To pioneers crossing the North American continent during the 19th century, the landscape around them was considered a frontier, a blank canvas upon which to paint unrealized dreams and desires. But that canvas was populated with scores of other people, Native Americans like the Cherokee and Chickasaw, for whom the land was already full of meaning and significance, a thing to be preserved and cherished.
Within the science fiction genre there is a similar dynamic. Instead of physical frontiers, science fiction creators navigate a landscape of ideas – one could use the term idea-scape (different from Appadurai’s ideoscape). They are ‘future-forecasters’ in the sense that they speculate about the world of tomorrow, and through speculation they actively shape that world. Directly or indirectly, future-forecasters expose engineers, architects, politicians, and others to previously unrealized possibilities. But, like the Wild West, there are sometimes conflicts about who should occupy the idea-scape and how to shape it.
Utopian idealists are the idea-scape’s pioneers because they push the boundaries of what is considered possible. By testing limitations, they achieve breakthroughs but also trigger unintended side effects. By comparison, dystopian realists are like natives because they sense intrusion upon their preexisting ideational territory. They are reactionary, bringing attention to destructive ideas and warning of possible consequences. So, is the dynamic between future-forecasters truly analogous to the conflicts of the Wild West?
Tribal peoples whose ancestors dwelled in the West for centuries were forced to conform to a new culture (i.e. – the cattle rancher’s paradise of 1840 was not compatible with the utopia of the buffalo-hunting Plains Indian). Perhaps today’s dystopian storytelling is a reaction to some previous form of ‘narrative frontierism’. If pioneers entering the American West changed a landscape to suit their own ideals, it seems reasonable to suggest that science fiction artists pioneering an idea-scape could do the same.
Yet if one follows history further, one finds that the pioneer culture was itself transformed by the imposition of borders and bureaucracies. On February 14, 1912 the final line was set, effectively ending the age of the Wild West with the formation of Arizona and New Mexico, the last contiguous states added to the Union. With the conversion of unmanaged territory to a governable statehood, the closing of one frontier (geographical) became the opening of another (legislative). This frontier transition eventually helped improve relations between the descendants of pioneers and natives.
Could changing the way we think about frontiers help to balance the dynamic between utopian and dystopian future-forecasters? Read the third and final part of the series to find out.