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March 14th, 2011:

Space Westerns vs. SF Westerns vs. Weird Westerns

Back in 2002, when “Drumlin Boiler” appeared in IASFM, somebody in the comments on the IASFM Web site grumbled that the story was “a glorified western.” I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but even though I’m sure the comment was intended to be dismissive, it was true: “Drumlin Boiler” was a story set on the frontier in a society roughly equivalent to 1870s America. The frontier was on another planet, and there were all these alien gadgets lying around causing trouble, but people were riding horses and packing six-guns.

Ever since then, I’ve used the term “space western” to describe the genre of the first several Drumlins stories. (Drumlin Circus is different for a number of reasons, but I’ll get to that in future entries.) The term was floating around in obscurity for years in the SF culture, but then Firefly happened, and abruptly what my Clarion ’73 compatriots once razzed as “cowboys on Mars” became legitimate and even hit the bigtime.

I learned not long ago that there’s a mirror image of the space western: the science fiction western. I hadn’t known that the literary classification knives were cutting that fine, but they are. Space westerns transplant themes and cultural elements of the American west onto other planets. Science fiction westerns transplant SF themes into the actual American West of an earlier time. Think of the difference as “cowboys on Mars” vs. “Martians in Texas.” (For a great example of the latter, see Howard Waldrop’s wry “Night of the Cooters.” I’m guessing, not having seen it nor read the graphic novel, that Cowboys and Aliens is much the same.)

And as if that weren’t enough, there are also weird westerns: supernatural themes transplanted onto the American West. This surprises some but doesn’t surprise me. The era of the American West was also the apex of Spiritualism, which originated near Rochester, New York in 1848 but by 1880 was everywhere in the country, including the western territories. The weird western subgenre goes way back: The mere handful of classic horror comics that I read in my cousin Ron’s basement in the late 1950s always had a few cowboy settings. These days, you can find things like Six-Guns Straight From Hell, which appears to include such genre cross-products as werewolf sheriffs, vampire bank-robbers, and “new-fangled electric zombies.” Many of the stories were first published in Science Fiction Trails, an annual anthology edited by David B. Riley. SFT goes broader and covers all three categories, sometimes with a steampunk flavor, as in Jim Strickland’s story “Brass and Steel” in the recent #6. “Brass and Steel” might well be said to include “new-fangled electric zombies,” a concept Jim pursues with a lot more rigor than the author of your average sparkly vampire yarn, ten-gallon hats or no.

I went a little cold on SF for quite awhile (I’m guessing almost 15 years) because it began to take itself a little too seriously and thereby ceased to be fun. Fun is what we do this for, after all, and sending things a little bit over-the-top is the very best way to puncture the stuffies and get the fun back front-and-center. The first three Drumlins stories were space westerns. Drumlin Circus is a steampunk western, with just a hint of weird, if a postulated sensitivity of quantum computers to human mental states counts as weird. (I stop well short of vampires.) Hell, I can wear lots of hats; hats are among the things I do best. Ask Carol. Or just look in my closet.