Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Colonialism and Imperialism: A worldbuilding hangout report

It was great to get back to the Google+ worldbuilding hangouts after a two-week break for Thanksgiving. I was joined by Kyle Aisteach, Janet Harriet, Harry Markov, and Glenda Pfeiffer for this one, and we had a really great chat.

The topic of colonialism and imperialism is one that I've studied a bit - and found daunting - academically, but one that I engage with in all of my published work involving the Allied Systems universe. The first time I really realized that this was a critical issue for me was in the early drafts of my first story, "Let the Word Take Me" (Analog 2008), when my friend Keyan told me she was worried that the resolution of the story was going to lead to a future "with alcoholic geckos lying around." That really wasn't where I wanted it to go either, so I did some serious revising and kept the issues of colonialism and imperialism at the forefront of my mind thereafter.

In Star Trek, we encounter the concept of the Prime Directive, which demands that the crew of the Enterprise and other ships not interfere in the culture of another people. We all agreed that the pure Star Trek form of this directive is very limiting. It was a concept that came up multiple times in our discussion.

One of the questions that underlies whether Federation folk will attempt to engage with a culture or not, and on what terms, is that of technology level. The idea of a technology "level" is one defined by our own culture and our own world, where we have given names (bronze age, iron age, etc.) to periods of our own history and thus consider them iconic. However, it is a more complex question than this, and we would certainly expect that in dealing with alien societies (either in the science fictional or simply "foreign" sense) technologies would not necessarily conform to our expectations. Certain kinds of materials and innovations are necessary for the technology to develop in a particular direction, but a people will view both materials and technologies through its own lens of value, and that can create significant divergence.

Thus it's difficult, and extremely problematic, to define who has the "more advanced" society. Harry mentioned our current level of technology as being associated with the desire for instant gratification. High levels of technology in one area don't necessarily entail cultural refinement or sophistication. In Alan Smale's alternate history novella, "A Clash of Eagles" (Panverse) the Roman legions are sure they are the superior culture at least militarily, but they are soundly defeated by unexpected military technologies possessed by the residents of North America. My own story "At Cross Purposes" (Analog 2011) involved spacefaring otter aliens with technologies that humans couldn't understand, but they felt that art was more important than technology, and thus had no prime directive at all (they were happy to give tech to artists of any stripe...I can't wait to write a story about that kind of havoc).

Very often we encounter situations where one society feels superior to the other. But how is that enforced? Kyle asked whether it is ethical for a group with higher medical technology to withhold that technology from another group in desperate need, just for Prime Directive reasons. Indeed, this is an area where ethics come into play quite seriously, and Star Trek has driven plenty of episodes with the question of which one will win out (Prime Directive or ethics/compassion).

Janet remarked that in a colonizing situation, one group has something that the other one wants - this can actually play both ways, as sometimes the colonized want the higher tech or whatever it is that the colonizers possess, and sometimes the colonizers are there because the people of this area possess something they are planning to take. An excellent book about the topic of the colonizing of the Americas is Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I recently read a great article online that recommends several books. The article can be found here. You might also be interested in Orientalism by Edward Said.

When writing and worldbuilding, it is very important to avoid stereotypes. The "holy noble simple native folk" will drive people mad, especially since they've seen it so often in movies like Pocahontas and Avatar. Avatar also has the "one white/human guy who shows up out of nowhere and becomes better at native stuff than the natives and saves them all" stereotype, about which I have heard many people scream.

Colonization has happened all over the world, and can take different forms. Harry mentioned that Bulgaria had been colonized by the Turkish. The British colonization in the Americas would have been less dramatically, but still distinctly, different from the British colonization of India, for example.

Colonization also has an enormous influence on language, up to and including language death. Languages disappear when all their speakers are killed, or also when the language ceases to have any functional utility in the surrounding culture. Colonizers also use the standardization of language for writing and commercial purposes to exert control over the colonized. We diverted momentarily into a discussion of how standard language differs from language used on the ground, and Harry definitely saw this as a possible form of power maintenance. As an example of language variation away from a "standard," he gave us the word "pepper," which near the Black Sea means "bell pepper" but 600 km away on the other side of Bulgaria means "chili pepper." Kyle said that we have a "war over 'Next Tuesday.'" [I think the question of the scope of "next" is a discussion for another time, however.] In a colonizer situation, the group in power maintains the standard language and uses it as a gatekeeping device.

Language can also be used as a form of rebellion by the colonized. Kyle told us that during the Holocaust, Jews used "amchu" as a secret way to ask, "Are you one of us?" The Hebrew language was revived from a purely literary and liturgical language to a spoken one for the purposes of unifying the Jewish population. Harry told us that there was a linguistic underground in Bulgaria during the Turkish occupation, when everyone was politically bound to speak Turkish, and bound in religious circumstances to use Greek. Bulgarian was still maintained as a language throughout this time period. Similarly, in World War II the Japanese outlawed the speaking of Korean and Chinese in the areas they controlled, but those languages continued to be spoken in the home and surged back again once the Japanese occupation came to an end. This switch was not peaceful but came to an end as violently as it was initially imposed.

One of the things that can happen in a colonization situation is what I called the aggressive use of stereotyping. Colonizers will create a stereotypical image of the colonized group to associate them with weakness or lack of quality, and those stereotypes will take on a pernicious power both among the colonizers and among the colonized. Harry (I think it was) remarked that sometimes the more oppressed the people are, the more they conform to the stereotype against their own best interests.

Though we spoke mostly in terms of science fiction, all of these principles can also be applied to fantasy. Only the nature of the technology and resources will be different. Even "low technology" is still technology, and a group with iron swords will prevail over a group with stone tools or bronze weapons. Wands can play the same role as guns - so please feel free to apply all of this over whatever colonization scheme you're working with, fantasy or science fiction.

At the end Harry proposed our topic for the next session (today, December 7, 11am PST): the culture of death. I hope to see you there!


  1. I hope I can make one of these sometime soon; I love reading the write-ups. Just to chip in my $.02, the bit about technology levels was awesome. The whole stone/bronze/iron age isn't useful in the New World, where metallurgy by and large wasn't part of the tool set. On the other hand, flintknapping reached amazing artistic levels like nothing the Old Word had (most people haven't seen them, so here's a link to a picture example:

  2. Thanks, MK! And thanks very much for the link.

  3. I'd love to make these too. They fall at an odd time of day for me when I'm usually in the midst of being productive and I never remember. This topic in particular interests me as I've studied quite a bit about this in Ghana where I've done some cross cultural work. One thing in Africa you see influenced heavily is government practices and politics. African governments are often very corrupt and buddy buddy systems which they learned from corrupt, favoritism showing Colonial Governors, for example.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Bryan, and sharing your research about Ghana. Maybe we'll see you next time. I try to send out reminders but sometimes I forget. ;)