There was a time when the Wild West was true to its name – gold prospectors, homesteaders, bandits, and blockbuster business deals. But like other frontiers before it, the West became organized, regulated, and tamed while giving way to even newer frontiers. It’s possible that the genre of science fiction might soon undergo a similar transition. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since it may actually balance the dynamic between utopian and dystopian future-forecasters.
In 1905, the celebrated frontier historian Sharlot Hall used a poem to petition congress for Arizona’s statehood. In the aptly titled “Arizona,” she writes, “We will make ye the mould of an empire here in the land ye scorn…” Is Hall maintaining the tenacious grit of a pioneer, or is her plea the first signs of a budding nativism? In my view, she exhibits both qualities. Hall is now a native of the former geographical frontier called the Wild West, but she is becoming a pioneer of the new legislative frontier called Arizona.
Though it may seem unromantic to trade open prairies and mountain vistas for an unseen realm of laws and institutions, it was exactly this change that helped bring about the Wheeler Howard Act of 1934, a seminal victory for Native Americans. I believe a similar change could help the science fiction genre, searching for its next Golden Age while struggling in what many diagnose as a dystopian rut.
At present, pioneer artists brave the idea-scape of science fiction and the future alone or in small bands, trying to forge a genre supportive of scientific progress. But their “individualist utopianism” can be limited in perspective, failing to capture and work through the negative side-effects of proposed innovations. Likewise, the ever-prevalent end-of-world narrative channels the voice of the idea-scape’s natives without offering progressive solutions.
As for the American West, it was the collectivist mentality provided by statehood that preserved the interests of both newcomers and natives. Therefore, I think it is high time for science fiction artists, regardless of their creative dispositions, to convene as a narrative democracy. Individual u-topias and dys-topias might then give way to all-inclusive U-topias. A creative congress could debate over new material, draft projects collectively, or allow audiences to vote on what content they want to see in comics, movies or storybooks (Editor’s note: Maybe the seeds of Eric’s creative congress are being planted over at Project Hieroglyph, a digital community that brings together science fiction authors, scientists and other creative thinkers about the future?).
Perhaps it is time to transcend the Wild West of future-forecasting, time for artists to stop dogging-it alone, retire their covered wagons or teepees, and take up the reigns of creative statehood.
Now, here I cache the useless pack
I nevermore shall need;
And here I take the Longest Trail
Wherever it may lead.
Beyond the Range – beyond the range
Oh, strong and sure and free!
I quest for more than life has brought
And more than eyes can see.
–Sharlot Hall, 1925