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Postcolonial Science, Cyberpunk and The Calcutta Chromosome

From: Intertexts
Volume 16, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 1-14 | 10.1353/itx.2012.0010

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The pairing of science fiction and fantasy (sf&f) has always struck me as rather odd given the mutually opposing ontology and epistemology of each. While both science fiction and fantasy develop coherent and consistent story-worlds, the emphasis of science fiction is on technology and the rational; whereas, fantasy writing eschews technology (or keeps it at the pre-industrial level) and prefers the mystical. Although the continued pairing of sf&f may have more to do with the demands of publishers and booksellers, its literary roots may be in the parent genre of the adventure tale. According to an accepted genealogy, science fiction is essentially fantasy with lasers and spaceships in place of magic spells, and fantasy in turn is essentially the romance tale. Northrop Frye captures the lineage as well as any critic: “Science fiction frequently tries to imagine what life would be like on a plane as far above us as we are above savagery; its setting is often of a kind that appears to us technologically miraculous. It is thus a mode of romance with a strong tendency to myth” (49).

Appropriately, science fiction writing has long been the domain of writers from developed industrialized (and more recently post-industrialized) countries while fantasy has attracted a more global authorship. Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, and The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, trouble all manner of genre distinctions and by doing so draw attention to the constellation of science, colonialism, and cultural production.

Nalo Hopkinson writes science fiction and fantasy. That should be just a descriptive statement but given that she is only one of a handful of black writers writing sf&f and a member of an even smaller group of Caribbean writers doing so, it is also a value statement. As a writer of sf&f, Hopkinson is in the company of writers who often depend on various ethnographic and anthropological studies for their evocation of alien cultures. Even the more sophisticated writers frequently turn to various third-world cultures in creating their alien or extrapolated cultures. I suppose it should not be a matter of any great surprise to see sf writers (I don’t think I need to say “white” sf writers) appropriating somebody else’s culture and making it the basis of an extraterrestrial culture or the basis of a romantic critique of their own extrapolated culture. After all, they’ve been doing so for a long time. The difference has been in the degree of the visibility of the theft or borrowing. Writers such as Frank Herbert steal quite openly whereas those such as Ursula K. LeGuin do it much more subtly (or as in the case of LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, reverently). LeGuin and Herbert are a welcome change, however, from the lesser sf&f novelists who in more ways than one continue with the tropes and biases of 19th century European travel writing or colonial adventure stories.

Amitav Ghosh is a prize-winning writer born in Calcutta who has to date written seven novels, two works of non-fiction, and numerous essays. His work has breathed new life into old historical episodes, brought to awareness all but forgotten geographies, and focused attention on the connections between past and present. Although Ghosh has explored the varied trajectories between tradition and modernity in a number of his novels, The Calcutta Chromosome (1996) is his most sustained examination of the place of science and technology in colonial India.

The colonialist understanding of the world in the last two centuries sees the colonies as devoid of any meaningful science and as the possessors of only ancient technologies. Such a colonialist view is sufficiently strong enough in even the mid-twentieth century to cause anti-colonialist reformers and revolutionaries to promote Western science education in the colonies. Sandra Harding suggests that if one uses a more inclusive definition of science then the relationship between Europe and the East is no longer one of modernity and development but of the interaction of different sciences. If one sees science not in its contemporary meaning but in its older meaning as natural philosophy, then Harding’s definition of science as “any systematic attempt to produce...

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