I am an avid reader of this genre and have often pondered what is it exactly that keeps me coming back again and again
Frontier fiction often features themes of rugged individualism and self-determination.
The can-do aspect of this genre definitely appeals to me, the excellence of the authors keeps me coming back, but it seems there is a grander theme than the “man versus the environment” trope.
This theme treats the fictional west (and in some cases the real west) as a sort of crucible for civilization. These stories (and the history), at their best, tell tales of individuals going forth into a wilderness where there is little to no civilization and thus the only civilization they encounter is what they carry around inside their skulls. It now strikes me as obvious that I am fascinated by tales (Fiction and Non-Fiction) of what people do when there is nothing else in the way to induce them to be true to anything but themselves, or what they choose to remain in fealty to when there is no onus to do so.
In this sense the West becomes a proving ground [or dying ground] for beliefs; what will or can remain once the rubber of reality hits the road. Man’s idealized sense of “Something” that resides in his head meets searing indifferent Nature.
What remains always intrigues me.
An argument could be made that good science-fiction that occurs on the edges of civilization does this very same thing. It is no accident that Gene Roddenberry pitched “Star Trek” as “Wagon Train” to the Stars.
This crucible of “what remains” when there is no onus to comply, or when baldly confronted with the realness of unforgiving landscapes or “outlaw” cultures is rife with libertarian introspection. What would we do, who would we be if we had the courage, the inclination to untether ourselves from the trappings of our culture and only keep in our kitbags what seemed absolutely integral to us, to us in the personal sense not in the received wisdom sense.
I find the best fiction in this genre, sets me back on my heels, makes me question what really matters. What I would do in the boots, moccasins, and bare feet of the men and women I encounter on the page?
This sort of introspection is key to good fiction to my way of thinking. It calls to mind the words of the scholar and critic, F. L. Lucas.
"Much of our criticism, obsessed with pleasure-values and blind to influence-values, seems to me frivolously irresponsible towards the vital effect of books in making their readers saner or sillier, more balanced or more un-balanced, more civilized or more barbarian."
That's mighty on the nose for me. The best this genre offers often makes me want to be a better man, to reach further, to walk further, to work harder, to wonder what's over that hill.
If you’ve read this far and are piqued then perhaps you'll find a few useful observations here and there.