March is here, and that means it is time to move into a new Crossroads series. For some reason, March always brings to mind melting snow, spring’s inexorable creep across the plains, cold mountains withstanding the coming warmth. In other words, March puts me in a western frame of mind. Which is why this month, I’m going to be exploring the relationship between westerns and speculative fiction.
As always, I am indebted to many other scholars and writers, who have done painstaking research from which I have benefited greatly. I’d like to particularly thank Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr for their Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western, JoEllen Shively for her viewer response research on Western cinema, Paul K. Alkon for Science Fiction Before 1900 and Brooks Landon for Science Fiction After 1900. If I’ve made any big missteps in my analysis, they are entirely my own.
Shared Roots of Popularity
As you can probably tell, I love books. I love reading. And I love reading in all kinds of genres, although my heart is firmly wedded to speculative fiction. But to really explore the relationship between the western genre and speculative fiction, I’m afraid books are only part of the story. Film and television – and the immense popularity of the western on the big and small screens – has had as much or more influence on speculative fiction as western print has.
The western has always been a multimedia genre: back in the late 19th century, dime novels took off featuring the adventures of Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickock, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, and other colorful – historical! – personages of the frontier. At the same time, some of these individuals (notably, Buffalo Bill Cody and to a lesser degree Wild Bill Hickock) tried to capitalize on their new-found notoriety by taking to the stage.
Why were western stories – whether on paper, or on the stage, or later in silent movies – so popular? Yes, they were entertaining, accessible, and (most importantly) cheap, yet even three such powerful reasons cannot fully explain the degree of the genre’s popularity. I think the real reason is because the metaphors, symbols, and plot structures of the genre enabled an audience traumatized by the Civil War to construct a new mythology, a new framework for personal values divorced from the ethical debates that had gripped the nation so violently for so long. By tapping into the manifest destiny ethos, the western genre enabled both southerners and northerners to share a common set of values, to identify with the same heroes, and to regain a sense of optimism however tinged by shadow and blood.
The same yearning for optimism, the same manifest destiny ethos, lies at the heart of much speculative fiction (science fiction in particular). Exploration, the taming of a foreign and dangerous environment, is a common theme in both the western and speculative fiction. What, after all, are Ray Bradbury’s Mars (The Martian Chronicles), James Blish’s Lithia (A Case of Conscience), or Robert A. Heinlein’s alternate future (Farnham’s Freehold) if not frontiers to
conquer subjugate explore?
Western DNA in Speculative Fiction
The western hero – the loner separated from family, friendship, and community yet possessing an unswerving moral code independent and superseding any civil law – stands (or rides) at the heart of the western’s appeal, whether in print (e.g. Ned Buntline’s Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men, Owen Wister’s The Virginian, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, Max Brand’s Destry Rides Again, Jack Schaefer’s Shane, Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove, etc.), on film (e.g. Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, or Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained), or on television (e.g. The Lone Ranger, Lonesome Dove, Bonanza, etc.).
This heroic archetype translates seamlessly to speculative fiction, and has throughout that genre’s history. We can see juvenile versions of the western hero wedded to the science fictional scientist-hero in the dime novel Edisonades of Harry Cohen and Luis Senarens (i.e. the Frank Reade and Frank Reade Jr. stories), more mature versions transplanted out of the western environment in the pulp fantasies of Robert E. Howard (particularly in the Conan and Solomon Kane stories), or futuristic versions on screen (e.g. Han Solo in Star Wars, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly, etc.). Next week, we’ll take an in-depth look at this archetype, and the ways that both science fiction and fantasy explore it.
Yet the western hero and the good guy/bad guy plot conventions that accompany him are not the only feature shared by the western and speculative fiction: world-building and the Other are just as important.
Most western readers never set foot in the frontier, even when it still existed. As a result, the environment and the social mores/conventions that applied there were and remain as foreign as those of an alien planet. This creates an analogous challenge for the western author as for the speculative fiction author: to communicate an environment that is believable, palpable, and evocative. Westerns need just as much world-building as speculative fiction, however their approach to this challenge is often very different. As I’ll get into two weeks from now, I think speculative fiction writers can learn something from the evocative way in which western writers construct their environments.
Of course, a big part of those environments are the people we meet there. Westerns explore the Other to the same degree as speculative fiction does, however rather than present the Other as aliens/fairies/other species, they instead portray them as American Indians (e.g. in Michael Blake’s Dances with Wolves), as Mormons (e.g. in Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage), as Mexicans (e.g. in Two Mules For Sister Sara), etc. In still other cases, westerns explore the other by contrasting different generations of frontiersmen (e.g. the conflict between homesteaders and earlier pioneers in Shane).
Westerns as a Commercial Model for Speculative Fiction?
Yet the creative similarities between westerns and speculative fiction may ultimately be less important than their commercial similarities. As film technology improved, early directors were able to bring the western genre to life on the silver screen. It was far easier to do so with cowboys than with contemporary steam-powered automatons.
The commercial path of the western genre saw film and television eclipse the printed form, and ultimately lead to an over-saturation in the marketplace which damaged sales of western genre novels. Today, the western section in our local bookstores are either tiny or nonexistent. Yet a hundred years ago, the western was the largest genre in print.
As we look at our multimedia landscape today, we find it saturated with speculative fiction. Whether we’re talking about films, video games, or television, our media consumption is saturated with speculative themes and devices. Will this one day lead to the type of over-saturation that preceded the western’s decline? Or is speculative fiction protected against this by its thematic breadth?
I don’t know if we’ll find an answer in the coming weeks, but I’m looking forward to exploring it with you. Next week, we’ll be diving into that core of the western genre: the western hero. ‘Til then, what are your favorite westerns and how do they relate to your favorite SFnal stories?
Hi-yo, Silver! Away!