Crossroads: World-building in Westerns and Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction gives my imagination space to play. Whether it’s a strange, fascinating city, an entire alien world, or a different time/reality, the genre’s ability to transport offers both escapist entertainment and the insight into our own existence that only a skewed perspective can provide.

This capacity isn’t unique to speculative fiction. Even the most “realistic” and “mainstream” novel still has to establish the rules and conventions that frame its characters. It is easy for speculative fiction fans to sniff at the world-building in “realistic” fiction: to make dragons or aliens both believable and compelling, some might think, is a far harder challenge than to make “reality” believable. After all, we already inhabit reality, so we’re predisposed to find it plausible.

I call bullshit. Reading a story about characters who resemble us exactly in every way would be about as entertaining as watching ourselves in a video camera feed. While it might offer a momentary smirk of vain pleasure, it would quickly grow painfully dull. And though character and world-building aren’t the same, characters are shaped by the world they inhabit, and in turn shape our perception of that world. This relationship is, I think, critical to the ways in which the western genre uses world-building, and leads to important insights about speculative fiction’s own world-building tendencies.

What Goes into a World: World-building and Scope

World-building techniques are like Kipling’s tribal lays: there are as many viable ways of world-building as there are stories. Whether we approach the challenge intellectually or intuitively, we have two decisions to make (and then make all over again as the story progresses): we must choose which details of our world are relevant to our story (e.g. physical laws, environmental context, existence/limitations of magic, sociopolitical systems, etc.), and then we must decide how to communicate those details to our audience (e.g. infodumping in prose, mentioned in dialog, implied in descriptions, etc.).

The answers to the former question are – in competently executed work – always tied to the story’s underlying point. We choose to include those details which are necessary for the reader to plausibly imagine the story’s action and to understand its themes. One of the key differences between speculative fiction and the western is in each genre’s choice of theme.

Peace by Gene Wolfe

As we discussed last week, the western is almost always focused on narrow, individualized themes expressed by and explored through the western hero. Though some speculative fiction (notably works like John Crowley’s Little, Big, Gene Wolfe’s Peace, or Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe) keeps its focus personal, most tends to examine broader questions.

Consider James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Yes, Blish’s Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, Heinlein’s Johnnie Rico, Huxley’s John the Savage, and Tolkien’s Frodo/Sam/Aragorn/etc. are all intrinsic to their books’ themes. Yet these books are less concerned with the individuals and their personal choices/values than with the context of those choices and their wider philosophical implications. The characters’ emotional journey is very accessible, and mediated through the filter of the story’s philosophical themes. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Compare this to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, or Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. By mediating their theme through the hero’s personal journey, these stories invert speculative fiction’s traditional relationship between theme/character. Yet since they use archetypal western heroes, the stories still need some way of giving the reader insight into the hero’s emotional state. That’s hard to do when the character is the strong/silent-type and the perspective is a little distant. And so westerns use world-building and a little trick of sympathetic magic to give us insight into otherwise inaccessible characters.

The Sympathetic Magic of World-building in the Western Genre

The western genre is extremely visual in nature, even more so than speculative fiction. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is so popular on film. Cinematography is critical to our experience of film/television: how a shot it is framed, the features the light shows and hides, all of these affect the audience’s emotion. The western novel uses prose descriptions of setting in exactly the same fashion. Consider the frame of mind Zane Grey’s description elicits:

While she waited there she forgot the prospect of untoward change. The bray of a lazy burro broke the afternoon quiet, and it was comfortingly suggestive of the drowsy farmyard, and the open corrals, and the green alfalfa fields. Her clear sight intensified the purple sage-slope as it rolled before her. Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty. Northward the slope descended to a dim line of canyons from which rose an up-hinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purple uplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and gray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows.

Grey’s sentence construction, adjectives, and verbs all work to establish a tone, to frame the action in the way that a good cinematographer does. His “dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between” are closely associated with “ruins of red rocks”. As our gaze shifts downwards from the hills, we come into “dim” canyons, with martially-tinged cliffs and escarpments. And the lengthening shadows? They just add to the mounting tension.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville This use of setting to convey tone is common to all genres (consider the way China Miéville does it in Perdido Street Station), but the western tends to align it very closely with character. The archetypal western hero is unlikely to sit down and talk about his feelings. His moral or emotional struggle is often internal and silent. The audience comes to understand it by implication, imbuing the character’s actions with meaning. Just as cinematography helps us to do so in a visual medium, a western novel’s prose provides an oblique view on a character’s internal life.

Consider the opening paragraphs of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer-winning Lonesome Dove:

When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake — not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.

“You pigs git,” Augustus said, kicking the shoat. “Head on down to the creek if you want to eat that snake.” It was the porch he begrudged them, not the snake. Pigs on the porch just made things hotter, and things were already hot enough. He stepped down into the dusty yard and walked around to the springhouse to get his jug. The sun was still high, sulled in the sky like a mule, but Augustus had a keen eye for sun, and to his eye the long light from the west had taken on an encouraging slant.

These paragraphs give us little direct detail on Augustus. But these sentences are actually serving double-duty: on the one hand, they accomplish world-building economically with no wasted words, and they offer insight into Augustus’ values and personality through implication.

Within the first sentence, we can locate the action as somewhere in the American southwest (where else do rattlesnakes live?). And through that seeming throwaway terminal clause (“not a very big one”) we gain tremendous insight into what a man like Augustus notices. The judgments seen from Augustus’ perspective (“a fine tug-of-war” and “long light from the west…an encouraging slant”) communicate his worldview and emotional state more powerfully than a paragraph of internal monologue could.

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger Of course, this is just good, economical writing. And westerns don’t hold a monopoly on that. There are plenty of examples we can find in speculative fiction as well (e.g. consider the economy with which George Alec Effinger opens When Gravity Fails, which I quoted when discussing noir). However, the structural differences between the western genre and speculative fiction make the latter a little more forgiving.

We can still write an entertaining, moving, and powerful speculative fiction story with a much looser alignment between world-building, prose aesthetics, character, and theme. Tolkien, Heinlein, Clarke, Robinson, Lewis, Moorcock, Martin, and many others have managed it just fine. Yet with the structural conventions of the western genre, and in particular with its focus on the aloof and lonely hero, such an approach would make the story far less engaging. And this reliance on tight thematic and stylistic alignment represents at once one of the greatest strengths and greatest challenges of the western genre.

Can speculative fiction learn from it? Yes, but the lessons need not extend to every science fiction or fantasy story. But those whose structures more closely resemble their western cousins may be wise to give it some thought.

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