Friday, 18 August 2017

"Die, defenceless, primitive natives!" - Colonialism and the Sci-fi Beowulf

I have not written a blog post in a long time, but there is nothing like a really terrible book (and an hour to spare until the pub...) to inspire some new rants on a public platform. 

That book would be The Legacy of Heorot (1987) by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes. 

The plot revolves around a group of colonists who have settled on one of Tau Ceti's planets and eventually discover the grendels - large amphibious komodo dragon type creatures who are really fuckin' hard to kill. 

The biggest problem with this novel (and with many Niven novels it seems) is the unrelenting celebration of traditional masculinity, embodied in the protagonist; Cadmann Weyland. It is only through Cadmann's superior intelligence (despite pretty much everyone but him being scientific geniuses??) and manliness that Avalon can be saved. He is a boring, brooding piece of man muscle who is so manly that even his handwriting is "strong". While all the other idiots (again, actual geniuses!) initially doubt Cadmann ("Paradise . . . they don't need me at all" - BOO-FUCKING-HOO CADMANN), they eventually come to realise his superiority and in cringe-worthy fashion, extol his heroism. 

While the other characters are equally as shallow (the promiscuous Argentinian man for example - never seen that stereotype before), it is Cadmann's hyper-masculinity and the patriarchal system that is pushed by this that is at the core of the novel. While some of the women start out as relatively equal, as the novel progresses, it is clear that  only men can play at war, and the ladies just gotta hole up and produce some babógs to keep the human race going. And hey, they are all too busy whinging over men to help out anyway.

On an initial reading, the novel appears almost as a critique of Imperial America - there are, after all, some POV descriptions from the grendels which conjure up some feelings of sympathy, and there is also that somehow unironic phrase that you see in the title of the post ("Die, defenceless, primitive natives!"). I mean, that is so unsubtle that it has to be satire? Apparently not? 

The chances of this being some sort of retelling of the Western frontier and a comment on the killing of natives through ecological imperialism or other means (the grendels are eventually starved out and I thought, hey, maybe this is some sort of parallel to the US killing of bison in order to suppress the Native American peoples...) seemed quite plausible, and quite hopeful, but apparently not (Niven was after all, an advisor to Reagan on his Star Wars laser project). Besides these few vague references to sympathy (whether felt by reader or character), any reservations we may have about the colonisers' right to the planet are pretty much thrown out the window. There is no retrospective thought at the end of the novel - the grendels are wiped out, everyone is happy, and Cadmann is a fuckin' ledge. 

At the end of the day, the novel upholds the right of an Imperial power to dominate the rest of the world, and at that, every other world too. At the same time, the novel also celebrates the traditional patriarchal framework and allows this as the only possible means to achieve victory, and therefore expansion and evolution. In other words, this novel belongs in the Victorian era. 

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