Academic journal article Extrapolation

Reframing Heart of Darkness as Science Fiction

Academic journal article Extrapolation

Reframing Heart of Darkness as Science Fiction

Article excerpt

Heart of Darkness (1899) always ends up on the wrong bookshelf. Inaccurate categorization. That is to say, Joseph Conrad's novella-that miracle of modernism-is a work of science fiction (sf).1

This essay reframes the discussion of Heart of Darkness as an exploration of its specific resonances with sf through sf's megatext-"the shared subcultural thesaurus of the genre," consisting of tropes, symbols, and motifs which create science fiction's background (Csicsery-Ronay, "Empire" 362).2 To accomplish this task, I first make clearer what it means to read a non-sf text science-fictionally, as a work of science fiction. Next, I concentrate on the sf megatext through proto-sf and Conrad's relationship to it. Finally, I demonstrate the consequences of this alien colonial encounter between Kurtz, Marlow, and the African continent. Placing Heart of Darkness in conversation with the proto-sf of its time adds a useful dimension to the narrative. The novella's sf concerns were once consonant with the emerging modernist ethos regarding race, colonialism, and the alien other, before it became more associated with the "high modernism" of Joyce. Put another way, Conrad adapts the sf genre to present noxious materials, thus avoiding marginalization by the literary community while simultaneously speaking modernism's new and ugly truths before modernism itself was codified. Regrettably, both sf and modernism move away from the complex concerns of Heart of Darkness. The unfortunate result is that sf acquires (with justification) the pejorative label of "escapist." If we do not read Heart of Darkness science-fictionally, not only do we miss an interpretation in reading colonial fiction, but we also fail to spot the multimodal resonance of this text for modern consciousness- a direct reflection of "science fiction thinking" (Landon 4).

Critics have read this rich text in myriad ways. Some analyze complex attitudes regarding colonialism and race in the age of empire. Readings also comment on the societal changes resulting from the processes of industrialization, scientific innovation, technological development, and the pursuit of wealth in a shrinking world, as Conrad strongly and intentionally breaks with Victorian tradition.3 Naturalist interpretations remark on how the exotic social environment of the African frontier influences the actions of Marlow and Kurtz.4 For example, Marlow, who finds lying uncouth and who never lies, at novella's end lies to Kurtz's Intended about her fiancé's final whispered words. The scientific explanation offered by naturalism suggests that a predetermined degeneration of the human animal occurs in the African wilds, deeply affecting the morality of men like Kurtz and Marlow, stripping them of free will, suggesting a pessimistic twist in the story. All these readings add up to a received critical opinion that regards the novella as a work of high art, not one of popular culture,s even though two essays specifically place Conrad's novella within sf history without reading science-fictionally-Paul Kincaid's "Mistah Kurtz, Fie Dead" (2000) and John Clute's "Beyond the Pale" (2002).6

A science-fictional reading of Heart of Darkness pierces the modernist and naturalist ambiguities which hide the novella's genre roots, wrenching it into a seemingly lower cultural register. Conrad's novella helps create and maintain an alien view of the African continent that still influences us. Africa seems a planet all of its own, where intrepid explorers discover lost treasures and lost races in pursuit of wealth and conquest. Marlow tries to deny his kinship to Africans because of his "suspicion of their not being inhuman" as "they howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces" (36). Plis reluctant acceptance of this distant kinship sets up a race discussion along the very surprising sf line of interpreting blacks as aliens. The natives cannot speak for themselves, adversely demarcating what constitutes humanity through cultural and racial difference generated by colonial conquest. …

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