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Entry updated 5 June 2023. Tagged: Theme.

The unpleasant human institution of slavery is frequently extrapolated into spacegoing sf futures. One notable instance is Robert A Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy (September-December 1957 Astounding; 1957), which opens with the young protagonist being sold as a slave on a colony world whose Economics revolve around this practice, and closes with him – now free and in a position of some power – working from Earth to oppose the deeply rooted interstellar slave trade. A similar story arc, with added Sex, features in Donald Barr's Space Relations: A Slightly Gothic Interplanetary Tale (1973). Heinlein's "Logic of Empire" (March 1941 Astounding) looks cynically at the economics of slavery on Venus; Poul Anderson's "Margin of Profit" (September 1956 Astounding) see his series hero Nicholas van Rijn manipulating the odds to make interstellar slave-taking just sufficiently unprofitable to continue.

Time Travel or Timeslip visits to the era of US Black slavery are central to Octavia Butler's harrowing Kindred (1979) and Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze (2011); but the toxic effect of the institution on American culture and literature is rarely confronted directly, perhaps not unexpectedly. Even Martin R Delany, whose Blake, Or the Huts of America (magazine publication 1859-1862; 1970) is the first African American novel, stepped sideways from the institution by setting his separatist Utopia in Cuba. Among the many older US-centred treatments, some stained by prejudice, are: J B Jones's pro-slavery The Border War: A Tale of Disunion (1859; vt Wild Southern Scenes: A Tale of Disunion! and Border War! 1859; vt Secession, Coercion, and Civil War: The Story of 1861 1861); John McElroy's Decline and Fall of the American Republic: Confession of a Repentant Politician: A Story of Fifty Years Hence (1880 Toledo Blade; 1880 chap); The American Peasant: A Timely Allegory (1892) by Elia Wilkinson Peattie (writing as Another) and Thomas Henry Tibbles; and Charles Felton Pidgin's Alternate History The Climax: Or, What Might Have Been: A Romance of the Great Republic (1902). Twentieth-century Alternate Histories – so many of which muse upon the American Civil War – tend not to focus on slavery as such. It may be that the first significant text in the realm of Fantastika to deal with slavery from within may be Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad (2016).

The American Dilemma aside, slavery appears in some Proto SF texts, including Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516; trans 1551; trans rev 1556), and Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, Or The Royal Slave: A True History (1688 chap), which features some striking early protest against the contemporary slave trade. But the ideological requirements of Imperialism in the nineteenth century generally precluded any useful focus on the nightmare. Twentieth-century sf treatments of slavery are often displaced from their earthly domain, including Otis Adelbert Kline's Robert Grandon sequence opening with The Planet of Peril (20 July-24 August 1929 Argosy; 1929; rev vt as Planet of Peril 1961), whose hero rises like so many others from slavery to aristocratic glory. Ironic reversals and modulations were increasingly in evidence as well, including Farnham's Freehold (1964) by Robert A Heinlein, largely set in a Post-Holocaust future where Blacks now enslave whites; Thomas M Disch's Mankind Under the Leash (April 1965 If as "White Fang Goes Dingo"; exp 1966 dos; vt The Puppies of Terra 1978), where Aliens have enslaved humans as pets; John Hersey's White Lotus (1965), in which white Americans are enslaved by China in a not unsympathetic manifestation of the Yellow Peril; Gene Wolfe's "How the Whip Came Back" (in Orbit 6, anth 1970 ed Damon Knight), with a form of slavery about to return to the Near-Future US; Eric Norden's The Ultimate Solution (1973), a Hitler Wins tale in which Nazi domination restores US slavery; Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World (1974), a Dystopia in which women are effectively enslaved (see Women in SF); Lucifer's Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, with a Post-Holocaust community's recourse to slavery; Samuel R Delany's Nevèrÿon series opening with Tales of Nevèrÿon (coll of linked stories 1979; rev 1988), exploring the theme transgressively; Elizabeth A Lynn's The Sardonyx Net (1981); Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), in which the institution of chattel slavery for fertile women ("handmaids") has a queasy veneer of Religion-based justification (see Women in SF); the 1987-current Deathlands sequence by James Axler (a House Name), where the context is a future Ruined Earth; John Barnes's Sin of Origin (1988); S M Stirling's Alternate-History Draka sequence opening with Marching through Georgia (1988); Steve Erickson's Arc d'X (1993); and Joyce Efia Harmer's How Far We've Come (2023), inverting the structure of Octavia E Butler's above-cited Kindred by taking an enslaved girl from 1834 via Time Travel to the twenty-first century.

Future slaves may be kept in their place (if rarely kept contented) by mind-controlling Technology, as in the Serial Film Buck Rogers (1939) (see Buck Rogers in the 25th Century); in Anderson's already-cited "Margin of Profit"; in Philip E High's The Prodigal Sun (1964) and Come, Hunt an Earthman (1973); in Stephen R Donaldson's Gap sequence opening with The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story (1990), where "zone implants" compel obedience that extends to sexual slavery; in Greg Egan's Quarantine (1992); and in Charles Stross's Saturn's Children (2008), where normally free-willed humanoid Robots may suffer the degradation of an inserted "slave chip". Charles Harness's The Ring of Ritornel (1968) features the Drug quirinal, a "slave drug" that compels obsessive attention to one's work; the Villains of Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (1999) infect their victims with a disease called mindrot whose frequent after-effect of compulsive, quasi-autistic concentration is known as Focus. Mental slavery imposed by Psi Powers was once a common sf Cliché: examples of such slavers include the Mule in Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire (April and November-December 1945 Astounding; fixup 1952; vt The Man Who Upset the Universe 1955), the Extraterrestrial who infiltrates Earth in Eric Frank Russell's "Legwork" (April 1956 Astounding), the eponyms of T H White's The Master (1957) and John Brunner's The Atlantic Abomination (1960 dos), and the alien thrint in Larry Niven's World of Ptavvs (March 1965 Worlds of Tomorrow; exp 1966).

John W Campbell Jr famously held or at least proposed a contrarian viewpoint on slavery, both in conversation – informing Joseph Green "that the much-maligned 'peculiar institution' of slavery in the American South had in fact provided the Blacks brought there with a higher standard of living than they had in Africa." – and in such editorials as "Civil War Centennial" (June 1961 Analog). Some Analog authors duly played along, leading to stories such as Poul Anderson's "The Master Key" (July 1964 Analog) and Lloyd Biggle Jr's The World Menders (February-April 1971 Analog; 1971), in both of which the seeming slave races exploited by Aliens prove to be intelligent domestic animals for whom emancipation would be not only wrong but unnatural. Future societies steeped in Decadence often include a docile, limited-Intelligence slave class derived from human stock: this is achieved by a combination of Eugenic control and environmental conditioning in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and through Genetic Engineering in Jack Vance's Night Lamp (1996). In later episodes of John Norman's Gor sequence opening with Tarnsman of Gor (1966), sexual slavery/submission is the accepted norm for women – preferably uppity independent women from Earth who are duly humbled (see Feminism; Women in SF). Terry Pratchett's Small Gods (1992) offers – as an aside in its often angry humour – a cheerily comic view of slavery in the Discworld equivalent of ancient Greece, where slaves are not only well treated but have running-away privileges allowing them to take extended holidays.

Also in Fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones's The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) wryly identifies temporary enslavement as one of the inescapable Clichés of routine adventure trilogies. Back in Terry Pratchett's Discworld, patient Golems seek emancipation from slave status in Feet of Clay (1996), a process whose continuation is glimpsed in later series novels. There is much conceptual interest in Slaves of the Mastery (2001) by William Nicholson (1948-    ), second volume of his trilogy The Wind on Fire, which posits a slave society deriving stability from the fact that even the apparently privileged and high-ranking are nevertheless branded as slaves who owe total allegiance to the single alpha male at the top of the pyramid.

Many older sf tales bearing on slavery deal with the less historically charged sufferings, discontents and strivings towards emancipation of Aliens, as in Avram Davidson's "Now Let Us Sleep" (September 1957 Venture); Robots, as in Karel Čapek's play R.U.R. (1920; trans 1923); or Androids, a pioneering example here being Clifford D Simak's Time and Again (October-December 1950 Galaxy as "Time Quarry"; 1951; vt First He Died 1953) – see also Blade Runner (1982). Closer still to home are enslaved products of Genetic Engineering, such as the quietly rebellious Uplifted "underpeople" of Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind sequence, the replicants in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and, more tellingly, in Blade Runner 2049 (2017) directed by Denis Villeneuve, the short-lived workers in Michael Blumlein's The Movement of Mountains (1987), and the "Dolls" of Paul J McAuley's Fairyland (1995). Increasingly, analogues between Robots or Androids, literal slaves and human underclasses (including migrants) in general are not so much suggested in twenty-first century work as they are assumed. Human working class populations are in this century routinely understood as place-holders or replicants. [DRL]

see also: Parasitism and Symbiosis; Race in SF; Social Darwinism; Henry Franklin Triplett; Zombies.

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