Science Fiction and the Frontier

Science Fiction in the United States has a very close relationship with the idea of the American West, the frontier. It is so ingrained into our cultural DNA, that presidents often associate the exploration of the heavens with the freedom and romance that the settlement of the American West afforded our country. Both Bush Presidents had some interesting words to say about the subject at various points in their terms in office:

“We’ll build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the Moon and to prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own. . . . We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos”, President George W. Bush, speech at NASA headquarters, 14 January 2004.

And,

“Our goal: To place Americans on Mars and to do it within the working lifetimes of scientists and engineers who will be recruited for the effort today. And just as Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to open the continent, our commitment to the Moon/Mars initiative will open the Universe. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and offers a lifetime of opportunity”, President George Bush, 2 February 1990.

At a recent conference at NASA Headquarters in April, this very subject was brought up:

It’s very easy to see the influence that the West has on science fiction: the first Star Trek show was pitched to CBS as a ‘Wagon Train to the Stars, while the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, certainly has its influences as well, while other films from the last 1970s and early 1980s are more explicitly influenced by western movie tropes: Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton, depicts a futuristic western amusement park, while Outland, directed by Peter Hyams, is heavily influenced by the western film ‘High Noon‘, as a Federal Marshal goes up against company men in a mining colony on Io. Moving forward, the television show Firefly, created by Joss Whedon, compares the expansion of humanity into space with that of the expansion into North America. There’s others, to be sure, with a new addition this week, Cowboys and Aliens. At the same time, the growing field of Steampunk (Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and Deadnought come immediately to mind), is likewise filled with images of the American West.

The West represents a romantic character vision of the United States. It was a time of intense growth, formative change, and really the last point where it’s perceived that people could literally shape the country. At the same time, it’s associated with the freedom for a person to make something of themselves, either by pulling up their roots and heading out to restart their lives in the wilderness, or to build an empire, as many of the industrial barons did throughout that time.

While people at the conference disagreed with the association – they likened it to not the west exploration, but to polar exploration – they did note that it’s a valuable association to bring to bear, noting that the space program has often been justified with comparisons to the American West. It was the United State’s mission (for better or for worse) to expand then, while space offers unlimited potential for (if highly expensive) growth for the future.

But more than that, the romance of the Wild West offers something to science fiction that I’ve really only seen in stories that have come out of the United States (granted, I’m not well read on non-US SF/F), which is the ability to tap into this idea that we are at our greatest when we’re fresh, when we’re exploring and discovering new lands, people and adventures, rather than sitting idly, stagnating as life becomes more and more complicated. In the current political and cultural problems that the US is currently facing, it’s easy to see why stories, and particularly, science fiction, can succeed so well: it’s relatable, and escapist at the same time.

As was talked about at the NASA History Conference, the differences in reality aren’t really there: to travel from the East Coast to the West coast in the 1800s, one was reasonably certain of fairly low costs (in the hundreds of dollars), not to mention the potential for a livelihood, food and supplies, and the companionship of everyone else who had the same idea. Polar Exploration, on the other hand, holds no such assurances: the conditions are harsh, unlivable, with few prospects to live on, and a far higher cost.

Space travel falls far more closely with the latter style than the former, and as such, it’s not marketed to the American public as such: it doesn’t fit with our views of how things should be. And that’s okay: the American west has its innumerable stories, a broad canvas from which to be influenced by. It’s dramatic, tragic, and beautiful: a good place for stories.

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2 thoughts on “Science Fiction and the Frontier

  1. With the closing of the space shuttle program, I think people are becoming more and more disinterested with the space age. It seems nowadays that folks are flocking to the ocean which we know even less about than space. Look at James Cameron’s Sanctum which just came out. This is the new fascination nowadays while movies like Cowboys and Aliens are a dying breed. Doesn’t necessitate the loss of science fiction but just the way we look at it.

    • I doubt that: the space shuttle program is but one element of the US space program – not only are there other parts to it, such as Hubble and Kepler, but there’s other space programs, such as the Russian, Chinese, Indian and numerous others that all have manned – or aspirations of manned – spaceflight projects. Plus, science fiction of this sort predates NASA, and endured during other times when we didn’t send people into space: the gap between Apollo and the Space Shuttle program, for example.

      No, I think that people will remain interested in space: we have a very strong history behind us. Cowboys and Aliens and other science fiction films aren’t going anywhere anytime soon: they tap into a deeper cultural vein that will keep it going. Science fiction and space opera is here to stay.

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