This column in my series Cognitive Mapping first appeared in Vector 218 (July-August 2001).
Away, away with all these cobweb tissues of rights of discovery, exploration, settlement, contiguity, etc… The American claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative self-government entrusted to us. It is a right such as that of the tree to the space of air and earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny and growth… It is in our future far more than in our past or in the past history of Spanish exploration … that our True Title is found.
New York Morning News (l844)
Space, the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship ‘Enterprise’. Its five-year mission: to seek out new worlds and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Star Trek (1966-69)
John O’Sullivan’s editorial in the New York Morning News came at a time when American immigrants to the Mexican province of Texas were clamouring for self-government. Like many expansionists of the time, O’Sullivan supported their claim, and in so doing he gave America a new slogan: ‘Manifest Destiny’. The past was irrelevant, in this new nation the future was a strong enough title for any territorial claim they might choose to make. It was Manifest Destiny that, in the decades after the Civil War, white Americans should spread across the plains, dispossessing the Indians. It was Manifest Destiny that America should involve itself in wars from Cuba to Vietnam to Iraq, should subvert governments and prop up regimes throughout South and Central America in defence of Mom, apple pie and the American Way. It was Manifest Destiny that has informed so much of American popular culture, from the dime novel of the Old West to the modern Hollywood blockbuster, in which a lone (usually white) hero saves the world and the girl from the villains. Those villains might be variously Red Indians, wily Chinese, Nazis, Communists or, these days, Islamic terrorists; their one unifying characteristic is that they are non-American and (often) non-white.
In the 1920s and 1930s, when first Hugo Gernsback and later John W. Campbell were transforming the young science fiction into a predominantly American literature (a position that wouldn’t even begin to be challenged until the 1960s), it was perhaps inevitable that the future should be American. When early space operas were casually dismissed as ‘cowboys and indians in space’, it was in fact an accurate description as pesky aliens were cleared from the spaceways that were the manifest destiny for mankind’s expansion into space. E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith epitomised this expansionist urge, this confident, optimistic notion that the future belongs to us, that right is inevitably on the side of humans, in his series of Skylark in Space (1946-1966) and Lensman (1948-1960) novels. It is notable that his aliens were always the enemy or the sidekick, and though they were meant to represent the whole of humanity Kimbal Kinnison and his cronies were almost invariably white, male, and American in everything but name.
But even the more sophisticated writers who emerged on either side of the Second World War tended to infuse their stories with much the same attitude. America had, after all, just won the war and was busy propping up the old European powers; such confidence was clearly well placed. Robert A. Heinlein’s competent heroes, for instance, were almost without exception male, and the shock of discovering half way through Starship Troopers (1959) that the hero is not white is not simply due to the fact that there had been no prominent non-white protagonist in science fiction before that date, but also to the fact that up to that point and beyond he was a statesman for the attitudes and interests of white, middle-class America.
Attitudes began to change during the 1960s. Growing opposition to the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, improved global communications, a new affluence that allowed more people to travel abroad, even the space race, all allowed particularly the younger generation to see the world no more as exclusively white and American. Nevertheless, that underlying sense of Manifest Destiny persisted in much American science fiction, even in that representative of contemporary youth attitudes, Star Trek. Star Trek was a translation of space opera directly to television, and brought many traditions with it. Despite the studied mix of race and sex and ethnic background that populated the Enterprise, they were an Americanised crew, nothing of the culture of Russia or Japan or Scotland actually affected their actions or their speech. They were there to represent the interests of the Federation, a latter-day continuation of O’Sullivan’s ‘great experiment of liberty and federative self-government’. Moreover, the heritage of Manifest Destiny was clearly there in those famous opening words — ‘Space, the Final Frontier’ — which consciously compared the adventures of the Enterprise with the opening up of the American West. (It is probably no coincidence that at the time Star Trek was made the American networks were inundated with Westerns; promoting this space opera as cowboys and indians in space was clearly designed to appeal to the audience.)
The challenge to Manifest Destiny and to American dominance of science fiction came at the same time. First the British New Wave dared to suggest that the future may not belong to us, a nonconfident stance that opened it to the familiar charge of pessimism. This was taken up by a new generation of American writers sympathetic to the liberal and humanistic mood of the times, such as Thomas M. Disch who, in stories like ‘White Fang Goes Dingo’ (1965) and The Genocides (1965), showed that humans may not be inherently superior. Later, feminist writers presented the idea that the competent hero need not necessarily be male, or even, come to that, white or American. The (black, female) American writer Octavia Butler, for instance, presented a tale of alien contact in her Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89) in which the future clearly belongs to anyone but us.
Such challenges to the confident, outward-looking stance of American science fiction didn’t entirely win the day, of course. The cyberpunks claimed a new internationalism for their brand of post-New Wave, post-feminist science fiction in which America was often presented in decline and Pacific Rim countries, notably Japan, were shown to be the coming world order. Nevertheless, it is significant that in a typical story, ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ (1983) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, the Russian cosmonaut has to be rescued by the Americans.
Those who follow a more traditionalist route in science fiction have never wavered from the path of Manifest Destiny. David Brin in his Uplift series (1980-), for instance, presents a scenario in which races are ‘uplifted’ to interstellar civilisation by other races which serve as a sort of sponsor. But the upstart humans have just gone ahead and uplifted themselves, their competence, their right, their manifest destiny among the stars not in need of help from any alien race. Indeed, a supreme example of Manifest Destiny in science fiction is presented in the film Independence Day (1996) in which not only do the Americans present the only credible opposition to the aliens, gracefully taking on the role of saviours of the world, but one American armed only with an Apple Powerbook is able to defeat the aliens who are clearly technologically far advanced over humankind. Of course, they have the inescapable weakness of being alien, they could not possibly stand in the way of our Manifest Destiny.