JM Williams

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Colonialism in SF/F


Photo by Tongik Saejeam

I generally don’t like to get into politics or heavy topics, which is likely why I lean towards fantasy more than science fiction. However, I recently read something that irked me quite a bit. It’s an issue that has been pinching my nerves for some time.

It came about when I read what is a mostly amazing ARTICLE by Cecilia Tan entitled “Let Me Tell You,” where she defends the use of telling in science fiction and fantasy (SF/F). She argues that the absolute rule of “show, don’t tell” is a part of big Lit culture, and that SF/F authors should not bind themselves to it. SF/F as a genre, and particularly those sub-genres that feature alternate-world settings, require a lot of telling in order for the story to work. While there are many ways of world-building through showing or through action, such as dialogue, it is in no way practical to do that all the time. There’s not enough space, nor reader patience, for it.

Despite having a compelling general argument, Tan reveals some liberal naivete when she describes the “fantasy newcomer” trope as colonialist. These days a lot of folks, particularly college-educated folks (Tan has a BA in Linguistics and Cognitive Science from Brown), like to throw around complicated academic terms without have a full understanding or appreciation for them. I remember when I was an undergraduate majoring in English and was expected to discuss things like colonialism and post-modernism, which even the experts have trouble understanding, let alone explaining (I still think many of the graduate students who taught these classes were confused). It wasn’t until graduate school that I finally started to wrap my head around just how much I didn’t know. This came after my advisor told me to stop using the term “post-colonialist” until I figured out what it meant.

In her article, Tan suggests that the use of the naive newcomer in “stories that center the naive reader will always be about the impact that stranger has on the world that is new to them”–and that this is colonialism. But it’s not. It is simply the nature of cultural interaction. Two people or groups of different cultures who meet and interact cannot but impact each other. If our definition of colonialism is simply impact, then the Indians would be just as guilty of it as the British–which is, of course, an absurd notion.

The idea of colonialism we are discussing here is not the dictionary definition of having colonies, but rather the philosophical definition of cultural domination (a good explanation of which can be found HERE). Imperialism is the use of political, economic, or military power to control another group but not necessarily to change that group. Colonialism is imperialism with the goal of changing the dominated culture or location to be in line with the colonizers. Colonialism is a mix of power and coercion to compel assimilation to the culture of those in power. Thus, the British made the Indians speak English and don western clothes, and the Japanese made Koreans speak Japanese and adhere to Japanese cultural mannerisms.

Any fantasy story about a naive foreigner travelling to another land is not inherently colonialist. What matters is that character’s use of power and their relationship to the native culture. Let’s look at some examples:

The Lord of the Rings Series by J.R.R. Tolkien — This is one Tan cites as an example for her colonialism argument. However, it is far from the case. While Frodo does travel to foreign lands and interact with many new cultures, he does not feel superior nor try to change them. In fact, he seems to adore these cultures and takes on some of their characteristics, such as elven clothing and weapons.

The Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind — In this set of books, typical country bumpkin Richard Rahl learns he is the blood relative of a great wizard of an exotic, magical land to the east and later becomes ruler of his adopted kingdom. This story is textbook colonialism because Richard knows better than the natives about almost everything and seeks to change their behavior (i.e. culture) to match his superior ways. There is also a very overt anti-communist thread in the later books. The series is very clear in its judgments of one culture being superior to another and often equates this to the typical fantasy good vs evil battle. Despite these obvious flaw though, I did enjoy the series, though I was a lot younger (and dumber) then.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain — Like the Sword of Truth Seriesthis novel finds an intelligent man in a foreign place who uses his superior culture to dominate the natives. Everything about the American is superior, and the character cannot stand the native culture or habits at all. Blatant colonialism.

The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise — This film gets a lot of flak from people who like to throw around terms like “colonialism” without understanding them. Again looking at the story in the context of power and coercion to assimilate, this film is exactly the opposite. Not only does Capt. Nathan Algren not try to change the culture of the people and the samurai he meets, he in fact, abandons his own culture and people in order to assimilate into the samurai village. Moreover, he goes into battle with the samurai, adopting their less-advanced technology and tactics, knowing full well it will likely mean his death. Assimilation into the native culture by those with power is precisely the opposite of colonialism. Most films like this, such as Dances with Wolves or The Forbidden Kingdom, are assimilatory, not colonialist. The hero becomes better by changing himself and adapting the native culture, but the effect on the native culture itself is negligible or non-existent.

Now, this is not to argue against other problems these films have, such as the cultural imperialism of white faces and Hollywood packaging and presenting non-white voices and cultures. But interestingly enough, these films actually do a much better job of presenting the culture accurately, and indeed have a greater desire to do so, that other Hollywood films that simply use the culture or setting for something else. This has everything to do with the naive foreigner point of view that Tan criticizes in her article. It simply makes no sense for two samurai to be in a scene discussing samurai culture, something they clearly would take for granted. The only way to have scenes where culture is taught directly to the audience, is to have a lead character in the same position as them.

I happen to love these sorts of films just for that reason–I feel I am getting a more authentic look of a foreign culture. Even foreign made films, particularly East Asian films, are not wholly authentic to their own cultures because, being under the dark shadow of Hollywood, they now try to hard to westernize their films for global appeal. Thus, Korean cop films play out like LAPD action movies, though that is not at all how cops operate here. Perhaps Bollywood is the only local market with enough power to not have to globalize their work.

I happen to find the naive foreigner protagonist to be one of the best vehicles for making overt telling in your story actually make sense and work for readers.  Forcing world-building into dialogue in a manner that the characters would never actually do is far worse of a crime. Neuromancer is one book that Tan cites as a great example of internal world-building, which is certainly true to some extent, though there were many times when I felt Case was being told things he should already know.

I don’t think the naive foreigner trope is going away anytime soon. In fact, I would argue it’s an entire sub-genre of itself, consisting of journey tales (The Hobbit) and portal fantasies (Neverwhere).

While I do find Tan’s argument for “breaking the status quo” in SF/F compelling, I wish she would not get so hung up on a concept she clearly doesn’t fully understand. Unfortunately, this sort of pseudo-academics is all too common today, and it gets on my nerves.

Do you agree with my analysis? Prefer Tan’s interpretation? Let me know what you think.


5 Responses to Colonialism in SF/F

  1. Nice article. Much to read here. I try to leave politics out of my writing too. As Tan’s article mentions, DFW used ‘telling’ in Infinite Jest (a lot!). I remember reading it and thinking: ‘hang on, he can’t do that’. But why not? it was still enjoyable, and refreshing. I agree that ‘show don’t tell’ seems to be an out-moded technique, and not just for SF/F. Magical realism has been ‘telling’ us things for years. On the subject of colonialism, it does seem strange to confuse the newcomer with the colonialist. I agree with the movies you mentioned. Apocalypse Now and Conrad’s book that inspired it highlighted the absurdity of colonialism very well. I mean, after all, we’re all strangers in a strange land anyway.

  2. Pingback: Share: Colonialism in SF/F | J.M. Williams | David Writes

  3. These are really great thoughts and examples, and perhaps we all need to really sit down and think about the words we use, their context, and how to implement them. SF-F is a fascinating genre, and sometimes the scope is way too massive.

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