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SF Subgenre Guides
Frontier Science Fiction
What is Frontier Science Fiction?
In the famous words of James T. Kirk, captain of the starship Enterprise, “Space: the final frontier,” is the phrase that comes to mind to describe this sub-genre. Indeed, the Enterprise and its crew embody the frontier spirit—exploring and discovering new things, helping where help is needed, getting out of tight situations.
A frontier can be defined as an unexplored or uninhabited place that borders what is known. It is a place that people seek to explore and inhabit. The frontier can be in space, or on another world, or Earth from an alien perspective, or even cyberspace.
Common themes and tropes of frontier fiction: adaptation to harsh environments, spirit of exploration, the blurring lines of civilization and barbarism, promise of profit, necessity of ingenuity, manifest destiny, defining a personal moral code, clash of cultures, colonialism and empire.
Other Features of Frontier Science Fiction
- Level of Real Science
Variable. Frontier Sci Fi can happen anywhere along the soft to hard sci fi spectrum.
- Level of Grand Ideas/Social Implications
High. Exploring the frontiers of space, or wherever, presents many ideas to explore. Ideas about freedom, about civilization, about morality, about imperialism. Ultimately, facing the unknown makes us examine ourselves individually and socially. There may not be a neat and tidy message at the end of the story, but Frontier Sci Fi does like to make readers reflect.
- Level of Characterization
Moderate-High. There are some stock characters that make their appearance in this sub-genre—space explorers with a cowboy mentality, the hard working asteroid miner, etc. Good and engaging characters, but stock nonetheless.
There are also truly well developed characters in Frontier Sci Fi—when a character confronts the unknown and overcomes (or not) the difficulties of a new frontier, readers get to know the character.
- Level of Plot Complexity
Moderate. At its simplest, Frontier Sci Fi is a quest story. Lots of adventure and never knowing what's around the next bend makes for an exciting story, though generally linear plot.
- Level of Violence
Variable. Venturing into the unknown brings with it all kinds of obstacles and dangers—violence seems inevitable. But, some stories are more about language or finding inventive solutions to unexpected problems, or anything because anything can happen in the unexplored regions of space.
Related Science Fiction subgenres
Space Western. An obvious parallel—both Frontier and Space Western take on elements from the Old West.
Pulp Science Fiction. Several pulp stories take place in a frontier setting and take up that old west mentality.
Colonization Science Fiction. Establishing the first colony out in space or another planet is braving the frontier.
Cross-genre. Frontier Sci Fi brings in bits of the Western genre—sometimes the whole of it and just sets it in a space frontier.
Frontier Science Fiction isn't for you if...
If you don't like adventure or stories that revisit the old Western themes.
- 1 Outland
By Peter Hyam. An homage to High Noon and mostly transplants the Western genre into space.
- 2 The Stars My Destination
By Alfred Bester. There is an expansion of the mental frontier, which has a significant effect on social structures across the solar system. There is conflict between inner and outer planets. The main character is an asteroid miner.
- 3 The Martian Chronicles
By Ray Bradbury. A chronology of the human colonization of Mars, after fleeing an atomically devastated Earth, including the conflicts between humans and the native Martians.
- 4 Downbelow Station
By C.J. Cherryh. Set on a space station at the edge of the frontier that's no longer supported by Earth.
- 5 Embassaytown
By China Mieville. Set on a small colony on a civilized alien planet—this story is mostly about language.
- 6 Farmer in the Sky
By Robert A. Heinlein. A small family leaves an overpopulated Earth to start a new life as colonist-farmers on the third moon of Jupiter.
- 7 Grand Tour
By Ben Bova This series features lots of exploration and economically motivated expansion into the solar system.
- 8 Fury
By Henry Kuttner. Humanity has fled Earth and now lives in caverns beneath the surface of Venus—but the humans are stagnating. One, unpopular solution, is to colonize the Venetian surface.
- 9 Alien Dust
By E.C. Tubb. A chronology of humanity's first attempt to colonize Mars—a story of adversity.
- 10 Neuromancer
By William Gibson. In this book, and its sequels, cyberspace is a place to explore and inhabit—indeed the protagonist does end up living his life there.