The Lost Frontier

How fantasy is killing the space opera



The setting of post-apocalyptic fiction, a venerable genre of science fiction, is a future in which today’s technological civilization has been destroyed by some global catastrophe — nuclear war, a plague, a meteor impact, a new Ice Age. The survivors of the disaster find themselves living in the conditions of a new medievalism, or perhaps a new Stone Age. Often to survive they must battle against zombies or mutants in the ruins of once-great cities. Now and then, in post-apocalyptic tales, the primitives of the future uncover shining relics of our forgotten industrial era — a computer, perhaps, or a spaceship.

Something similar has happened to the science fiction shelf at the bookstore in the last few decades. Stories about space travel and robots and domed cities in a gleaming high-tech future have all but disappeared, while the shelves groan under the weight of multi-novel series about medieval warriors in magical kingdoms, like George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Aliens from other planets in the solar system or other solar systems are on the endangered species list. Their place in the ecosystem of the imagination has been taken by vampires, werewolves, fallen angels, and, sometimes, repressive governments.

Once, pubescent readers dreamed of being Starship Troopers, waving rayguns. Now they want to be Harry Potter with a magic wand.

The triumph of barbarism over futurism has taken place in stages. The original Star Trek television series in the 1960s celebrated modernity, enlightenment and technology. Then Star Wars in 1977 mixed up spaceships and robots with medieval princesses, wizards and New Age mysticism. By the time Game of Thrones spawned a zillion paperback clones and reached the TV screen, the spaceships and blasters were gone, replaced by sailing ships and broadswords.

Neo-medieval settings are not the only alternatives to the dying future of yesterday’s science fiction. There are also alternative histories based on the quaint technologies of the early industrial revolution (steampunk) and the Renaissance (clockpunk). Their names are variations of “cyberpunk,” which promised an earth-bound, Internet-based alternate future — until the drama of nerds banging on keyboards as they raced against time ceased to be a novel and exciting motif in movies and fiction.

What happened? How did Conan the barbarian and Dracula manage to slaughter Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock?

The answer, I think, has to do with space travel. For most of the early 20th century, science fiction was identified with the exploration and colonization of other planets and other solar systems. To be sure, there were other sub-genres, like time travel stories, tales about robots, and alternate histories. But the “rocket ship” was rightly the symbol of science fiction as a genre in the public mind.

For several generations in the 20th century it was taken for granted by leading scientists, engineers and politicians that humanity would soon explore the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, and the outer and inner planets, before launching voyages throughout the Milky Way. The American and Soviet space programs, culminating in the U.S. landings on the Moon, seemed to confirm claims that today’s science fiction was tomorrow’s science fact.

And it was. Until it wasn’t.

The Apollo program did not lead to manned missions to Mars in the 1980s and to Alpha Centauri in the 2000s. Instead, they produced the space shuttle, a white elephant, or perhaps a “space elephant.” The end of the shuttle program has left the U.S. temporarily with no way to put astronauts into orbit at all, without hitching a ride on Russian rockets. Not that there is much to do in near-earth orbit, anyway. The news media stopped covering orbiting astronauts years ago, for lack of public interest.

Ever-more sophisticated robots have explored Venus, Mars, various asteroids and comets, and landed on Saturn’s moon Titan — making it unnecessary to send human explorers, at great risk and tremendous expense.

Nowhere is there any sign of life in the solar system, beyond the earth. Venus, it turns out, is a roasting hell with a poison sky. Mars is a desert where at most some fossils of long-dead bacteria might be found. Some hold out hopes that life might exist in liquid water deep in one or another moon of Jupiter or Saturn. But it was not in hope of encountering alien algae or plankton that generations of readers read science fiction.

In hindsight, the high hopes invested in space travel and space colonization — by NASA administrators as well as by science fiction writers and movie and TV show producers and their audiences — were driven by a false analogy, between the era of European expansion and the human future. From the time of Columbus until the end of decolonization after World War II, western explorers and conquerors and settlers armed with superior technology spilled out of Europe into other regions. Sometimes they encountered populous, organized cultures which they sought to rule, as the Spanish did in Latin America and as the British did in India. At other times, as in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, European colonists and their descendants more or less wholly replaced indigenes devastated by disease or confined on reservations.

These historical events, slightly modified, supplied the plots for a lot of space-based science fiction. In the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example, the earthling hero John Carter is a kind of version of the conquistador Hernan Cortes, his beloved Martian princess Deja Thoris is an extraterrestrial Malinche, and the Martians include both Aztec types and others resembling Plains Indians.

Other tales of space flight played off of westward migration in the U.S. itself, as in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950). Bradbury’s Mars is a Southwestern state like California or Arizona or Texas. Like Okies and post-1945 migrants to the Sun Belt, in Bradbury’s fiction middle-class American emigrants, both white and black, colonize a semi-arid region from which the older inhabitants, a race of small brown people, have all but disappeared, leaving behind curious architecture like the ruins of Spanish missions in California and the Southwest.

“Space: the final frontier” began the opening quote of the original Star Trek series. The problem is that space has never really been a frontier comparable to the frontier created by Western imperial conquest and settlement. It is just a hostile natural environment, like the polar icecaps or the bottom of the ocean. Indeed, other planets and interplanetary space are environments far more hostile than any on earth. It would be much easier to colonize the bottom of the Marianas Trench or the North Pole than to build cities on the Moon or Mars. At least in the former places water and breathable air are easily accessible and your bones do not dissolve from low gravity.

For most of human history, frontiers were not places of expansion or colonization, for the simple reason that few states or civilizations possessed the overwhelming military force that Western powers and their settler-nation offshoots like the U.S. possessed for a few centuries and used to conquer slightly less-advanced civilizations or steal land from Stone Age tribes. Instead, frontiers were places where more or less equally powerful kingdoms or empires armed with similar technology glowered at each other over contested terrain.

So the shift from Star Trek to Game of Thrones may symbolize the deeper historical shift, from the era of Western expansion to the closed global system of the future in which nations and blocs, like the medieval dynasties of modern epic fantasy, clash over territory. There is no chance of escape to a pleasant and habitable but fortuitously empty new world. Instead there is only a zero-sum struggle for wealth and power on a planet on which humanity is likely forever to be stuck.

Goodbye, Captain Kirk and Mister Spock. And welcome back, Conan. •

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.