Colonialism as Alien Invasion: Cadwell Turnbull’s The Lesson

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If Frantz Fanon had written War of the Worlds, he might have produced something like Cadwell Turnbull’s The Lesson, which uses an alien invasion story to grapple with the violent history of colonialism in the Caribbean. Early on in Turnbull’s debut novel, gigantic ships settle over the waters of Water Island, a Virgin Island near the book’s primary setting, St. Thomas. The ship disgorges a horde of invasive travelers that spreads over the island. The intent of the visitors is outwardly benign but their presence contains the seeds of violence, metaphorical and otherwise.

But these aren’t the aliens that are the focus of the story; these are cruise ships, bringing a large portion of the roughly two million tourists who visit the Virgin Islands annually. The cruise ships are mentioned only in passing, a reminder of tourism’s double-edged sword in a place where it’s the primary industry. In this work of postcolonial science fiction, Turnbull uses this moment to show that the arrival of the alien ship—the crux of this wrenching and deeply humanistic novel—is only the topmost layer in the geological strata of colonial occupation that forms the history of the Caribbean.

The Lesson is set five years after the arrival of the Ynaa, an advanced alien species. The Ynaa present themselves as benevolent visitors, offering residents of the island advanced technology in exchange for the freedom to conduct their mysterious research, but there is a clear, if unspoken, power dynamic. When St. Thomas residents react with even mild indignation about the new arrangement—with a drunken heckling, a barking dog—the Ynaa respond with swift and terrifying violence. Arms are ripped from bodies; dogs no longer bark. Turnbull gives the reader a visceral sense of what it might feel like to live as a colonized body, for those of us with the privilege not to: a life of queasy, oppressive helplessness; a constant low-grade fear and anger that sits at the back of the head like a tension headache always ready to flare.

The novel follows a handful of characters from three different, loosely intertwined families: Derrick, a young college student who serves as an assistant to Mera, the official Ynaa ambassador to the island; his childhood friend Patrice, who initially left the island, ostensibly to go to college but really to escape the home she no longer recognized; and Mera, whose motives and allegiances are ambiguous. There are no simple heroes or villains in the story, for the most part. Turnbull allows the reader to see the full range of their humanity, in all its knotty complexity.

One of Turnbull’s brilliant conceits is to jump back in time periodically to show the reader harrowing visions of the Virgin Islands’ history of violent occupation. Mera, the Ynaa ambassador, conceals herself amongst the humans and witnesses the atrocities committed in the name of incipient global capitalism. In one flashback, we are in St. Croix in 1792, on a sugarcane plantation, when the islands were under the control of the Danish.  In another, we are on St. John in 1732 during a slave revolt. Mera witnesses a mother whipped for daring to take a second away from work in the cane to care for her crying baby. Sometimes, she ignores the prime directive not to interfere with humans and reacts, for which she is deemed a witch and “killed” multiple times. Turnball writes: “She had watched too many similar beatings, seen too many broken bodies pulled from their beds before dawn by the steady bleat of the conch shell to spend their days, from sunrise to sunset, with their backs bent into the endless stalks of cane.” When the Ynaa arrive, the locals receive them with an edge of wariness that is more than just the shock of encountering extraterrestrial life. They have reason to distrust visitors.

From War of the Worlds to District 9, science fiction narratives have always grappled with the problem of colonialism. As John Rieder points out in his 2008 book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, the genre is inextricably intertwined with colonialism, rising in popularity in Europe and America during the heights of those countries’ periods of imperialist expansion. Science fiction has always recursively replayed colonial forays (stoic rocket men journeying to new worlds and subjugating insectoid barbarians) or inverted what Rieder terms “the colonial gaze” as a way of examining long-held narratives of ethnocentrism (an encounter with aliens destabilizes ideas about Earth being the center of, and standard for, life in the universe).

Most of the works that use narrative to interrogate colonialism, though, have largely been written by white Europeans or Americans. That has been changing as writers of color such as Nisi Shawl, Nalo Hopkinson, Victor LaValle, and Tananarive Due join the ranks of writers like Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and Ishmael Reed in producing powerful works that use genre to critique issues of colonialism and race. (Let me note that the lack of diversity in the genre isn’t because it wasn’t being produced in quantity before, but because of a history of racism in publishing. Samuel R. Delany has written illuminatingly about this).

We can now add Cadwell Turnbull to this esteemed group, because The Lesson does something more complicated than imagine a brave resistance against an invading force or humans learning to coexist in harmony with a misunderstood alien species. The Lesson is concerned with the experience of dehumanization under the project of colonialism. What if the arrival of alien life wasn’t the future, but just another recapitulation of our bloody past?

As conditions between the islanders and the Ynaa worsen, the three main characters are set in a trajectory determined by the system in which they are all trapped. Derrick is an intellectual and a dreamer whose childhood room is filled with Star Trek posters and copies of The Left Hand of Darkness and Joseph Campbell books. For him, the arrival of the Ynaa cracks open his world to the infinite possibility of the universe. He is fascinated by them, by their ship, their technology, where they came from. And he is especially fascinated by Mera. She gives him “that same feeling he had as a kid, out in the yard in front of his house, staring upward into the infinite black. He had that same vibrant emotion of feeling small yet hopeful. He desired to pull her from her heights, right down to his level, to cross the immeasurable distance between them.” His fascination with the Ynaa and his willingness to engage with them eventually places him between his family and Patrice on one side and Mera and the Ynaa on the other.

For Patrice, Derrick’s best friend, the Ynaa offers a more difficult lesson: in the face of a new conception of life and the universe, she begins to experience the erosion of her religious faith and grapple with the idea that the truth of the world is defined by who controls the narrative. “When she thought of heaven, all she saw was spaceships,” Turnbull writes. For Patrice, the narrative used to be religion; now the Ynaa have brought a different narrative and it is not one she trusts. She is the philosophical counterweight to Derrick’s wide-eyed optimism. For Patrice, Derrick’s intellectual interest in the Ynaa is a betrayal of his people. As she returns to the island from college, she finds that she has to reckon with both the loss of her home and the loss of her friend.

Derrick’s fascination with the Ynaa leads him to take a job as an assistant to Mera, but it also blinds him somewhat to the violence inherent in the new system, making him a pariah amongst the other islanders, who accuse him of collaborating with the invaders. Similarly, Mera’s position as ambassador to the humans has made her an outcast among the Ynaa and hated by the St. Thomians. As Derrick and Mera develop a taboo romance, Mera begins to question the Ynaa’s narratives about the “lesson” that they claim all species must learn: that the sole principle of existence in the universe is survival at any cost, including the subjugation of another species. In the face of this “lesson,” Turnbull asks whether love and empathy can truly exist between two opposing members of such an unequal power structure.

The answer seems to be no. Turnbull shows with heartbreaking clarity that even when fundamentally different individuals are able to find an essential humanity in each other, the nature of colonialism destroys both the colonizer and the colonized. As Derrick and Mera’s relationship evolves, the island simmers with resentment and anger when a high school-aged boy hits a passing Ynaa on the head with a stick as a prank and is killed in response. The boy’s older brother responds by assassinating the Ynaa. That retaliation sets off a chain of events that has dire consequences for the residents of St. Thomas, including Mera, Derrick, and Patrice.

In the parasitic relationship between occupier and occupied, Turnbull suggests, there is no possibility of mitigation, only violence.

Peter Mack lives in Oakland with his wife and dog. More from this author →