Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Final Frontier: A Haunting

 Hi all, this is the third out of four essay installments for you at the end of the year. The idea of the frontier is so prominent in much of speculative literature that I wanted to get some thoughts down on it, though I'm limited in my perspective as a settler currently on the stolen land of the Paiute, the Shoshone and the Washoe tribes.

The Final Frontier: A Haunting

screen cap of the title for Star Trek featuring "Final Frontier"

Speculative fiction is the ideal providence for continuing and supporting American frontier mythology as the map never ends—there’s always another frontier to explore, whether that’s a new planet, a land across a fantastical ocean, a portal, or cyberspace. While classic speculative texts have recast the frontier and its progenitors the cowboy and the adventurer on various planets and fantastical lands, very little about the frontier has changed—including its racist, genocidal nature. From Star Trek’s “final frontier” to newly imagined gold rushes of alien ores, capitalizing off the frontier remains a US fantasy perfectly suited to colonizing the galaxy. Yet, particularly in contemporary speculative fiction, frontier mythos and acts of colonialism are not only being questioned but actively written against. This shift aligns with a shift in who writes speculative fiction. The genre’s recent past is dominated by white men who actively kept other people out of the genre (and continue to attempt to do so as suggested by Robert Silverberg’s yearly comments on the Hugo Awards or the occasional attempt at resurgence of the Sad Puppies). Even so, speculative fiction is taking a turn from this foundational past “discovering” new lands and dominating them to troubling these ideas on the page and thus, in the real world.

Some of the earliest speculative texts utilized the travelogue format or involved the hero leaving the real/known world to adventure to the fantasy/unknown world. This fascination with the frontier in speculative fiction can be traced to Darko Suvin’s initial explanation of the genre: “However, at the beginnings of a literature, the concern with a domestication of the amazing is very strong. Early tale-tellers relate amazing voyages into the next valley, where they found dog-headed people, also good rock salt which could be stolen or at worst bartered for. Their stories are a syncretic travelogue and voyage imaginaire, daydream and intelligence report. This implies a curiosity about the unknown beyond the next mountain range” (5). While a curiosity of the unknown doesn’t have to be a bad intuition, often these texts came with troubling depictions of the Indigenous people and the hero’s perceived right to rule and dominate these people, such as in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars (1912). The travelogue format provides an easy—even lazy—way to engage with what Suvin considers to be a foundational aspect of speculative literature, the novum (a variation of Ernest Bloch’s Novum). While Suvin refers to science fiction specifically, I would argue that the novum is also necessary to fantasy and other subgenres of speculative literature, as can be seen from his definitions of the novum. He writes: “SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’ (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic” (63). As suggested by this definition, the novum can be achieved by introducing the presence of an “other.” Thus, the alien frontier story or travelogue becomes an ideal narrative format to present the novum. Even Suvin acknowledge this tendency: “The essential tension of SF is one between the readers, representing a certain number of types of Man of our times, and the encompassing and at least equipollent Unknown or Other introduced by the novum” (64). Yet, even in these early days, authors troubled these ideas of the frontier and the “other” that Suvin recognizes as a distinguishing factor of the genre, such as Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self (1902) by Pauline Hopkins or Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 

In Herland, Gilman sets up the traditional adventure story with three male characters intent on entirely dominating whatever civilization they find on the other side of an unnamed mountain range, especially after they learn it is “Woman Country” (Gilman 7). The narrator, Van, writes: “There was something attractive to a bunch of unattached young men in finding an undiscovered country of strictly Amazonian nature” (Gilman 7). Yet, the civilization they find on the other side is verging on utopia, and it is the three men that must change or leave. Indeed, each time the men try to express how civilized their American life is, the women undermine their ideas of progress and modernity. Van writes: “I had always been proud of my country, of course. Everyone is. Compared with the other lands and other races I knew, the United States of America had always seemed to me, speaking modestly, as good as the best of them. […] These women, without the slightest appearance of malice or satire, continually [brought] up points of discussion which we spent our best efforts in evading” (Gilman 63). For example, at first, the men are proud that the American response to poverty is “the best in the world,” but the women don’t know what poverty is because their civilization does not experience poverty as it does not grow beyond their means (Gilman 64). As the three men attempt to explain, their description of poverty and its impacts sound more and more horrible: “Jeff […] solemnly replied that, on the contrary, the poorer [American women] were, the more children they had” (Gilman 64). Throughout the novel, the women question foundational ideas such as poverty, government, religion, and relationships. While Van and Jeff are able to adjust and have equal relationships with their partners, Terry ultimately has them banished when he attempts to rape his partner after she refuses to have sex with him. He is thwarted as, just like in most other ways, the women are superior physically and through their communal bond, and they easily overpower him. Yet, Terry’s inability to live in partnership with the women and his desire to dominate them ultimately creates the tension for this utopian novel while repeatedly troubling ideas of US superiority. 

During the mid-1900s, the travelogue developed into fully imagined worlds in need of exploration, sometimes for resources or a new home for humanity. This development created dependence on colonial tropes and reinscribed frontier mythology. For example, in many speculative fiction stories of that era, colonies are assumed. In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? (1968), humans are emigrating to Mars. Similarly, in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), humans are living on, mining, or exploring other planets. While one could argue that the robots present in both books present commentary on colonialism, the fact they are not awarded the status of human (even by the end of these stories), sets a worrisome precedent. Even in socially aware texts, colonies on other planets are not questioned or scrutinized, such as in The Dispossessed (1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin. The reader is very aware that her main character is a colonist on a moon, but if anything, his life as a colonizer is dismissed since the moon has few resources or living beings. Indeed, Helen Young identifies this pattern in her book Race and Popular Fantasy Literature (2018): “Fantasy creates worlds structured by imperialist nostalgia. For much of its history, the Fantasy genre has avoided engaging with imperialism and colonialism¬ in any critical way, as has most Western popular culture” (12). While she is speaking of fantasy, this critique can be applied to much of speculative literature. So many of the foundational speculative tropes are rooted in racism and colonialism that more than awareness is needed. Rather, we must rethink fundamental aspects of the genre. 

This issue of “imperialist nostalgia” is evident even in novels aware of the imperial project, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965).  This novel mixes colonial expansion and monarchy with the common “gone native” plot, as Paul Atreides must hide among the Indigenous Fremen in order to survive the assassination of his royal line. The Atreides acquired the planet Dune for a natural resource called Spice, which can be turned into a drug. The drug is required for faster-than-light travel and is taken by the upper echelons of political influence. Even before the reader has met the Fremen, they are immediately fetishized, and Paul is positioned as a white savior through each chapter’s epigraphs: “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. […] To begin your study of the life of the Maud’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time. […] Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place” (Herbert 3). While Paul’s Fremen name is used, textual clues suggest that Maud’Dib is the boy Paul, named in the first chapter’s opening line. Interestingly, Dune is often mentioned as an example of environmentally-aware speculative fiction, but without environmental justice and decolonial justice, how can this novel truly engage in environmental discourse? Helen Young writes: “Western societies fetishize and commodify indigenous cultures, but histories of invasion, dehumanization of native peoples and genocide are largely buried in modern popular culture” (114). Indeed, in Dune, Paul remains squarely at the center of the story as he is adopted by the Fremen and begins to fulfill their prophecies as he learns to live in the hostile environment. Rather than explore the history of colonization for a natural resource, Herbert instead focuses on how a teenaged boy becomes the leader of an Indigenous people, sending them on an intergalactic “jihad” (Herbert 476). Indeed, at the end of the novel, Paul says: “‘The Fremen are mine. […] What they receive shall be dispensed by Maud’Dib. It’ll begin with Stilgar [a Fremen leader] as Governor on [Dune], but that can wait” (Herbert 482). Indeed, he fulfills his role as a white savior by giving back the planet but only in ways that suit him—by making the nomadic Fremen conform to a Western-esque system of government even as he leads them into a war. Ultimately, Herbert remains hegemonic in his fetishization of the Indigenous Fremen and usage of the white savior plot. 

Cover of Trail of Lightning featuring Maggie standing on a truck with a knife
Even though the past of speculative fiction is founded in the frontier mythos and colonial tropes, contemporary speculative literature is actively troubling and questioning this past. Indeed, as the previous generation of largely white, male writers are becoming less active in the community, the trajectory of the speculative genre is shifting toward imagining more equitable futures. While there is much work still to be done, Helen Young acknowledges: “Fantasy—despite, or even perhaps because of, its long reception as a genre designed to ‘serve rather than subvert the dominant ideology’—has considerable power to dig up long-buried histories of colonisation and imperialism and to challenge the assumptions on which their power structures rely by offering new perspectives. This is so despite the ongoing legacy of colonialist ideology which permeates the genre” (114). Indeed, a cohort of authors have been actively publishing books that subvert such tropes: David Anthony Durham, N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Sabrina Vourvoulias, Tananarive Due, China Miéville, Nalo Hopkinson, Stephen Graham Jones, Rebecca Roanhorse, Kai Ashante Wilson, Darcie Little Badger, Charlie Jane Anders, R. F. Kuang, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Daniel José Older, and more. When thinking particularly about troubling the frontier and colonialism, Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut Trail of Lightning (2018) presents an interesting and fun example. While often cited as an urban fantasy, I’d argue that it’s more of a weird western—except Roanhorse banishes the figure of the white cowboy. Early on, she invokes the western genre: “Tse Bonito is still more Wild West frontier town than anything else. Bunch of cowboys and Indians, although everyone’s pretty much Diné. Last time I came through here looking for a Bad Man, I ended up in a shootout that felt more like OK Corral than a monster hunt” (Roanhorse 24). While invoking the western, Roanhorse reminds the reader that not all cowboys are white. In fact, in a slick worldbuilding move, Roanhorse easily disposes of the question of white colonists all together. 

Early in the novel, the main character, Maggie, reminisces about the recent history of the land. As the climate crisis worsened, a climate event flooded much of the US, an event the Diné called “Big Water.” This climate event prompted more resource grabs and the Energy Wars, so the Diné built a wall around their lands: “The head of the [Indian] Council, his name was Deschene, wrote some article for the Navajo Times that put the fear in people, especially after the Slaughter on the Plains. Navajo people weren’t safe anymore, he said. He invoked the specter of conquest, manifest destiny. And he wasn’t wrong. The Slaughter had ushered in a heyday of energy grabs” (23). While not everyone agrees with the Wall, Maggie later narrates: “I had forgotten that the Diné had already suffered their apocalypse over a century before. This wasn’t our end. This was our rebirth. […] And the Wall took on a life of its own. When the workmen came back the next morning, it was already fifty feet high. In the east, it grew as white shell. In the south, turquoise” (23). While much of the novel is fast-paced action sequences and monster hunting, the worldbuilding is rooted in anti-colonial discourse. 

I chose Roanhorse for this brief analysis not because her novel offers the best example of undermining colonialism and the frontier mythos but because her novel is not about that, at least, not entirely. Roanhorse’s novel is first and foremost an adventure and a fast-paced read. It’s not about Indigenous pain. Indeed, because of it being a speculative fiction novel rather than literary fiction, Roanhorse can remove white people to behind a wall. Just as earlier texts so easily dismissed Indigenous people, so Roanhorse imagines away white people. In other texts, Roanhorse has more directly engaged with the legacy of colonialism,  but I argue that part of moving forward is making sure that not every text that engages with colonialism does so through pain and suffering. While frontier mythos and colonialism are linked to speculative literature’s earliest texts and still haunts the genre today, contemporary writers are demonstrating that there is more to the genre than otherizing the unknown.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland and Selected Stories. Signet Classic, 1992.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Clinton Book Company, 1965.

Roanhorse, Rebecca. Trail of Lightning. Saga Press, 2018.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale UP, 1979.

Young, Helen. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. Routledge, 2018.

Phoebe Wagner is a PhD candidate at University of Nevada, Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at phoebe-wagner.com or on Twitter @pheebs_w.