At The Wavefront

“A quick list of the nations that have produced most of the sf in the past century and a half shows a distinct pattern. The dominant sf nations are precisely those that attempted to expand beyond their national borders in imperialist projects: Britain, France, Germany, Soviet Russia, Japan, and the US.’ The pattern is clear, but not simple. English and French sf took off when their imperial projects were at their heights, and have continued to thrive long after their colonies gained independence. German sf was primarily a product of Weimar-that is, after the collapse of the short-lived German imperium. Japanese sf-which is now one of the most influential of contemporary internationals tyles-also producedr elatively little before the end of WorldW ar II. Soviet sf picked up a rich Russian tradition of satirical and mystical scientific fantasy and adapted it to its own revolutionary mysticism in the 1920s; after a long dormancy under Stalin, it revived again during the thaw of the 1960s, only to evaporate with the fall of Communism. In the US, sf was a well-developed minor genre in the nineteenth century; it exploded in the 1920s and has continued its hegemony ever since. Whether this occurred during the collapse of imperialism as a world-historical project, or fully within a pax Americana that can stand as the American Empire, we will have to examine. Our answers may not only help us to interpret how the sf genre functions in twentieth-century cultural history, but also make us sensitive to its function as a mediator between national literary traditions and that chimerical beast, global technoculture.


SF and Imperialism. The role of technology in propelling imperialist projects is often neglected. And yet technological development was not only a precondition for the physical expansion of the imperialist countries but an immanent driving force. It led to changes  of consciousness that facilitated the subjugation of less developed cultures, wove converging networks of technical administration,and established standards of “objective measurement” that led inevitably to myths of racial and national supremacy. It stands to reason that sf, a genre that extols and problematizes technology’s effects, would emerge in those highly modernized societies where technology had become established as a system for dominating the environment and social life. Imperialist states were at the wavefront of technological development. Their projects had what Thomas P. Hughes calls “technological momentum”. The tools of exploration and coercion formed systems, as did the tools of administration and production in the colonies, and these systems gradually meshed. Colonial territories were treated as free zones, where new techniques and instruments could be tried out by companies and bureaucracies far from the constraints of conservative national populations. These innovations then fed back into the metropole, inviting more and more investment, technical elaboration, and new applications. The exponential growth of mechanical production and the production of mechanism continually widened the  gaps between imperial agents and their subject peoples. Supremacy became a function of the technological regime.

Sf raises some very specific questions in this historical context. One is: are the differences in national traditions of sf due primarily to the desire to retain traditional cultural values historically established against the engine of technological expansion? Is this why we notice the significant differences of tone, of generic affiliation, of conventions of representation, that mark French sf from British, U S from German, Japanese from Russian?If so, then sf may have mucht he same function that novelistic realism had in bourgeois national modernization: managing the abstract techno-political leap forward out of “domestic” culture, from a nation among nations to a global culture. Another question is: has sf been a privileged thematic genre (perhaps in the way that film has been a privileged material medium) for expressing and representing the dialectics of this imperial process, because of its central fascination with technology? Has sf labored to manage the technological momentum inherent in imperialism, by infusing it with national cultural “dialects”-symbol systems, literary forms and formulas, artistic techniques, and discourse practices?”

Text: Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, “Science Fiction and Empire”. Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, Social Science Fiction (Jul., 2003), pp. 231-245.

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