Noah Berlatsky / April 9, 2019
Colonialism is often framed as an encounter with the other. The colonizer journeys abroad and finds a different world, different people, and difference itself. Yet, that difference often has a very familiar look. No matter where they travel, it sometimes seems, colonialists discover no one but themselves. As one example, consider Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1911 short novel of exploration and conquest, The Lost World. The book’s hero is Professor Challenger, an eccentric genius who organizes an expedition to a South American plateau where dinosaurs still survive. The plateau is also, as it turns out, home to Neanderthal-like ape-men. The king of the ape-men is a dead ringer for Challenger himself, as the narrator (a young journalist) reveals:
Beside [Challenger] stood his master, the king of the ape-men. In all things he was… the very image of our Professor, save that his coloring was red instead of black. The same short, broad figure, the same heavy shoulders, the same forward hang of the arms, the same bristling beard merging itself in the hairy chest. Only above the eyebrows, where the sloping forehead and low, curved skull of the ape-man were in sharp contrast to the broad brow and magnificent cranium of the European, could one see any marked difference. At every other point the king was an absurd parody of the Professor.
You might think that the commonality of colonized and colonizer would provoke curiosity, empathy, and communication. Initially, the king is in fact positively inclined towards his double; he spares Challenger when ordering the death of his companions. The colonizers, though, are not so merciful. Almost as soon as he is introduced, the king is shot to death, transformed from a person of importance to nothing more than “a red sprawling thing upon the ground.” His people are then exterminated as the Europeans revel in the “pure ferocity and joy of slaughter.” Recognition of the self in the other doesn’t lead to diplomacy or understanding. Instead, it sparks genocide.
This isn’t an aberration. Colonial literature in general is obsessed with identity. The colonizers are not terrified of discovering difference, but of crossing some strange border and finding only themselves. As John Rieder points out in his book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008), scrambling colonizer and colonized is a staple of alien invasion narratives. H.G. Wells, in his influential 1897 novel War of the Worlds, asks his English readers to compare the Martian invasion on Earth with the Europeans’ genocidal invasion of Tasmania, thus demanding that the colonizers imagine themselves as the colonized or the about-to-be-colonized. The invading Martians are just like the humans they invade. That makes them all the more terrifying, since we know what we’d do in their place. The message isn’t, “they’re good people like us, so treat them more kindly.” Instead, it’s “they’re genocidal monsters like us, so we need to make sure they never get the upper hand.”
This murderous identification in colonial fantasy only intensified during the Cold War. The Soviet Union was Wells’ Mars incarnate: another self that America both wanted to colonize and feared would invade. Thus the film Red Dawn (1984) simply recast The War of the Worlds as a communist takeover of the United States, with brave rural Americans engaging in guerilla warfare, like the Viet Cong, against Cuban and Russian invaders, who stood in for America.
Other Cold War era invasion narratives took Wells’ implications even further. Films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Thing (1982) imagined invaders who aren’t just like us, but who literally become us by taking over our minds, or replacing us cell-by-cell with exact duplicates. Invasion becomes a kind of infection, as communist infiltration turns us to them, just as capitalist colonialism turned them to us. Identity dissolves into a gelatinous mass, whose only shape is violence, terror, and war.
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The recently canceled STARZ television series Counterpart is an extended, bleak meditation on colonialism, the Cold War, identity, and our seeming inability to escape from any of them. In the world of Counterpart, the universe split into two identical duplicates in the late ‘80s, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The only passage between the two worlds is through a basement in Berlin. The existence of parallel universes is a secret closely guarded by “management.” Even those who work in the building, like Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons), often don’t realize what they’re doing, or why. Counterpart is a spy drama, and the setting in Berlin—a city that was itself separated into two separate worlds for decades—makes the Cold War metaphor very obvious. But part of what is brilliant about the series is the way that it recognizes that the Cold War was itself understood, and shaped, through references to colonialism.
At the moment they split apart, the first world and the second world (yes, the terms carry a double meaning) of Counterpart were exactly the same. Not long after the passageway opened, however, a terrible plague hit the other, second reality, resulting in the deaths of around 7% of the population. Hundreds of millions of people died. The other world is, as a result, in many ways a drabber place than our reality. Technological advances have been slow, and government public health initiatives are omnipresent and intrusive. The run-down ambience, the looming presence of the state, and the prevalence of bad, boxy, cheap suits deliberately makes the other world feel like (Western images of) the Soviet Union.
The other world isn’t just a stand-in for the USSR, though. It’s also an analogy for a Middle East defined, from a Western perspective, by terrorist dangers. A radical organization known as Indigo believes that our world (Alpha) caused the flu in the alternate reality (Prime). Led by a woman named Mira (Christiane Paul), Indigo trains children to replace their counterparts on the other side, positioning themselves to commit sabotage, mass murder, and biological warfare. Cold War fears thus merge into post-9/11 fears of terrorism, all of which are predicated on colonial nightmares about an identity with the oppressed, which ensures that doing unto them will eventually mean being done unto in the same way. The Prime world in Counterpart recapitulates all of colonialism’s history simultaneously; it’s like looking in a mirror and seeing your entire timeline staring back at you.
Mira is an isolationist; she believes that any contact between two identical worlds, or two identical people, must result in extermination. In the words of her father, Yanek (James Cromwell), “It’s Darwinian. If you don’t become him, he will become you.” Or, more succinctly, “One will destroy the other.” Yanek speaks from personal experience. He’s the scientist who, as a young man (played by Samuel Roukin), accidentally created the two worlds through an experiment gone wrong. At first, Yanek is fascinated by his other self, and the two dopplegangers visit each other’s worlds with eager curiosity. Their interference in each other’s lives makes their fates start to diverge, though, and when Alpha Yanek’s rebellious son is killed by the Communist authorities in his own world, he starts to hate Yanek Prime, whose son is still alive.
As Yanek spirals into grief and despair, he accuses his double of despising him and looking down upon him—which he knows he does, because does he not despise and look down upon himself? Yanek tries to escape his own estranged wife and grief-stricken family by sneaking into the other world to sleep with his other wife. But he’s only more enraged when he finds out that Yanek prime knew what he was doing and didn’t disapprove—and was in fact sneaking across the border to comfort wife number one. Eventually, Yanek murders his other. Mira witnesses the killing, and seeing her father kill her father is what sets her on her path to violence and revenge.
Yanek, again, believes that the two worlds can’t live together. But his arguments smack of rationalization. Just as racists claim it’s natural to hate black people, Yanek excuses his violence by insisting he was motivated by a universal, instinctual hatred of the other. He wants to close the doors between the worlds in order to show that he is not personally culpable for his actions. In killing Yanek Prime he simply did what anyone would have done—including, of course, Yanek Prime. But Counterpart as a whole doesn’t validate Yanek’s excuses. It’s true that in the show some people react with horror or anger or violence when they meet their alter egos. But not everybody does. Some people become friends with their others. Diplomat and black market dealer Claude Lambert (Guy Burnet) and his other become friends with benefits.
The show’s main character, Howard Silk, isn’t friends with his other. But their relationship isn’t about inevitable murder, either. Howard Alpha is a minor bureaucratic functionary—a meek, quiet, and kind man. His other, Howard Prime, is a callous superspy and assassin, obsessed with manly toughness and success. Howard Prime thinks he’s doing Howard a favor by shaking his life up and pushing him to be more successful and violent. Howard Alpha, for his part, says of his double, “I wish I’d never met him.” Howard and Howard Prime don’t like each other. But they manage to work together, nonetheless. They both want to protect Howard Alpha’s wife, Emily Silk (Olivia Williams), who was working with Howard Prime against Indigo before a car crash put her in the hospital with a coma. And they both want to stop Indigo from committing other terrorist acts.
At the end of the second season, Howard, enraged by the death of his wife, for which he blames Howard Prime, has a chance to kill his double. He pulls a gun and forces Howard Prime to kneel in front of him. “I’d do it if I were you,” Howard Prime tells him, looking up with resigned honesty and perhaps with some hope—he’s grieving for Emily too, and seems willing to die. But Howard rejects the War of the Worlds logic of genocidal identity; Howard Prime might kill him, but he refuses to kill Howard Prime. Instead, he lets his other go to try to foil Indigo’s plot—Mira wants to release a biological plague on the Alpha world in retaliation for the Alpha world releasing one on theirs. Despite Mira’s best efforts, though, Howard Alpha shows that violence doesn’t have to mirror itself endlessly. Howard and Howard Prime manage to work together because they’re not the same. Difference saves them, and possibly the world as well. Over the course of Counterpart, Howard Alpha is assured that he is not his other, and that he is his other. Both are true, and neither is true. Howard and Howard are the same, and also different, like any two people on any earth.
The person in the series who most clearly voices the value of difference is Naya Temple (Betty Gabriel). Temple is a black Muslim woman who is hired by Alpha world’s management to ferret out potential Indigo agents. When management asks her why she’s been so successful in the past at catching spies for the FBI, she explains, “Because I know what it’s like to be an outsider, to have my nose pressed up against the glass. I see the world the way they see the world.” Later Naya reemphasizes the point when she tells the chief diplomat that he needs to fire his son-in-law, who has been compromised. She’s willing to speak up against the old boy’s network because she isn’t part of it.
Counterpart has several scenes in which Naya, in her office, puts on a headscarf and prays to Mecca. Her colleagues are often startled and a little embarrassed when they come upon Naya praying. Viewers may be startled as well—positive portrayals of Muslim religiosity are few and far between on American television. But Islam also is the lens through which the series offers its most effective refutation of Yanek Alpha’s Darwinian vision of kill-or-be-killed. Naya, who only learns of the existence of the other world at the beginning of season two, says that at first the revelation led her to question her religion. If there are two Meccas, one in each world, to which direction should she pray? Which is the real Mecca? Is God with us? Or is God with them? Naya concludes that the answer is that God is with us and with them. “Two Meccas. One God,” she says. If God is everywhere and all powerful, then God created all the worlds, every one of them.
Colonialism says that those people over there are debased apes, who you can kill with impunity. And/or it says that those people over there are a mirror, which you must smash if you are not to be replaced. But turning people into apes or mirrors is just a reductive excuse for genocide. The people out there are neither strangers nor doppelgangers. This Mecca is not the same as that Mecca, but it isn’t radically, irreconcilably different either. Allah holds them both.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.