I’ve been trying this year to gather together all my writing that isn’t already on the blog and put it here for easy reference. This review appeared in Vector in 2012.
(This is always a mildly embarrassing exercise in seeing how much my writing has/hasn’t matured in the last few years. Rereading this piece, I’m mostly a little alarmed that “this book does interesting things, but it does not do all the things” appears to be a recurring ending in my reviews of academic works; see also this review from 2014 in Strange Horizons. Is this just me, or do other people feel tempted to come to this conclusion on a regular basis?)
In her introduction to Postcolonialism and Science Fiction Jessica Langer speaks of two major science fictional tropes that have been a part of the genre since its inception. She calls these “the stranger” and “the strange land”; the grotesque alien invader and the planet to be conquered and settled by Earth. That these tropes function in ways that closely parallel the real world history of colonialism is not a big leap to make. Particularly when, as John Rieder notes in Colonialism and the History of Science Fiction (2008), many of the genre’s foundational texts were written when colonialism was at its height.
Science fiction, then, provides us with another way to talk about our alien others who may here become literally alien. When violent encounters with the alien “other” are so fundamental a part of the genre’s history, what forms would a postcolonial SF take and what strategies would it employ? These are the questions that Langer attempts to address.
Before any of this Langer must first arrive at a definition of science fiction; a contentious issue, as she admits. Though gesturing toward more rigorous definitions from Darko Suvin and Carl Freedman, she ultimately rejects them. This is in part because the Western narrative of scientific progress (all but synonymous with “science” in most definitions of the genre) has had an unhappy relationship with the history of colonialism. As she demonstrates in a later chapter, the discourse of science was often used to serve the interests of the colonial project, often by “proving” that other races were inferior or less evolved. Langer contends that a postcolonial science fiction needs to expand its definition of science and foreground indigenous systems of knowledge as being as valid as (and in some cases more sound than) Western scientific thought. She sees no contradiction in a science fiction that also contains elements of the fantastic and the spiritual. In the introduction Langer aligns herself with Ursula K. Le Guin’s almost anti-definition of SF. Le Guin believes that there is so much overlap between the genres “as to render any effort at exclusive definition useless.” Certainly the works discussed, including Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) and Vandana Singh’s Distances (2008), blur genre boundaries.
Discussing postcolonial literature in sweeping terms when most countries in the world might be considered postcolonial is a rather daunting prospect and Langer chooses to focus most of her attention on two specific contexts: those of Japan and Canada. She notes that postcolonial theory has often been constructed in terms of East versus West, with less attention paid to what she refers to as the “sites of trouble” that do not fit comfortably into this dichotomy. In Japan’s case, this complex relationship with colonialism comes from the fact that it too has a history of imperialism. The A-bomb, for Langer, “represents the collision of two imperialisms, Japanese and American,” and she focuses on the country’s conception of itself and its past since the Second World War. A section comparing various adaptations of Komatsu Sakyō’s Japan Sinks (1973) is particularly interesting here. In the case of Canada, Langer explores the postcoloniality of a settler colony. In a sense, the country is not really postcolonial since the colonisers have never left. Referring to works by Hopkinson, Eden Robinson and Larissa Lai, Langer considers both sorts of postcolonial subject–the immigrant and the First Nations peoples marginalised within the country.
A recurring concern is that of the critic Yamano Kōichi, who describes post-war Japanese SF as having “moved into a prefabricated house” (i.e. modelled itself entirely on American works in the genre). Any genre imposes certain limits upon those writing in it but SF’s historical link with empire makes the question of a postcolonial form of SF particularly hard to answer. Postcolonial writers can (and do) engage directly with the more problematic tropes but they will face, as Audre Lorde might put it, the difficulty of trying to bring down the master’s house with the master’s tools. This is true even of the most potentially radical form of SF that the book discusses: the online role-playing game.
The chapter on race and identity in the virtual world is the book’s most engaging. Colonialism at first may seem impossible in a limitless cyberspace which elides such physical markers of difference as race and gender. Even though the emergence of the avatar has led to a “re-embodiment” of online presentation, a player still chooses how she presents herself. Langer quotes Maria Fernadez’s assertion that players of MMORPGs “are authors not only of the text but of themselves.” Langer focuses on World of Warcraft which she reads as SF in part because of the presence in the game of a technologically advanced alien race. Her contention is that the in-game conflict between the Alliance and the Horde structures itself in terms of the familiar/other, civilised/savage, centre/periphery divide. Too much of this chapter is given over to a catalogue of the races within the game and the human cultural groups they represent and yet the chapter also manages to discuss the uses of cultural stereotyping and the politics of the virtual minstrelsy involved in playing as “the other.” (For a discussion that contains multiple iterations of the word “Bhabhaian” this is amazingly accessible.) Langer speaks of the potential for radical change in the game if players actively work counter to the politics of the framework, but I think she may be a little too optimistic. Earlier in the chapter she cites Lisa Nakamura’s criticism in Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet (2002) that virtual identities limit our choices of how we present ourselves by “making only certain modes of presentation available” and surely this is equally applicable to attempts to radicalise World of Warcraft.
The vastness of the subject matter means that there is very little space devoted to individual texts. In some cases this is not a problem–the sections on Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (2004) are particularly enlightening–but other works, like Saladin Ahmed’s “The Faithful Soldier, Prompted” (2010), suffer. Yet it’s hard to see how this could have been avoided. There is relatively little scholarship in this area of science fiction studies, but there’s time enough for works with a narrower, yet deeper focus. For now, Langer’s book is a good place to start.