Colonials

I’ve had a chance to read more than just the appendix in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology. The opening story, Mark Onspaugh’sWelcome to the Federation,” is a fundamentally familiar story to me, and to anyone who has lived in a place that’s been colonized. Gird, leader of Covalla, struggles with the changes on his home planet brought about by the coming of the Federation. The story is a bit top-heavy with telling rather than showing, but it paints a clear picture of the sense of regret and bitterness that comes in the wake of colonization:

The bus went along Coastal Route 24, a four lane highway that the Federation had built to replace the first Federation road, a two-lane thoroughfare they had named Sea Front Road. In pre-Federation time it had been a small and lovely path called Minoh-Ul-kjavallah, or “The Trail Minoh the Sea God Took to Court Mother West Wind”.

You couldn’t see much of the ocean, any more. The clear areas had become the sites of barracks for a proposed Federation base. The enormous base had been half completed when war had broken out near Antares, and all available Federation soldiers and engineers had gone to fight the good fight.

The story takes its time establishing cultural details of the Covallans. Reading it reminded me of the way I felt growing up on Oahu in Hawaii. My grandmother worked at the Iolani Palace, seat of the Hawaiian monarchy at the end of its years, and I would take tours often, hearing stories of how the last Hawaiian queen, Liliuokalani, had been removed from power. I heard about prohibitions against the hula dance. I watched rich foreigners establish a place on the island at the expense of native Hawaiian people and culture. I had mixed feelings about all of it, because I’m a poi dog (mixed blood), and because I felt nostalgic for a past I didn’t know even as I couldn’t imagine giving up the comforts of the present.

“Welcome to the Federation” doesn’t approach this topic in a very complicated way. It’s basically a wish fulfillment story–Gird devises a plan to get the Federation to pull back enough that his people can restore their original culture. I enjoyed the fantasy, but I was a little unsatisfied because my experiences growing up left me distrustful of  simple nostalgia. The story is simplified in part by the fact that the main character remembers what the planet was like before the foreigners came. I was in pretty different shoes growing up after the Hawaiian language had become a curiosity.

I did enjoy the story’s humorous tone, though the jokes exploited easy targets:

Admiral Benjamin Breckenridge IV was the first to step out onto Gird’s lawn, squashing some hgu lilies in the process.

“I’m here for the Ptaak,” he said menacingly, holding both a ceremonial sword and a phasing blast pistol. His first words had been carefully crafted on the journey to Covalla, beating out “Show yourselves, alien scum!” and “Who wants some?”.

“As soon as they saw you coming they ran,” said Gird nervously.

A victory cry went up, cut short when Breckenridge raised his hand. “And just who might you be?”

“Gird Mackel, brother of the late Governor,” Gird said.

“I thought the dead Governor was Gird Mackel,” said Breckenridge, puzzled.

“All my brothers are named Gird Mackel.”

Admiral Breckenridge nodded paternally, accustomed to the simple ways of indigenous people out on the Wrong Arm of the Galaxy.

As I read the story, I wondered why it was science fiction. Don’t get me wrong–I think science fiction is a good venue for addressing issues of colonization, because stories of aliens are similar to stories of foreigners. I found the analogy so direct in this case, however, that I was curious about how the science fiction setting added to or changed the story. I don’t see grounds here for a rigorous definition of science fiction. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on how the genre serves the story.

Advertisements

6 responses to “Colonials

  1. Hi! I read “Welcome to the Federation” too, and I liked it, though I agree that light-handedness is not its strength (or indeed its aim). I have two thoughts on how the genre serves the story in this case.

    The first is pragmatic and author-centric: it’s a lot easier and safer to write about Covallans and the Ptaak than it is to write about Oahu and racial/cultural conflict. Also, getting to make up stuff obviates the need for research, and research is hard. Setting it in space allows Onspaugh to tell the story he wants without spending too much time on the details for something only a few pages long.

    I say all that as a guess at motivation, not an endorsement.

    The second reason is more reader-centric: geeks like gloss. I myself am way more likely to pick up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies than I am Pride and Prejudice even though they are telling mostly the same story with mostly the same language. It’s the lasersharking problem: sure, sharks are fine, but they become so much NEATER when they have lasers on their heads!

    So spaceships and ansibles are a useful way to attractively garnish a story that, once digested, delivers a (nutritious?) message about how hey y’know colonialism isn’t all great.

    I think these two arguments are used to justify a lot of lazy sci-fi (cf Star Trek: TNG) and so I am wary of them, but I also think they are valid answers to your question. I’d be interested if you had further thoughts, and I look forward to your other Thoughtcrime Experiments reviews.

  2. Hi Brendan,

    Thanks so much for the thoughts–both make reasonable arguments (and thanks for introducing me to the term “lasersharking”).

    The discussion ties into something I’ve been thinking about when I construct stories myself–I often take some situation in modern life and try to translate it into science fiction or fantasy, making a story out of it. I’ve been wondering what I get from that. I’ve been playing with stories translated from the economic crisis, and started asking myself why I kept trying to make them genre stories. If I want to write about the economic crisis, why not just write about it straight?

    I think that what you say about some issues being easier and safer when they’re removed a bit from the settings we’re used to is right. I think the best use of science fiction, though, involves taking advantage of its capacity for thought experiments. LeGuin, for example, clearly had been thinking about gender when she wrote Left Hand of Darkness. But she didn’t just translate the issue — LHOD isn’t “gender on a spaceship.” She uses the tools of science fiction to twist the discussion and shed a new light on how we look at it — an alien light. I think that’s a good example of what SF can do.

    I’d have liked to see Onspaugh take things a step further by using the setting to step outside of or beyond the story. On the other hand, maybe that is what he’s done — it’s hard to imagine persuading the colonizers to just leave your people alone when it’s easy for them to travel to your land. Maybe it’s only in SF that we can imagine them withdrawing the way they do here.

    I checked out your site a bit, too — interesting stuff.

    Cheers,

    Erica

  3. That’s kind of you to say!

    I don’t disagree at all with your perspective. I think we’re looking at two things simultaneously here: what does sci-fi do for Onspaugh? Well, it provides a useful aesthetic distance. What does “Welcome to the Federation” do for sci-fi? Less clear!

    It does add an anticolonial voice to the genre corpus, and it’s not like we couldn’t use more of those, but it’s not like we’re starving for them either either. Le Guin took a stab at it way back with “The Word for World is Forest,” for instance–although I actually think “Welcome to the Federation” is much more entertaining.

  4. That’s a useful formulation, and the way you have it laid out seems right to me.

    I do think that one of the nice things about Thoughtcrime Experiments as I’ve read it so far is that it gives some unusual perspectives on SF (anticolonial, female, etc). Agreed that this is a good thing.

    Thanks for the good conversation!

  5. Hi Erica,

    I enjoyed reading your review of my story, “Welcome to the Federation”, and also your conversation with Brendan that followed.

    I agree with you that the story is wish fulfillment. It was inspired both by my lineage being partially Native American (Cherokee and Creek) and my visits to Maui. Like you, I am of mixed blood, so wanting a negation of imperialist exploitation and pollution is a… ahem, mixed bag… I might just wish myself out of existence! It would have been wonderful if the first explorers to the shores of both the Americas and the Hawaiian islands had sought to live in harmony with the indigenous people… Since it’s unlikely that some fellow with a time machine is going to undo all that colonial expansion, one hopes the needs of the land and all its people are met in a way that brings some new harmony.

    Although I have been reading SF nearly all my life, I have not been writing it professionally for long. I grew up on the works of Sheckley, Bradbury and Eric Frank Russell, and it is Bob Sheckley I find myself emulating when I strive for humor. I’m not as good as Bob was (few people are), he was a master of short stories with wonderful invention and marvelous satire. Still, I enjoy writing SF, and try to write stories like the ones I enjoyed reading.

    That’s the main reason I write SF and horror – I love them both. At this point I have more fun writing about Covalla and inventing races like the Nnnn and Ptaak… If in all the silliness I can say something meaningful about my love (and sadness) about Hawaii, so much the better.

    I truly appreciate the criticism both you and Brendan offered. It’s rare these days to find people making intelligent, constructive comments without stooping to name-calling or vague statements like “it stunk”. I hope my next story is better, and that you’ll let me know what you think. (You, too, Brendan!)

    All the best, Mark

  6. Hi Mark,

    Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I’d love to read more of your stories in the future. “Welcome to the Federation” certainly affected me–it’s a great foundation for discussion, and I think we need more discussion about the complicated issues still remaining from the fallout of colonialism.

    The wish fulfillment of the story felt great on my first read, and then I experienced a skeptical backlash, perhaps fueled by memories of realizing that it didn’t make sense to wish Hawaii away from the United States, etc.

    When I moved to the mainland, I planned at first to use my Hawaiian name instead of my first name. I remember packing my Hawaiian-English dictionary, and thinking I’d be using it to stay in touch with my roots. What actually happened was quite the opposite. Judging from how efficiently cultures have been wiped out in our history, both cultural and personal, it’s hard to give wish fulfillment the benefit of the doubt.

    On the other hand, stories often lead the way. It’s a good thing that you’ve created a clear image of people defending a culture before it could be destroyed.

    Best,

    Erica

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s