Why Sci-Fi Is Hung-up on Colonialism

Why Sci-Fi Keeps Imagining the Subjugation of White People

As much as the genre imagines the future, it also remixes the past—often by envisioning Western-style imperialism visited on the Western world.


Science-fiction 'contemplates possible futures.' So says a new Smithsonian article, and it doesn't seem like a particularly controversial thesis. As the piece says, sci-fi tries to think about what’s to come for civilization. 'The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in,' as Ursula K. Le Guin says.

But it's worth remembering that in sci-fi, the future actually isn't safe or sterile at all. On the contrary, with its alien invasions, evil empires, authoritarian dystopia, and new lands discovered and pacified, the genre can look as much like the past as the future. In particular, sci-fi is often obsessed with colonialism and imperial adventure, the kind that made the British Empire an empire and that still sustains America’s might worldwide."

Why would science fiction NOT assume that political-economic factors would drive big waves of human behavior in the future? Do not political-economic factors drive large movements of human behavior in the present? As in wars, mock wars of big business/bank speculation, devouring cheap consumer goods, extraction of coal, oil, timber, minerals, the exploitation of slave labor for cotton, sugar, menial labor, sex work, rum and drug trafficking? Not to mention the exquisite joy of engaging in violent subjugation of large classes of people for no better reason than some perceived difference in their tribal markings and class affiliations—anything will serve as an excuse to dominate: religious beliefs, sexual appetites and/or gender, skin color, eye-color, dirty fingernails coupled with labor class clothing and illiteracy – every kind of ape-ish tattoo, hoo-boo, and taboo. The very idea of a culture that is driven by non-malicious, spiritual motives, open friendliness, quest for knowledge, or delight in beauty and patterns of motion is alien beyond human comprehension. Greed, we understand. Power we grok. *Our* kind seeks personal gain to satisfy our avarice, lust, sloth, envy, gluttony, wrath, and especially pride. So long as we remain simian-human beings, can the future look or be in any degree different from the past? Merely going OFF-world does not mean a human automatically becomes IN the World and not OF it. That is a perilous Inner Space expedition, not an Outer Space jaunt. When has sci-fi ever written a story about an inhumanly patient and self-sacrificing alien culture that shamed humanity into behaving better by means of a Gandhian gallantry and goodness? Al Capp's comics, maybe?

OK, I was not a fan of Al Capp (or the Beverly Hillbillies), but you got my curiosity up linking Capp and SF. I found the story about Little Abner in the Time Machine, but I couldn't find an online examples of space travel. So let me just ask:
"When has sci-fi ever written a story about an inhumanly patient and self-sacrificing alien culture that shamed humanity into behaving better by means of a Gandhian gallantry and goodness? Al Capp's comics, maybe?"

What the heck are you talking about? Schmoos in Space?

Al Capp was a satirist. If and until I can actually get my hands on his SF, I will have to put his work in the same file with Calvin's Space Man Spiff, Mel Brooks' Space Balls, and SNL sketches.

But to answer your question...have you seen Superman? The Day the Earth Stood Still, Michael Rennie? Jeff Bridges in Starman? ET? or Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Close Encounters is actually a great example, because it is a 'redo" (not a remake) of George Pal's War of the Worlds. If you watch them back to back, Pal and then Speilberg, you can actually pinpoint where young Steven went "NOOOOOOO! It didn't happen that way!" Cracked me up the first time I saw it.

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But to get down to the heart of the article. Stories have always told us how to live our lives. Have you read Joseph Campbelll? The Power of Myth? Hero with a Thousand Faces? Stephen King's Danse Macabre? I just finished rereading Sheldon Kopp's Raise Your Right Hand Against Fear, Extend the Other in Compassion. --Maybe my third time thru it.

Stories of terror and horror help us confront our inner and outer fears. And that's just what this article is talking about. Stories about alien invaders began to pop up when people began to have second thoughts about colonialism. Masters lived in fear of their slaves. Haiti was the only country in the world where the slaves freed themselves through rebellion. They didn't have access with guns, so they chopped up the white folks with machetes. Neat video here of contemporary Haitians fencing with machetes:


White people colonized the four corners of the world, killed off the indigneous people and took their land or enslaved them and shipped them off by the millions to other countries or used them in their own countries to strip their natural resources. Now the black and the brown people outnumber them and they are getting worried all over again. So how do they deal with the fear of retribution? By imagining ALIENS coming from another world and then destroying them before they can destroy the white folks. That ain't healthy.

There are plenty of other stories of First Contact, of meeting with the Other, which are healthy. A Wrinkle in Time, Men in Black, The Iron Giant, Enemy Mine, The Abyss, Avatar, the Star Wars Movies, the Star Trek series/movies, Space Quest. And books. My very first sf book was The Star Rangers (AKA The Last Planet) by Andre Norton, which featured Zinga, the Zacathan, a wise reptilian being. I was ten years old and I fell in love with him. Left Hand of Darkness. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor and her new LaGuardia series (graphic novels). The Wayfarer series by Becky Chambers.

"The very idea of a culture that is driven by non-malicious, spiritual motives, open friendliness, quest for knowledge, or delight in beauty and patterns of motion" may well be beyond YOUR comprehension, but that's on you. There are plenty of us who do hunger for those things and seek them.

Al Capp’s schmoos are an inhumanly self-sacrificing race of beings co-existent on our planet. If that is not science fiction what does qualify in your mind? Only space travel?

I have not read/seen all the works you listed but of the ones you listed that I have seen, not one of them is about humans going in to colonize/conquer and encountering a Gandhi-style satyagraha resistance that eventually shamed human beings into behaving more like we ought to behave. They are all about conquest of Others who are Evil.

Sometimes the Aliens are Evil, sometimes the Humans are Evil, but nowhere is there an absence of the whole dualistic dichotomy of moral worth. In Close encounters there is a disparity of power that overawes humans; but nothing that shames them into restraining their own brutality. The powerful people do their utmost to prevent ordinary people from being present, even though they were ‘invited’. The whole story is about fighting off and defying the very people who ought to be helping. And especially of the One Man who Succeeds Against All Ods, because the Woman who Succeeds decides to hang back in the end and let him be the only Winner.

In Avatar, the natives fought back until humans were conquered; in Superman, the Good People’s planet was killed off from the get-go, leaving only a baby or two to Help the White Humans of Gotham to Fight Crime — not a perspective of self-sacrifice and compassion for the wrong-doers but an excuse to have a good old fashioned bam pow jaw-busting fight — i.e. male adolescent fantasy of superstrength and supreme sexiness. And physical force, not moral force is the operative principle in every episode.

Starman was about a lone alien struggling to evade capture and death from hostile humans, aided by non-hostile humans. He has no power to shame the hostiles into doing so tiny a thing as simply leaving him alone, much less aiding him. It’s another dreary fight – – again.

There is always a Powerful Foe or a Powerful Other who must be squashed or resisted or bowed down to out of sheer necessity, not from reverence and a desire to emulate the example of goodness.

Wrinkle in Time was about resisting a Great Evil with the personal proprietary love for a sibling. Men in Black is entirely about using big guns to kill evil aliens in the most disgusting way possible and hiding the very existence of off-world life from Ordinary Humans — not the super extraordinary men who are faster, smarter and colder-hearted than ewww, NORMAL people.

Show me a science fiction story of any kind that bathes all of humanity in the overwhelming feeling of shame for personal participation in evil. Not yet another self-preening parade of Us Goody-goodies against THOSE people.

Left Hand of Darkness hints at the possibility by that covert sense of shame in the people — I forget their name – the ones who saved earth from its imminent demise by environmental disaster – it is hinted that they were doing experiments tweaking aspects of human nature and now are trying to make reparations for their own arrogance and pride. But I have never seen or read any depiction of earth people being collectively shamed for their own unworthy actions, and expiating their great fault by being of service to others and reforming themselves accordingly.

The closest thing to what I am talking about is Arrival, where moral persuasion based on deep understanding of imperfectly communicated intentions prevents the loss of a wondrous opportunity for unity and cooperation. It is not on me that the weight of human malice and fear towards the Other lies --– it is on every single one of us. You may think you are one of the Good People but you, like all of us, have benefitted from the actions of those who are hostile, hateful, conquering, and malicious towards one or more sets of Others. And to deny that it is part of YOUR make up is the very heart of the issue.

I am getting an impression here that you did not read the article I posted, and you really don't know much about SF/F, so I really don't think this conversation is going to get very far. What do you think?