Wednesday 2 May 2018

British Science Fiction on the Sharp End of Empire


What is it like to be invaded, conquered, enslaved, dominated, exterminated? To have your resources stolen, your cultural artefacts looted, your way of life despised, your lives considered worthless? British science fiction has envisioned answers to these questions and more.


Nationality may not be a terribly useful delimiter for science fiction (ditto science, ditto fiction); however, the period generally associated with British Empire's decolonization affords some interesting perspectives.

Through Michael Moorcock's writing I became aware of Britain's opium wars, much like through USAmerican Kurt Vonnegut the tale of the British fire-bombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse 5. Moorcock's characterisation of the evil empire of GranBretan whose hierarchies hide behind animal masks is one of the first overt challenges that I remember to the idea of the British as good guys (in The History of the Runestaff).

Doctor Who: an outsider's view

The time-travelling alien Doctor, according to original producer Verity Lambert, was "certainly not, under any circumstances, part of the establishment."
'The Doctor' on Planet of Giants DVD, 0:47

His bio is summarized by a would-be invader of Earth:

The Android Invasion, ep2. 13:51 Alien: "The data that was drained from the girl shows the Doctor's long association with libertarian causes. His entire history is of opposition to conquest."

Not all empires are evil. Well, one isn't. The Keeper of Traken bucks the trend:

ep.1 01:44 Doctor: "Traken Union: famous for its universal harmony. A whole empire held together by… people just being terribly nice to each other."

Stories from the classic era of Doctor Who pits the good Doctor against imperialists time after time.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth (television, 1964)

Daleks are like British Imperialists, gliding through streets like armoured cars or sailing about in their saucers doing gunboat diplomacy. While the oppressed humans have to resort to suicide bombing and improvised explosive devices.

Anything unnecessary to the Daleks is left to decay. Unlike British imperialists, they are uninterested in cultural loot, only for some reason the molten core of the Earth.

The slain roboman (a human technologically brainwashed to serve the Daleks until killed by burnout or insanity) has an overseers' whip. Slaves work in Dalek mines.

The backstory of the invasion is revealed, including biological warfare. The Daleks are economic, efficient, ruthless: their interest in human psychology is motivated by its exploitation by means such as terror.

ep2 14:29 Dalek announcement: "Rebels of London, this is our last offer, our final warning… work is needed from you… rebel against us, and the Daleks will destroy London completely. You will all die: the males, the females, the descendants."

Not all Brits are in the Resistance. Scumbag capitalist black-marketeer Ashton is deservedly Slythered; collaborating prison-tunic-sewing hut-hags turn Barbara and Jenny in to the Daleks for a few tins of food ("they would have been caught anyway"). Only moral degeneration is allowed to flourish by the Dalek overlords.

The Power of the Daleks (television, 1966)

The Earth colony on Planet Vulcan is already split into factions (loyalists, rebels, militarist plotters) when a long-dormant Dalek spacecraft is cracked open. The Daleks inside feign an interest in servitude whilst securing a power supply.

There are similarities with the Imperial British consorting with factions like Islamic militants (Daleks) in order to crush populist uprisings in their colonies, which is a nice twist, since the Daleks are usually a dead ringer for the British. The various factions try to use the Daleks as a third force to increase their power, with only the Doctor awake to the disaster that could consume first the colony then the galaxy.

Colony in Space (television, 1971)

The Time Lords appear and explicitly use the Doctor as an unwitting agent. This is potentially the story behind a lot of the Doctor's 'random' adventures, which would explain why they almost all take the form of exciting and dangerous missions.

Settlers and a mining corporation clash in Colony in Space, with the original inhabitants of the planet dismissed as primitives. The Interplanetary Mining Corporation has raided the Scooby Doo playbook, and intends to terrorize the colonists into leaving the planet with fake giant lizards and related stratagems that obviate any possibility of peaceful negotiation.

The Mutants (television, 1972)

The Doctor says the Earth Empire is at a stage similar to that described in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Decolonisation is treated in The Mutants, where the pompous Earth Overlord Administrator's speech intended to announce the grant of independence is so long-winded that he is assassinated by a local stooge of his power-grabbing Security Chief.

Atmospheric references recur throughout. The Earth is a poisoned slag heap, its atmosphere toxic, perhaps like industrial cities in Imperial Britain.

Ky is the chief critic of empire, which plunders wealth, enslaves people, poisons the environment and destroys their culture, which again was once more sophisticated.

The Sontaran Experiment (television, 1975)

The Sontaran advance scout indulges his passion for torture and sadism whilst supposedly testing human resistance capabilities.

The Power of Kroll (television, 1978–1979)

In The Power of Kroll, displaced people known as Swampies are again threatened by methane mining corporation activities on their moon reservation.

Kinda (television, 1982)

In Kinda, the colonial types are variously portrayed as infantile, aggressive, pompous, manipulative, callous, unreasonable and destructive. The rational and inquisitive female scientist is frequently overruled. Colonize or be colonized.

Trial of a Time Lord (television, 1986)

At the end of Trial of a Time Lord, the Sixth Doctor rails against his society's corruption: Gallifrey as an apex empire.

ep.13 08:50 Doctor: "In all my travelings throughout the universe I have battled against evil. Against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here: the oldest civilization: decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core! All my conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen: they're still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power: that's what it takes to be really corrupt!"

John Christopher: masters of mind control

The Tripods trilogy (novels, 1967–1968)

In John Christopher's Tripods trilogy, the Earth is ruled by unseen alien Masters from their metal tripod machines, while humans are kept in docile backwardness.

John Wyndham: colonization from within

The Midwich Cuckoos (novel, 1957)

The alien invaders in The Midwich Cuckoos hatch a dastardly plot: invasion through artificial insemination. The children will have human bodies but alien minds, and their superiority and mind control powers give them an evolutionary edge.

Local freethinker Gordon Zellaby weighs up the threat posed by this "5th column":

p204: "On the one hand, it is our duty to our race and culture to liquidate the Children, for it is clear that if we do not we shall, at best, be completely dominated by them, and their culture, whatever it may turn out to be, will extinguish ours."

Chocky (novel, 1968)

The story prefigures the ability of strangers on the Internet to reach into homes to communicate directly with children, bypassing their parents and guardians.

Alien remotely-projected-mind-voice Chocky tells Matthew's dad that its mission is to explore worlds suitable for colonization and (as Earth is not) make contact with intelligent life, instructing it in physical breakthroughs. Not malign, but error-prone.

Jane Palmer: inferior/irritable imperialists

The Planet Dweller (novel, 1985)

In her playful novel The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer introduces us to the galactic Empire of the Mott. The Mott Empire rules a galaxy long abandoned by the advanced Old Ones and running out of living space; they prefer violent acquisition of living space and mineral resources to studying the Jaulta Code, an encrypted solution requested by the Old Ones.

Palmer considers whether Empires as embodied by the Mott, rather than being glorious and uplifting, are more realistically a result of stupidity, self-loathing, malice, avarice, lack of imagination and a fear of encountering superior beings. The Olmukes, who have eradicated conscience and banned females, are typical of their collaborationist lackey species-cultures; while only the Torrans have managed to hide, crack the Code and contact the Old Ones, who seem to have left or, perhaps like the later Iain M Banks Culture novels, sublimated out of the physical galaxy.

Perhaps cultural advancement tends towards transcending the merely physical? Should we expect empires or civilisations existing on an ethereal (or more likely digital) plane, immune to crude weaponry but able to influence with near-universal soft power?

The novel compares and contrasts the microcosm of contemporary English village politics with the galactic social macrocosm (of which the former is blissfully unaware when the story begins). Bullying and eviction exist in both; however, the old empire is declining while young Earth is only just reaching modernity.


Imperial themes in British science fiction are wide-ranging. Treatment varies in depth. Often there is impotence in face of technological/military/psychological/informational superiority. Television loves mind control because it is cheap and actorly. Perhaps there is a sense of dealing with unresolved issues, even guilt. Often there are warnings: we could become these imperial monsters (again).


They're not here for your freedom.