The subgenre of Romance that I call Space SF is often not really about space, or only partly about space. This point is raised again by a blog post last week by SF writer Charles Stross. [Link fixed!] Go read it, and report back for commentary and discussion.
(If anyone got a fragmentary version of this post in your RSS feed it is because I accidentally hit the 'publish' button instead of the 'save' button.)
Stross beats up on libertarianism, so I don't have to, but his core point is not political (though it does have political implications). Our vision of our space future is, first and foremost, about new worlds, inspired of course by the original New World, new at least to the Europeans who stumbled upon it 500 years ago.
This is why Firefly worked so well, even though its only nod to space realism was one silent rifle shot. It had the tropes we cherish most - the space tramp steamer, the rugged frontier worlds, the whore with a heart of gold. It even had its old fashioned hostile injuns, the Reivers, safely removed from any claim to human sympathy, the perfect anti-Na'vi. Joss Whedon stripped Space SF (or at any rate 'Murrican Space SF) down to its most basic essentials, released our inner Bat Durston, and made it fly gloriously, if alas briefly.
But the great precondition to all this is habitable frontier worlds, whether made so by nature, terraforming, or outright manufacture in the form of habs. Either of the last two demands a very high techlevel, and even if you can build ecologically self-sustaining jumbo habs they won't be 'frontier' worlds. (Unless, perhaps, as commenters on the last post have suggested, they are abandoned habs.)
The best option is natural shirtsleeves planets. For these you need interstellar travel, and even then they may be hard to come by. My own guess is that most 'Earthlike' planets, by astronomical standards - lifebearing worlds with liquid surface water - will be uninhabitable by humans, at least without major terraforming. Earth itself was not human habitable for most of its history.
There are other complications to the classical space colonization trope, even if shirtsleeves planets are at hand. Homesteading was an agrarian age phenomenon, and even by the later 19th century most immigrants to North America were coming for urban jobs, not 40 acres and a mule. Even farmers will be reluctant to settle worlds where the crops they bring in are light years from their markets. (Unless you can grow the equivalent of pepper in the 16th century, something that pays starship freight.)
In space itself, as Stross says, there is precious little room for those rugged-individualist frontier tropes. Space is just not that sort of environment, short of truly heroic tech assumptions. And there is little place in space itself for classical style colonization. Once it is technically and economically possible at all, some people will live in space simply because they want to live in space. But far more will go into space without intending to settle there, and given time some will end up living there permanently.
True space colonization, if it happens, is likely to be accidental, as transport nexus stations draw in enough secondary- and tertiary-sector activity that they evolve into towns and ultimately cities. And the tropes that belong to them will be urban tropes - perhaps, for example, hardboiled detective fiction - rather than the classical frontier tropes.
Related Posts: There are a bunch, but for now I'll link to two posts on Transport Nexi, and A Solar System For This Century.
This buffalo-rich image is of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.