“This man, he knows nothing of my work.”
If you want to see the consequences of idiots who know a lot about how to analyze everything in racial terms, but don’t know the subject, writing about anything, you could do worse than look at this Noah Berlatsky essay on Science Fiction and Colonialism in the Atlantic.
But not much worse.
The link between colonialism and science-fiction is every bit as old as the link between science-fiction and the future. John Rieder in his eye-opening book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science-Fiction notes that most scholars believe that science fiction coalesced “in the period of the most fervid imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century.” Sci-fi “comes into visibility,” he argues, “first in those countries most heavily involved in imperialist projects—France and England” and then gradually gains a foothold in Germany and the U.S. as those countries too move to obtain colonies and gain imperial conquests.
Also toasters. And detective novels which are probably also a metaphor for Western colonialism.
Science Fiction also dates back, in various forms, thousands of years. But whatever, circle drawn. If you define the parameters your way, you can turn correlation into causation. And look, it’s a college essay.
In such stories, sci-fi is about “them” (a non-white, foreign civilization) doing to us (Western, largely white powers) as we did to them. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Into Darkness, for example, imagine a non-white antagonist who preaches the colonial ideology of eugenic culling against the less biologically perfect, Western-ish protagonists.
I haven’t seen the latest Abrams Trek, but its star is a white British guy. The actual Khan viewed the Enterprise crew as inferiors, but wasn’t spending his time calling for the extermination of inferior races. He even married a biologically ordinary woman.
So Berlatsky probably isn’t familiar with the subject matter, but…
Take Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, about a totalitarian Britain conquered and occupied by Germany, in which native English people are second-class citizens.
Did Berlatsky confuse Brazil with The Boys of Brazil? Did he even see the movie?
From Brazil, it’s only a brief hop to 1984, which, as I’ve pointed out here at The Atlantic, can also read as a reverse colonial parable.
Noah Berlatsky can also be read as a parable of what happens when an idiot gets a column. What does he think INGSOC stands for?
But going by his comments on Star Trek and Brazil, he’s just randomly pulling stuff together he never read or saw.
Even the Terminator films fit pretty easily into a colonial narrative.
And what about Alien? Colonization of the body. And Alf. And Jaws. The shark is a metaphor for the British Empire.
So what to make of this colonial obsession?
“Hey doc,” says the patient looking at the Rorschach inkblots, “What’s up with all the dirty pictures?”
Reverse colonial sci-fi don’t always have to be anti-imperialist, though. Ender’s Game, both film and book, use the invasion of the superior aliens not as a critique of Western expansion and genocide, but as an excuse for those things. The bugs invade human worlds, and the consequence is that the humans must utterly annihilate the alien enemy, even if Ender feels kind of bad about it. Olympus Has Fallen runs on the same script, as a North Korea with impossibly advanced weapons technology lays sci-fi siege to the White House, giving our hero the go-ahead for torture, murder, and generalized carnage.
Olympus has Fallen? It’s the best SciFi movie since Die Hard. Or Rambo. Which is a parable of colonialism.
In Terminator, as well, the fact that the robots are treating us as inhumanly as we treated them doesn’t exactly create any sympathy. Instead, the paranoid fear of servants overthrowing masters just becomes a spur to uberviolence (as shown in Linda Hamilton’s transformation from naïve good girl to paramilitary extremist). The one heroic reprogrammed Terminator, who must do everything John Connor tells him even unto hopping on one leg, doesn’t inspire a broader sympathy for SkyNet. Instead, Schwarzenegger is good because he identifies with the humans totally, sacrificing himself to destroy his own people. Terminator II is, in a lot of ways, a retelling of Gunga Din.
Finally. An article sympathetic to a genocidal computer. Sarah Connor should have rethought her biological privilege.
But give Noah Berlatsky some credit. At least he actually seems to have watched Terminator 2. Unlike Star Trek or Brazil.
Also he watched Olympus has Fallen. He’s such a Science Fiction nerd.
This is what happens when you don’t know what you’re talking about, but you get by with the same college bullshittery of comparing everything to colonialism.
The Atlantic. It’s like college never ended.