Science Fiction Studies

#104 = Volume 35, Part 1 = March 2008

David M. Higgins

Science Fiction and American Wests                    

Barnard Edward Turner. Cultural Tropes of the Contemporary American West. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen P, 2005. vi + 267 pp. $109.95 hc.

Carl Abbott. Frontiers Past and Future: Science Fiction and the American West. Lawrence, KA: U Kansas P, 2006. viii + 230 pp. $29.95 hc.

Cultural Tropes of the Contemporary American West. The preface of Turner’s Cultural Tropes of the Contemporary American West, written by John Whalen-Bridge, begins with the ambitious claim that the book’s insights are “central to the contemporary American imagination” (i). This invocation of “the American imagination” (as a singular knowable object) signals that the preface is not intended to speak to a contemporary critical audience; current approaches to the West strongly resist a “myth and symbol” approach interested in a singular American cultural imagination, and American Studies altered the trajectory of such methodologies by the late 1990s. New frames of reference have emerged because older methodologies tended to reproduce (at best) nationalist myths about essential American “character” and “identity.” This is important when examining the West, where the “myth and symbol” school celebrated normative experiences of the West while ignoring the imperial implications of Westward expansion.

Whalen-Bridge compares the American West to the Lacanian “real” as a landscape that “resists symbolization” (i). This is a clear critical formulation of the frontier as what Žižek might call a “sublime object,” but I don’t find this to be a useful way to examine the cultural significance of American frontier narratives. Everything “resists symbolization”; it is less useful to gawk at the “ungraspable” numinous essence of the frontier than it is to analyze how the West has been symbolized, and to consider the historical, ethical, and ideological ramifications of such symbolizations. Whalen-Bridge’s emphasis on “our own emptiness and longing turned outward” (iii) and a “return to the frontier” (iv) threaten to reify romantic myths of the West without serious critical awareness of the historical problems these myths have caused.                

Barnard Edward Turner’s own introduction to Cultural Tropes begins from the observation that recent critical works on the West have “emphasized the historical over the textual as such” (1), and Turner seeks a return to a textual analysis of the tropes and images of the West as they appear in “cultural productions of the last generation or so” (7). His chapters examine D.H. Lawrence’s New Mexico stories, the works of Richard Brautigan, the Beach Boys, and Sam Shepard; fictional descriptions of Montana; Kevin Costner’s The Postman (1997), Star Trek: First Contact (1996), and the cyber-frontier stories of William Mitchell. The introduction offers extensive theoretical positioning, but it is difficult to determine the unifying theme connecting the primary works aside from their loose relation as (roughly) contemporary texts that deploy tropes and images of the West. The best central argument I can find is Turner’s suggestion that the frontier “was not an existent in the first place, but a mind set, and for this reason it can be repositioned at will and by necessity, just beyond our reach” (30).               

On one level, I can appreciate the aims of this project. Turner argues that recent scholarship on the West has moved away from textual analysis to examine the specific “buried” histories of the American West (women’s experiences, ethnic experiences, and the myriad ugly histories that textual celebrations of the West often obscure), but he suggests that this does not change the fact that popular imaginings of the West still have ideological resonance, and for this reason they still deserve critical attention. Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick agrees with this assessment when she argues that the frontier is “the flypaper of our mental world; it attaches itself to everything—healthful diets, space shuttles, civil rights campaigns, heart transplants, industrial product development, musical innovations” (“Adventures” 94). Frontier images and Western tropes still have currency in contemporary cultural productions; the question, therefore, concerns how we approach and study them.               

Recent literary and historical scholars who focus on the West—such as Limerick, Richard White, Donald Pease, and Amy Kaplan—attempt to read Western images alongside historical realities in order to expose the oppressive disjunctions between history and representation. Turner, however, is interested in a more abstract consideration of how “the West becomes a kind of arche-trope, easily inserted into the rhetorics of information technology and science fiction” (14). He wants to discern what it is about “the West” that makes it a concept that can migrate into other imaginative spaces, and he traces an erratic trajectory of this conceptual migration. His overall analysis of this trajectory is not convincing. It is difficult to follow why these particular primary sources are chosen over many others. Why read D.H. Lawrence alongside the Beach Boys? Why not look at more compelling representations of the West such as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977) or HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06)? Strictly examining tropes of the West in contemporary science fiction is worthy of a book-length project (see Abbott below), yet Turner’s readings of Star Trek: First Contact and The Postman wander through dense theoretical contemplations without arriving at a clear final synthesis.

Frontiers Past and Future: Science Fiction and the American West. Carl Abbott’s book offers a more focused examination of images of the West in science fiction. His central premise is that science fiction imagines the history of the future as an extension of the history of the American West, and he offers compelling readings of several novels to support his claims. Following the “wave” model of frontier settlement established by Frederick Jackson Turner and other classic Western historians, Abbott’s chapters trace the portrayals of “miners, engineers, farmers, community builders,” and “city dwellers” in outer-space colonies, and his analysis moves from “simpler or more optimistic visions” of space exploration to the “more ambiguous and questioning stories that reflect Americans’ increasing ambivalence about aspects of their past” (32).               

In his consideration of outer-space mining frontier narratives, for example, Abbott briefly notes the importance of straightforward novels such as Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and Allan Steele’s Lunar Descent (1991) before moving into a closer reading of Jack Williamson’s Seetee Ship (1951) and C.J. Cherryh’s Heavy Time (1991). Abbott argues that Steele’s narrative “reinscribes the western wage-worker’s frontier on the moon,” while Williamson’s more careful treatment acknowledges “the possibility of labor-management conflict” but subordinates this problem under “the uniting force of patriotism” (58). Abbott finds the greatest complexity in Cherryh’s Heavy Time, where difficult questions of class conflict and gender inequality find no easy solution. In each case, however, Abbott observes the important ways in which outer space extrapolations of Western frontier narratives wrestle in various ways with “the expanding range of questions that western historians now ask about the western American past” (58).                

His later chapters follow a similar pattern, and his analysis covers Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1992-96), Pamela Sargent’s Venus trilogy (1986-2001), Williamson’s Seetee Ship, Cherryh’s Heavy Time, Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape (1998), Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day (1997), Greg Bear’s Moving Mars (1993), Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1994) and Parable of the Talents (1998), Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1986), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty (1981), John Shirley’s City Come A-Walkin’ (1980), John Barnes’s The Sky So Big and Black (2002), the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and many others.                

In his introduction, following the usual apologies for the importance of science fiction as an object of critical study, Abbott traces the historical connections among British colonial adventure stories, quest romances, American westerns, and science fiction. (These continuities seem obvious to me, but I have rarely seen them outlined as comprehensively as Abbott accomplishes here.) He argues that sf often extends the “expansionist” tendencies of imperial adventure tales and American Westerns into alternate imaginative spaces and futures:

To move into and across “empty” spaces, finally, is to occupy and claim those spaces. The undertext of the American western is the advance of civilization through contests with nature, native peoples, and nasty outlaws. This theme of continental expansion encompasses the dominant national myth of the United States, and it serves as the American equivalent of European imperialism and imperial adventuring. Science fiction similarly deals with the outward spread of Earth-based peoples and cultures. In its details, it helps to normalize the idea of different futures and make the coming centuries semifamiliar territory that its writers and readers have tentatively named and claimed. (14)

This is a strong approach because it associates westward expansion in America with a larger history of Euro-American imperialism, yet Abbott hesitates slightly when driving this comparison home. He notes that continental expansion is a dominant “myth,” and he uses scare quotes around “empty” spaces (implying his consciousness that the West was never truly empty), yet he is somewhat reluctant to acknowledge comprehensively the problems associated with Western American imperialism, as other New Western Historians might require.                

In his critical summary of New Western History, Abbott cites Limerick’s notion of the “unbroken past” of the American West, and he argues that sf narratives increasingly imagine an “unbroken future” where future histories unfold in continuity with the complex history of the West (Abbott 15). Abbott reads both with and against Limerick; like her, he is interested in seeing Western narratives as “stories about borderlands and racial interaction, about capitalism and class struggle, about global connections and contexts, about cities and city people, about the challenges of accurately learning the environment” (Abbott 16). On this level, his historiography envisions the West as a complex place, rather than as a process of expansion. At the same time, Limerick calls for a stronger rejection of the rhetoric of the “frontier” in order to inaugurate “new organizing ideas” that will emphasize the “legacy of conquest” in Western history, a legacy that she suggests has been severely overlooked in both popular and academic realms (Limerick, Legacy 25). Abbott adopts a new historical approach to fill in the gaps in Western history, but he resists adopting an entirely “new organizing idea” in the way Limerick might demand. This is appropriate for his project; his primary sf sources also avoid such a “new organizing idea,” and Abbott’s goal is to explore the way this fiction imagines a continuous history with mythical and real frontier histories. Such hesitation may, however, undermine his claims about the progressive edge of these particular sf narratives.                

Abbott’s central argument is that science fiction shows a “growing tendency to acknowledge the complexity of the historical western experience” (2). He suggests that in the same way that American Western historiography has become increasingly complex, science fiction has also become “more complicated in its utilization of western history, simultaneously accepting and questioning our western stories” (183).                

His evidence supports the claim that sf is becoming more aware of the complexities of Western history, and that sf is working through some of the implications of that complexity in its future histories. Based on this, he argues, “science fiction can make us more historical and therefore more critical in our thinking” (186), and he concludes:

If science fiction is a guide, we do not have to repudiate the narratives that have been such powerful nation builders. Americans—that is, white middle-class Americans like me and many science fiction writers—have not been telling stories that are wrong, just overly simple. We need to understand how to adapt and enrich our western-national stories for new centuries, how to maintain their virtues while making them more inclusive and careful of people and places. (187)

Here my mild reservations emerge. Abbott says that sf can make us more “critical” in our thinking, which is true, but what are the limits of the critical insights offered by these particular stories? Abbott’s conclusion is framed as a kind of apology for Western narratives: he is content to leave the fundamental narrative structures of such stories intact while offering new levels of inclusion within the framework of these structures. In many cases, the texts in question reframe Western history, but they still imagine the history of the West in progressive terms. Abbott is sympathetic to the way these texts hope that the future can (and should) be seen as an extension of American Western history.                

New Western historians are less sympathetic to these basic narrative structures. Amy Kaplan, for example, argues that the recognition of the history of the West as an imperial history has been “simultaneously formative and disavowed” in dominant modes of American scholarship (Kaplan 5). Limerick puts this best in The Legacy of Conquest when she argues that the “legacy of slavery” in the American South has been exposed for its basic violence and atrocity, while the “legacy of conquest” in the West continues to be treated positively in scholarly research and popular imaginings: “an element of regret for ‘what we did to the Indians’ had entered the picture, but the dominant feature of conquest remained ‘adventure.’ Children happily played ‘cowboys and Indians,’ but stopped short of ‘masters and slaves’” (19). Many of us wouldn’t be eager to imagine the future as an optimistic continuation of the history of the South, so why are we comfortable imagining it as a history of the American West?                

None of these observations is intended to disparage the excellent quality of Abbott’s scholarship. Frontiers Past and Future is a striking book that deserves praise and recognition from both science fiction scholars and Western historians, and Abbott excels at the difficult task of speaking powerfully to audiences in both fields. Both Abbott’s Frontiers Past and Future and Turner’s Cultural Tropes of the Contemporary American West raise questions about basic frames of reference for understanding the West. The activities of the United States in the Middle East in recent years have been motivated by a tendency to view American history in progressive terms, and by a parallel determination to “extend” such a history forward into the future. To what extent, then, is it enough to make our understanding of the imperial dimensions of Western history more complex and inclusive, and to what extent must we more aggressively foreground the problems that still remain, even in sf texts that have greater-than-usual self-consciousness about their own historical assumptions? Like Abbott, I want to argue that science fiction has something valuable to offer in these discussions, but I also believe that it is vital to observe the imperial future that the United States is in the process of creating and to consider how that future has foundations in the same ways of thinking about the West (that take more optimistic shape) in sf narratives. Abbott’s analysis is an excellent and provocative starting point for considering these problems and issues.

Kaplan, Amy. “‘Left Alone With America’: The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture.” Cultures of United States Imperialism. Eds. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. 3-21.
Limerick, Patricia Nelson. “The Adventures of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century.” The Frontier in American Culture. Ed. James R. Grossman. Los Angeles: U  California P, 1994. 66-102.
_______. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: Norton, 1987.

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