restricted access Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction by John Rieder (review)
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John Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2008, xiixii + 183183pp. US$24.95 (pbk).

As Rieder explains in the opening sentence, this book's central concern is with 'the connection between the early history of the genre of English-language science fiction and the history and discourses of colonialism' (1). By English language, he means Anglo-American (there is no discussion of Australian sf, for example), and by early history mainly the period from Wells through to the heyday of American pulp fiction under Gernsback and Campbell. The argument is not that sf served to legitimate imperialist ideology - although, of course, it sometimes did - but rather that the genre has a necessarily contradictory relationship to the imperial context within which it developed. Drawing an interesting parallel between sf and ethnology, Rieder writes that 'The double-edged effect of the exotic - as a means of gratifying familiar appetites and as a challenge to one's sense of the proper or the natural - pervades early science fiction' (4). So 'science fiction exposes something that colonialism imposes'; colonialism, he continues, 'is part of the genre's texture, a persistent, important component of its displaced references to history' (15).

The argument is pursued through the key authors and texts of early Anglo-American sf, analysed in relation to four defining motifs in the development of the genre. The first of these is the lost race or lost world story, considered as a fantasy of exploration and appropriation. Here, Rieder's primary focus is on Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), Allan Quatermain (1887) and She (1887), and on Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger novels, especially The Lost World (1912) itself. But he also traces the motif's persistence into American pulp fiction, for example in Merritt's The Moon Pool (1918-19), which was reprinted in Amazing Stories in 1927. The social contradiction these stories repeatedly 'solve', Rieder concludes, is that 'between colonial claims to the territory's resources and land, and the competing claims of the indigenous people' (40).

The second motif is that of the impossible facts of sf's fictional sciences and the 'dramas of interpretation' they prompt. Here, Rieder ranges widely across the field, but his key texts are Poe's 1845 short story 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar', which Gernsback included in the very first issue of Amazing; [End Page 138] John MacMillan Brown's Rialloro and Limanora, both first published in 1931; Wells's The First Men in the Moon (1901) and The Time Machine (1895); William Henry Hudson's A Crystal Age (1887); and Jack London's 1918 short story 'The Red One'. The tension between satirical analogy to the real world and impossible fictional fact engages 'one of the central problems of colonial discourse', Rieder argues, that of the extent to which 'the exotic other is ... understood only as a distorted projection of the observer' (68). Here, however, the distinctively colonial character of the discourse is less obviously apparent than in lost-race fiction. Anthropocentrism need not imply ethnocentrism and neither is necessarily predicated on either imperialism or colonialism.

Rieder quotes Lenin's Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916-7) with enthusiasm, especially the hypothesis that imperialism produced in the imperial powers a so-called labour aristocracy 'aligned with the bourgeoisie at home' (26-7). He writes that the resultant 'conflicted class position' of the British working class, 'poised between the upper classes at home and the colonized nations abroad', helps to explain the 'complex identification and repulsion' Wells's Time Traveller feels towards the Eloi and the Morlocks (86-7). In strictly literary-critical terms, this seems less persuasive than more conventional readings of the story in straightforwardly class terms. Moreover, the entire argument almost certainly rests on a false premise. For, as Charles Post has convincingly demonstrated, labour-aristocracy theory is 'neither ... theoretically rigorous nor factually realistic' (7).

Rieder's third motif is that of the influence of colonial racism on representations of artificially produced intelligent beings, whether monster, hybrid or cyborg. The motif is traced back to Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), forward to Stapledon's Last and...