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. Continue reading “The Science Fiction of Empire: the Best of All Possible Worlds?”

The Threat of Cannibalism and Wakanda’s Place in the World

This is the newest post in our third week of our 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, and here. Posts will run twice a week until the second week in July. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Rachel B. Herrmann
Cardiff University

At a crucial point in the 2018 Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, geopolitical relationships are in flux. (Warning: spoilers) Erik Killmonger, the film’s main antagonist, has defeated King T’Challa (Black Panther). Left for dead, he is secretly taken to the Jabari stronghold in the mountains. T’Challa’s mother Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda, his sister Shuri, Nakia, T’Challa’s ex and War Dog, and Everett Ross, a white CIA operative, have fled from Killmonger’s oppressive new reign and seek aid from M’Baku, leader of the Jabari. Once there, Ross attempts to speak to M’Baku to inquire about next steps. He is immediately silenced as the Jabari start barking at him. “You cannot talk,” says M’baku. “One more word and I’ll feed you to my children.” There is a tense silence, before M’baku breaks out laughing. “I am kidding; we are vegetarians.”[1]

The threat of cannibalism works here on three levels in this Afrofuturist movie that blurs the line between the genres of science fiction and superhero films.[2]

First, it ensures Ross’s silence. Later in the scene, a revived T’Challa will ask M’Baku for the support of his army, which M’Baku refuses. This opening meeting, then, is a diplomatic negotiation between two men, one of whom once headed a four-alliance pact and the leader of the fifth tribe that refused to enter that alliance (and who later challenged T’Challa’s right to rule). Ross represents the white colonizer, whose intervention is inappropriate and irrelevant.

Second and relatedly, this scene works to reminder viewers that the character of T’Challa was imagined by white artists Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; as Sheena Howard argues, “white people created this character . . . gatekeeping our Black imagination and negotiating our sense of escapism from the real world.”[3] The moment suggests that behind the Black Panther cannon is a long history that has been mediated by white writers and artists for white consumers.

Third and most important here, the threat of cannibalism invokes the history of slavery and imperialism that undergird the history and rationale for Wakanda’s place as an isolationist country in the era during and after the transatlantic slave trade. Continue reading “The Threat of Cannibalism and Wakanda’s Place in the World”

Science Fiction and Imperial History – Call for Blog Posts

Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself …. Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done.

– Ray Bradbury

I don’t think humanity just replays history, but we are the same people our ancestors were, and our descendants are going to face a lot of the same situations we do. It’s instructive to imagine how they would react, with different technologies on different worlds.

– Kage Baker

This is the call for blog post submissions for an Imperial & Global Forum roundtable on science fiction and imperial history. We are looking for submissions exploring the ways in which the imperial and anti-colonial past manifests itself in, and intersects with, the classics (and the obscurities) of science fiction. After all, as Patricia Kerslake has recently argued, much can be gleaned by examining “one of the most important and revealing foundations of SF, that of the function and manipulation of political power, of empire and its abuses within the genre, and to explore the great houses of fiction built upon such an informative substructure.”[1]

  • Have some thoughts about sovereignty and cylons?
  • Slavery and colonialism among Octavia Butler’s Oankali?
  • Interested in the relationship between Belter patois and the formation of the Outer Planets Alliance?
  • The “civilizing mission” of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End?
  • British imperialism and H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds?
  • Is time travel into Britain’s colonial past getting you feeling a bit wibbly wobbly, timey wimey?
  • What about the application of Marxist theories of imperialism to the interstellar world of The Expanse? Or perhaps anti-colonial theories and Avatar?
  • How does thinking about space—an often land- and water-less expanse—help us refine our definitions of formal and informal imperialism? Borderlands? Frontiers? Globalization?
  • What does a trade deal look like when it moves beyond the geographical boundaries of a single planet or even a single solar system?
  • Does the idea of a place with “final” frontiers push back against evolving notions of borders, and the people who crossed them?
  • In what ways does Star Wars’s Trade Federation or the Galactic Empire’s imperialism reflect that of modern empires?
  • How does possessing advanced technologies—sonic screwdrivers, Death Stars, protomolecules—change the state of power relations among colonized planets and rogue states?
  • Do universal human rights take on new meanings and implications when they are defended by Star Trek‘s Federation across a universe divvied up by rival empires?

Continue reading “Science Fiction and Imperial History – Call for Blog Posts”

“Playing Indian”: Exeter Rugby in a Postcolonial Age

Exeter chiefs3

Rachel Herrmann
University of Southampton
Follow on Twitter at @Raherrmann

On any given weekend, you might find yourself on a train platform, surrounded by sports fans wearing “Native American” headdresses and “war paint,” and waving inflatable tomahawks. They’ll be wearing apparel purchased from the team’s online store (the “Trading Post”), where you can also buy a “Little Big Chief” mascot. During the event, supporters will chant the Tomahawk Chop to get into the spirit of things, and afterward, perhaps they’ll rehash the game on the team’s message boards (“The Tribe”).

No, this isn’t the Atlanta Braves. It’s not the Washington Redskins. This is a rugby match for the Exeter Chiefs. And it evokes Britain’s forgotten imperial American past. Continue reading ““Playing Indian”: Exeter Rugby in a Postcolonial Age”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Apollinariya Yakubova, who refused to marry Lenin, was discovered by a Russian history expert in London. Photograph: State Archive of the Russian Federation. Courtesy of the Guardian.
Apollinariya Yakubova, who refused to marry Lenin, was discovered in London by a Russian historian. Photograph: State Archive of the Russian Federation. Courtesy of the Guardian.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From exploring eighth-century India to finding Lenin’s lost love, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

Atlantic Empires in Arrested Development

Rachel Herrmann
Lecturer in Early Modern American History, University of Southampton

Arrested DevelopementI’m a firm believer in the idea that we need to hold our students to high standards when we teach history. I am also (perhaps somewhat paradoxically) a firm believer in the idea that to get students enthused about meeting those standards, we need to make history approachable.

And so I sometimes pander.

This semester I’m teaching what is essentially a colonial America class called “Accommodation, Violence and Networks in Colonial America.” I’ve included a week on the Atlantic World—no small feat given the fact that one of my colleagues devotes a whole semester to it—and so I had to grapple with reducing the notion of Atlantic empires into something that was easily digestible. To deal with the problem of summarizing the key identifying features of the Spanish, Dutch, French, and English empires in the early modern period, I turned to the delightfully dysfunctional Bluth family.

For the (woefully) uninformed, Arrested Development follows the trials and tribulations of the California-based Bluth family, a once-wealthy clan that’s fallen from grace, and is composed, for the most part, of terrible, selfish, egotistical people. The show aired from 2003 to 2006, garnered a cult following, and enjoyed a long-anticipated revival season on Netflix last year.

I use Arrested Development at the start of my Atlantic World lecture to paint a broad (and admittedly simplistic) picture of how the different Atlantic empires functioned on their own terms and in their interactions with each other. I should point out that this portion of the lecture takes up no more than five or ten out of our forty-five minutes, but I think it’s worth it because my caricatures provide students with a starting point from which they can challenge what I’ve told them about Atlantic history.  Continue reading “Atlantic Empires in Arrested Development”