Skip to comments.Wagon Train to the Stars: How the American Frontier Experience Created Modern Science Fiction
Posted on 10/30/2012 6:33:34 AM PDT by Gideonwoulfe
Frederick Jackson Turner changed the face of American history when he introduced his thesis on the importance of the American Frontier experience in 1893. While not initially embraced his work is seminal in understanding how historians and even the public viewed the frontier for almost a hundred years. In Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner we find a succinct series of essays on the American frontier and how it shaped the United States. This powerful collection of essays encompasses Turners frontier thesis. No single American Historian has had such an effect on our culture. His ideas are so poignant that they stretch well outside academia. His revolutionary rethinking of the American frontier reached out from the classroom into boardrooms and even colored public policy decisions. So pervasive were his ideas we can now see how these ideas became the basis for segments of American pop-culture. The introduction to Turners book suggests that his thesis of the frontier as the lifeblood of the American character resonated with academia and the public alike. Turners readers believed that his work gave reason to the economic downturn that accompanied what they saw as the closing of the West in 1890. To them the end of the frontier meant that America was in the doldrums and new frontiers needed to be opened for America to prosper. They believed they had been shaped by the frontier experience into a people who thrived on the cusp of the unknown and needed frontiers to bolster their individualist spirit.
The rise of science fiction in the early part of the twentieth century can be directly traced to the closing of the Western frontier. Frontier themes permeate early American science fiction. These are tales of high adventure featuring exploration of unknown lands, meeting the natives, and often blasting them with ray-guns. The meshing of Science Fiction and the frontier experience begins in 1898 with the first piece of fan fiction Edisons Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss . This novel which is an unofficial sequel to H.G. Wells War of the Worlds sets the stage for all modern space opera. It introduces the audience to almost every aspect of American science fiction. These ideas would dominate the Science Fiction genre until the 1960s. It is in Serviss novel that we see the first hint of the American Frontier in Science Fiction. Where the original story by Wells is a tale of survival against all odds, Serviss story is an all American tale of frontier individualism conquering against an unknown and implacable foe. It ties directly into the popular ideas of the American West being promoted in the dime novels of the late 1800s. Later writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs would again revisit these same frontier themes in his Martian stories. Time and again American fiction would probe the new frontier of space carrying with it a cowboy mentality only now dressed up in a spacesuit instead of a stetson and carrying his trusty ray-gun instead of a colt. Native Americans transformed into Aliens ready to play both bad-guy and guide in the new frontier. Is it any wonder that science fiction and American frontier mythology share many of the same genre tropes. Both share in the exploration and conquering of the unknown. Science fiction in America was fiction powered by a cultural belief in Manifest Destiny.
This returns us to Frederick Jackson Turners thesis. It had and still to some extent has reverberations throughout American society. American History according to Turner is the history of the frontier. Our entire culture revolves around our unique origin. Every society needs its myths and legends and this is especially true of America with its population composed of such disparate origins and background. The frontier provides us with a collective myth on which to base our shared experience as Americans. We are all cowboys, we are all mountain men, we are all astronauts, and we are all seeking the next frontier.
Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner The Significance of the Frontier in American History, By Frederick Jackson Turner with commentary by John Mack Faragher. New York, NY: H Holt & Company, 1994. 255 pages
“Wagon train to the stars” was the verbatim pitch Gene Roddenberry used to the network execs to get Star Trek on the air.
anyone remember ee doc smith and the gray lensmen?
Yes. It would be considered sexist today, but it was fun to read.
That was the reason for the title, although I did not get around to discussing Star Trek in this article. Trek is certainly one of the American Scifi shows that owes its existence to the Frontier Mythos.
And now Obama has closed space. What outlet is left for the American, frontiering spirit now? Obama’s solution is to eradicate individualism.
Prior to creating Star Trek, Gene Roddenbery wrote scripts for several TV Westerns
Nobody’s closed space. If you want to go, build yourself a rocket and go. Just don’t ask the rest of us to waste our money on a pipe dream.
Maybe when one of our probes finds, you know, some planet we could breathe on, or a mountain of gold out there, I’ll change my tune. Until then, we’re better off colonizing Antarctica or the ocean floor. They may not be as romantic, but they are just as much frontiers, and a hell of a lot easier and cheaper to conquer.
He proposed that the Moon should be colonized just as the America's in the 15th to 19th centuries.
The lunar material would be used to build factories, mine lunar materials which would be launched into space where L-5 satellites/manuafacturing facilites would be built. You'll find a larger explanation at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerard_Oneill
He does look like Spack without the pointy ears!
Steve Jobs took a $535.00 space item off the shelf and created 30 million JOBS in the 20th century. All from a piece of space stuff that the government had no use for. Obama cancells the space program because he wants to improve education, create jobs and improve the GDP. To bad he doesn't understand the past!
1939 and Orson Welles broadcasst “War of the Worlds” on the radio as a Halloween Scary Treat. Unforunately the braodcast was incomplete in certain portions of NJ where the Martian Landing had supposedly occurred. Riots, Suicides and great commotioons occurred as the “Martians Walked towards New York City.
More damage than “Sandy”?
I'd say yes and no. It was sold as "Wagon Train" to the stars, but not in the generic sense of an old west wagon train set in space but rather as a reference to a popular anthology style TV western of the time "Wagon Train". It implies an ensemble cast of characters and guest characters that show up for one week only. The group moves along and encounters different situations and guest stars in self contained episodes.
So the pitch was not so much about the idea of it being a space western as it was about following the formula of another successful show.
Yes, this is exactly what Science Fiction is all about
I remember being "busted" in 9th-grade study hall by Mrs. Pettingill, who caught me reading "Children of the Lens." My copy of "Astounding Science-Fiction" was hidden inside a Joseph Conrad novel. I was severely chastised for reading such pulp "trash."
Yeah, I was merely learning mind-stretching scientific and sociological concepts that Mrs. Pettingill never dreamed of. I read -- and enjoyed -- Joseph Conrad later on.
Take the high ground. Before someone else does. Like Russia and now China.
We’ve had this discussion at the SF con I help put together (and we’re over due to have it again, gotta remember to get it on next year’s list). What it generally boils down to that the “frontier” structure gives you a few handy things from a story perspective:
you have a large unknown to work with, something with which the reader is unfamiliar so you can fill in whatever you want
you have isolation from support, when protagonists can call for the unlimited backup available in a “civilized” world you lose a lot of drama
it’s an environment we expect larger than life characters taking bold actions, ie heroes
Fiction outside of SF and westerns generally has to put things in place to cause those elements. From rainstorms knocking out phone lines and roads, to forests, to smart bad guys that force a situation support cannot enter. A frontier gives you all that for free.
What, do you want to withdraw from the treaties saying we can’t put weapons on satellites? Otherwise, I don’t know what else you are talking about. It’s not like an uninhabitable rock millions of miles away poses some key strategic position we need to secure.
Gee, the one thing Jack Kennedy got right and you deny him even that. RAT hater!
I don’t blame Kennedy. Back then, we didn’t know any better, there might have been important stuff out in the solar system we needed to secure. Now, we don’t have that excuse anymore. We know it’s just a giant dead zone out there.
Of course, he fixed that with the “Next Generation”, which had far fewer fistfights and alien babes and much more “social justice”. Male crew members in skirts, the wise black lady dispensing advice to the hapless white men, and this time, the alien’s super power was to “empathize”. Liberal heaven!
After the Bay of Pigs he was an expert on dead zones.
I remember it well. I even still have all the books, some re-accumulated from used book sales.
Doc Smith's vision was interesting. Fascist in some respects, but great stories.