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Colonial Ambiguity and Ambivalence in Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian Trilogy

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 13, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 101-132 | 10.1353/ncr.2013.0019

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In her study of Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, Sherryl Vint argues that Jones “uses her trilogy to effect a series of deconstructions of the boundaries between self and alien” (2001, 399) in “a call for a new kind of human subject that is not patterned on subject formation through repudiation” (402). Representing not just an alternative, but a promise of viewing the self not “as [a] separate object[s] in empty space” but “part of a continuum,” and the “heterarchy of life” (Jones 1998, 227), the Aleutians are cast as a utopian model of subjectivity because they make no distinction between gender, as they are themselves hermaphrodites, recognizing personhood in every individual, and extending respect for all living things. I agree with much of what Vint outlines in her insightful essay, but am uneasy fully accepting her conclusion that the Aleutians are Donna Haraway’s (1993) “hopeful monsters” or her suggestion that the Aleutians have even partially effected such a powerful shift in humanity’s understanding of subjectivity because Vint, and I believe Jones herself, refuses to recognize the Aleutians’ position as colonizers. To do so would require acknowledging that the Aleutians are similar to humanity in ways that unravel the utopian vision.

It is not my intention to respond to Vint point-by-point in this essay: far from it. Rather, I seek to offer a reading of the Aleutian trilogy that emphasizes the Aleutians’ complicity with colonialism, which, while undermining Jones’s hopeful view of her aliens as “some unexplored possibility for the human race” (1999, 119), opens up the trilogy to a contemplation of the ambiguity and ambivalence that attends the colonial project. By presenting a first contact cum colonial narrative that is not quite sure colonialism has actually occurred, Jones’s trilogy itself takes an ambivalent position in relation to what I consider the series’ “other” plot. If its main plot is about an imminent apocalypse rooted in humanity’s refusal to accord subjectivity to all (and the aliens’ presence a sharp reminder of our stubborn adherence to rigid notions of gender and selfhood) as well as its failure to be proper stewards of the planet, then the plot lurking in the shadows is about the colonial encounter. I recognize, of course, that these two plots are intertwined, since the colonial project has always been about the denial of subjectivity to those nameless, faceless others that threaten the entire enterprise, but upon whom the entire enterprise is also built. By deconstructing some of the standard tropes of the colonial encounter while adhering to others, the Aleutian trilogy is in a push-and-pull relationship with its own plot. I argue, however, that despite the seeming inconsistencies of her narrative regarding colonialism, Jones presents very specific, and rather familiar, arguments about colonialism that remain important as science fiction continues its own push-and-pull relationship with one of the ur-plots of the genre.

In sharply condensed form, the following is the “colonization” plot of Gwyneth Jones’s science fiction trilogy, White Queen, North Wind, and Phoenix Café: a group of aliens stumble upon Earth in 2038 after generations spent traveling through space in search of trade, not conquest; rather than making a sophisticated or impressive entrance, a number of them crash land in Africa, while another group that lands at an American military base situated on the Aleutian islands is seen as a hoax, and all records of that strange first contact are wiped. Over the next few months tentative communication is established with humanity, whose reactions to the visitors range from curiosity, hostility, and disinterest. After squelching an incipient resistance movement by exploiting humanity’s fears about what it thinks the aliens can do, for the next 300 years the “Aleutians” ostensibly occupy Earth, throughout remaining rather aloof spectators of the various human dramas unfolding during their time on the planet, including the worldwide gender wars and the collapse of the United States into socialism. There is no great sense of victory or even relief when the Aleutians leave: the planet teeters on the precipice of either total destruction or the dawn of a new age. The removal of the Aleutians is a minor...

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