- Science Fiction and Empire
Patricia Kerslake's Science Fiction and Empire opens with the very welcome assertion that sf portrayals of empire offer 'enlightening' insights when 'interrogated by general theories of postcoloniality' (3), and the book's subsequent investigation reads key sf texts through postcolonial lenses. At first, Kerslake avoids arguing that sf itself is a postcolonial literature; instead, she frames sf as a body of fiction that can offer critical perspectives regarding colonialism due to the genre's historical entanglements with imperial discourse. This is an excellent opening move; postcolonial voices clearly offer insightful critiques of empire, and such perspectives can illuminate the imperial (and sometimes anti-imperial) discourses that operate within sf narratives. The book then explores the role of imperial imaginings in the works of Isaac Asimov, Iain M. Banks, Philip K. Dick, Robert A Heinlein, Kurd Lasswitz, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, Walter M. Miller, Kim Stanley Robinson, H. G. Wells and John Wyndham
Following the introduction, the first chapter begins with a summary of 'the postcolonial notion of the Other' as theorised by Edward Said's Orientalism (1978). Said's interrogation of the binary oppositions between self/other and centre/periphery informs much of Kerslake's subsequent discussion of sf; her guiding argument is that sf conducts a variety of thought experiments in which 'self' encounters 'other', and that these experiments stage a dialectical process in which the 'self' can ultimately be discovered: 'we are never able to realise what we are in the absence of alterity', she argues, and 'the greater the possible difference between "us" and "them", the greater becomes humanity's potential to develop, and many major works of SF have focused upon this philosophical desire to discover the ultimate condition of humankind' (10). Unfortunately, this argument implies that sf as a whole is committed to the notion of 'humankind' and to an Enlightenment worldview in which human progress unfolds in relation to an 'other' against which the progressive 'self' can be measured. While this is certainly true of some sf, N. Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway (among others) have shown that sf may challenge Enlightenment constructions of the 'human', and it is only by avoiding certain sf voices (such as those of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany) that such an assertion can be made without challenge. [End Page 131]
This leads to one of my moderate criticisms of the book: Science Fiction and Empire tends to treat both 'postcolonial theory' and 'science fiction' as undifferentiated objects, and Kerslake sometimes defines science fiction against postcolonialism. This opposition reduces both entities into oversimplified straw-men, and in such moments her analysis performs the binary 'othering' that she seeks to expose and unpack in sf itself. Kerslake's analysis is perhaps weakest when she valorises postcolonial theory at the expense of sf; she argues, for example, that 'Postcolonial thought accepts and embraces the concept of the Other, as it enables polyvalency and hybridity, but in SF the Other must forever remain a figure apart: poised somewhere between angel and demon, an existence hovering on the imaginary boundaries of the known' (11). While it is true that some sf holds the other at a distance, much of sf also theorises 'otherness' in complex and interesting ways; Samuel Delany and Brian Aldiss (to name just two examples) were theorising polyvalency alongside poststructuralist and postcolonial critics early in the 1960s, and contemporary television shows such as Battlestar Galactica (US/UK 2003–9), during its best moments, can offer a complex interrogation of imperial self/other constructions. In short, not all (or even most) sf frames the other as an absolute angel or demon. Furthermore, Kerslake's textual readings are sometimes at odds with her theoretical claims in this regard; her own strong analysis of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (in chapter two) shows at least one sf novel engaged in a much more troubled, satirical and ambivalent exploration of the boundaries between human and non-human than her guiding introductory claims allow.
Kerslake's second chapter, 'Resistance is Futile: Silencing and Cultural Appropriation', argues that sf...