Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction

August 7, 2008

Niall Ferguson, in his book and Channel 4 series The War of the World (2006), argues that the turbulent history of the 20th century may be largely interpreted as the fallout of various countries' imperial ambitions. As his title, with its reference to H.G. Wells's seminal novel, The War of the Worlds, suggests, there is a growing awareness that such early science fiction texts are crucially concerned with issues of empire, race and domination.

However, until now no monograph has attempted to explore the imbrication of the emergent genre of science fiction with the history of colonialism. John Rieder's painstakingly researched book is an attempt to fill this critical lacuna. Unsurprisingly, Wells's fiction features prominently, alongside other canonical 19th-century writers such as H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley. Rieder also uncovers many lesser-known exemplars of early science fiction, including James De Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888) and William Henry Hudson's A Crystal Age (1887), making the volume a useful resource for scholars working in the field.

The main disappointment of the study is that it does not pay sufficient attention to the colonial context in which the proto-science fiction texts are being written. Even during the limited period Rieder examines, the mid-19th century through the two world wars, there were different phases of colonial expansion, and the colonial enterprise had different manifestations in empire's diverse regions. The discussion of Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) as a model of "lost-race fiction", for instance, could be enhanced by discussion of the Scramble for Africa, the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the first South African or Boer War of 1880-81, all of which arguably influenced the narrative.

There is detailed discussion of the novels, but too little theorisation of the relationship of science fiction with colonialism. The genre must to some extent have a mimetic function, but may also have contributed to colonial processes and policies by enabling particular imaginative foci. There is also a distinct lack of a theoretical framework to Rieder's often insightful criticism.

Aside from some attempt to grapple with the science fiction theory of Darko Suvin, a few scanty allusions to Marx and two frustratingly truncated references to Edward Said, there is little in the way of philosophical structure. The work could benefit from awareness of postcolonial theory's developments, particularly when discussing the recurrent images of cyborgs and hybrids in early science fiction.

There is some effort to bring the book up to date in the final section of the last chapter, where texts by J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick and Jack Finney are discussed alongside the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. But the book suffers from the lack of a conclusion and, as such, Rieder's argument seems to trail off. In summary, then, it is a useful volume that would benefit from closer historical attention and an overarching theoretical approach.

Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction

By John Rieder. Wesleyan University Press. 200pp, £47.95 and £17.50. ISBN 9780819568731 and 68748. Published 15 June 2008

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