The Galapagos Frontier Thesis

If you’ve ever taken a history class, you know about the Turner Frontier Thesis

If you’ve ever read a classic science fiction novel, you know about the Turner Frontier Thesis.

The Significance of the Frontier in American History has been called “the single most influential piece of writing in the history of American history,” but its author, Frederick Jackson Turner, has been unjustly forgotten. Or deliberately shovelled under? Alas, poor Frederick. The usual suspects (Wikipedia et al.) are strangely light on details about him. Nevertheless, his career-making concept is still embedded in our minds and our genre:

American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.

The westward expansion of American life is the template for roughly 71% of all science fiction(1). Some striking examples from my own recent reading are the Commonwealth Saga of Peter F. Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds’s new novel (first in a trilogy), Blue Remembered Earth. Both authors are British but that just goes to prove the power of Turner’s idea.

Interestingly, the Turner Frontier Thesis also pops up in a lot of fantasy! Robin Hobb’s most recent saga, The Rainwilds Chronicles, leans heavily on the suspense of an expedition into the unknown interior of a continent. Her Soldier Son Trilogy offers such straightforward parallels with the American pioneer experience that they hardly need pointing out, while Orson Scott Card’s entire fantasy oeuvre partakes of pioneer culture.

On the other side of the Pacific, Japan has its own pioneer history. Hokkaido, the northernmost of the “home islands,” was not always a part of Japan. It and its native Ainu people were subdued piecemeal during the medieval period but the development of this vast northern territory really took off after the Meiji Restoration. The expansion of the Japanese people (wajin) throughout the island was termed ‘colonization’ at the time, but the period is now known as the ‘opening up of Hokkaido’ and the immigrants are often referred to as pioneers.

This experience has left no mark on Japanese culture comparable to the formative effect of the corresponding (and almost contemporaneous) American period–maybe it’s simply been blotted out by Japan’s later, ill-fated colonial experiments. Both Japanese and American pioneers needed grit and steel to survive, and both took part in the violent squashing of native peoples. In Hokkaido prisoners and, later, press-ganged unfortunates were used for labor. The bones of these poor men have been found walled up in concrete in Hokkaido’s Jomon Tunnel, having been buried as human sacrifices as late as 1900. Their ghosts are still seen today.

Since then–since the war–the history of Hokkaido has been rewritten as a sort of knock-off version of the American pioneer story–more Little House in the Big Woods than Little House on the Prairie. Typical tourist attractions are dairy farms and, inexplicably, wonderfully, lavender fields. Some farms have animals and lavender. Driving across the wide open spaces of the island, so different from the cramped volcanic topography of Honshu, you do get a feeling that you’ve “lit out for the Territory.”

But the ghosts are still there and they come to life, chillingly, in Haruki Murakami’s novel A Wild Sheep Chase. A braincurdling blend of ghost story, mystery, and sub-arctic blues, A Wild Sheep Chase locates the id itself in Hokkaido. The scenes with the ghost of the Rat remind me of the scenes in Earthsea where Ged finally catches up with his shadow. Literally haunting stuff. This is one of Murakami’s best novels, and Alfred Birnbaum’s English translation is a joy. If you haven’t read it, go get it.

It was after rereading A Wild Sheep Chase that I realized the Turner Frontier Thesis does apply to Japan. But you have to juggle with it a bit:

Japanese development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. Japanese social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This gravitational pull, this fluidity of Japanese life, this intimacy with the dead, its continuous reminder of the malevolence inherent in the spirit world, furnish the forces dominating Japanese character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not that of the living man, it is that of the ghost.

Am I just being a cleverclogs here? Yeah, a bit. But the frontier between life and death really does feel closer in Japan than in the States. It runs right through my neighborhood, where hundreds of people were burnt to death or drowned in the canals during the firebombing of Tokyo. There’s one little narrow alley, in the shadow of an international financial institution’s think tank building, which is guarded by stone foxes and where no one ever, ever goes. This hauntedness, the homage of fear paid to history’s human sacrifices, is missing from America’s memory of its own colonial era. Thus American science fiction and fantasy reflect a thoughtless faith in the power of lip service to diversity as a historical pabulum, while Japanese speculative fiction rushes forever down a tunnel full of ghosts, colliding again and again with the unburied past.


1. Rough guess.

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  1. Felicity – I found you post absolutely fascinating, giving me a real insight into something I knew nothing about. I have a copy of A Wild Sheep Chase somewhere, and now it is on my priority reading list. (Which only includes about 30 books at any one time, as opposed to the hundreds of unread volumes on my shelves).

    I would suggest that Hamilton and Reynolds may be inspired by the UK's own not inconsiderable colonial past, or equally they may be writing what sells in the much larger US market. The two are not mutually exclusive. The New Wave of British Space Opera (of which both authors are a part, following in the wake of Iain M. Banks and Stephen Baxter) was itself a reaction to both US space opera and to the smaller scale introspective British SF of the 1970's and early Interzone period. Goodbye inner-space, hello widescreen outer-space!

    I would be interested in your thoughts on David Mitchell's work (especially Ghostwritten, number 9 dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) once an Englishman in Japan, now an Englishman in Ireland with a Japanese wife. Only one of those books is strictly Fantasy, but all have the sense of the fantastical.

    1. Gary, I'm delighted that I inspired you to move A Wild Sheep Chase up the TBR pile! It really is a haunting work, pun intended.

      You may well be right about Hamilton and Reynolds, building on Alastair's comments about the British colonial experience. I would like to hear more of your thoughts about the British New Wave of space opera as I still haven't defined it satisfactorily for myself!

      David Mitchell, hmm. He's wildly talented, as proved by the fact that he accomplished the feat of writing a first novel (Number 9 Dream) that was definitely speculative, as you say, and then went on to become a "literary" writer. But I actually found 1000 Autumns to be a bit too Orientalist for my taste … and the problem there was precisely the fantastical element! Don't want to spoil the plot in public but if you've read it you know what I mean (what the monks and nuns get up to).

  2. That's fascinating that the British perspective is so different, Alastair! I went to primary school in the UK, too, but do not recall learning anything about the USA at all 🙂 So my impressions of US history, like yours, come from secondary school on up in the States. And what a chronicle of blood, tears, trouble, and oppression it was. By contrast, when I asked my (Japanese) husband what he had learned in school about Hokkaido, the answer was "That it had no history until recently." Does America have a unique guilt complex about its colonial past, I wonder?

  3. Thanks for posting about the situation in Hokkaido, Felicity. I had never heard of that before, not knowing much about Japan.

    I'm not sure though that the Western expansion into the interior of America alone is the basis of a lot of science-fiction. From a British perspective, it was just one part of a repeated process of exploration, conquest and devastation, which also occurred in Africa, Australia and other countries. Having gone to school in the US and the UK though, I know where you're coming from. In my Middle School in Pennsylvania, a huge part of our history lessons focused on the spread of the USA across the interior, with all the bloodshed and misery that that entailed. In British schools, we never looked at that at all.

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