Six-Guns, Blasters, and Broadswords: The Western and Speculative Fiction

Reading a collection of Louis L’Amour stories has got me thinking about the Western. The Western genre has generated a solid collection of tropes and narrative expectations. It also, it seems, has exercised an influence on science fiction and fantasy; that is, certain speculative fiction stories traffic in the same tropes. All to the good, in my opinion.

I suppose I ought to dip a toe into what makes up a Western, before I proceed. This is a mere surface grazing. Attempting a precise definition of the Western is limiting. Why try to corral a genre with vast possibilities?

A common Western plot is A Stranger Comes to Town. This stranger will uncover a mystery, right a wrong, then move on. The wrongs involved are often a corrupt powerbase in the (usually small) town; an attempt by a powerful landowner to illicitly acquire the land of a less powerful landowner (a cattle ranch, a farm, a plot by a future rail lane, a mine claim, etc.); a powerful man attempting to steal away a woman from a less powerful man. There are often considerations of the decadent east encountering the rough virtues of the primal but pure west. The march of progress pushing back a savage frontier. There might be elements involving the danger of expanding into new territory or merely the difficulties involved in travel (weather, distance from resources, hostile natives — previous inhabitants disgruntled at being forced off.)

Why might any of these be attractive to the writer of speculative fiction? Well, consider the Stranger Comes to Town. The stranger is your POV character. He knows nothing of local conditions and must learn them. This sort of doling out of necessary plot information avoids the As You Know, Bob exposition problem. The writer of fantasy and science fiction must ladle out background that isn’t common currency to the reader, explaining the secondary world, the magic, or aliens, or new technology. The Western also offers a familiar template for a short story, the drifter is going to come to town, then leave town: there is a built in limitation that keeps a story from feeling artificially truncated; the reader isn’t necessarily left wondering what else is occurring in this new world since the expectation of the end is baked in.

Of course it isn’t exactly cut and paste. There is more involved than simply taking the plot of a Western and replacing the six shooters with broadwords or blasters, exchanging the Iron Horse for a spaceship or passenger dragons. But the model is solid.

Consider C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories. Moore’s Mars and Venus are the Frontier. NW is the drifter (though not always a lone drifter; his Venusian partner in crime, Yarol, is a frequent sidekick.) Ancient, weary Martians and Venusians can stand in for Apaches and Sioux.

What about Conan? A Texan like Robert E. Howard, who also wrote Westerns, might be expected to use the same model for his Sword and Sorcery. Well, Beyond the Black River springs immediately to mind. But that is really more a Frontier story; James Fennimore Cooper rather than Max Brand. Shadow in Zamboula might be a better example: Conan comes to town, deals with a mystery (a sinister innkeeper), savages, and is instrumental in a power struggle between two powerful factions, before drifting on.

The Western can also work in longer form fiction. Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country might as well have slapped a Louis L’Amour cover on. It is an unapologetic Western, checking all the boxes, from native tribes (red-heads, I seem to recall), the impending drive of progress (steam engines), rival powers in a frontier town (right out of A Fistfull of Dollars), and more. Mike Resnick’s Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future serves as a similar example in science fiction.

So, next time you are reading through — for example — a collection of Sword and Sorcery tales, you might take a moment to consider what the story would be like if set in Dry Gulch or Tombstone. There are other genres that mesh well with speculative fiction: the detective story, for one. I’ve done that, as well as blending the crime and fantasy genres. Why not give them a read, let me know what you think.

In any case, happy trails, partner.