Who Controls the Narrative?: On David M. Higgins’s “Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood”

November 27, 2021   •   By Brian Attebery

Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood

David M. Higgins

BOTH POLITICIANS AND political scientists know the power of narratives: there is much talk about who controls and how to alter “the narrative.” But neither group tends to ask where these narratives are actually, you know, narrated. In his new book, Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood, David M. Higgins offers a fascinating look into the process by which such stories are generated and transformed into cultural references and societal roadmaps.

Higgins examines a particular cluster of narratives about power and identity, a cluster that is nicely described in his title: stories that use the iconography of science fiction to express fear of the other and resentment of loss of power, thus giving a boost to a number of reactionary movements, from Brexit and the cult of Trump to anti-feminist internet trolldom. Higgins traces the origins of a set of powerful tropes in print science fiction from the 1960s and early 1970s; he then follows their spread through media and electronic culture as well as their uses in political rhetoric and advertising. His choice of decade might seem unnecessarily limiting — why not go back to the Gothic origins of science fiction or forward to survey the contemporary scene? — but it makes perfect sense as he guides us through the paranoid visions of Philip K. Dick, the heroic illusions of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), and the crumbling empires of J. G. Ballard, and then shows how these and their contemporaries provided the imagery, language, and narrative tropes that continue to mold behavior and set terms for debate.

What is reverse colonization? Higgins offers several formulations of the term in different contexts, but essentially it is a form of projection in which those who have inflicted colonial rule on others imagine that they are victims of the same injustice. Narratives of reversal can have different aims, including inviting those in power to feel compassion for others, but Higgins is particularly interested in cases in which “modern reactionaries […] have mobilized powerful political sentiment by identifying as victims and framing themselves as revolutionary insurgents struggling to achieve heroic liberation against overwhelming odds.” His core examples are not themselves reactionary — even Robert A. Heinlein, whose Starship Troopers (1959) flirts with fascist ideas, was liberal on many issues, including race and gender equality. Yet by some alchemy, even anti-colonial tales can serve the purposes of the alt-right. As Higgins writes,

Today’s reactionary appropriation of righteous, anti-imperial victimhood — the sense that white men, in particular, are somehow colonized victims fighting an insurgent resistance against an oppressive establishment — depends on a science fictional logic that achieved dominance in imperial fantasy during the 1960s and has continued to gain momentum ever since.

This process should be familiar to anyone who has ever tuned into internet discussions in which the red pill/blue pill motif from The Matrix (1999) is invoked. Higgins documents some of those discussions, in which writers whose views are as far as possible from those of that film’s creators demonstrate their conviction that “our side” is the one that has taken the red pill and seen the truth. Some of the most disturbing evidence in the book concerns red pillers such as Elliot Rodger, whose resentment of women, filtered through science fiction narratives, led to his murdering six people and wounding 14 others. Rodger left a manifesto in which he expressed his identification with characters such as Anakin Skywalker.

SF critic John Rieder, whom Higgins cites, has demonstrated the relationship between colonialism and the shared narrative structures and world-building conventions of science fictions. In other words, empire has always been there: it powers the genre’s narrative engines and guides its trajectories. More generally, scholars of popular culture, from Henry Nash Smith to Janice Radway, show that popular genres act as secular myths — collective narratives that embody a society’s anxieties, aspirations, and beliefs about itself. These myths are most effective when least noticed — when they are dismissed as “mere entertainment.” This is not the first time science fiction has been linked with the aggressive tendencies of Western culture (H. Bruce Franklin’s 1988 book War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination comes to mind), but Higgins’s work breaks new ground in its meticulous tracing of the links from celebrations of conquest to resentful narratives of victimhood. First came expressions of fear that the same might be done to us: H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) tackled the theme with a subtlety and self-doubt that are missing from the many “yellow peril” stories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Then the many superman stories (a trope favored by editor John W. Campbell) of the 1930s and 1940s offered escape and self-justification to nerdy technophiles.

In the era that Higgins concentrates on, the breakdown of colonial empires coincided with calls for personal liberation through meditation or pharmaceuticals. Thus, we end up with Valentine Michael Smith in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Paul Atreides in Herbert’s Dune, the affectless observers of decay in J. G. Ballard’s stories of catastrophe, and the many downtrodden repairmen and shopkeepers of Dick’s crumbling realities. Higgins reads these writers with sympathy and quotes them effectively; his critique is directed toward those who misuse their narrative techniques and themes. Some of the connections he has dug up surprised me. I was especially impressed by a reading of Patrick McGoohan’s SF series The Prisoner (1967–’68) alongside Dick’s visionary/paranoid Exegesis and neo-reactionary philosopher Nick Land’s equally cracked essay on “Dark Enlightenment.” From the latter, Higgins traces direct links to far-right politics, militias, and the “sovereign citizen” movement represented by land-grabbers such as rancher Cliven Bundy.

By using humanities methods on materials more often claimed by the social sciences, Higgins reminds us that stories and their creators help us make sense of historical trends and events. We can go further yet by applying the metacritical tools of contemporary criticism. While avoiding most of their jargon, Higgins employs insights from Slavoj Žižek, Donna Haraway, and Samuel R. Delany to reveal the inner workings of the reverse-colonization story. For instance, he identifies the power of Michael Moorcock’s science fantasies in their kinship with empire-excusing histories like Bernard Porter’s: “In both cases, the inward reanalysis of Britain’s motivation reveals it to be the passive victim of the imperial process rather than the aggressor.”

Despite the disturbing nature of many of Higgins’s examples, his book is a pleasure to read: wide-ranging, informative, and full of twists and ironies. His concluding chapter acts as an antidote to some of the toxicity he is uncovering. Under the title “Alternatives to Imperial Masochism,” he reminds us that the very narrative structures employed for defending privilege and venting resentment against women and foreigners can also be used to resist warmongering and exploitation. This is the book he didn’t write: about Joe Haldeman and Ursula K. Le Guin and Shaun Tan and Indigenous writers around the world who have begun to discover the power of the science-fictional imagination. The effective counter to alt-victimhood is something like Gerald Vizenor’s “survivance” or what Native American scholar Grace Dillon terms biskaabiiyang, “returning to ourselves.” As Higgins notes, “Many Indigenous speculative fictions reveal that many of those who have suffered the greatest harm from real-world practices of imperialism often entirely reject the politics of victimhood that are the central obsession of Western reverse colonization fantasies.” By ending on that note of hope, Higgins suggests that the disease implies the cure. The way to combat imperial fantasy is by telling the same story better.

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Brian Attebery is the author of Decoding Gender in Science Fiction and, most recently, Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth.