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Entry updated 21 November 2022. Tagged: Theme.

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Throughout its history, from its Proto SF origins until well into the twentieth century, sf has had a close and complex involvement with the themes of colonialism and empire. It is indeed a relationship so intimate and accustomed that it has not evoked sufficient attention as a separate issue; early editions of this encyclopedia, for instance, had no entry on the subject, though germane comments could be found dispersed throughout the text, often associated in one way or another with Exploration (see Colonization of Other Worlds; Discovery; Fantastic Voyages; Life on Other Worlds; Lost Worlds; Parallel Worlds), a topic from which imperialism can never be fully separated. In English, this involvement is especially evident in the close links between the Fantastic Voyage in sf and maritime fiction, for the two genres share many source texts, and are, indeed, impossible to distinguish from each other in their earlier (and some of their later) iterations.

Margaret Cavendish's The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666) [see her entry for details of publication] is both a seafaring adventure and an early example of Proto SF: it is not any technological innovation which allows the heroine to enter a new world, but rather sailing to the North Pole, which she does in a normal boat. Nevertheless, she finds herself on another planet populated by alien lifeforms with whom she engages in scientifically (rather than fantastically) couched debate. Cavendish, a strong royalist during the time of the Restoration, gives her work an uncompromisingly imperial bias; not only does the heroine become, almost upon arrival and without any opposition, Empress of the Blazing-World, but she goes on to use that position to lend military support to the British Empire back on Earth, helping it to subjugate the rest of the world. Cavendish's book therefore serves as an early example of a narrative in which seafaring imperialism and scientific romance are closely intertwined, each seeming naturally to accelerate to the other.

This relationship can be traced across the development of early sf. Daniel Defoe's The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) – which is explicitly imperial in its outlook – is the text from which most Robinsonades take their direct inspiration, and the isolated Island on which they need to be set to fulfil their generic remit is usually seen as a laboratory where techniques of exploitation – of nature, of fellow Homo sapiens – can be conducted, and from which lessons in Imperialism can be drawn. Edgar Allan Poe's sea stories, which include some of his most influential Proto SF writings, also present a number of colonial tropes, especially in their treatment of race (see Race in SF), for example in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838; vt Arthur Gordon Pym; or, Shipwreck, Mutiny and Famine 1841; vt The Wonderful Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym 1861). Poe's tale, whose Slingshot Ending allows no assumption however that its protagonist will be able to exploit the world within or under the South Pole, was unconvincingly "completed" by Jules Verne (Le sphinx des glaces 1897; trans as An Antarctic Mystery 1898 UK), and does not stand as a central example of the Vernian model of imperial expansion, his tales of exploration and conquest that, as a whole, transact (and claim) almost all parts of the globe. The most famous, though not the most typical, of his explorer characters is the ocean-dwelling Captain Nemo, who nevertheless claims the South Pole in Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870; trans Lewis Mercier as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas 1872 UK; vt Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea 1873 US; new trans Emanuel J Mickel as The Complete Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea 1991 US) by planting his black flag and saying "I hereby claim this entire part of the globe". But all of Verne's men of exploration (and they are all men) are driven by highly imperialized notions of discovery.

The same advances in science which brought powered flight and space travel closer to the realm of possible fantasy also advanced the capabilities of Empire via the refinement of cartography, horology, and astronomy – to say nothing of ballistics – all of which were essential in furthering the overseas agendas of the European superpowers. As the world became more comprehensively charted by these technologies, however, it became harder to situate fantasy lands on convenient undiscovered islands, as Defoe had done (see above), and before him Thomas More in his Utopia (1516). Increasingly their locations became abstracted, first to the poles (as in Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym or M P Shiel's The Purple Cloud 1901), then to the moon and stars. If this trajectory suggests that sf cannot thrive in an empirically comprehended space, it also suggests a contradictory impetus to widen the frontiers of such comprehension – it is this bait and switch, at the heart of what is usually characterized as the intrinsic human need for exploration, which is sf's principal contribution to furthering the ideological expansion of Empire.

None of this is to say, of course, that all sf works are necessarily uncritical of imperialism – merely that their core thematic concerns necessarily involve them in engaging with imperialism on some level. Some nineteenth-century sf, the prime example being H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898), invites readers to question rather than support the imperial project. Over the twentieth century, with the increase in self-reflexivity which has come with the solidification of sf as a genre, this tendency increased – examples are very numerous, from Poul Anderson's "The Helping Hand" (May 1950 Astounding) to Ursula K Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison; 1976) and onward. However, the proliferation of Space Operas and the Galactic Empires in which they take place – with many of the Pulp era tales and their descendants continuing as well to unquestioningly favour the supremacy of white, male characters (see Race in SF; Feminism) – has distracted attention from dissenting voices. All the same, the decline of the nineteenth-century European Empires and the subsequent rise of postcolonial studies have provided a series of critical lenses with which to scrutinize the race- and gender-driven assumptions of earlier sf texts – J M Coetzee's Foe (1986), for example, revisits Robinson Crusoe for just this purpose.

Imperialism remains a traceable theme in more recent science fiction. In one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation ("Allegiance", 1990), the crew of the Enterprise, a peaceful ship of "exploration", all join in singing the rather militant imperial drinking song Heart of Oak ("we'll fight and we'll conquer again and again"). Ronald D Moore's redux of Battlestar Galactica is relentlessly engaged with the religion, politics and ethics of its protagonists ("colonials") as they explore uncharted space in search of a "promised land" (echoing the Mormon overtones of the original Battlestar Galactica as well as the colonial voyages of America's first pilgrim settlers). Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Empire, however, has been metaphorical: that planets are still, for the most part, exploitable "islands in space" is witnessed by the preponderance of single-environment planets in contemporary sf, islands reachable through the "ocean" of space: a notable twenty-first-century cinematic example featuring multiple scales of island (planet, moon, floating mountains) is Avatar (2009). The sea has remained attractive to writers, perhaps, because of its romance – a romance which is tied up with the stars (essential navigation tools) and, of course, with the discovery of the first "New World". Spaceships still have a Hornblower-in-Space tendency to resemble Earth's ocean-going ships not only physically but in command hierarchy and nuances of language (female pronouns, the terms "bridge", "sick bay", "port" and "starboard", "deck", "torpedoes" and so on). Real-life spacecraft, it is worth remembering, have always more closely resembled aircraft than seafaring vessels. Alluring though it remains, this romance also necessarily implies, from Vikings to Conquistadors and beyond, the subjugation of peoples, land and commodities overseas.

With imperialism still an active part of the metaphorical language of sf, it would be foolish to restrict consideration of it simply to texts in which a literal journey of exploration takes place. Frequently, imperialism has been sf's way in to consideration of the ethics of scientific Discovery more generally. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) may be a tale of laboratory-based creation and psychological trauma, but it is framed by (and frequently couched in the terms of) Robert Walton's journey of exploration to the North Pole – it is this vague destination which the Monster commits himself to finding in the book's closing pages. If our Definitions of SF continue to involve the presence of imagined new Discoveries (be they ideas or places), then engaging on some level with the ethics of exploration must be considered a key goal of the genre. [WT]

see also: Slavery.

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