“Man walks down the street in a hat like that, you know he’s not afraid of anything … ” – Mal, Firefly
Straight up westerns aren’t all that popular these days. Despite the success of the magnificently dark Deadwood and Hell on Wheels there are very few on television, and even fewer in the cinema. Yet in sf+f we’re seeing western elements find their own growing niche. Not since Clint Eastwood sang his way through Paint Your Wagon have western mash-ups been so popular.
Science fiction westerns
It all seems to have started with the science fiction westerns. Star Trek was famously sold as Wagon Train in space, and while it may not have had many western trappings it certainly dealt with many of the key themes – wild frontiers; manly men in the rugged outdoors; civilisation transformed in the face of the other.
More recently Joss Whedon put the western elements front and centre in Firefly, possibly the most mourned show ever to face early cancellation. Again he explored themes of civilisation and borderland living, along with outlaws and the lingering divisions that follow civil war. But this time there were cowboys, shootouts and even a train robbery – yeehaw!
In many ways steampunk’s a great fit with westerns. You’ve got the nineteenth century technology, outfits and attitudes. You’ve got frontier living again, combining technological and geographical frontiers. You’ve got dreams of a greater future twisted round with dark consequences. OK, so all of this was pre-empted by Wild Wild West, but now that steampunk’s properly emerged as a genre you can see the two being combined to good effect. That’s why the likes of Josh Stanton are scribbling away at steampunk westerns. Even I’ve had some success in that area.
Now we’re seeing fantasy influenced by westerns as well. Of course Stephen King’s Dark Tower has been kicking around for a while, and is something of a favourite work for King himself. But Joe Abercrombie‘s also done it with Red Country, stripping away the technology of the western but keeping its tension and drama, from the grand conflicts between settlers and governments back home to the intimate brutality of the pre-shoot-out stand-off. It’s the social side of the old west, the behaviours and the social structures, rather than the technology and fashion, and it’s utterly compelling.
Back to the beginning
It’s great to see all these mashups. I love westerns and I love to see them combined with other genres in this way. It’s why I’ve written things like A Sheriff In The Deep and The Cast Iron Kid. But you can still never go wrong by going back to the classics. So if you’ve enjoyed any of the stories I’ve mentioned above then do yourself a favour and go watch some Clint Eastwood too. Pick up Pale Rider or The Outlaw Josey Wales. They’re exciting, evocative films, and worth every moment.