The Post-Colonial Space Opera

Tumblr_llhzcs5Gqo1qzll1y W. Andrew Shephard reviews China Míeville’s Embassytown in The New Inquiry:

Space Opera is a specific subgenre within science fiction (SF) focusing on interplanetary travel and typically involves contact with alien beings and high adventure. Or, as SF writer Brian Aldiss affectionately terms it, “the good old stuff.” However, this particular mode of storytelling has had something of a controversial history within the science fiction genre at large. On the one hand, it calls to mind the genre at its most exuberantly escapist – think of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian visions of a humanity united by its love of exploration in Star Trek or the retro-cool outlaws of Joss Whedon’s space western Firefly. But the earliest space operas are also often heavily tied to colonialist narratives, of encounters with alien cultures which inevitably end in some sort of conquest and an insistence on the superiority of our own homegrown (often Anglo-American and depressingly patriarchal) values. The most famous example of this would be the insistence of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, that stories published in his magazine which involved aliens had to end with humanity triumphing over them.

As science fiction became more self-aware and welcomed a more diverse group of authors, they began to challenge, question, and debunk this particular type of narrative, but it still remains a significant reference point for the genre. Case in point: the top grossing science fiction film of all-time, James Cameron’s Avatar, is a strident and unambiguous rebuke of the conquest narrative. Yet as io9’s Annalee Newitz has insightfully pointed out, it can also be read as a fantasy about “[leading] people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.” Consensual colonization, essentially. Míeville’s novel feels like an attempt to move past the fantasies concerned with absolving white guilt or endorsing white privilege in the direction of a more intellectually honest discourse on the subject.