Frontiers Past and Future
Science Fiction and the American West
Caroline Bancroft Prize Honor Book
Will the settlement of Mars prove much different from the settlement of the West? Look to science fiction master Kim Stanley Robinson for fascinating ideas; then turn to historian Carl Abbott for further insights.
“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.”
—Science Fiction Studies
“Abbott has combined a life-long passion for science fiction with his acknowledged skills as an interpreter of the American West. At its core, this gracefully written monograph examines how the shifting views of the myth of the West have helped shape American science fiction writing from roughly the 1940s to the present day.”
—Pacific Historical ReviewSee all reviews...
“This book demonstrates how science fiction and western history have both accepted and challenged the frontier myth. A fundamentally interdisciplinary study, this work serves as an excellent introduction to both science fiction and Western historical writing. . . . As the New Western History revises our understanding of the frontier to supply a productive and valued past, so science fiction, by reimagining this West on the space frontier, becomes a medium through which narratives of democratic community displace the hierarchies required by stories of imperial conquest. Abbott locates a future ‘critical citizenship’ in this productive interchange of ideas and narratives.”
—American Historical Review
“An erudite, lively, and instructive book. It will be read with pleasure by those interested in science fiction, the West, or America’s fantasy life as it engages with our history and general culture.”
—Western Historical Quarterly
“Abbott is conversant with a broad range of writing about both the West and science fiction, and he succeeds admirably in orchestrating a meaningful and often witty dialogue between the two traditions. . . . Artfully weaving connections between history and fiction, cultural theory and aesthetics, this book should provide food for thought to anyone interested in genuinely interdisciplinary studies.”
—Western American Literature
“Abbott has assembled a valuable archive of science fiction literature that engages with the imagination of the American West; each chapter clearly marks two or three dominant trends in fiction that address a particular aspect of the West, and thereby establish a useful taxonomy of the wealth of material Abbott addresses. For the science fiction novice in particular, this survey will prove engaging and functional.”
—Oregon Historical Quarterly
“Scholars of both history and science fiction will find abundant discussion of benchmark literature, and Abbott’s writing is highly accessible for the reader-enthusiast as well.”
—History: Reviews of New Books
“The great pleasure of reading this book comes from the unexpected new sense of depth that Abbott gives to his subjects by reading them off each other, in the same way two images in a stereopticon suddenly give the mind a third dimension.”
—Kim Stanley Robinson, author of The Mars Trilogy
“Abbott boldly goes where no western historian has gone before. . . . A dazzling book that ponders the past and projects possibilities in ways that illuminate the present.”
—Stephen Aron, author of How the West Was Lost and Executive Director, Institute for the Study of the American West, Autry National Center
“Carl Abbott has written a broad, erudite, and entertaining survey of how the West and the Future intersect in fiction, and a thought-provoking study of the interplay of genre, region, and history.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Earthsea CycleSee fewer reviews...
Over the last half-century, science fiction has witnessed increasing complexity in its treatments of future homesteading, community building, mining, and other themes familiar to western historians. Considering these common threads, this is the first book to explore the ways that science fiction writers have drawn directly on narratives of the American West to frame their visions of the future.
Abbott offers a fruitful new way to read science fiction, one that also greatly enriches our understanding of western history and its impact on our collective imagination. Detailing the overlap of science fiction and western fiction—especially relating to their mutual interest in and concerns about frontier expansionism—he reveals an unsuspected common ground that informs the writings of both camps.
Reviewing the work of many Hugo and Nebula Award winners, as well as drawing upon popular film and television series (like the Buck Rogers serials), Abbott's study journeys across the far reaches of science fiction's universe. His cast of notables ranges from venerable masters like Robert Heinlein and Fritz Lieber to new-wave feminist Ursula Le Guin and cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson; their settings are as diverse as the near-future West of Octavia Butler and the entrancing extraterrestrial visions of Pamela Sargent, Jonathan Lethem, and C. J. Cherryh.
Both enlightening and energizing, Abbott’s study deftly shows us how the ways we remember the past greatly influence our ability to imagine multiple futures—in distant universes that appear very strange and yet utterly familiar. Frontiers Past and Future boldly goes where no historian has gone before and rewards us with new insights into our probable pasts and possible futures.