It’s common knowledge that the Old World of Europe, Asia, and Africa truly met the New World of the Americas in 1492, when Columbus landed in the Caribbean. Of course, we now know that there was contact before that, such as the Vikings in Newfoundland, about a thousand years ago. But Columbus and those who followed him—Cortés, Pizarro, de Soto, Cabot, and all those other explorers and conquerors Americans learn about in history class—those were ones who truly made lasting contact between the two shores of the Atlantic.
Entire volumes have been written over the last five centuries about the exploration, the conquest, the invasion of the Americas. There’s no need to repeat any of it here. But the subject of the New World is one doesn’t seem to get a lot of exposure in the world of fiction, with the notable exception of science fiction. And I think that’s a shame, because it’s an awfully interesting topic for a story. It’s full of adventure, of gaining knowledge, of conflict and warfare. Especially for American writers (not limited to the United States, but all of North and South America), it’s writing about the legacy we inherited, and it’s odd that we would rather tell stories about the history of the other side of the ocean.
Written by the victors
Of course, one of the main reasons why we don’t write many stories about exploration and colonization is political. We know a lot about the Spaniards and Englishmen and Frenchmen that discovered (using that term loosely) the lands of America. We have written histories of those first conquistadors, of those that came after, and of the later generations that settled in the new lands. We don’t, however, have much of anything from the other side.
A lot of that is due to the way first contact played out. We all know the story. Columbus discovered his Indians (to use his own term), Cortés played them against each other to conquer them, and smallpox decimated them. Those that survived were in no position to tell their tale. Most of them didn’t have a familiar system of writing; most of those written works that did exist were destroyed. And then came centuries of subjugation. Put that all together, and it’s no wonder why we only have one side of the tale of the New World.
But this already suggests story possibilities. We could write from one point of view or the other (or both, for that matter), setting our tale in the time of first contact or shortly after, in the upheaval that followed. This is quite popular in science fiction, where the “New World” is really a whole new world, a planet that was inhabited when we arrived. That’s the premise of Avatar, for example.
Life of a colony
Colonization has existed for millennia, but it’s only since 1492 that it becomes such a central part of world history. The Europeans that moved into the Americas found it filled with wonders and dangers. For the Spanish, the chief problem—aside from the natives—was the climate, as Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean mostly fall into the tropical belt, far removed from mid-latitude Spain.
The English had it a little better; the east coast of the United States isn’t all that different from England, except that the winters can be harsher. (This was even more the case a few hundred years ago, in the depths of the Little Ice Age.) It’s certainly easier to go from York to New York than Madrid to Managua.
No matter the climate, though, colonists had to adapt. Especially in those times, when a resupply voyage was a long and perilous journey, they had to learn to live off the land. And they did. They learned about the new plants (corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and many more) and animals (bison and llamas, to name the biggest examples), they mapped out river systems and mountain chains. And we have reaped the benefits ever since.
Building a colony can be fun in an interactive setting; Colonization wouldn’t exist otherwise. For a novel or visual work, it’s a little harder to make work, because the idea is that a colony starts out exciting and new, but it needs to become routine. Obviously, if it doesn’t, then that’s a place where we can find a story. Paul Kearney’s Monarchies of God is a great series that has a “settling new lands” sequence. In the science fiction realm of colonizing outer space, you also have such works as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (and its colorful sequels).
Whenever people moved into new land, there was always the possibility that they were the first ones there. It happened about 20,000 years ago in Alaska, about 50,000 in Australia, and less than 1,000 in Hawaii. Even in the Old World, there were firsts, sometimes even in recorded history. Iceland, for example, was uninhabited all the way through Roman times. And in space, everywhere is a first, at least until we find evidence of alien life.
Settling “no man’s land” is different from settling in land that’s already inhabited, and that would show in a story with that setting. There are no outsiders to worry about. All conflict is either internal to the colonists’ population or environmental. That makes for a harder story to write, I think, but one more suited to character drama and the extended nature of books and TV series. It doesn’t have to be entirely without action, though, but something like a natural disaster would be more likely than war.
This is one place where we can—must—draw the distinction between space-based sci-fi and earthly fiction or fantasy. On earth (or a similar fictitious world), we’re not alone. There are animals, plants, pests everywhere we go. We have sources of food and water, but also of disease. In deep space, such as a story about colonizing the asteroid belt, there’s nothing out there. Nothing living, at least. Settlers would have to bring their own food, their own water, their own shelter. They would need to create a closed, controlled ecosystem. But that doesn’t leave much room for the “outside” work of exploration, except as a secondary plot.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I could read an entire book about nothing but the early days of a fictional colony, whether in the Americas or on an alien planet. I’ll also admit that I’m not your average reader. Most people want some sort of action, some drama, some reason for being there in the first place. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But let’s look at that question. Why does the colony exist at all? The Europeans were looking for wealth at first, with things like religious freedom and manifest destiny coming later on. The exploration of space appears to be headed down the same path, with commercial concerns taking center stage, though pure science is another competitor. Even simple living space can be a reason to venture forth. That seems to be the case for the Vikings, and plenty of futuristic stories posit a horribly overcrowded Earth and the need to claim the stars.
Once you have a reason for having a colonial settlement, then you can turn to its nature. The English made villages and towns, the French trading posts. Antarctica isn’t actually settled—by international agreement, it can’t be—but the scientific outposts there point to another possibility. If there are preexisting settlements, like native cities, then there’s the chance that the colonists might move in to one of them instead of setting up their own place. That’s basically what happened to Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City.
Colonies are interesting, both in real history and in fiction. They can work as settings in many different genres, including space opera, fantasy, steampunk (especially the settling of the Wild West), and even mystery (we still don’t know what really happened at Roanoke Island). Even just a colonial backdrop can add flavor to a story, giving it an outside pressure, whether by restless natives or the cold emptiness of space. A colony is an island, in a sense, an island in a sea of hostility, fertile ground for one’s imagination.