Rocky Mountain Refuge: Constructing “Colorado” in Science Fiction

Note: What appears here is the abstract of a paper for the 2010 meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association. For the full paper, follow the link to the Word document immediately below.

Colorado as Refuge

Regional identities emerge from the interaction of imaginative representations and social and economic conditions. Business boosters, novelists, television producers, song writers, and a range of other contributors to popular culture start with conditions on the ground, abstract certain elements, and construct imagined regions whose identities take on trajectories of their own

Since the early 20th century, Americans have constructed Colorado simultaneously as the nation’s most accessible western adventureland and as its refuge from the threats of the future. We find the first Colorado in such disparate sources as tourist promotion pamphlets, the post-World War II ski culture, and the songs of John Denver, all of which attempted to erase the state’s troubled industrial past to allow the creation of a new, ahistorical image. We find the second in the NORAD complex at Cheyenne Mountain and in proposals to relocate the national capital to Denver to protect it from foreign invasion.

Science fiction writers have drawn on both constructed identities—Colorado as fortress and Colorado as tabula rasa—to imagine Colorado, and the central Rocky Mountain region more generally as a frontier of isolation.

Texts include Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Leigh Brackett, The Long Tomorrow, Ursula Le Guin, City of Illusions, Stephen King, The Stand, Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle, and Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Because none of these authors had a close association with Colorado or deep experience of the central Rocky Mountain region, I argue that they were drawing on a popular sense of the area’s physical isolation and social newness to construct fictions that reiterate and reinforce that very sense of isolation.

These fictional “Colorados” stand in contrast to the construction of other western regions in speculative fiction—to a vaguely ecotopian Pacific Northwest (Ernest Callenbach, Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, David Brin) or to a dystopian southern California as depicted by science fiction writers far too numerous to list. The juxtaposition suggests the variety of roles that the American West plays in visions of the American future and the ways in which these visions draw on and reinforce distinctions among our different “frontier” regions.

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