Thursday, April 24, 2008

Savage science fiction

It doesn't bear trying the number of science fiction stories juxtaposing hyper-trophied, Gernsback-ian technologies with highly stereotypical visions of gathering-hunting or pastoralist societies. And there's little evidence that this is a new trend--Wells's Time Machine, after all, devolved around the two, favorite Western tropes of the "primitive": the noble savage, basking about in a Dionysian prodigality (Eloi) and the rude savage (Morlocks), where, in the words of Hobbes, life is "nasty, brutish and short." One could say (and several have) that the "future" is only imaginable through this juxtaposition with the imagined savage. This, indeed, is what Christopher Bracken (in Magical Criticism) has suggested recently of Western discourse in general. And in a world where Western hegemony is tottering, there's been a renewed surfeit of these science fiction stories--shoring up the cracked foundations of modernity, as it were, with tales of genetically modified interplantary pastoralists quoting the Qur'an. But there are some bright spots as well.

For example, I very much liked (or, perhaps, liked to think about?) David Moles' short story, "Planet of the Amazon Women," starts off typically enough, with lots of allusion to Suzy Charnas (and to feminist utopia in general), with women on horseback, spontaneous conception, etc. Years after a temporally-induced "disease" has killed off all males on the planet Hippolyta, a male, scientist-mathematician makes his way to the planet and to the center of the temporal distortion that, we learn, didn't so much spawn a disease as replace one evolutionary timeline (sexual dimorphism) with another where it never developed. Our hero's goal: "to establish a metastable equilibrium that allows convex regions with real and virtual; histories to co-exist in four-dimensional space-time"--in other words, to "stabilize" these what-if kinds of gedanken into real-time possibility.

Of course, he succumbs to the disease in the end as well, but this ends up being the best thing about the story. As Moles' narrator concludes:

I was wrong to define my own history as real, Hippolyta's as unreal--to define mind as Self and Hippolyta's as Other. That is what the inference engines were trying to tell me.
There is no past that is not in some sense a lie. We see the past through the distortion of memory and imagination. We collaborate in its conscious distortion through history and propaganda. We see the laws of cause and effect violated not only each time a starship bends space-time but also each time we view the incomplete records of the past with our teleological modern eyes, imbuing them with presentiments of the future that is our own present. [ . . .]
The women of Hippolyta have a story they tell about themselves, and it does not include men.

There's a lesson here for both science fiction and representations of the West's many Others in general. When we tender these kinds of "savage" portraits of others, we introduce temporal distortions in the West . . .a kind of fragmentation of chronotypes as a by-product of attempting to (temporally) conquer the cultural Other.

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