“Introduction: Fantastic Empires”
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Robinson Jeffers, “Shine, Perishing Republic”
Robinson Jeffers wrote in 1925 of an America that was transforming before his eyes from republic to empire. What’s the difference? The model he was thinking of was obviously Rome, which, as it grew in size and power, cast off democratic systems and the ideal of public service for luxury, corruption, and hereditary rule by the heirs of Julius Caesar. The American founders had looked to the Roman Republic, not the Empire, as a model, but history seemed to be repeating itself.
When Jeffers wrote his lines, the United States was just beginning to exert influence internationally, though the first stirrings of imperial ambition are visible as early as the 1850s, in the form of adventurers like William Walker. Walker and his ilk are now known as the filibusters, which does not mean that they were Jimmy Stewart talking himself hoarse in the Senate. Rather, they brought soldiers, weapons, and money to Latin America in an effort to overthrow governments and put themselves in power. Walker, for instance, managed briefly to become President of Nicaragua. The official justification for their efforts was not personal aggrandizement but patriotism: they saw themselves as helping to carry out the divine plan or Manifest Destiny of America to expand not only from sea to shining sea but from pole to pole in the Western hemisphere.
The 2014 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts was devoted to the idea of empires, primarily as represented within fantastic fictions but also as real-world forces that shape our imagination and channel our forms of expression. As the example of Walker and the filibusters shows, there are many kinds of empire: official and de facto, centralized and distributed, military and economic, religious and corporate. Americans have never liked to think of themselves in imperial terms: we are the Rebel Alliance rather than the evil Empire. We don’t venerate an imperial past as many British people do. We don’t long for the good old days of the Ottoman Empire or the Han Dynasty. Yet we want to create a Pax Americana, to wander the world with a citizen’s impunity: in other words, to emulate not the orators of the Roman Republic but the Ceasars. Both science fiction and fantasy reflect this desire, along with the guilt and doubt that accompany its fulfillment.
Among the various papers, panels, and talks that addressed the Conference theme, many made reference to John Rieder’s pioneering work on the colonial imagination in science fiction. Many before Rieder had noted sf’s debt to the Western genre and the historical frontier, but Rieder goes beyond that insight to explore the political and cultural implications of exploration which is also exploitation—the unacknowledged truth that a frontier is never one-sided; the wilderness is already inhabited.
As usual, the Conference honored three special guests: two fiction writers and a scholar. Each is represented here. Award-winning novelist and teacher Nnedi Okorafor spoke about the devastating effects of empire on people such as her students here in America and residents of the Nigeria of her ancestors and of her imagination. Her (then) forthcoming novel Lagoon challenges a number of science fiction conventions by locating an alien first contact story not in Washington D.C. or New York but in a near-future Lagos, a place many empires have washed over, leaving cultural debris and conflict in their wake. Science fiction scholar Istvan Cscicsery Ronay, Jr., also talked about empire and families: his own family fled Hungary for the U. S. after the Communist take-over following World War II. That places him in relation to at least three great world powers: the vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Soviet bloc, and the American political and economic sphere. Neither speaker let the audience sit comfortably: both drew connections between the kind of privilege that allows us to rejoice in works of the imagination and the imperial underpinnings of that privilege. Ian MacDonald spoke on panels and read from his work but did not give a luncheon speech, so I asked scholar Jerome Winter to conduct an email interview with him. Growing up, as he says, on the periphery of a fading empire, MacDonald brings a Northern Irish awareness of colonial rule and of the possibly of overthrowing such rule. His fiction shows this awareness in many ways, including richly imagined futures dominated not by capitalist West or collectivist East but by emergent powers in the South: the India of River of Gods and the Amazon basin of Brasyl.
In addition to these Guest of Honor contributions, we have five articles on topics related in some way or other to the idea of empire (as what topic is not, these days?). First, Malisa Kurtz examines two recent works of postcolonial sf, Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City and Geoff Ryman’s Air, in which the view from the margins of empire becomes a new ethical and ontological norm. Kurtz’s sophisticated analysis of difference and discourse was also the winner of last year’s award for best paper presented by a graduate student at the Conference.
Suparno Banerjee writes about the complex relationship between biotechnology and non-Western cultures. At first glance it may seem that multinational corporations and their interventions into genes and bodies represent yet another invasion by the West. It remains to be seen whether an alternative posthumanism can develop within the cultures of India and other former colonies, and thus whether hybridity and Donna Haraway’s cyborg can be enlisted in the fight against political domination and economic exploitation, against empires old and new.
Lisa Nevárez’s topic is not empires; however, the juxtaposition with Banerjee’s article suggests that the vampires and victims she writes about can be interpreted in very similar terms of control and exploitation. While Nevárez’s emphasis is on medicine and psychological implications of the intersection of motherhood and the vampire, one could argue that the forced maternity narratives of texts like the Twilight series are related to sexualized violence that frequently follows invasions and territorial struggles around the world. The veneer of romance that authors like Stephenie Meyer lay over their fantasies may distract us from the brutal biological struggle for dominance that is implicit in the vampire metaphor.
Aaron Cloyd’s essay on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? returns to the wilderness movement of the 1960s. Though Dick is more often viewed as the prophet of simulation and decay than of ecological purity, an environmental consciousness runs through his work, and Cloyd finds in the novel a complex redefinition of wilderness as something contingent, constructed, and thoroughly covered with human tracks, and yet still capable of serving as a source of renewal and resistance—to imperializing forces within the self as well as within the body politic.
Finally, Anne Duggan looks back to an earlier era of clashing empires through the lens of the Arabian Nights tale and its central figure the genie or Jinni. The texts that gave the West its images of an exotic, half-magical Orient were themselves the products of exchanges between Europe and the Middle East, or the French Empire and the Ottoman. Duggan shows how the racialized representations of a being from Arabic/Islamic folklore, epitomize the fear and fascination with which the West has viewed its nearest Imperial neighbor.
Introduction: Fantastic Empires
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.: An Introduction, by Rob Latham
Science Fiction and the Imperial Audience
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
Nnedi Okorafor: An Introduction, by Siobhan Carroll
Writing Rage, Truth and Consequence
Question and Answer for Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald and Jerome Winter
Science Fictional Assemblages: SF and Postcolonialism?
Ruptured Bodies and Invaded Grains: Biotechnology in Indian Science Fiction
Electric Nature: (Re)Constructing Wilderness in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Aaron A. Cloyd
What to Expect When You Are Expecting (a Vampire): Reading the Vampire Child
From Genie to Efreet: Fantastic Apparitions in the Tales of The Arabian Nights
Anne E. Duggan
Political Fantasy and Speculative Fictions
Rebecca J. Holden and Nisi Shawl’s Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia Butler
Rev. by Laurel Bollinger
Julian Chambliss, William Sviatsky, and Thomas Donaldson’s Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men: Superheroes and the American Experience
Rev. by Catherine Coker
Jarlath Killeen’s The Emergence of Irish Gothic Fiction: History, Origins, Theories
Rev. by Mark De Cicco
Gerald Alva Miller, Jr.’s Exploring the Limits of the Human through Science Fiction
Rev. by Shaun Duke
William F. Touponce’s Lord Dunsany, H. P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury: Spectral Journeys
Rev. by Timothy Evans
Stefan Ekman’s Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings
Rev. by Caitlin Herington
Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters
Rev. by Jim Holte
Mark Bould’s Africa SF
Rev. by Isiah Lavender, III
Monika Elbert and Bridget M. Marshall’s Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century
Rev. by Leigha McReynolds
Sue Zlosnik’s Patrick McGrath (Gothic Authors: Critical Revisions)
Rev. by Sean Moreland
Robert T. Tally, Jr.’s Utopia in the Age of Globalization: Space, Representation, and the World-System
Rev. by Irene Morrison
Valentina Polcini’s Oltre la fantascienza: Paradigmi e intertestualità nella narrativa di J. G. Ballard. [Beyond Science Fiction: Paradigms and Intertextuality in J. G. Ballard’s Fiction]
Rev. by Salvatore Proietti
Guilhem Armand’s Les Fictions à vocation scientifique de Cyrano de Bergerac à Diderot: Vers une poétique hybride. [Fiction with a Scientific Vocation from Cyrano de Bergerac to Diderot: Towards a Hybrid Poetics]
Rev. by Amy Ransom
Cynthia Sugar’s Canadian Gothic: Literature, History and the Spectre of Self-Invention
Rev. by Amy Ransom
T. Joshi’s Critical Essays on Lord Dunsany
Rev. by Eric Reinders
Adam Roberts’s The Riddles of The Hobbit
Rev. by Don Riggs
Robert S. Blackham’s Tolkien and the Peril of War
Rev. by W. A. Senior
Joanne Watkiss’s Gothic Contemporaries: The Haunted Text
Rev. by Brittany Warman
Peter Szendy’s Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials: Cosmopolitical Philosofictions
Rev. by Jerome Winter