So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan

The promise and horror of the future depicted by sci-fi is well known and leads to the realization that imagined future-scapes relate to contemporary society. This line of thought is so facile it is often a little embarrassing to discuss it directly. Consider the original Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” in which Captain Kirk encounters a conflict within a species of aliens with two races: one race with their left sides black, and their right sides white, and the other with reversed skin tones. But sometimes these overly stylized concerns approach issues we reluctantly address in other areas of debate.

So Long Been Dreaming contains many stories that opt for this type of discourse about issues in our post-colonial world (a world populated by both residents of former colonies and the people taken as slaves and cheap labor from their original homelands). But the editors Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan have selected stories that discuss them in complicated ways. This collection is appropriate since “post-colonial” may be how our century is remembered: Former colonies will continue to face the growing pains of statehood, former colonial powers must deal with their loss of imperial grandeur and the memories of the frequent brutality they needed to maintain those regions they “explored.”

Explore. This word so central to science fiction and fantasy explodes with the promise of adventure and treasure — both intellectual and economic. Explore, the harbinger of colonization. We explore space for scientific discovery but quickly discuss the possibility of Martian and Lunar colonies. But explore contains the more sinister implication of exploit; certainly the plural noun “exploits” has a sense of adventure but the word “explore” is tainted with the tenuous relationship with our colonial predecessors, those that expanded our empires, Christopher Columbus, the conquistadors, Andrew Jackson, etc.

We cannot reverse the effects of colonization: exploration alters not only the colonized, “discovered” people but the explorer. With this in mind So Long‘s editors confront the issues of not only how to approach sci-fi and fantasy in an increasingly post-colonial world but also what the genre brings to post-colonial individuals. At the heart of these issues, Nalo Hopkinson recalls in his introduction Audre Lorde’s comment that “Massa’s tools will never dismantle massa’s house.” So it is of no surprise that running through these stories is a troubling relationship between the excesses of the colonizers and the occasional benefits they bring.

Celu Amberstone’s Refugees addresses this tension by revealing a preserve, arranged by a benevolent alien race, the Benefactors, for the few remaining humans in the universe. But when survivors from Earth’s final disaster are brought to this new world, questions arise about why humans have such caring protectors and what the protectors gain for themselves in helping humanity. These lead to the story’s central inquiry: What do the best intentions bring when they are unwanted? Crusades are fought to bring people the truth. Colonists find, in addition to economic exploitation, they are also required “to civilize” the people they exploit.

Questions about the desire to survive and perpetuate culture are also asked in the collection. Kobayashi casts her interest in “Panopte’s Eye” on the ultimate end of our global economy, which is built on colonized ground. In her post-apocalyptic tale, humanity barely survives in isolated cities and communicates with other settlements through caravans carrying scavenged goods and slaves. In this environment, small acts of faith by two city dwellers preserve humanity. But for what reason? Likewise Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu in her story “When Scarabs Multiply” gives us a similar environment of isolated communities linked occasionally by caravans which bring civilization and culture, later corrupted by the villagers.

The juxtaposition of these stories (and not just these two in particular) creates an overarching framework for investigating the difficulties of our post-colonial world. But this framework provides no final authoritative indictment of colonization and the post-colonial period, other than this history is troubling and unresolved.

The editors have kept to an excellent standard of science fiction and fantasy, collecting all manner of genre from the space opera of Tobias S. Buckell’s “Necahul,” to the fable of Wayde Compton’s “The Blue Road: A Fairy Tale,” to the apocalyptic vision of Tomai Kobayashi’s “Panopte’s Eye.” However as well as these stories read, as much as they challenge, they never challenge the genre itself. While this lack of struggle with genre is in no way a commentary on the quality of the work, I am concerned it will cause this collection to be inappropriately ghettoized near books with covers depicting spaceships and generously busted she-aliens. This would be unfortunate, because the editors have collected an excellent group of stories that often show finesse in approaching difficult subjects regardless of genre.