Science Fiction and the Age of Empire

Alice Sheldon in Kenya, 1922

In 1922, when she was 7 years old, Alice Sheldon’s parents, wealthy Americans who liked to play at being explorers, took her to Africa.  The photo above, showing the curly-haired blonde girl in pith helmet and white dress surrounded by nearly naked Kenyans at a ceremonial dance, is a striking record of her visit. Her mother wrote genial children’s books recording the adventures of Alice in Elephantland and Alice in Jungleland. But Alice herself had harsher and more vivid memories of her time in Africa. As she wrote late in life in Africa she “found herself interacting with … lepers, black royalty in lion skins, white royalty in tweeds, Arab slaves, functional saints and madmen in power, poets, killers, collared eunuchs, world famous actors with head colds, blacks who ate their enemies and a white who had eaten his friends; and above all, women: chattel-women deliberately starved, deformed, blinded, and enslaved; women in nuns’ habits saving the world; an Englishwoman in bloomers riding out from her castle at the head of a personal Moslem army; women, from the routinely tortured, obscenely mutilated slave-wives of the ‘advanced’ Kikuyu, to the free, propertied Sumatran matriarchs who ran the economy and brought 600 years of peaceful prosperity to the Menang-Kabaui; all these were known before [Sheldon] had a friend or playmate of her own age.”

 Sheldon had a variety of careers as an adult: as a painter, as a scholar in psychology, and as an analyst for the CIA. But she found her niche and a lasting reputation when she took the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. and became one of the leading science fiction writers of the 1970s. Tiptree was particularly celebrated for two qualities: his sympathetic portrayal of women (although many were surprised when the authors true name and gender were revealed) and an equal skill in depicting alien life forms and extra-terrestrial civilizations with imaginative empathy.

A surprisingly large number of science fiction writers have had backgrounds as exotic as Alice Sheldon’s, often involving time spent in far flung European colonies during the age of empire. Paul Linebarger (1913-1966) had a life that paralleled Sheldon’s farflung career in many ways. His father was a close confidant of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese nationalist. Linebarger grew up partially in China, had a fluent command of Chinese, and after World War II worked as a consultant on Asia policy for the CIA. As Cordwainer Smith, Linebarger wrote science fiction stories much loved with their ability to evoke an utterly alien far future civilization.

J.G. Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930, the son of a chemist who worked for the China Printing and Finishing Company. With his parents Ballard was interned by the Japanese during the Second World War, an experience he described in his memorable novel Empire of the Sun (1984). Ballard is also known, of course, for his apocalyptic science fiction novels which often show civilizations wrecked by ecological and technological disasters. “I show all these entropic universes with everything running down,” Ballard told an interviewer in 1979. ” I think it has a lot to do with my childhood in Shanghai during the war. Shanghai was a huge, wide open city full of political gangsters, criminals of every conceivable kind, a melting pot for refugees from Europe, and white Russians, refugees from the Russian revolution — it was a city with absolutely no restraints on anything. Gambling, racketeering, prostitution, and everything that comes from the collisions between the very rich — there were thousands of millionaires — and the very poor — no one was ever poorer than the Shanghai proletariat. On top of that, superimpose World War II.”

One last example: Gregory Benford, born in 1941, grew up partially in Japan where his father was part of the American occupation on the staff of General MacArthur.  Some of Benford’s science fiction novels are very interesting because they attempt to bring in a Buddhist cosmology into a literary tradition that general takes for granted Judeo-Christian morality.

The questions worth asking are: to what extent has science fiction been a product of the age of empire, and especially its violent expiration? Are the aliens in science fiction simply an attempt to imaginatively render the experience of living being a westerner in an non-western culture? Is science fiction less about the future than about the encounter with other cultures?

(The photo in this post is from Julie Phillips’s 2006 biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon).

4 thoughts on “Science Fiction and the Age of Empire

  1. I agree with your premise but I don’t think its necessary to look too deeply into it- such as the idea that the violent expiration of the age of empire is a necessary part of the sci-fi culture, or that this is a Western/non-Western phenomena. I think that the interactions of cultures of past centuries was by itself a sufficiently mind-blowing thing to be simply extended to the next level of visiting other planets. If you look at older adventure novels about interactions with exotic culture, they read very much like more modern sci-fi books- see King Solomon’s Mines, for example. From our world view its hard to imagine just how foreign foreign cultures used to be- but at the time whites arrived in the Americas, those cultures and races must have seemed as alien as Romulans and Klingons. The difficulty in travel, and courage/desperation it would have taken to undertake such expeditions were on a par with our most outrageous sci-fi epics of travel to the stars. The conquistadors were actually viewed as heavenly beings by the Incas, who threw down their weapons and bowed; the white men matched the images of Inca mythology.
    For a great contemporary story of the meeting of cultures in the almost modern world, check out ‘I Married Adventure’ by ? Johnson, about her and her husband working as the first National Geographic photographers and cinematographers in the Pacific isles and Africa in the early 20th century.

  2. Sorry Jeet, I forgot to mention that that was a pretty interesting history you compiled there. I had never heard of those specific author experiences, and its pretty amazing.

  3. I think there’s definitely something to this idea, though as always, things get complicated.

    You don’t have to go much further than H.G. Wells’s WAR OF THE WORLDS to see how imperialism is embedded into science fiction right from the beginning. Of course, there are many kinds of science fiction, and the technophobic strands that come out of FRANKENSTEIN don’t seem to have much to do with foreign policy.

    It’s also true that different regional traditions of science fiction work differently with regard to these questions. British sf, from Wells to Wyndham to Aldiss and Ballard, was generally speaking much more ironic and less triumphantly imperialistic than the space-age heroics of post-war American sf. John Clute didn’t come up with the idea, but he’s written extensively on this topic, and if I’m remembering correctly, feels that Canadian science fiction writers (Van Vogt, William Gibson, Robert Charles Wilson) represent still another response to imperialism, one that is not rooted in either defeatism or jingoism but a sort of outsider’s view of it all.

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