Science Fiction and Empire: Part the Second

As soon as you write down an idea, you start to realize how it needs to be qualified, expanded, and generally revised. Blogging helps this process along by giving you commentators who jump-start new thoughts. In my earlier post I suggested ways in which science fiction, a literature thematically obsessed with encounters with the alien, was shaped by the childhood experiences of a few key writers, who grew up witnessing colonialism at close hand. Thanks to the bright suggestions from David Sachs and Tim Hodler, I’ve been spurred to append a few additional notes.

 Limits of the theory. First, I should make it clear that I’m not offering a theory of the genre as a whole: the encounter with the alien is a major part of science fiction but doesn’t define the field. There is an entire tradition of gothic science fiction, coming out of Frankenstein, that has little truck with colonialism. (If you go back to the very early days of the blog, you’ll see that I’m trying to map out the relationship between science fiction and real world subjects like religion. The imperialism post is one of a series).

The Essential Ancestors.  There are two key figures who should have been singled out as the crucial instigators of imperialist-tinged science fiction. The obvious name is H.G. Wells, whose The War of the Worlds (1898) is very explicitly an allegory about imperialism. The Martians who nearly conquer the earth are acting out of the same morality that allowed the Europeans to conquer Asia and Africa. The more surprising ancestor is Wells’s great rival, Rudyard Kipling. The author of “The White Man’s Burden” deserves mention here not for his handful of proto-science fiction stories but for books like Kim and his short stories about India. Like Alice Sheldon and Paul Linebarger, Kipling was a child of empire: as a boy he spoke fluent Hindu, taught to him by a servant, and halting English. His literary achievement was to broaden the range of the British novel by introducing into it imperial argot, ranging from barrack-room cockney to bubu English.

Heinlein and Kipling. Kipling entered science fiction through Robert Heinlein. Heinlein was a great reader of the imperialist bard and constantly reworked Kipling-esque themes into science fiction settings. The military ethos of Starship Trooper is pure Kipling, and many of Heinlein’s juveniles (books aimed at teenage boys) follow the core pattern of Kim: a young man from the provinces, cocky but unsure of his identity, is initiated into adulthood through the mentorship of avuncular older men and a grueling rite of passage. Stylistically and thematically, everything in Heinlein can be traced back in to Kipling: the dialogue rich in banter and slang, the sprightly narrative pace, the evocation of an exotic environment through unexplained foreign (or alien) words and inexplicable background details, the anti-modernist faith that the world is fully knowable and conquerable, the didactic insistence on the importance of willpower (as against intelligence) in overcoming adversity, the clipped manly tone that hides a sentimental self-pity, the plebian distrust of intellectuals and other soft guardians of cultural authority, the celebration of engineers, soldiers and other competent men who get the job done without dawdle or time-consuming introspection.

Military Science Fiction. Out of Heinlein came the whole sub-genre of military science fiction: Gordon Dickenson, Jerry Pournelle, David Drake and countless others. It has to be said that Kipling was vastly superior to his children and grandchildren. He really knew how empire worked and his books grapple with genuine questions of moral responsibility. Military science fiction, by contrast, avoids these very questions by creating scenarios where morality is not an issue. In Starship Troopers, you never feel that the killing of the insect-like enemy is at all questionable (animal rights activists might disagree). More than that: the popularity of military science fiction comes from the fact that it allows readers to enjoy stories about war without thinking about the moral costs of killing human beings.

An Epigram. Kipling is to military science fiction as William Gladstone is to George W. Bush and Tony Blair: an ancestor who shames his progeny.

Other branches of the same tree. Of course, imperialist-inflicted science fiction has other branches. Much of it is implicitly anti-imperialist and tries to portray convincing alien civilizations that are treated with anthropological respect. In this regard, two other names should be mentioned: Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (who was surely influenced by the fact that her father was the great anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber) and Doris Lessing (the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, who was born in Iran and grew up in Southern Rhodesia). Many critics have been puzzled by Lessing’s forays into science fiction ( notably the five-volume Canopus in Argos: Archives Series). These books might make more sense of we see that Lessing falls into the same pattern as Alice Sheldon, Paul Linebarger, J.G. Ballard, and Gregory Benford: a child of western parents who grew up in a non-western culture and then tried to grapple with the experience by writing science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Science Fiction and Empire: Part the Second

  1. Do you really want to say that David Drake does not “grapple with genuine questions of moral responsibility… avoids these very questions by creating scenarios where morality is not an issue”? I always read David Drake as writing horror stories–stories in which only the *immoral* survive, and are thereafter haunted by what they have done…

  2. Brad DeLong makes a good point. I was a bit sloppy in listing David Drake in with run-of-the-mill military science fiction. His books, born of his experiences in Viet Nam, are much better than that. I mentioned Drake because he’s one of the best writers in the Heinlein tradition, but I should have added that he also transcends the tradition

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