Sci Fi and the Colonial Imagination: An Interview with John Rieder

by C. Derick Varn and Joseph Brenner

John Rieder has been teaching at UH Manoa’s English Department since 1980.  He received my Ph. D. from Yale University the same year.  For the first twenty years of his career, he focused on English Romanticism.  He has, however, moved to study of science fiction.  In 2008, he released Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, which we discuss with him today.

You have contended that late 19th and early 20th century science fiction reproduced the various ideologies around colonialism. Have you seen any other ideological functions becoming predominant in the genre in other periods?

Let me begin by quoting a couple of sentences from Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction: “The shifting social horizons within which science fiction emerges are far too complex for us to single out any “key” element, be it technological change, class tensions, or the relative authority of science and religion. Writing the history of the genre’s emergence must be a matter of weaving together disparate social, economic, and literary narratives” (20). Colonialism has been one of those important, shifting social horizons from the genre’s beginnings to the present, but it has always been only one among several. So the ideological functions of science fiction, which is to say the ways that writers respond to the pressures of those social horizons either by conforming to or resisting the dominant ways of perceiving them, have always been multiple. In early SF alongside issues of race and Darwinism and more-or-less-manifest destiny there was a lot of attention to issues of gender, class struggle, technological change—and the list could go on. Shifts in emphasis are certainly visible. Questioning the inevitability of our dominant gender arrangements and kinship systems has always been a prominent feature of SF, but more in the later twentieth century than at any time before that. After World War II post-apocalyptic stories about atomic warfare proliferated. Nowadays the post-apocalyptic plot more often has to do with environmental catastrophe or genetic engineering.


You have observed science fiction deconstructing and contesting the colonialism that you found it once reproduced–you mention that War of the Worlds is actually trying to make an analogy to British colonialism and turning the tables on the colonialists, as an example.  Are you optimistic about the genre’s role in society in the future?

There is nothing about the genre that dictates ideological conformism or resistance. It can serve equally as a vehicle for either one, and most writers end up accomplishing some combination of the two. In the future the genre will continue, as it has in the past, to play the role that writers, publishers, readers, and critics make for it.

You noticed that science fiction mirrored colonial expansion–it began in the first colonial European states and then spread to Germany, the US, and the colonies themselves.  However, you did not go into the late Tzarist Russian and early Soviet science fiction which developed before science fiction in the US even though Russia’s empire was actually in significant decline.  What do you make of the Russian example? Is it an outlier?

Let me recommend an excellent recent book on Russian science fiction, We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity, by Anandita Bannerjee (Wesleyan UP, 2012). Bannerjee argues for Russian science fiction’s “symbiotic emergence with a uniquely Russian vision of modernity” (6). The point in my book that your question is referring to is an observation I quoted in paraphrase from Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s essay on “Science Fiction and Empire” where he observes the parallelism between the appearance of early SF (SF before Gernsback) and national entry into imperial competition. But I don’t think he means to argue that any nation’s pursuit of imperialist policies caused its writers to write science fiction, and you will notice I did not pursue an argument that there is a geographic correspondence between the emergence of SF and imperial centers. My own argument was, among other things, that early science fiction had a lot more to do with imperialist adventure fiction than SF scholars have acknowledged, and obviously imperialist adventure fiction is going to be more popular in imperialist countries than elsewhere. But early SF has just as plausible a relation to industrial capitalism as to colonialism. In fact I would argue that the combination of industrial capitalism and colonialism is no coincidence. The industrial arms race among the imperialist nations leading up to World War I combines the two, and the arms race is certainly one of the significant historical contexts for much early SF—the entire genre of future war fiction, for instance. Yet SF has never been limited to one set of themes or a single audience. So to get back to Russian SF, I understand it to be largely an independent tradition, not heavily derived from English or French models. There is some common social ground implied in what Bannerjee calls modernity, and I believe imperial competition is part of that shared ground, even after the revolution of 1917. But Russia’s position in relation to imperialism, as to modernity itself, is quite different from that of any Western European country (or of course the US). Beyond that, the Russian literary tradition offers resources quite different from those British or American writers had at their disposal—there is no British Gogol. And the professional opportunities and the publishing industries were different. So I would not call Russia an outlier, I would just acknowledge its immense differences from the national traditions I feel more qualified to talk about.

What do you make of the repeating motifs that are worked into films which are not conscious on the part of the filmmakers but were part of the zeitgeist of the original work?

I am very interested in repetitive motifs and in what causes them, whether in films or any other media and in any period. I’ve learned a lot from Claude Levi-Strauss’s work on myth and Vladimir Propp’s work on folktales. If we are talking about patterns of representation that the filmmakers or authors are not consciously aware of we are in the realm of ideology. I would say that ideologies and the collective fantasies that they spawn have been among the most constant foci of my work throughout my scholarly career, even as a graduate student, which is where I was first exposed to the work of Louis Althusser and Fredric Jameson. They have continued to be the strongest influences on my approach to these questions.
Do you think New Wave Science Fiction in the 1970s, particularly in British authors, signaled a shift in the relationship to colonialism?

I think the New Wave had a lot to do with generational conflicts between an upcoming set of SF writers whose politics and attitudes were shaped in the 50s and 60s vs. the older group whose attitudes were largely shaped by WWII. Colonialism was a central issue in that conflict insofar as the Vietnam War was one of its flash points.

Do you think the works of Philip K. Dick and the paranoia of the early New Wave science fiction could be semi-unconscious reflections on internal colonization?

I realize that the Man in High Castle is explicitly about  colonization, but many of his other stories seem to focus on police states within a country or various countries competing in the background in which the US is broken up into several countries (which is mentioned off hand in several of his short stories).

I believe Phil Dick when he says his major concerns were the questions, what is real? and what is human? In other words metaphysics and ethics. For Dick politics always is approached through those filters. He was obviously deeply interested in fascism, for instance, but I think it was less as a political system than as a historical example of the human capacity for evil. His writing about police states tends to heavily emphasize their capacity to foist lies and illusions on their citizens. A lot of his near future settings depict a system in which the earth has colonized the solar system. The emphasis is almost always on the deception practiced upon the citizenry by the governments or upon consumers by corporations in order to lure people into leaving earth for a drab, hard, meager life in the colonies.

Do you have anything you would like to say in closing?

Just that, although the worldwide colonial-imperial system changed drastically as a result of the outcome of World War II, its effects persist in relations of economic dependency, debt, forced mono-cropping and the devastation of subsistence agriculture, and so on and on and on. And the great settler colonies, especially the US but also Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and now Israel, continue to systematically “disappear” the Indigenous presence on the land that they claim as their own. So one has to be very careful about what the “post” in post-colonialism means. The one thing it absolutely does not mean is that colonialism is a thing of the past. As a vital part of our historical present it continues to be a central reference for a great deal of contemporary SF.


One thought on “Sci Fi and the Colonial Imagination: An Interview with John Rieder

  1. Pingback: 작은 친구들의 행성, 존 스칼지 | metamorphosis

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