Science Fiction and Empire

By Patricia Kerslake | Go to book overview

humanity yearns for revelations of Itself. With the curiosity of the sentient, we are always fascinated by our reflection and SF provides mirrors that stretch to either end of our existence.1

Since seeing ourselves directly In the mirror of the future Is Impossible, SF produces Instead an unending succession of literary experiments, each one examining a small part of a much larger image and each equally necessary to the greater vision. In order to analyse such experiments properly we need to reason in the manner of scientists and to use contemporary theory both literary and social, as a tool In the Investigation; for each analysis It Is necessary to set out the objective and the conclusions of our deliberation. Given that SF texts explore a variety of subjects In multiple environments, in order to test our cultural assumptions we use a crucible of critical analysis to isolate and explore specific behaviours so rhat we may reach conclusions. And when the experiments are complete, we will possess more knowledge of ourselves, of the human potential and of our willingness to accept the strengths and weaknesses that combine to make us as we are. If we are sensible, we may even learn ro avoid some of the more dangerous results as we translate the theoretical into the applied.

But at what point should we begin the analysis? Though modern SF Is more comfortable in the company of technology and science, earlier and perhaps more philosophical works, such as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) or Voltaire's Micromégas (1752), escaped with only lip service to any scientific body of knowledge and the occasional nod to literature. Yet even in the earliest of works, SF demonstrated a constancy of non-conform ist thinking and a desire to experiment with the accepted standards of cultural thought. Since the close of the nineteenth century writings in the newly formed genre moved steadily into the future and away from narrative tradition, while providing us with strange though highly perceptive reflections of the time. In the preface to an anthology of his own works, H. G. Wells commented on the function of looking forward in order to see today: 'the fantastic, the strange property or strange world, is only used to throw up and intensify our natural reactions of wonder, fear or perplexity.⋯ The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms.'2 Similarly Terry Eagleton remarks upon the retrospection of understanding in saying that our knowledge of history travels backwards in time, so that we are always 'meeting ourselves coming rhe other way'.3

Just as a blue light is not visible in a blue room, the extraordinary can be seen only against a backdrop of the mundane. If our cultural Wetanschauung lies in the contrast between what we know today compared with what we knew yesterday then how much more potentially enlightening is a genre which focuses itself explicitly upon the future? The usefulness of SF does not depend solely on machines and frontiers but is located in its capacity

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