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chapter five Visions of Catastrophe Representations of disaster establish themselves early on as one of science fiction’s most recurrent features. One can derive the collective, anonymous repetitiousness of early science fiction’s vocabulary of disaster from its deep roots in the Christian apocalyptic tradition, and the persistence of last-man fantasies, fantasies of inundation, and the like also suggests a need for psychoanalytic interpretation.1 While such explanations respond well to the recurrence and repetitiousness of stories of disaster, however, they also can tend to cast the fiction’s specific allusions to the political and economic realities of the day as merely the passing occasions for such repetition. But these allusions are not merely superficial trappings attached to an archetypal theme. For, although science fiction disasters are often about the end of the world, whether it be the coming of a disaster that recalls the fire and brimstone visitations of the wrath of Jehovah, or the dawning of Armageddon, a war to the death of a race or a civilization , what is most persistently at stake in them is not the world’s end but its transformation by modernity. Science fiction sometimes is seen as a genre that embraces modernity wholeheartedly, but its visions of catastrophe display a more divided and complex set of attitudes. This is especially true when the fiction deals with the anxieties that colonial and imperial projects generated in the homelands . Here one finds, in fact, that visions of catastrophe appear in large part to be the symmetrical opposites of colonial ideology’s fantasies of appropriation , so much so that the lexicon of science-fictional catastrophes might be considered profitably as the obverse of the celebratory narratives of exploration and discovery, the progress of civilization, the advance of science, and the unfolding of racial destiny that formed the Official Story of colonialism. Moreover, such logical or emotional inversion of the fantasies of appropriation is not just an imaginary effect. Environmental devastation , species extinction, enslavement, plague, and genocide following in the wake of invasion by an alien civilization with vastly superior technology —all of these are not merely nightmares morbidly fixed upon by science fiction writers and readers, but are rather the bare historical record of what happened to non-European people and lands after being “discovered ” by Europeans and integrated into Europe’s economic and political arrangements from the fifteenth century to the present. The way that history haunts science fiction’s visions of catastrophe is the point of departure for this book’s final chapter. The antithetical relation of colonial or imperial triumphalism to sciencefictional catastrophes is in some instances a straightforward matter of the fiction’s reversing the positions of colonizer and colonized, master and slave, core and periphery. This relatively simple procedure yields complex results in the three influential and momentous texts with which we will begin: George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871), Richard Jefferies’s After London; or, Wild England (1885), and H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898). Written against the backdrop provided by the climax of Britain’s imperial expansion, each of these bases its main fictional strategy, the exhibition of the mighty humbled, on the premise of England’s imperial supremacy and its centrality to the world economy. Next, in a wider and more diverse group of texts written from the 1890s to the 1930s, we observe the way that fantasies of appropriation and conquest sometimes project a set of internal contradictions onto an exterior where they, or their surrogates , can be violently eliminated. The association of such exiling or violent purgation of internal contradictions with the consolidation of a utopian enclave—as in J. M. Brown’s Riallaro and Limanora, for example —is a well-known structural feature of many utopian fictions. In the texts considered here, however, the emphasis lies more heavily on defensive reactions to an outside threat than on social planning, suggesting, I will argue, that the pattern of purification and violence alludes to the mounting imperial competition of the pre–World War I and interwar decades. Finally, I will ask how tales of invasion can help us speak to the transition from colonial to postcolonial visions of modernity and its attendant catastrophes. Here we will concentrate on a nonmilitary form of invasion —contagion—a certain form of which achieves striking, symptomatic popularity in post–World War II American science fiction. 124 ❍ COLONIALISM AND THE EMERGENCE OF SCIENCE FICTION The Mighty Humbled, 1871–1898 England’s ascendancy as an...


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