David M. Higgins 

Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood

University of Iowa Press, 2021

234 pages


Reviewed by Giulia A. Oprea 

Science fiction stories act as conduits for humans to contend with our fears, anxieties, and hopes of the future. These fantastical tales not only anticipate the future, but they often reflect the social, cultural, political contexts of their time. They hold immense power over our imagination, allowing us to step outside of our current reality and reimagine the world around us. As David Higgins demonstrates, however, this is not always an inherently positive thing—the possibilities embedded in science fiction stories, particularly in reverse colonization narratives, “embody an ambivalent dual potential.” Science fiction, he reminds us, “has historically functioned as an enabling literature of empire.” In Reverse Colonization, we time travel back to the 1960s where Higgins identifies “a key historical moment of transition when reverse colonization fantasy becomes dominant in science fiction (and in Euro-American culture in a larger sense.)” In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, science fiction stories often imagined “colonial conquest as a glorious and progressive undertaking,” however by the 60s, when “overt colonialism had gained a negative reputation,” these stories had to adapt, and they turned toward “heroic tales of counter-imperial struggle and resistance.” 

Put otherwise, colonizers began to be portrayed as villains and anticolonial resistance fighters became universal heroes—the most popular example of this being, of course, Star Wars. Reverse colonization narratives then, are stories in which people who typically benefit from imperial conquest are invited to imagine what it might be like if the roles were reversed and they were the victims of colonization. Higgins finds that while these kinds of stories have the “counterhegemonic potential” to facilitate critical reflections about imperialism, they often result in what he calls “imperial masochism” or “the way subjects who enjoy the advantages of empire adopt the fantastical role of colonized victims to fortify and expand their agency.” Those key transformations that took place in the 60s, Higgins maintains, have contributed to the pervasiveness of the ideology of imperial masochism today—particularly among white supremacists, antifeminists, neoreactionaries, and right-wing extremists who “are able to imagine themselves as injured minorities fighting a heroic struggle against colonizing systems of control and domination” and who often employ science fictional references and metaphors to express this imagined oppression. To show how “today’s reactionary appropriation of righteous, anti-imperial victimhood […] depends on a science fictional logic that achieved dominance in imperial fantasy during the 1960s,” Higgins often puts his analyses of reverse colonization narratives in conversation with the worldviews of twenty-first-century reactionary figures.   

The book begins with an accessible, in-depth, and foundational introduction in which Higgins lays out his argument, provides an example of how imperial masochism functions today, cites scholarship written on victimhood and reactionary conservatism, and walks us through the change-over-time in the genre of science fiction. Each subsequent chapter analyzes popular science fiction narratives from the 60s and early 70s. The first and second chapters, for example, attend to the connections between masculinity and victimhood, looking at familiar titles such as Dune (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), and the work of Philip K. Dick. The brief conclusion, which this reader found to be particularly compelling and wanted more of, contrasts the “widespread embrace of victimhood prevalent in mainstream reverse colonization narratives” with Indigenous speculative fictions that display “a consistent refusal to sanctify victimry.” These stories, Higgins points out, reflect what Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance paradigms” which offer “an active repudiation of dominance, tragedy, and victimization.” Rather than “fetishizing the victim role, as mainstream science fictions often do,” Higgins argues that Indigenous speculative fictions embrace what Anishinaabe scholar Grace Dillion calls “biskaabiiyang,” an Anishinaabemowin term that describes the process of “returning to ourselves [and] discovering how personally one is affected by colonization, discarding the emotional and psychological baggage carried from its impact, and recovering ancestral traditions in order to adapt in our post-Native Apocalypse world.” Here Higgins points to the stories of Indigenous authors such as Vizenor, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Diane Glancy. What this ultimately reveals, Higgins maintains, is that “the United States is often more invested in imagining itself as traumatically victimized than many Native American communities are, and white American men (in particular) imagine themselves to be colonized subalterns with greater frequency and intensity than do many Indigenous people residing in settler colonial nations.” 

Higgins’s conclusion also points to the importance in making critical distinctions “between selfish acts of aggression that benefit those who enjoy unfair advantages” and “reasonable acts of resistance undertaken by those who are exploited and disempowered.” Ending on a hopeful note, he reminds us that “there can also be something extraordinary about reverse colonization narratives when they successfully provoke readers to see and feel what it might be like to occupy a different position in an imperial milieu.” What might this look like? Higgins argues that “the strength of a critical reverse colonization narrative depends on the degree of specificity of its critical articulations (or how it drills down into very specific problems of empire rather than portraying imperialism in vague or universal terms.)” Pointing the graphic novel The Arrival by Shaun Tan, Higgins suggests that this work contains some of the “best qualities” that reverse colonization narratives have to offer in how it “invites us all to understand and sympathize with the experiences of others who are suffering under conditions of oppression, and an imaginable reversal of positions that enables us to imagine what is like to be on the other side of a cast divide of inequality of circumstance.” Reverse Colonization is a well-written and critical account of how science fiction’s postwar transformation away from celebratory narratives of conquest and toward reverse colonization narratives enables contemporary forms of “reactionary bizarro victimhood.” It also reflects a larger transformation “in Western imperial practice away from expansive territorial colonialism toward indirect (cultural, political, and economic) methods of exploitation and domination that are often rhetorically justified in the name of freedom and emancipation.” This book will be of interest to scholars across fields—particularly those concerned with science fiction, speculative fiction, popular culture, post-war America, imperialism, and conspiracy culture. Higgins’s study also allows for, and encourages, further research into the more revolutionary and liberatory possibilities of science fiction while thoroughly accounting for science fiction’s complicity in imperial fantasy.