When Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek, he summed it up in one of the best-known elevator pitches in genre – “Wagon Train to the stars!”. Yet what seems like a throwaway comparison, the classic “name something popular that your thing is like” technique for getting money men onside, actually speaks to a deeper truth about the common ground between those disparate genres.
Sci-fi and Westerns are both about pushing boundaries, about discovery, about putting the known behind you and striking out into the void, whether it be the unmapped America of the Wild West or the dark depths of outer space. And at the heart of that journey into the unknown is self-discovery. When we leave behind the familiar and comfortable, and head out into the dangerous and lawless, we get the chance to discover who we really are. Moreover, we can redefine ourselves, give into our wildest impulses without fear of the condemnation of our peers. There are no rules, and nothing’s off the table.
For me, that’s the draw of the Western; it speaks entirely to the same part of me that loves science fiction. In my hybrid novel/story collection, the fantasy Western Greyskin, I’m looking to do what all the best science fiction and genre writing does – ask the reader what it means to be human and, perhaps more importantly, who do we want to be when the gloves come off? And when you take the Western and blend it with fantasy, alchemy can happen, as these five examples prove.
Iron Council by China Miéville
The third, and most political, of Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels takes one of the icons of the Western, the railroad, and welds it to a story of anti-globalisation, race and labour rights. The genre’s a natural fit; after all, another staple of the Western is the Cattle Baron shouldering aside the downtrodden rancher in pursuit of wealth and monopoly. The fantasy element is rich and powerfully drawn; the Cactacae, a race of Cactus-men, perfectly evoke the Western feel and his fReemade, criminals whose bodies are warped by magic as punishment, encapsulate the essence of the outlaw. As with all of Miéville’s work, Iron Council is a masterpiece of imagination imbued with a strong sense of idealism, though never at the expense of good story.
The Wax & Wayne series by Brandon Sanderson
It’s always with some caution that I approach an already long-running series, never quite sure how my diary or wallet will bear up if I suddenly find myself with a new addiction, if the sheer weight of material to catch up on will feel too much like a chore. Remarkably, the fact that my first experience of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series was The Bands of Mourning (either the third or sixth book in the series depending on how you count it) turned out to be no barrier to entry. Characters were drawn in such a way as to make them authentic right from the off, and the world-building was done in such a way that it didn’t drown the story, merely gave colour to a ripping tale of shootouts and derring-do, with a fantasy flavour that added to, rather than swamping, the Western vibe.
The Place of Dead Roads by William S. Burroughs
Cards on the (saloon) table, I did not get on with this when I first read it, aged eighteen. I was not ready for the dizzying prose style, and certainly unprepared for the huge volume of explicit gay sex. However, even then I was struck by the way that Burroughs took a deeply unfashionable genre and wrangled something fresh and alien out of it. Jump forward an undisclosed number of years and on revisiting the book, I found myself mesmerised by the vision and craft on show. Ostensibly the life story of an Old West gunslinger, Kim Carson, Dead Roads takes in everything from Hiroshima and cloning to time travel and mind-controlling Venusian centipedes. With lots of guns and lots of penises.
Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon & Georges Jeanty
No discussion of fantasy or sci-fi Westerns can ignore the elephant in the room that is Joss Whedon’s fan favourite Firefly. Cancelled before its time, the series lived on, firstly in the movie Serenity and then in ongoing comic book form, first from Dark Horse and then a long run from Boom! Studios. Leaves on the Wind (Dark Horse) picks up right after the climax of Serenity, with the crew reeling from loss and still on the run. Any of the comics are worth picking up, but for newcomers to Mal and the crew’s pen-and-ink incarnation, this is as good a place as any to resume your journey with Whedon’s beloved characters and explore the wider Firefly universe with them.
Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
The third standalone novel following on from Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Red Country transplants another staple of the Western genre into a fantasy setting, the wagon train. Poor folk looking for a better life, setting out on a perilous journey on the promise of a bright future. A protagonist with a bloody past, gold fever, feuds and duels; they’re all present and correct, and the perfect setting for more of Abercrombie’s trademark dark and dirty fantasy. In some ways, the book that brought me back to the Western.
Greyskin by James Kinsley, published by Deixis Press, is out now in hardback (£15.99) and ebook (£3.99). Order your copy here.