Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Science Fictional Assemblages: SF and Postcolonialism?

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Science Fictional Assemblages: SF and Postcolonialism?

Article excerpt

In this essay i examine geoff ryman's air: or, have not have (2005) and Lauren Beukes's Zoo City (2010) as exemplars of the way science fiction (sf) can provide a framework for creatively imagining and enacting a postcolonial ethics. While a number of texts recently labelled "postcolonial science fiction" might replace Air and Zoo City, I have chosen these two novels in particular because their thematic similarities are a consequence of shared generic images. Specifically, Air and Zoo City foreground the "fusion" of two characters and their altered embodiment in order to critique the violence and imperialism implied in western epistemological traditions that imagine the self as an essential, unified being. Differences in the socio-political critiques offered in Ryman's and Beukes's novels are due to the particular geographic regions that each text draws upon. Zoo City highlights the historical aftermath of apartheid in South Africa while Air offers a critique of the digital divide that defines the late twentieth, early twenty-first century expansion of information communication technologies. Despite their situated differences, I argue that both novels express similar ethical commitments as a result of the process by which they link critiques of the "self" with critiques of colonial structures. In doing so, Air and Zoo City outline the possibilities for a postcolonialism based on "careful forms of sociability" (Bignall, Postcolonial, 220) that emphasizes the effect of micropolitical relationships on the emergence of alternative macropolitical relations.

My argument is therefore two-fold in that it seeks to position Air and Zoo City as representative of the possibilities of postcolonial sf, while also contending that this unique subgenre offers a potential framework for thinking through the material/discursive divide that frequently characterizes postcolonial literary analysis. Texts that have been defined as postcolonial sf include, for example, works by Lauren Beukes, Amitav Ghosh, Nalo Hopkinson, Larissa Lai, and Ian McDonald. Recent scholarly work on these authors often replicates binary geopolitical structures, with one approach concentrating primarily on postcolonial sf's deconstruction of colonial discourse, while the other emphasizes the very real historical, economic, and political struggles of the "Third World." (1) Despite this bifurcation, extrapolating from both these approaches one can say that a general quality of postcolonial sf is thus its focus on and exploration of "difference"--whether social, cultural, technological, or economic--in the historical aftermath of colonialism. By focusing on the question of difference, however, an important question emerges: how does a postcolonial sf (and its study) avoid replicating the structures of the colonial gaze? In other words, how does sf criticism negotiate an understanding of the "postcolonial" in which explorations of difference are not subsumed into the logic of what Graham Huggan calls "marketing the margins"? (2)

At stake in the discussion of a postcolonial sf, then, is whether discussions of cultural, ethnic, or social difference can occur in ways that do not risk appropriating subaltern identities or presenting idealized and mythologized "others." As scholars attempt to define postcolonial sf, many of the questions which have plagued postcolonial theory arise: does defining postcolonial sf as a subgenre revert to idealistic/exploitative identity politics and contain its subversive potential? Can connections be forged between different global visions of sf, or does such a subgenre necessarily revert to a form of cultural relativism? Despite, indeed because of, these challenges, this paper argues for the importance of exploring a notion of postcolonial sf that might be defined by shared ethics, attuned to both a material and discursive critique of colonialism. This approach hinges on the way Air and Zoo City redefine "difference" in a nonimperial light, thereby ultimately challenging the subject/Other dichotomy of the colonial gaze in sf. …

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