The Science Fiction of Empire: the Best of All Possible Worlds?

Dr Tris Kerslake, author of the book Science Fiction and Empire (2010), provides the final post of our multi-week roundtable on science fiction and imperial history, co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann. You can read our call for posts here, and the other posts in the series here, here, here, here, herehere, here, and here. Thanks to all of our participants for writing and we’re still looking forward to hearing what you think!

Tris Kerslake
Central Queensland University

It has been a pleasure and an academic delight to be involved in this series of essays focused at the interconnection of Science Fiction (SF) and imperialism. Long considered the sandbox of neo-empire, these particular thought-experiments of SF cast their shadows both backwards and forwards.

This grand cycle of discussions, of examining SF through an imperial frame, began with Joel Barnes’ exploration of the wild frontier in ‘Colonising the Verse: Genre, Imperialism and Frontier Violence in Firefly and Serenity. Barnes marries the twin drives of humankind’s imagination and extrapolated science 500 years in the future, when Earth is no more, but humans have managed to venture beyond our own solar system and push onwards by terraforming the galaxy. Firefly’s Central Planets, still the centre of humanity, become the seat of knowledge and luxury while the periphery is considered lawless and dangerous, the ‘edge’ of civilisation. And it is within this volatile shell of an ever-expanding sphere that the stories of the firefly-class ship Serenity and her crew exist.

Connecting great space opera with the visceral images of the ‘Western’, Barnes takes us on a serious investigation of the need to identify what is ‘Other’. In an effort to make the centre a human elite and eternally compelling (Isaac Asimov describes Trantor, the centre of his Foundation and Empire series in this way), then everywhere else must, by definition, become lesser: less attractive, less critical, less human. Serenity and her crew interrogate this assumption, demonstrating that, in the absence of the obviously alien, humans seem forever doomed to create them from within our own ranks. This is as tragic in futuristic SF as it was in 1940s Germany.

Leigh McKagan offered the next insight into SF and the Imperial project in ‘“To boldly go!”: Adventure and Empire in Star Trek’. Long considered a space-drama of the most obvious sort, Trekkies will advise non-believers that, like the proverbial iceberg, there is a great deal more beneath the surface. In her discussion, McKagan stabs directly to Star Trek’s utopian heart by suggesting that the very activity of ‘boldly going where no one has gone before’ is actually the latest take on British Victorian gentlemen’s exploration. Instead of a technologically-advanced USS Enterprise and form-fitting onesies, consider instead, the great steamships taking tweed-clad, pith-helmeted explorers to the edge of the ‘civilised’ world.

In the same way that today’s digital analytics collect and collate vast taxonomies of data from around the planet, McKagan suggests we can extrapolate this activity to a much greater sphere of endeavour, where, instead of visits to a website, we examine differing visits to the scattered planets and worlds of the periphery. The activity is rendered more acceptable through the inculcation of virtue ethics among the heroic explorers featured prominently throughout the storylines. As she argues, ‘engagement with new civilizations is a requisite for imperial action. Star Trek is not exempt from this possibility’.

Following the boys boldly going, I offered a few thoughts from the sinister side of the page in  ‘Deadlier than the male: The imperial designs of Le Guin, McCaffrey and May’. It feels strange that anyone might assume women SF writers are capable of only the lightest of fictions. Of course, there are such stories in the SF pantheon and rightly so, but to consign the works of authors such as Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey and Julian May to the ‘simply fantasy’ shelf does the entire genre a disservice. Their dark and iconic notions of empire stride hugely across the page. Not only are these past women authors beacons that offer guidance to the current crop of SF authors (Madeline Ashby, Tricia Sullivan, Malka Older as examples), but they have entirely refuted the misconception of the ‘woman SF writer’. It is refreshing to see that the long-standing magazine ‘2000AD’ is finally devoting a serious look at women in SF in a 2018 sci-fi special.

A different perspective of the Star Trek universe was offered by Ahmed R. Memon in ‘Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets: a far-future League of Nations?’ Focusing on Star Trek: Discovery, Memon argues that the underlying concept behind Star Trek’s futuristic vision is an extrapolation of the United Nations Charter. Upon examination, it becomes clear, though, that the UN is not the only federated model within the Gene Roddenberry universe, and that we can look even further back to the venerable League of Nations (1920-1946). Aligning the mission statement of the United Federation of Planets with the two earlier bodies, we see an obvious continuation of values. This makes sense; futuristic utopias clearly have to be built on concepts of peace, security, and social progress, yes?

But of course the principal members of the League (the British Empire, most of Europe; China, South America), were themselves informed by an imperial mindset, as Memon points out. The League of Nations, formed after the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919, was designed for collective security, disarmament, and arbitration in moments of international conflict. Having the founding members set out the goals for a future global peace meant that the notion, laudable in intent, could only work on imperialistic terms. Judging by the ongoing mission of Star Trek, the resultant conflicts were not limited to the twentieth century.

The desert planet Arrakis forms the backdrop for Toby Harper’s insightful exploration of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). ‘“Going Native” with Dune’s Paul Atreides’ takes us on a discursive journey beginning in a popularist imperial fantasy and ending with the tragedy of neo-empire as the old centre is superseded and a new God-Emperor in the guise of Paul Atreides claims an all-consuming power. As the ‘Kwisatz Haderach’, the young Atreides scion gains the ability to discern other futures. The one he chooses, at some cost to himself, is the one he believes offers the greatest likelihood of peace in the universe. That this future will take the shape of a new (and greatly expanded) imperial theocracy, suggests that any peace will be temporary.

Harper makes useful analogies between Dune and nineteenth-century imperial struggles. The most apposite of these is that of T. E. Lawrence and the European imperial project in the Middle East ranging from the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 until the end of World War II. Not only can we see the inculcation of empire in the text, but also evidence of the nineteenth century’s European terror at the notion that one of their own might ‘go native’. The imperial centre can forgive almost any excess but that. Paul Atreides’ willingness to abandon his own ‘side’ and become Other is his death warrant.

Using the threat of cannibalism as a triple-layered device for critiquing imperialism in the latest Marvel film Black Panther (2018), Rachel B. Herrmann gives us ‘The Threat of Cannibalism and Wakanda’s Place in the World’. The threat itself is simple: do as I say or we will eat you, an ironic warning since those actually making the threat are vegetarians. However, Herrmann looks more closely at the notion of the (empty) threat itself. Firstly, it is used to silence one of the two white characters in the film (played by Martin Freeman). It isn’t the fear of death that silences Freeman’s character, but the concept of being taken from his acknowledged place, the trope of the Western white man in Africa, and subsumed against his will. The second aspect of the threat lies in the fact that it was from a story written by a white man, the warning considered horrific to the white centre at the same time as confirming the savagery of those making the threat. This says more about those who imagined the threat than those who say the words in the film.

Thirdly and perhaps most poignantly, such a warning echoes similar threats of puissance and violence made by white imperialists themselves during the nineteenth-century European dash for African land and African flesh, both considered vital commodities in the West’s grand narrative of the search for wealth, power and the ever-expanding imperial centre. Black Panther holds a clear mirror up to the anxieties of empire.

Nick Pullen followed with his examination of Sid Meier’s’ computer game, Civilisation, first released into the gaming market in 1991. In ‘Colonialism is Fun? Sid Meier’s Civilization and the Gamification of Imperialism’, Pullen initially examines the play aspect of building an empire, of creating new colonies and protecting what you have made, with the end goal of global conquest and interstellar exploration. However, the game and its underlying imperial philosophy are only fun because the player takes the role of imperial control and power.

Not so much fun, Pullen argues, for those characters in the game who represent the unfortunate ‘natives’ and who are almost certainly doomed to be either slaughtered outright or inculcated and tamed by the concept of colonialism. Especially injured are the peoples around the world, our real world, who are still battling the long shadow of the original imperial invasions from generations past. To these indigenous peoples, the creation of such a game must be salt in an open wound. It was possibly this argument which helped form Meier’s next foray into the imperial project in 1999, when he released Alpha Centauri. In this later game of space colonization, the native life-forms have not yet learned how to speak.

The final discussion in this all-too-brief series was Marc-William Palen’s correlation of John Stuart Mill’s non-interventionist policy with Start Trek’s Prime Directive of non-interference in ‘J. S. Mill, the Prime Directive, and the Theory of Moral Intervention’. Despite obvious differences: Mill’s being all for benevolent despotism and the United Federation of Planets taking a distinctly hands-off approach, Palen points to several moments of correspondence when it comes to interfering in the internal affairs of foreign nations. Both the Millian and Federation non-interference philosophies have the ‘best interests’ of the people at large. However, whereas Mill’s was definitely a child of imperialism, the Star Trek perspective is hopefully more enlightened.

Examining the moral justification of Star Trek’s Starfleet Captain Jean-Luc Picard to interfere in a Klingon civil war, the good captain argues that Starfleet can retain their ethical stance at the same time as ensuring the ‘right’ side of the Klingon combatants are supported by the Federation, through the expedient method of blockading any foreign military assistance currently being received by the ‘wrong’ side. In this way, Picard claims, no action of interference has been taken in the civil war, yet a blockade neatly preserves the balance of power. Through this example, Palen rightly observes the longevity of thought in Mill’s short 1859 essay “A Few Words on Non-Intervention.”

These examinations of the nexus between the imperial project and the worlds of SF merit far more analysis than can be delivered in the space we have here. However, it should be clear to all who read these dialogues of speculative fiction, that it concerns itself with far more weighty issues than simply shiny technologies and monsters of the Id.

On behalf of all the authors involved in this series of discussions, may I offer an enormously grateful thank you to the co-editors of this blog, Rachel Herrmann and Marc-William Palen, who have devoted long hours to guiding the contributors and refining the resultant essays. Without such support, these discussions would not have eventuated. LL&P, Guys.

3 thoughts on “The Science Fiction of Empire: the Best of All Possible Worlds?

  1. Interesting. But re “Dune:” Paul Atreides was Emperor and Kwisatz Haderach, but NOT God-Emperor–that was his son, Leto II. And how about the imperial history of Jerry Pournelle’s “Mote in God’s Eye” future history? That is very well worth study.

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