- Future West: Utopia and Apocalypse in Frontier Science Fiction
Kansas has become the current launching point for studies of speculative future frontiers, whether on this planet or in the larger universe. Following trails blazed anew by Carl Abbott in Frontiers Past and Future: Science Fiction and the American West (2006), William H. Katerberg's Future West: Utopia and Apocalypse in Frontier Science Fiction extends analysis of the West's future into the closely linked, often overlapping, realms of utopias, dystopias, critical utopias, and postapocalyptic frontiers.
Though his review of previous scholarship is less thorough than Abbott's, and his organization is often difficult to track, Katerberg provides lively, provocative interpretations of a wide-ranging selection of texts. He begins with an analysis of classic western figures such as Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill Cody, exploring formulations of frontier mythology at the end of the nineteenth century. Subsequent chapters explore widely divergent adaptations of frontier traditions to project apocalyptic disaster and utopian dreams. In Chapter 3, we begin with Francis Fukuyama's implicitly utopian reflections about "The End of History" as a template within which to explore Douglas Copeland's ironic [End Page 198] novels set in the contemporary West, which Katerberg describes as "rewriting regional narratives to suit a West that is not just postfrontier but also postindustrial and postmodern," a West "not at the beginning of history but at the end of an era" (42). Thus, traditional western stories projecting the promise of a New World have now become vehicles for sardonic descants about the New World becoming Old, yet often reinvigorated in radically new dreams of utopia rising from the wastelands.
Such visions of apocalypse and rebirth vary dramatically with the cultural and political worldviews of different authors, of course, resulting in conflicting visions of the American Dream projected into the future. "Return to Nature," for instance, explores racist utopias in which traditional tropes about regeneration through wilderness violence usher in white supremacist societies purified through cleansing genocides of race war. By contrast, in the subsequent chapter, "Legacies of Hope," we witness Leslie Marmon Silko's visions of European American culture disintegrating as the return of spiritual forces, prophesied in Native American cultures, ushers in a new era.
Subsequent chapters examine texts ranging from classic science fiction to near-future "critical utopias" to new, high-tech frontiers opened up by computers and nanotechnology. Among these are Ernest Callenbach's visions of a new ecologically based country of Ecotopia in the Northwest, and Kim Stanley Robinson's novels set in a futuristic, bittersweet Orange Country ("OC") in which orange groves are nostalgic images from a buried past. A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), the classic science fiction novel set in the postapocalyptic new Dark Age of the Utah desert, also falls into this category. And finally, there are fascinating and foreboding high-tech cyberpunk scenarios exploring new frontiers in the virtual realties of cyberspace, and cyborg futures in which the self itself becomes a New World shaped by utopian dreams, nanotechnology, and biological engineering, often with appalling results.
Discussing such a broad range of material requires a flexible interdisciplinary point of view, and Katerberg succeeds in providing illuminating perspectives from which to view wildly different terrains. In his conclusion, he observes, "I have mixed the language of politics, utopia, and redemption," and indeed his sensitivity to the multi-dimensional reverberations of these texts deepens his commentary (214). Utopias have always dramatized competing political ideals, but Katerberg is right to emphasize that most fundamentally, they present a "politics of emancipation and redemption," mirroring our deepest despair and our abiding yearning for secular and even spiritual salvation (217). [End Page 199]