Science-fiction "contemplates possible futures." So says a new Smithsonian article, and it doesn't seem like a particularly controversial thesis. As the piece says, sci-fi tries to think about what’s to come for civilization. "The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in," as Ursula K. Le Guin says.
But it's worth remembering that in sci-fi, the future actually isn't safe or sterile at all. On the contrary, with its alien invasions, evil empires, authoritarian dystopia, and new lands discovered and pacified, the genre can look as much like the past as the future. In particular, sci-fi is often obsessed with colonialism and imperial adventure, the kind that made the British Empire an empire and that still sustains America’s might worldwide.
The link between colonialism and science-fiction is every bit as old as the link between science-fiction and the future. John Rieder in his eye-opening book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science-Fiction notes that most scholars believe that science fiction coalesced "in the period of the most fervid imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century." Sci-fi "comes into visibility," he argues, "first in those countries most heavily involved in imperialist projects—France and England" and then gradually gains a foothold in Germany and the U.S. as those countries too move to obtain colonies and gain imperial conquests. He adds, "Most important, no informed reader can doubt that allusions to colonial history and situations are ubiquitous features of early science fiction motifs and plots."
The iconic example of colonialism-inspired sci-fi is that most important of sci-fi stories, H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. As Rieder says, Wells begins his book with an explicit comparison of the Martian invasion to colonial expansion in Tasmania. "The Tasmanians," Wells writes,
in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"
Here the Martian conquest is presented as analogous to, and even as just retribution for, Britain's colonial genocide. As has been visited on them, so shall it be visited on us.
With Wells in mind, it’s easy to see colonial metaphors throughout the sci-fi that followed him. In many cases, as with Wells, these works flip the racial dynamic that characterized the most influential imperialist ventures of the last few centuries. In such stories, sci-fi is about “them” (a non-white, foreign civilization) doing to us (Western, largely white powers) as we did to them. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Into Darkness, for example, imagine a non-white antagonist who preaches the colonial ideology of eugenic culling against the less biologically perfect, Western-ish protagonists.
Even works in which the invaders are white can come off like historical fiction envisioning an inversion of Anglo hegemony. Take Terry Gilliam's film Brazil, about a totalitarian Britain conquered and occupied by Germany, in which native English people are second-class citizens. From Brazil, it's only a brief hop to 1984, which, as I've pointed out here at The Atlantic, can also read as a reverse colonial parable. Rather than seeing the novel as a riff on Hitler and Stalin's brand of totalitarianism, as it’s usually interpreted, you can instead think about it as inspired by the repressive state in which Orwell served—British-controlled Burma.
Even the Terminator films fit pretty easily into a colonial narrative. At first, they may seem far afield from geographic conquest; the plot, after all, hinges on time-traveling robots, not invading aliens. But Rieder points out that for Wells, the War of the Worlds was a battle not only across space, but across time. Wells's Martians, with their giant craniums and atrophied bodies, were meant to be a warning of our own evolutionary future, just as the Tasmanians were generally viewed by Westerners as preserved, primitive living remnants of the evolutionary past. Thus, the computers in Terminator can be seen as not-fully-evolved colonial servants, who eventually evolve into more-advanced colonial masters.
So what to make of this colonial obsession? What does it mean that all of these novels and films, from War of the Worlds more than 100 years ago to Into Darkness in 2013, are powered by colonial inversion, a dream of Western imperial violence inflicted upon Westerners?
To some degree, and in some instances, it's clear that sci-fi reverse colonialism is anti-colonial. Again, Wells uses the Mars invasion to directly criticize European colonial practices. Similarly, Gwyneth Jones in her 1994 book North Wind imagines an alien race, the Aleutians, who are almost-but-not-quite exactly like humans. When they take over the earth, they nonchalantly decide to sheer off the top of the Himalayas to improve the planet's climate. Despite worldwide protests (which confuse the Aleutians; why would anyone object to sheering off the mountains, they wonder?) the Aleutians go ahead with their plan, and accidentally destroy most of earth's farmland (as we see in the follow up novel, Phoenix Café.) The depiction of bland imperial arrogance directed, specifically, at the subcontinent, is an obvious satire of Britain's own history of empire—and of the intertwined violence of Western expansion and environmental devastation more generally. In a similar vein, Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy, told from the perspective of a family of black humans who survive and thrive after an alien invasion, cannily inverts and crosses identities of colonized and colonizers, self and other.
Reverse colonial sci-fi don't always have to be anti-imperialist, though. Ender's Game, both film and book, use the invasion of the superior aliens not as a critique of Western expansion and genocide, but as an excuse for those things. The bugs invade human worlds, and the consequence is that the humans must utterly annihilate the alien enemy, even if Ender feels kind of bad about it. Olympus Has Fallen runs on the same script, as a North Korea with impossibly advanced weapons technology lays sci-fi siege to the White House, giving our hero the go-ahead for torture, murder, and generalized carnage. In Terminator, as well, the fact that the robots are treating us as inhumanly as we treated them doesn't exactly create any sympathy. Instead, the paranoid fear of servants overthrowing masters just becomes a spur to uberviolence (as shown in Linda Hamilton's transformation from naïve good girl to paramilitary extremist). The one heroic reprogrammed Terminator, who must do everything John Connor tells him even unto hopping on one leg, doesn't inspire a broader sympathy for SkyNet. Instead, Schwarzenegger is good because he identifies with the humans totally, sacrificing himself to destroy his own people. Terminator II is, in a lot of ways, a retelling of Gunga Din.
On the one hand, then, the reverse colonial stories in sci-fi can be used as a way to sympathize with those who suffer under colonialism. It puts the imperialists in the place of the Tasmanians and says, this could be you, how do you justify your violence now? On the other hand, reverse colonial stories can erase those who are at the business end of imperial terror, positing white European colonizers as the threatened victims in a genocidal race war , thereby justifying any excess of violence. Often, though, sci-fi does both at once—as, Rieder argues, Wells does in The War of the Worlds, which both sympathizes with the oppressed and suggests that survival-of-the-fittest colonial exploitation is natural, inevitable, and unstoppable (there is, after all, no talking to the Martians—or, therefore, to the Tasmanians?).
The fact that colonialism is so central to science-fiction, and that science-fiction is so central to our own pop culture, suggests that the colonial experience remains more tightly bound up with our political life and public culture than we sometimes like to think. Sci-fi, then, doesn’t just demonstrate future possibilities, but future limits—the extent to which dreams of what we'll do remain captive to the things we've already done.