To Boldly Go ~ Space and the American Frontier

“Science fiction is not prescriptive; it is descriptive.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

First, a confession: I have not read the work I am quoting. (Not from lack of trying, I will have you know. I have been on the waiting list at TWO libraries for FIVE WEEKS.) However, it was so apt for my topic of conversation today that I decided to use it anyway.

Like the majority of things American, Americans did not invent sci-fi; they simply made it their own. And what genre is more relevant to a young nation that still has a frontier than that which explores ‘the final frontier’? (If you don’t believe me about our frontier, tell me about what happens twenty miles from the interstates in the west.)

And why should America not adopt science fiction? It unites the optimism of those who still think they can change the world (Edgar Rice Burroughs; Star Trek; Star Wars the original trilogy; The Foundation series by Asimov) with the pessimism of those who have seen just how awful the world really is (Frank Herbert; Ender’s Game; Star Wars the prequels; anything by Robert Heinlein.) There is no better subject for a nation born from “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” AND from “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations.”

And America started as a tiny nation with no shield between it and the vastness of the frontier. Sadly, as it encountered those living in that frontier, it did not learn from those “repeated injuries and usurpations.” America has been both sides: the evil empire and the plucky rebels, sometimes within its own borders (allow me to direct your attention to McCarthyism and the Civil Rights Movement, for two non-controversial examples.)

America has no mythic past into which it may gaze to find its flaws–no Charlemagne or Arthur. Instead, America looks to the future to find its flaws–or to the past of a galaxy far away.

Science fiction does tell us what we ought to do (or at least, the best science fiction does not.) It shows us who we are, and allows us to draw our own conclusions.


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