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chapter one Introduction The Colonial Gaze and the Frame of Science Fiction The question organizing this book concerns the connection between the early history of the genre of English-language science fiction and the history and discourses of colonialism. Consider first a brief example. Those searching out the origins of science fiction in English have often pointed to classical and European marvelous journeys to other worlds as an important part of its genealogy (e.g., Philmus 37–55; Aldiss 67–89; Stableford 18–23). It makes sense that if science fiction has anything to do with modern science (I am deferring the problem of defining “science fiction” until the fourth section of this chapter), the Copernican shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric understanding of the solar system provides a crucial point where the ancient plot of the marvelous journey starts becoming something like science fiction, because the Copernican shift radically changed the status of other worlds in relation to our own. An Earth no longer placed at the center of the universe became, potentially, just one more among the incalculable plurality of worlds. Of all the marvelous journeys to other worlds written in Galileo’s seventeenth century, Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon and the Sun (first translated into English in 1656) is the one that science fiction scholars have expressed the greatest admiration for (see Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction 103–106). All the scholars I’ve cited would agree that the main work of Cyrano’s satire is hardly a matter of celestial mechanics, however. Its crux is the way it mocks, parodies, criticizes, and denaturalizes the cultural norms of his French contemporaries. The importance of his satire has far less to do with Copernicus’s taking the Earth out of the center of the solar system than with Cyrano’s taking his own culture out of the center of the human race, making it no longer definitive of the range of human possibilities. The example of Cyrano suggests that the disturbance of ethnocentrism, the achievement of a perspective from which one’s own culture is only one of a number of possible cultures, is as important a part of the history of science fiction, as much a condition of possibility for the genre’s coming to be, as developments in the physical sciences. The achievement of an estranged , critical perspective on one’s home culture always has been one of the potential benefits of travel in foreign lands. In the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, Europeans greatly expanded the extent and the kinds of contacts they had with the non-European world. Between the time of Cyrano and that of H. G. Wells, those contacts enveloped the world in a Europe-centered system of commerce and political power. Europeans mapped the non-European world, settled colonies in it, mined it and farmed it, bought and sold some of its inhabitants, and ruled over many others. In the process of all of this, they also developed a scientific discourse about culture and mankind. Its understanding of human evolution and the relation between culture and technology played a strong part in the works of Wells and his contemporaries that later came to be called science fiction. Evolutionary theory and anthropology, both profoundly intertwined with colonial ideology and history, are especially important to early science fiction from the mid-nineteenth century on. They matter first of all as conceptual material. Ideas about the nature of humankind are central to any body of literature, but scientific accounts of humanity’s origins and its possible or probable futures are especially basic to science fiction. Evolutionary theory and anthropology also serve as frameworks for the Social Darwinian ideologies that pervade early science fiction. The complex mixture of ideas about competition, adaptation, race, and destiny that was in part generated by evolutionary theory, and was in part an attempt to come to grips with—or to negate—its implications, forms a major part of the thematic material of early science fiction.1 These will be recurrent topics of discussion in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. The thesis that colonialism is a significant historical context for early science fiction is not an extravagant one. Indeed, its strong foundation in the obvious has been well recognized by scholars of science fiction. Most historians of science fiction agree that utopian and satirical representations of encounters between European travelers and non-Europeans—such as Thomas More...


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