Friday, November 18, 2011

For the Reader: What is a Space Western? Why is it a subgenre to be taken seriously?

Space Westerns are a subgenre of science fiction that takes the themes of Westerns and applies them to futuristic space frontier. Do not confuse this with a Science Fiction Western, which is a science fiction story set in the old west (or similar location). Some very notable Space Westerns are:

Star Trek
Star Wars
The Beast Master
A Princess if Mars
Time Enough for Love
Cowboy Bebop
The American Astronaut

Space Westerns takes the idea that space exploration and colonization will be similar to the taming of the Old West. It’s settings may have dusty old towns (Star Wars’s Mos Eisley is great example). There may be horses or other beasts that are used for transportation. There may be “wagon trains,” bank hold ups, train heists, civil wars (as the story or as the background), saloons or cantinas and more.

There are many critics in the science fiction genre who see the Space Western as nothing more that “using old furniture in a new location,” or as a style of work that shouldn’t be taken seriously. I disagree. Mankind has a nasty habit of repeating history—the good, the bad and the ugly. Let us look for a moment at many of today’s nations that have been built with the blood and sweat of what Americans call “Cowboys.” Obvious the United States is the first one to come to mind. Let’s add Canada and Mexico next. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Mexican’s and their culture, there may not have been an American Cowboy. The Americans who settled in west had many of the “Cowboy” skills taught to them by the Vaquero. My disagreement doesn’t end with just the nations in North America. All of the countries of Central America and South America have been built on the same type of sweet and blood and “taming of the frontier” as Canada, Mexico and the United States. Furthermore, so have countries such as Australia and New Zealand. In fact there are some other nations that can fall into this list.

In these countries, the people developed a “western” type of society. It was different by degrees in each land, but there was commonality of personality that existed—a fiercely independent, self reliant, can do person who lived on the dream of a better world—an escape from a change in culture, slavery, or the coming of the mechanized society where machines replaced people and horses—on a often hostile frontier facing animals, disease, storms, and hostile indigents who were threatened with the loss of their freedom, land, religion, way of life, and very existence.

If mankind continues to repeat history (which we will) and if we go out to the stars (we have to or die on Earth), then yes, I expect to see some kind of frontiersman/cowboy. He may not be sitting on a horse. He may not engage in Hollywood style gunplay. However, the personality will still exist. The frontier will not be antiseptically clean or without the conditions that was seen in the old frontier—in fact I would be highly surprised if those conditions are not somehow magnified. Maybe I am wrong, but the genre of Science Fiction is the exploration of what may be. In that exploration is the exploration of the frontiers of reality and what lies in our imagination On that stage, the Space Western explores what it means to be human in a universe that is far from tame.

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  1. David, I enjoyed your post. I have to tell you, though, every time I hear the term "Space Western" I think of the lyrics to that Steve Miller Band song THE JOKER. "Some people call me the space cowboy, Some call me the gangster of love..."

    Thanks, buddy. Now I have that song stuck in my head early on a Saturday morning. ; )


  2. Janet...I was humming that song all day yesterday after reading your comment!

    Loved the post, David-- I've only seen about half the space westerns you listed (and love them) so it looks like I have some catching up to do. :)

  3. If you want a long list . . . ;-)

  4. David,

    I'm an academic trying to amass a "long list"—have you made one in the past year?