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Scotland as Science Fiction

Though cinematic aliens pile up on the White House lawn, and monsters show a fatal attraction to a dwindling colonial power centered in south Britain, science fiction criticism typically considers its subject global in practice and universal in aspiration. This is a position of paradox—and therefore worthy both of the fictions of science and of our investigation. What might we say to a genre that by scientific transformation projects itself across other times and spaces, yet seems fixated on the North Atlantic linguistic margin, and whose criticism simultaneously and assertively divorces it from such geographical and political parameters?

We can find answers in Scottish science fiction. Superficially, this nationally marked literature is subsumed by the terms both of the universal and the global. Considered part of anglophone science fiction because British, Scottish science fiction is thus "universal," but as not English, it is less than "global." In either case, as Scottish, it stands invisible to critics. But does that mean it is inoperable?

This oddly imperial yet strangely subaltern literature, positioned both inside and outside the grand critical narratives of the genre, operates as a form of criticism at once geographic and political, scientific and literary. Though supposedly irrelevant because they are Scottish, distinctively Scottish fictions of science disturb our putative futures and help us to address a gap in the history and theory of the genre.

cover image for The Seven Beauties of Science FictionThe gap is rather wide, for it encompasses—or perhaps swallows—the whole idea of the nation, any nation, as source or subject for science fiction. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., has worked hard to outline the problem. In his most recent book, he agrees that functionally, at least, "SF is undeniably a predominantly Anglo-American genre."1 The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008) works from the premise that this genre undergoing consolidation necessarily takes its tone from "the cultural power of U.S. hyper-modernism and the technoscientific ideology that undergirds its cultural hegemony." What this leaves out is "Other national traditions of scientific fantasy" that are "legitimate cultural expressions and, indeed ... possible alternate lines along which the genre may develop." Worse, as Csicsery-Ronay previously indicated in his 2002 article "Dis-imagined Communities," this is an intractable problem: "Given the exuberance and excess of the science fictional imagination, it would be significant if some powerful contemporary institutions were ignored or excluded from the sf megatext. ... [Nation], with its complex history and implications, is so rarely explored in sf's thought experiments that one might conclude that it has been rejected as something that cannot exist in any future."2 Thus notably, in 2008, Csicsery-Ronay can still only gesture to the problem.

Perhaps this is because the omission of nation is founded in the philosophy of science fiction itself—or at least, in the philosophy of the genre as it is known to us through its Anglo-American avatars. Csicsery-Ronay observes, in 2002:

sf has traditionally viewed itself as a genre that transcends nationality and nationalism. ... this globalizing imaginary is based on a notion of history and historical innovation that systematically, though unconsciously, ignores the role of nationality in the development of individual consciousness, to the extent that sf cannot imagine a future society in which nationality has any significance. This "postnationalist"—or antinational—orientation forms the basis for some of the most powerful world-construction models in the genre's treasury, models that disavow national particularity. ("Dis-Imagined Communities," 218)

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that science fiction's narrative of its own development is necessarily founded in technology. Strong arguments that science fiction as a genre advances with the colonial imperative of the nineteenth century yield to the driving force of empire: worldly—and otherworldly—dominance depends on the hegemonies of scientific and technological innovation. John Rieder helpfully expresses the synergy between technology, empire, and science fiction. He writes: "[The] dominance of steel and coal in the second phase of the industrial revolution is also inseparable from the building of the world-wide railroad system, and the rocketing exportation of heavy machinery from the industrial core countries."3

Here we find the science for the fiction. Then "the period's improvements in communication and transportation bound the world economy more tightly together, [but] also marked out ever more clearly the boundaries separating the developed world from the undeveloped one" (Rieder, 28). Empire and its others develop along the lines of technologic creativity—perhaps more properly, through technological resources and access. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, "The most spectacular form of the widening difference between the developed and undeveloped nations was their military technology." Given a science fiction audience "clustered in the technically advanced sector," we might extrapolate that the discourse of science fiction is at once imperial and situated in the no-man's land of technology. The point is only the more obvious in that Rieder begins by founding the imperial impulse of science fiction in "the Copernican shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric understanding of the solar system ... because [it] radically changed the status of other worlds in relation to our own" (1). He then tracks forward through "the marvelous journeys to other worlds written in Galileo's seventeenth century." The outward drive of empire is linked with science and technology in a pervasive assumption of "progress." And of course, the problem is increased when scientific advancement is overwritten by imperially deployed theories about evolution. Whole swathes of the world can be left behind in the fictions of scientific expansionism. [...]

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1 Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), p.11.

2 Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., "Dis-Imagined Communities: Science Fiction and the Future of Nations," in Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon, eds., Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002): pp.217-37, see p.218.

3 John Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), p.28.