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Lest we allow this to become totally dominated by Deane’s prolific nature, now for something completely different …

Continuing on with the occasional ‘Cinema as Exorcism’ series, we will be delving into the murky waters of the postcolonial world with a trip to District 9, the very fine debut film from South African director Neill Blomkamp, produced by local boy made good Peter Jackson.  The film is an allegorical exploration of the ongoing costs of European colonialism for Africa and its peoples.  Though in a very different sense, this is the film as exorcism, a visceral grappling with the ghosts of the past, particularly that of South African apartheid, though some of the film’s message is more universal.

District 9 is set on an alternative timeline in the city of Johannesburg.  In a twist on the classic science fiction story of alien invasion – the sight of the giant saucer hanging over the city evokes texts as diverse as the film Independence Day and the old television series V – the alien visitors arrive on Earth not as conquerors but as starving, demoralised and leaderless refugees.  Their massive spacecraft, which has a far more functional look than those we are used to seeing, is a derelict wreck, stopped over the city not for strategic reasons, but because that’s where it happened to break down.  The South African government, at first pleased that the aliens had chosen their country, soon finds itself with more than a million alien visitors, who they herd into the titular District 9.  The narrative of the film opens as the private company in charge of alien affairs – the sinister and all too believable Multinational United (MNU) – sets out to evict all of the aliens and move them to District 10, a tent city hundreds of kilometres outside Johannesburg that is, even in MNU’s estimates, nothing less than a concentration camp.  Though on the surface, the film is thrilling and intriguing enough to be getting on with, it would be a great disservice to read it literally.  On one level, it certainly is a story about aliens living in South Africa, but on another level, it is about something altogether more serious and something far more unsettling.


From Neill Blomkamp's District 9

The analogy between the aliens and the South African segregationist policy of apartheid, which officially was ended only in 1994, is highly specific: District 9 is a teeming, improvised ghetto that bears a distinct resemblance to South African townships; the aliens speak in a language that includes clicking noises that recall many native South African languages; the aliens are given ‘slave names’ by the government; the official policy is of segregation and containment, all perpetuated under the guise of maintaining order and working for the greater good.  The film focuses on one Wikis Van De Merwe, the MNU office drone who is given the unenviable task of handing out millions of eviction notices to prepare for the forced exodus to District 10.  Wikus (an astonishingly accomplished performance by Sharlto Copley in his first acting role), sporting an Afrikaans accent and a bureaucratic moustache, heads blindly into District 9 armed with a clipboard, a small army of MNU mercenaries, and his own blithe confidence that the aliens are inferior creatures that must be treated with a firm hand.  As the most important human character, Wikus is our guide to a truly alien world, and is it through his experiences that the narrative mirrors not only apartheid but also the open-ended process of reconciliation.  When Wikus turns on his employer and begins to fight alongside the one alien – given the name Christopher Johnson – that attempts to engineer an escape, he does so initially more out of self-interest than in the interests of social justice, asking implicit questions about the driving force behind the end of legal segregation in real-world South Africa.

One of the things that make Wikus both compelling and chilling is that his casual racism towards the aliens is convincing, an uncomfortable mirror of apartheid specifically but one that reflects racism more generally.  Wikus, like many of the people in his world, call the aliens ‘prawns’ for the simple reason that they do resemble actually resemble bipedal shellfish.  This is not merely a descriptive but is also a distancing, dehumanising (using that term very broadly) technique that speaks volumes of the ways in which the aliens are treated by the government, by MNU, and by South Africans of all colours.  The film is clearly intended as a critique of apartheid and it gives us ample reason to pity the aliens and to deplore the way they are treated.  Things are more complicated than this, however, and it needs a good deal more analysis that I can offer here (On a more personal note, throughout the film, I found myself wondering just how much of the film’s allegorical subtlety I was missing, having experienced apartheid South Africa from afar while growing up in the United States).  The film also toys with contemporary racial stereotypes, particularly in its depiction of the only humans who have significant contact with the aliens; a gang of Nigerian criminals who reap the profits of selling the aliens raw meat or trading their advanced weapons for cat food, a favourite alien delicacy.  The Nigerians are portrayed as savage and coldblooded as well as superstitious, almost begging the question as to why the film chooses these as its most significant black characters.

The film’s critique of the treatment of the aliens, impoverished and trapped in a country where they are both feared and hated, extends allegory to its real-world context, where memories of the townships are still very fresh.  The film is about apartheid, but it is also, again allegorically, about what has happened afterwards.  In one of the film’s most striking images, in a long shot, we see Wikus arriving home after a gruelling day of serving eviction notices, the alien mothership hanging over his comfortable middle class home with a massive unacknowledged, almost unconscious weight.  There are, the film suggests, truly horrifying things hanging over the world of men like Wikus, who perform(ed) utterly irrational acts of prejudice and injustice in the name of safety and rationality, even after apartheid as an official policy has ended.

One name for another, a part for the whole: the historic violence of Apartheid can always be treated as  a metonymy.  In its past as well as in its present.  By diverse paths (condensation, displacement, expression, or representation), one can always decipher through its singularity so many other kinds of violence going on in the world.  At once part, casue, effect, example, what is happening here translates what takes place here, always here, wherever one is and whererever one looks, closest to home.  Infinite responsibility, therefore, no rest allowed for any form of good conscience.

Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx (1994): xv.

This is the first major African-made (though Blomkamp spent much of his life in Canada) science fiction film and it to the makers’ credit that this is a story that could be told only in Africa.  It is also a story that could only be told as science fiction.  In its almost unrelentingly dark vision of humanity, District 9 is a deeply subversive film.  The distancing effect of the fantastic elements of science fiction – faster than light travel, interstellar civilisations, etc. – allows science fiction to tell such difficult stories and ask difficult questions in ways that more classically realist genres of storytelling cannot.  Science fiction is, as Peter Nicholls notes, both ‘the great modern literature of metaphor’ and ‘pre-eminently the modern literature not of physics, but of metaphysics’.[1] To expand on this topic a bit further, we need only to look at the stunning ‘re-boot’ of the television series Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009), another contemporary science fiction text that uses a carefully created allegory to deconstruct the postcolonial situation and to ask unsettling questions about the colonial powers, in the case the United States.  Given this, as Brian Ott notes, it is ‘a profound mistake’ to interpret the genre ‘literally’.  Writing of Battlestar Galactica’s robotic antagonists, the Cylons, he argues,The issue is not what Cylons are, but what they represent’.[2] The same is true of the aliens in District 9, which, like Battlestar Galactica, is told in a visual language that mixes the fantastic with a gritty, handheld, quasi-documentary realism.  As we have seen, what the aliens in District 9 represent remains an open question, but the first step to answering this question is to recognize the allegorical nature of the narrative itself.

Though we always be careful to attribute too much to authorial intention, it is worth noting that the new Battlestar Galactica is self-consciously allegorical, as executive producer David Eick told the Calgary Herald:

To me, the old sci-fi novels – the [Robert] Heinleins, the [Isaac] Asimovs, the [Ray] Bradburys, the [Philip K.] Dicks and so forth – were all about allegorical sociopolitical commentary.  So it really wasn’t so much about coming up with a new idea.  It was going back to an old one, which is, ‘Let’s use science fiction as the prism or as the smokescreen – as it was sort of invented to be – to discuss and investigate the issues of the day’.[3]

This is true on a more general level as well, as the great American Marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson notes of serious science fiction (no space opera allowed):

I would [base] the necessity of ideological analysis on the very nature of SF itself: for me it is only incidentally about science or technology, and even more incidentally about unusual psychic states.  It seems to me that SF is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself, comparable in its emergence as a new genre to the birth of the historical novel around the time of the French Revolution … If this is the case, then, surely we have as readers not been equal to the capacity of the form itself until we have resituated SF into that vision of the relationship of man to social and political and economic forces which is its historical element.[4]

Barry M. Malzberg argues that there is something deeply challenging about the tendency towards allegory in science fiction, which, he argues, explains why it has never been a particularly popular or critically respected genre (though this has arguably changed since he wrote in the 1980s):

It is my assumption that it never will be [popular].  Science fiction is too threatening.  At the center, science fiction is a dangerous literature.  It represents the beast born in the era of enlightenment to snarl at the heart of all intellectual and technological advance … We know not what we do; the engines can eat us up – this is what science fiction has been saying (among many other things) for a long time now.[5]

District 9, like Battlestar Galactica, is just such a dangerous, symbolic meditation on history and both are in many ways exemplary science fiction.  In a formal sense, they correspond to Darko Suvin’s classic definition of science fiction as ‘literature of cognitive estrangement’.[6] Science fiction thus hinges on the collision between what is known and what is unknown, what is and what might be.  Battlestar Galactica’s ‘naturalistic science fiction’ – the phrase showrunner Ronald D. Moore coined to describe the show’s style – and District 9’s mix of documentary technique and the fantastic are a perfect visual complement to Suvin’s meditations on literature.  It is interesting to note also that both of these texts give credence to Suvin’s argument that science-fiction is a literature for times of uncertainty: ‘SF, which focuses on the variable and future-bearing elements from the empirical environment, is found predominantly in the great whirlpool periods of history’[7] and to John Rieder’s claim, in Colonialism and the Rise of Science Fiction, that science fiction emerges particularly in once-powerful societies that have begun to feel threatened, though this is more the case with Battlestar Galactica than with Blomkamp’s film.

There is perhaps a further argument to be made, at least tentatively: science fiction is genre most suited for telling postcolonial stories.  Though on first glance it might seem that this is true only of telling stories about the victors in the colonial struggle, given that it is the victors who have the greatest access to the technological apparatus so crucial to science fiction; however, Blomkamp, and to a lesser extent Moore and Eick, are showing that there are ways to give voice to those silenced in colonial contexts by using the same genre conventions.  This is, it must be noted, not an entirely original conceit.  Rieder, in fact, argues, ‘The thesis that colonialism is a significant historical context for early science fiction is not an extravagant one’.[8] Expanding on this, he writes:

science fiction exposes something that colonialism imposes.  However … colonialism is not simply the reality that science fiction mystifies.  I am not trying to argue that colonialism is science fiction’s hidden truth.  I want to show that it is part of the genre’s texture, a persistent, important component of its displaced references to history, its engagement in ideological production, and its construction of the possible and the imaginable.[9]

Thus science fiction is in some senses dependent upon European colonialism for its meaning and for its very existence.  There can be little doubt that science fiction as we know it emerged – and I will go out on a limb here and argue that Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is the first work of proper science fiction – during a period of rapid European expansion.  In an important sense, it also emerged as a reaction to, and at times a reaction against the same technological innovations that made colonial expansion and administration possible in the first place.  Magali Rennes writes of Battlestar Galactica from a postcolonial perspective, and much of what she argues here could also be said about District 9 and its deliberately ambiguous and deeply complex meditation on the legacy of colonialism:

Battlestar Galactica invites us, as viewers, to examine how we occupy ambivalent positions within the legacy of our own colonial family romance.  The series gives us all petty satisfaction to call Cylons ‘toasters’.  And yet it compels us to look in our mental kitchens to see whose face peers out of our toaster’s mirrored side.  It titillates us with the sexual tension between one of us and one of ‘them’ – the exoticized Cylon.  And yet it asks us to prick our own skin and see how our blood is difference from any other human being’s.  It thrills us with the chase of the enemy Cylons.  And yet it begs us to consider what fundamental lack lies within us to continue racist traditions towards our own social ‘enemies.  Will we pass on the legacy of the colonial family romance to our children or will we, as children, disown our European heritage for new parents … and shape the things to come?  In this ‘one nation’, ‘indivisible’, who is the ‘we’ in ‘so say we all?’[10]

Both Battlestar Galactica and District 9 are indeed dangerous fictions, and as we struggle to exorcise the horrors of the long, destructive, and ultimately failed project of European colonialism, we are the better for having them.

[1] Peter Nicholls, ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, in P. Nicholls (ed.), Explorations of the Marvelous (London: Fontana, 1978: pp. 170-196): 180, 183.

[2] Brian L. Ott, ‘(Re)Framing Fear: Equipment for Living in a Post-9/11 World’, in T. Potter and C. W. Marshall (eds.) Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica (London: Continuum, 2008: 13-26): 19.

[3] ‘Battlestar Expands Horizons: Sci-fi references to Middle East impress critics’, Calgary Herald, 7 October 2006: D4.

[4] Jameson, F. (with M. Reynolds and F. Rottensteiner), ‘Change, SF, and Marxism: Open or Closed Universes?’, Science Fiction Studies 1, 4 (1974): 275-276.

[5] Barry N. Malzberg, ‘The Number of the Beast’, in J. Gunn and M. Candelaria (eds.) Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction (Toronto: The Scarecrow Press, 2005: 37-57): 40.

[6] Darko Suvin, ‘Estrangement and Cognition’, in J. Gunn and M. Candelaria (eds.) Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, INC, 2005: 23-36): 25.

[7] Suvin, ‘Estrangement’, 26.

[8] John Rieder, Colonialism and the Rise of Science Fiction (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008): 2.

[9] Rieder, Colonialism, 15.

[10] Magali Rennes, ‘Kiss Me, Now Die!’, in J. Steiff and T. D. Tamplin (eds.) Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Mission Frakked Up? (Chicago: Open Court, 2008: 63-76): 75-76.