Wagon Train to the Stars*: How the American Frontier Experience Created Modern Science Fiction

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 Turner’s 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 Turner’s book suggests that his thesis of the frontier as the lifeblood of the American character resonated with academia and the public alike. Turner’s 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” Edison’s 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 Turner’s 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 it’s 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

*Gene Roddenberry used this phrase to sell Star Trek to TV executives

About Jonathan David Baird

Jonathan David Baird has worked as an archaeologist for the past fifteen years throughout the Southeast. He left full-time field work in 2011 to finish graduate school. In 2012 Jonathan received a master's degree in English literature from Fort Hays State University. His focus of study was the development of late Victorian Gothic horror. Currently working on second masters in American history and applying to PhD programs.
This entry was posted in Classic Science Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

Thinking about this article I could expand it into a small book if I was so inclined. I have not even scratched the surface of this idea. There are some many good examples even today of the frontier in American Sci-fi Serenity springs to mind almost instantly.

John Ryan says:

I don’t know about about a small book, but at least a better than a 4 paragraph article that was just getting interesting when it ended.

I may do a follow up to it later on. I am pressed for time this week on some other writing obligations and I had this idea about the frontier and science fiction so I jotted it down quickly. If you are really interested in the subject I am certainly willing to pursue my research further.