Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cut 'em Off at the Horsehead Nebula! (Part Three)

The ironic part is, for a genre that routinely deals in stories of space exploration and colonization, the history and folklore of the American West offers a vast wealth of fascinating source materials and proven paradigms, just waiting to be rediscovered and used. It was the experience of the American West—or more accurately, the succession of "wests" that began on the Atlantic seaboard in the early seventeenth century and ended somewhere near Yuma in the late nineteenth century—that formed the uniquely American character and made the Americans a different people from their European ancestors. Even those writers who are first and loudest to cry "Bat Durston!" routinely imbue their fictional creations with the character traits that were forged in the crucible of the American West: self-reliance, stoicism, a distrust of distant government, and a certain handiness with firearms. Moreover, it was the frontier experience that produced a uniquely American idea, and one that, however unconsciously, seems to permeate nearly all science fiction written today: that it's possible to go somewhere new, meet new people, discard the unpleasant parts of your own culture, and by blending together create a new and better culture.

The opening of the American West was a unique event in human history. Almost everywhere else in the world, a frontier was merely the heavily fortified border between two competing and roughly equivalent political powers, reinforced by centuries of distrust and cultural differences. For an unhappy Frenchman, for example, it would be madness to pack up the family and move out to the frontier, because all he would do then is end up in Germany. Only on the North American continent did the frontier—the West—come to symbolize freedom and the chance to escape your past and start over. Certainly there were risks involved in going west—if it was easy, everyone would be doing it—but along with the physical mobility came social mobility, and the environment, while often hostile, was not invariably lethal. Only in the American West was it possible to start out with little more than gumption and a few smarts, and by the grace of God and the strength of your own two hands, reinvent yourself in the image of your choice. (And with a little extra luck get rich doing it, too!) Only in the West was what you did of more immediate importance than where you came from. [Irish and Chinese naturally excluded, of course.]

Equally underappreciated, it seems, is the uniqueness in history of the American Civil War. Americans—and American science fiction writers, especially—have a strangely romantic view of rebellion. In most of the rest of human history, revolutions and civil wars are traditionally followed by the wholesale mass-slaughter of the losers, as the winners consolidate their power by the crude expedient of exterminating everyone who might conceivably oppose them in the future. Only in America did the West offer a continent-sized safety valve, where even former Confederates unhappy with the way the War of Northern Aggression turned out could find a chance to begin again.

And it is these overtly Western themes—no matter how vocally we may try to deny their origin—that recur time and again in the literature of science fiction.

I suppose it was inevitable that science fiction should try to cut itself off from its pulp roots. Rejection of that which came before seems programmed into our genes. Sons argue with fathers; daughters clash with mothers; Mark Twain loathed James Fennimore Cooper. After all, science fiction as we know it today is primarily the creation of a group of young men who lived in New York in the 1930s, who called themselves Futurians and thought taking the train down to Philadelphia was a grand adventure, and who honestly believed there was absolutely nothing of interest west of New Jersey—and come to think of it, New Jersey was suspect, too.

But the conceits and prejudices of John W. Campbell have dominated science fiction for nearly seventy years now, so perhaps it's time to start thinking about finally stepping out of his shadow. An important part of the frontier saga has always been the story of the clash between the old order, struggling to maintain control, and the new people, yearning to write their own definition of freedom.

John W. Campbell, Jr., died in 1971. Every year the World Science Fiction Society honors his legacy by giving out the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, in the same ceremony in which they also honor Hugo Gernsback's legacy by giving out a bevy of Hugo Awards for various achievements in science fiction. On a different night in a different city, the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) presents a battery of Nebula Awards, as peer recognition of distinguished writing.

In 2006, Joss Whedon's Serenity won both the Nebula Award for Best Screenplay and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. [Being a somewhat experienced writer, Whedon was ineligible for the Campbell Award.] As a voting member of SFWA, it grieves me to admit that yes, I did hear some behind-the-curtains grumbling from the old guard about the fact that the Nebula was going to "a damned Bat Durston."

But I say, look. The real American frontier closed in the nineteenth century. It's now the twenty-first century. It is long past time to declare the history and folklore of the American West open for literary exploration and settlement. Bat Durston lies in a lonely unmarked grave somewhere on the windswept prairie of Bbllzznaj, where the six-legged megacoyotes howl at might, and as for me, I would rather ship out on a beat-up old Firefly than wear a red shirt in Starfleet any day of the week and twice on Sunday. It's no accident that the second most successful science fiction franchise of all times begins with these words, even though the stories rarely lived up to the promise: "Space, the final frontier..."

Or as Mal Reynolds might put it, "The pulp wars are long done. We're all just writers, now."

Bruce Bethke was a regular contributor to Amazing Stories in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as to a wide variety of other magazines. A critically acclaimed and award-winning science fiction novelist, he takes strangely perverse pride in knowing that he once managed to convince the editor of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine that his unabashed swashbuckling pirate story was in fact science fiction.

Tomorrow: what didn't make it into this essay...