An Addendum: “Colonizing Space” — It Really Is That Bad


Several days ago I wrote a post called “‘Colonizing Space’ is a Dirty Word:  Stop Using It,” which sparked a handful of amusing debates.  io9, for instance, essentially plagiarized me on Facebook by not providing attribution for the problematic I initially set up. I say that jokingly, of course.  The more interesting response, however, came in the form of a refutation by Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen.  His post, and the comments to it, will be the focus of this addendum.

Larry’s primary refutation is on the grounds of etymology.  When one looks at the creation of the word “colonization” and its roots in Latin, it does, in fact, appear to have a fairly benign usage (“to inhabit, cultivate, frequent, practice, tend, guard, respect” refers to the Latin root, colere).  The modern definition, however, is only benign if you take it literally.  To colonize means to
settle in a colony (a colony being a group of people who have settled far away from home, but maintain ties with their home country).  When taken at face value, that definition appears to have no negative connotations.  What exactly is negative about settling far way from home?

That’s where the problems arise.  Colonization never involved settling uninhabited areas (unless we count the two poles in the mix; but we’d then have to consider the impact on the environment, which humans are adept at destroying).  It always referred to the seizure of native lands from native peoples, almost always by excessive aggression, and almost always alongside the formation of racist ideologies and an intensive “civilizing” mission which sought to eradicate indigenous culture, indigenous people, or, more likely, both.  Even when one looks at the time period in which the root form emerged, the processes which it referred to were not benign, but in fact involved the same colonialist practices I’ve just described, usually followed by violence in the form of war.  When one looks at the barbarian tribes the Romans sought to squash, it’s hard not to see the precursors of what would become European colonialism (and American imperialism).  And when one looks farther back in time (the ancient Egyptians, perhaps), one sees that colonization has always been tied to its good friend, conquest.

To suggest, then, that “to colonize” can, in fact, be benign is to wash away the extensive history of human aggression towards other human beings which is tied up into the word’s very history.  It matters not whether the word was invented with a benign definition, since what it always refers to is not a benign process.  Taken farther, the word itself is as much a part of colonialist suppression of complicity as we are seeing today in Mike Huckabee’s absurd claim that Obama’s supposed anti-British-colonialism is somehow a bad thing.  Colonialism never wants to be responsible for its own actions.  We know this because we’ve seen the U.S. government repeatedly fight against reparations for the various Native American tribes we’ve decimated, stolen from, irradiated, and so on, even to the point of denying some of them the right to be tribes in legal terms.  This is a never-ending process of suppression, because complicity means something very troublesome for the human “soul.”

But perhaps Larry’s greatest failing is when he moves away from the deep past to a more immediate one (the same colonialist past he accuses me of appropriating “colonization” for):

I have to question here if his passion got in the way of his intellect, as with that single sentence, there is the appearance of a curt dismissal of the transformative aspects of colonialism. One might be pardoned if s/he is thinking at this point that Duke is coming close to a paternalist attitude of having to defend the besmirched colonized peoples’ honors whenever that nasty “colonize” word is employed. I do not believe for a moment that is what he means to do, but it can be rather insulting to some to see their own hybrid cultures, which are not clones of the mother country but which instead reflect the complex, myriad ways in which different ethnic groups acted upon one another to transform the colony into something that wasn’t wholly a product of the purported motherland. Perhaps I’m insufficiently Cherokee in my heritage to feel all the outrage conducted upon my people by my other people, the Irish colonists/settlers who moved into the Tennessee River Valley over two centuries ago. All I know is that there was quite a bit of intermarriage and exchanging of foods, products, and ideas between the groups; exploitation certainly took place, but it was far from the only means of cultural interaction.

There is a great deal of academic research out there on hybridity and the ways in which indigenous people manipulate culture and so forth for their own uses.  Larry’s desire to focus on the transformative qualities of colonialism, however, is misplaced, not least because his rhetoric paints a rather disturbing picture of indigeneity by nearly dismissing the extensive levels of subjugation, extermination, cultural annihilation, etc. in exchange for a softer, if not sanitized, vision of indigenous interactions with colonists.  His argument is akin to suggesting that we should focus more on the transformative aspects of a woman’s interactions with her rich, but physically abusive, nearly-rapist husband.  Could we say that some good might come out of that relationship?  Sure, but that would be a sanitized version of reality, since it gives far too much credit to the side of the story which wouldn’t have existed if the first side had never occurred.  For indigenous peoples, this analogy holds true.  Nobody asks to be colonized.  Nobody asks to have their lands stolen, their people exploited, their cultures suppressed, or their rights denied.  These are things that precede all those transformative qualities Larry wants to talk about.  Should we talk about them?  Certainly, but never without acknowledging that their very existence is predicated upon the destructive impact of colonialism.

Even to use Larry’s mention of the Cherokee is to signal the very problem I’m suggesting here.  The Cherokee were perhaps more accommodating than they should have been.  They were used by colonialists to acquire Native American slaves and to destroy other tribes (other tribes were used in this manner, too).  And there was a great deal of presumably benign interaction between colonists and tribal people (intermarriage, trading, friendship, alliances, etc.); most of that acculturation, however, had little to do with some benign transformative quality of colonialism and more to do with the Cherokee’s themselves (look up their cultural practices, such as those pertaining to marriage).  But all of that doesn’t hide the fact that many of their lands were forcibly seized, which often resulted in the decimation of Cherokee towns (see Dunmore’s War), and some lands were ceded to colonists due primarily to the decimation that had already occurred, or the threat of decimation in general.  Let’s also not forget the civilizing missions of Americans like George Washington or Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, which led to the forced removal of the Cherokee and other tribes from their native land (instituted under Buren).  There was a name for this event, too.  It was called the Trail of Tears.  Look it up and tell me that the transformative aspects of colonization should be discussed without tying it directly to the heritage of conquest buried within colonialism itself.

Larry later attacks my use of the term “settle” as an alternative to “colonize”:

But to throw the word connotations back at some: since some want to reject “colonize” as too loaded for consideration, despite the wide usage in contexts that do not invoke two particular eras of European-led efforts, why should I find “settle” any less of a term? After all, one of my ancestral groups “settled” right on top of another ancestral group? Can I protest the loaded term of “settlement” that implies that there is nothing present at the time of that mass migration to a spot? Or is that too just as hypersensitive of a response?

The answer?  Because “to settle” may in one instance refer to settler colonialism and in another refer to something else entirely.  Settling has so many connotations which are used regularly that it’s impossible to say that “to settle” is to always commit an evil.  One can, for example, settle an account or court case, or settle on a house (or settle down).  Some of these are somewhat neutral, and some of these are positives — depending on your perspective.  “Settling space,” then, could very well refer to settler colonialism (an evil), which may or may not happen, or it could refer to simply settling on another planet (a semi-neutral), such as Mars, which has no intelligent life (as far as we know).  I never suggested that “settling space” didn’t have a negative side.  In fact, I said quite the opposite:

“Settlement” would be a much more effective term, since it has always signaled a multitude. Yes, to “settle” was always a part of the colonial enterprise, but it has also always referred to the process of settlement, which may or may not involve the settlement of spaces owned or occupied by others. For science fiction, this seems like a perfect term to use, since the genre often imagines human settlement as encompassing the varieties of the old forms of settlement. Humans in science fiction settle on uninhabited asteroids, moons, or planets, but they also sometimes colonize planets that don’t belong to them, which is a kind of settlement to begin with (albeit, a violent form).

“Settling space” is really just a better term.  Perfect?  Of course not.  There’s no such thing as perfection.  But it works, and is more fair to reality than “colonizing space” could ever be.  “Settling space” doesn’t sanitize reality for an ideological purpose (for an agenda).  It just opens the door to new ways of thinking about our interaction with the universe around us.

I’ll leave you with one of the best comments left on Larry’s post, which came from a fellow calling himself IZ:

To anyone living in a society that experienced ‘colonialism’ in the previous century the word is hopelessly compromised and summons up exactly those images the author describes (rape, pillage, exploitation, etc.) 

In that sense I have to agree with the author and disagree with you in that while I understand and appreciate what you are saying, I’m not certain how much an appeal to classical roots of the word will make any sense to those multitudes for whom this word has a negative connotation. 

Societies have formulated their own ‘national’ and identity narratives around concepts such as resistance to colonization, etc. To expect them to allow the word to be conflated with positive concepts of settlement etc. is, well naive at best and insidious at worst in that it can be seen as another attempt by westerners to sanitize colonialism by sanitising the very words used to describe it.

 I rest my case.


Larry Nolan has responded to this post here.  I started to post a comment in response to the comment below, but decided to post my response as a P.S. on the post above:

The funny thing about all this is that I did address the bulk when I said that I was sympathetic to most of your arguments, but only questioned the rhetoric that applied to all forms of colonization the forms and aspects of 19th-20th century Colonialism. The two are not the same and I believe you extrapolating from the most virulent form without acknowledging the complexities of the issue is misguided. Simple as that.

Pardon me if I don’t care at this particular point to quote Lenin, Hobson, Gallagher, and several others who have weighed in on this. Or that I don’t cite the divisions within the ANC, Gandhi’s movement, and others. Or that I don’t want to weigh in on hegemonic influences and how they shape the matter. Just noting them is enough for the purposes of questioning whether or not the thrust of your argument in regards to which words should be used in a SFnal context. Perhaps you feel it is more cut-and-dried than I do or several others, but you really need to make a better case for the possible alternates.

The issue is problematic and I cannot help but continue to feel that you’ve obfuscated the deeper issues of who gets to determine how things are labeled.

I never suggested (or my intention was not to suggest) that one colonization didn’t occur differently from another, just that the underlying practices have always been violent in nature. Different situations produce different results. That doesn’t change the fact that conquest, whether militaristic, economic, or social, is always involved in the process of colonization, even where indigenous peoples do not exist (see the whaling industry, for example). That was well covered in my response. I don’t pretend that every situation is a replication of another. There are similarities, but when you talk about “colonialism” and “postcolonialism,” you’re invariably talking about an umbrella term which doesn’t immediately account for every possibly variation–just those underlying systems that are found in every situation.

That said, my point was always that colonization is used as an umbrella term for talking about our interactions in space, which will often be an incorrect usage. Please, use “colonizing space,” but use it appropriately. It refers to a very specific set of interactions which other terms may not. The problem still stands: when you begin applying a term which has negative connotations for people versed in its history (whether through education or having survived its processes in some way or another) to a benign or even a positive usage, you’re in fact participating in the same hand waving distractions which colonialists have used to absolve themselves from blame or even dealing with what most people would consider a wrong (see Bikini Atoll, for example).

This isn’t so much about feeling as it is about what is historically accurate. If there ever was a moment in which a colony was established which did not involve, in some way, conquest or violence, then I’ve never heard of it.

Needless to say, there’s quite a bit of hand waving going on right now (unintentional, I think).

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

3 thoughts on “An Addendum: “Colonizing Space” — It Really Is That Bad

  1. I'm not as informed on this topic as I should be, but it seems that Colonialism is the actual evil here, and that it used colonization as a tool (one of many at its disposal) to achieve its intended purpose. In any case I can understand the reasons for the perceived evil of the word and the want/need to distant ourselves from those conotations.

    As far as an alternative, "settlement" lacks a certain grandeur as a word itself and can also be argued to have those associations with colonization/Colonialism that both you and Larry mention. "Space Inhabitation" sounds more cool, but I suggest "Space Squatting" (especially since its meaning is closer to the actual goal of occupying currently uninhabited space).

  2. I don't know if you can adequately separate colonization from colonialism. They're too intertwined and always signal one another.

    As for "settlement": Yes, it does signal colonization, but that's also the point. It signals colonization AND neutral practices (maybe even positive, depending on your perspective). The problem with how we view space expansion is that we aren't using terms which represent the broadest of possible connotations. Colonization is an inherent negative. Space squatting really only refers to a handful of immediate practices. To settle, however, can encompass so much at once, and so can be adequately applied to the variety of interactions we might actually have in space, and which SF often shows occurring (general habitation/settling to colonialism and its sister, imperialism).

    But really I just think we need to stop saying "colonize" on every day thing as if it's a neutral term…

  3. I agree. Colonization is a hopelessly tainted term, inherently problematic in that it never (on this planet) involves settling an uninhabited space, and any attempt to claim that colonization did more good than harm and is thus benign reflects a disturbing ignorance of history on the part of the claimant. Even biological colonization is problematic, given that a) biological warfare is a common tool, sometimes used unintentionally and sometimes not, of other kinds of colonization, and b) bacteria and other pathogens colonize our bodies, and some of those colonizers threaten to destroy modern society. Say smallpox ever reappears — a possibility as long as the US and Russian smallpox repositories remain in existence. Given that almost no people in the world are vaccinated against it, an outbreak would pretty much cause a global societal collapse. Some would survive, through natural immunity or the tiny stock of smallpox vaccine that the WHO keeps, but for the most part, our world would be a hell of a lot less populated.

    Would it then be benign for an alien race to deposit a colony here, on this conveniently "pristine" planet? Would it still be benign if there are still millions alive — just considered unimportant at best, a hindrance at worst, by those colonists? Would it be benign if later, it came out that the smallpox outbreak was caused by those invaders?

    (Anyone who's read recent scholarship on pre-colonial America can probably recognize the parallel I'm drawing here. I recommend 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, for those who want a good summation of that scholarship.)

    All that said, I can't agree with your suggestion that SF writers stop using the word colonization. What I think people need to do is understand it, and embrace its full meaning (not just etymology but social baggage too), rather than trying to rationalize it as somehow benign. I came here via Locus, so browsed the thread at the OF Blog, and Matt Cheney (in the comments there) is very right to point out that when SF writers have embraced this term in full, it's made for some of the genre's best work. In addition to the writers he cites, I'll point out Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis books (can't remember what their new series title is, sorry). In them she posits pretty much the same hypothetical scenario I cited above — the human race gets severely trimmed down by a catastrophe (of its own making in this case), and the alien colonizers move in. What's interesting is that she never uses the word "colonize" for what the Oankali are doing, as far as I can recall — but for the purposes of describing her work, the word is useful because of all the baggage it carries. (I think the Oankali's efforts are called "interbreeding" and "trading" by them, and "rape" and "genocide" by the humans. I suspect Butler did this deliberately, to show the way colonizers love to "rebrand" what they're doing.)

    Anyway, what I'm saying is that the problem isn't the use of the word "colonize", it's the uninformed use of the word — what Cheney calls the "ra ra" imperialism treatment. So you're not arguing etymology, you're arguing history, genetics, and sociology.

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