stuff aside and read some novels, and that's not going to happen for awhile. (How can I have never read any Kim Stanley Robinson? That's just not right!)

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