On Colonialism, Evil Empires, and Oppressive Systems

This post on colonialism depicted in genre fiction originally appeared on Aliette de Bodard’s personal blog on September 18th.

So this is only half a rant, because to properly do this I would need to document (a lot), and to reread stuff (a lot, too). But I’ve been simultaneously reading some genre books, and researching the French colonization of Vietnam in the 19th Century (and the history of SE Asia in that time period; aka researching book 2, the sequel to The House of Shattered Wings), and the contrast is… stark.

Let me put it bluntly. A lot of depictions out there miss the mark by a rather large margin. The things I see a lot: our hero(es) fighting and overthrowing the colonial system. Our hero(es), whether colonist or colonised, being almost exempt of colonial prejudice. Clean, simple fights for independence where the people rise against their oppressors and become democratic and free.

See, the thing with colonialism; the thing that made it so scary and so heartbreaking and so anger-inducing… is that it was pervasive. I’m not saying people didn’t fight against it, but that those that did were a minuscule proportion of the population (and you’ll find that even the people fighting against colonialism had some pretty hair-raising prejudices, too).

The truth is, the vast majority of people in the colonizer nations saw it as natural. As the proper, God-given order of things. France (a democracy at the time, let me just remind you of this) massively voted in favor of intervention in Annam, because it would make ordinary citizens’ lives better; because it would enrich the country, and it’s very clear from reading period texts that no one saw any problem with that, across all social classes. In fact, lower social classes saw the colonies as a place you could go to in order to make your fortune; where even a poor person could live in luxury with native workers at their beck and call. And the people who were “progressive”?  They saw the colonised as children—as immature people who needed to be educated and taught “civilization”; protected from themselves against their will (as opposed to people who just wanted to dominate and plunder).

The scarier thing? People in the colonized countries thought it was the natural order of things, too—that they had to modernize in order to compete, to become more Western because the West was so clearly intrinsically superior. They massively sent their children to Western schools—to London, Paris—to be educated as a mark of privilege. Some countries, like Japan or Thailand, managed to modernise and retain national independence and some measure of culture. Others… had less success.

Yes, there was military superiority. But the reason it went on for so long? Is because there was a complete and utter certainty that the colonizers were right. That the colonies were owed to them; that the riches of other countries were theirs for the taking. And other people at the colonizer nation took in those riches and benefitted from them and thought it was due to them, too. (And yeah, there was terrible oppression going on in colonizer nations, too. Intersectionality—things are complicated, but again, it was an attitude of all social classes. There was no solidarity of, say, the French working class with the Indochinese. They thought the Indochinese were scary foreigners who stole their jobs and spoke a funny language.)

Read period pieces. Read Agatha Christie. Read Maurice Leblanc. Or any other writers. The Empire is the background. Racial prejudice is casual, omnipresent.

Also, another reason why colonialism worked? It’s not only military superiority. And it’s not trade (“the French in Vietnam” version of this didn’t focus much on trade, at least at first). It’s “divide to reign” tactics where existing cracks (or new ones) between social and ethnic groups were exploited to make a new society. A society that’s busy tearing itself apart has no time for organized resistance. It means that not everyone is oppressed equally (this is why I have little time for utterly oppressive evil empires. If everyone is miserable and oppressed and with no hopes whatsoever for the future, the government isn’t going to last for long). It means people are treated very differently depending on where they come from and where they live: colonies aren’t nations, but a hodgepodge of different political systems on a “whatever works” and “let’s keep them weak” set of principles (just see the rather stark differences between Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina in the 19th/early 20th Century). It also means that there are side benefits for everyone, too (which in no way compensate for the other, horrendous costs, of course): social advances and health advances and science advances, all brought to, say, the population of Annam as a way to demonstrate that the imperial government didn’t have their best interests at heart, but that the colonizers did.

And when push comes to shove… when all of this complex equilibrium finally disintegrates—well, it’s going to be messy. There will be blood. There will be violence. There will be massacres and purges. I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen, or that revolutions shouldn’t ever take place, but there is always a price to pay. There is always a fight for which faction will rule the country, or what the country will even look like–where the capital will be, who will be in government, what languages will be spoken, whose culture will come to shape everything from administration to the history that is taught. And this isn’t just wars of independence: the repercussions linger on for decades after that. The Nigerian Civil War, the Rwandan genocide, the Vietnamese/American war… I can go on, and on. It’s almost textbook.

You’re going to say it doesn’t matter—that Science Fiction and Fantasy needs to focus on the heroes, the extraordinary, the clean and easy revolution that we can get behind with no moral qualms. But see, the thing is…. by focusing on this, we perpetuate a great illusion, a great silence. We forget that empires like this only exist because of the consent of the majority. We forget that unequal systems only work because people are convinced everyone is in their proper place, and are convinced it’s their moral right to oppress others, or that being oppressed is inevitable; or, worse, that the oppressors are morally superior or more meritorious. Because we only talk about heroes, we like to think that, back then, we would be among them. And the truth is—most of us wouldn’t. Actually, most of us aren’t, today (to take just one example, we buy cheap clothes, cheap electronics made with labour in horrific conditions).

You know the scary truth about Evil Empires? We make them while being utterly convinced we’re in the right. We uphold them by acquiescing every day to decisions that make our lives better and richer, and forgetting how we impact other people’s lives. And we seldom—so so seldom—have the sheer, admirable, almost impossible courage to overthrow them; and to deal with the high, bloody and messy cost of doing so.

And in case you’re wondering: yup, of course I deal with some of that in my novel The House of Shattered Wings. My alternate, devastated France has had a colonial empire for a while, and it shows. Characters are affected by the colonial mindset, whether it’s those doing the colonising/benefitting from it (Selene, Madeleine), or those getting colonised (Philippe, Ngoc Bich). And yes, it makes for some thoughts in their heads that can be unpleasant and uncomfortable—but also, I think, to things that need to be shown.

Aliette de Bodard is a writer of fantasy and science fiction (and the very occasional horror piece). Aliette has won two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, a BSFA Award, as well as Writers of the Future. She has also been a finalist for the Hugo, Sturgeon, and Tiptree Awards. Her new novel, The House of Shattered Wings, is available from Gollancz (UK/Commonwealth) and Roc (US). Read an excerpt here on Tor.com.

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