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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.

Popular Frontier Science Fiction Books
  • 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.