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Entry updated 1 May 2023. Tagged: Theme.

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The Western is dead: to begin with. In its pure form, unlike other genres of popular fiction, nonfantastic Westerns, also known as horse operas from the teens of the twentieth century, take place in a specific area or Zone of the world during the brief span between that point when whites began to conquer the Territory and that point when, fatally, they succeeded. Many Westerns, both written and film, were composed during this period, and were in fact instrumental in creating imaginary venues and characters and stories that were imitated in the real world: to a degree, the American West is a Western. David Thomson's Silver Light (1990) may be the most sophisticated analysis of this phenomenon. But to write a Western set after (say) the early 1920s is an act approaching necrophilia: Parody unto death. Sf Westerns, stories variously extrapolated from mundane models and set on this planet or elsewhere, might seem immune but are not. What has died for sf Westerns set in the Solar System (see also Asteroids) is a time when they could plausibly be written (see below). Space Operas set between the stars or in haven planets are similarly hard to write in the twenty-first century. In all of this, location may be understood – by authors and readers alike – as central.

A Western set on Earth – with its bespoke plains and badlands and mountains and false-front props – can normally be thought of as taking place in a region of America bounded by the Mississippi River to the east (it is not often returned to by protagonists who have escaped); to the west, by the last mountain chain shielding the actors of the tale from sight of the Pacific Ocean (planet-bound Westerns take place deep inland); to the north, by the threat of deep immersion in the Canadian wilderness (but safely blocked from reaching that wilderness by the bureaucratically administrated colonies soon to be assembled as Canada), and to the south, by the threateningly indescribable otherness of Mexico (a pullulant mix of chaos and governance unpalatable to most tellings set on Earth, exceptions being the Spaghetti Western, Westerns with an admixture of Magic Realism as in the work of Carlos Fuentes, and perhaps the pampas tales of Jorge Luis Borges). Seen from anywhere else, the arena of the Western lies beyond a disqualifying borderline, on the periphery of what counts. It is a kind of pockmarked abyss or caldera on the outskirts of the real world, never central to the Imperial government of that world though obedient to its extractions of chattels or goods or pure profit, never watered in the World Ocean, a sidebar to the large flows of history. If the ocean is indeed reached, then history takes over and dismisses and submerges the story, a termination perhaps most vividly represented in a nonfantastic film, How the West Was Won (1962) directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall, which ends in an apotheosis: a tangle of Interstates locked into a spaghetti junction in Los Angeles where the world ends; several of the novels of Steve Erickson can be understood as meditations on a California beyond the "healing" compass of the Western.

Sf Westerns, most of them describable as Space Operas or Planetary Romances, and often barely distinguishable from Military SF, are similarly set along the rim of history (see Galactic Empires; Rimworld), far from galactic centre, far from the true engines of civilization: Second Foundations (see Isaac Asimov) do not flourish along the edge of the Galactic Lens.

An abiding irony that defines and besets this seemingly exempt Zone is the fact that this "freedom" or anarchy is timed. It may be difficult to determine beginnings or endings (indeed, many Westerns, nonfantastic and fantastic both, are framed tellingly without dates at all). But very roughly, a Western set on this planet cannot normally exist before 1840 or so, when whites began to arrive in numbers in the arena, and to settle themselves into the repeated dramas of their lives; tales whose action hinted westward before that date, like the Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper, might be called proto-Westerns.

The terminal date for the this-worldly Western, some time around 1900, seems tied to Transportation; though the form may have absorbed the building of the railroads, the presence of the automobile more or less automatically, in written or visual form, marks the end of the story. After the first car is caught sight of spooking horses, nostalgia floods the page or screen.

Alternate History Westerns – like Anna North's Outlawed (2021) – seem uncommon, though the gonzo surreality of some experimental texts may generate a sense that an sf argument is being made. Generally speaking, sf Westerns seem to cluster around two periods, differently beholden to real history: the Near Future when the Solar System is being explored and exploited, as in juveniles (see Young Adult) by authors like Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton or Robert A Heinlein, stories written before the solar system turned out to be dead; and a much less easily defined, more distant future, usually when Homo sapiens has sufficiently infiltrated the galaxy that hinterlands can exist (see above; see also Colonization of Other Worlds) far from centres of governance or military sway, both of which are seen as invasive of the arena, even when that arena, as in Star Wars (1977) is agricultural. If the Western is set after humanity has suffered through a Long Night, any revanchist incursions from galaxy central will almost certainly be resisted.

The terminus of Solar System Westerns is, sadly, the point when they were no longer being written: to repeat, when the Solar System became better understood. The terminus of Space Opera Westerns depends on the ingenuity, or obliviousness to history, of those who write or film them.

Place is not all. Within its centripetal time-bound arenas, whose centralizing intensity is more reminiscent of Baseball than of more extroverted Games and Sports, the Western tends to allow a markedly restricted set of stages where action can occur, and a similarly restricted range of characters eligible to perform the story-types available, figures who may be so brightly coded into their roles that a typical Western cast may seem to be re-enacting, among familiar stage props, some familial harlequinade out of the Commedia dell'Arte [for Commedia here and Cauldron of Story and Twice-Told below see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. This performative regularity, this reiterative dance between church and saloon, Hero and Villain, gunslinger and backshooter, ranch and farm, oasis and drygulch, seems equally to mark horse operas set on Earth and operas set elsewhere; much of the power of the first season of the Television series Westworld (2016) resides in the breadth and depth of its understanding, and dramatic enactment, of the precarious artificiality of the form.

No Western, however told or wherever set, sits genuinely easy in the past, or the present, or the future; no Western of any interest fails to register formally or rhetorically the existential fragility of the enclave occupied and the stories told; no Western of any interest fails to evince some dis-ease about the proper occupancy of the Zone of the world in which it is set, or the story that exposes (or lies about) that occupancy: who owns the story (like Ford in Westworld), who steals, who inflicts raw justice beyond the reach of the law (like the Mysterious Stranger Clint Eastwood in his Pale Rider [1985]), who takes back what has been stolen from the folk and the world (like Clint), who rides into the sunset (ditto). This cartoon-clear dis-ease marks the Western's subaltern intimacy with the literatures of the West as a whole, a subordinate liaison that may seem obvious enough from the perspectives of world-facing Fantastika, whose angles of approach to story make extra-literary factors particularly visible. Not all the literatures of the West are clearly blazoned with confessional stigmata informing us that the land in which the story is being told was stolen, and that the players of the tale, masked or (in earlier years) male, are thieves turned into monarchs; but it remains easy enough to see the Western as an exaggeration of more civilized modes, a distorting mirror in which epic concerns of usurpation and revenge and retribution loom with caricature clarity (for comments on literatures of usurpation see Mysterious Stranger). It may be the case that the transfiguration of this-worldly tales into the sf Western dodges some bullets; but tales like Jonathan Lethem's Girl in Landscape (1998), a Twice-Told rendering of John Ford's The Searchers (1956), constructs an adult, bleak surmise about our future in the galaxy out of traditional material.

Westerns in written form seem to have taken shape quite suddenly around the time of the Civil War in America, with authors like Ned Buntline and others creating a storyable artifact of an area that did not know it was an arena, featuring protagonists out of the Cauldron of Story. The first sf Western is almost certainly Edward S Ellis's The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868), a tale which also prefigures the Edisonade, many examples of which are Westerns, including many titles in the Frank Reade sequence, mostly written by Luis Senarens. The term Space Opera, though not in all cases descriptive of sf Westerns, did from its introduction in the 1920s confess to an intimacy with the horse opera. It may be a matter of judgment as to whether a particular space opera tale by an author like Edmond Hamilton or E E Smith is or is not an sf Western; but distinctions can be inutile. In later decades, some Westerns – like H Beam Piper and John J McGuire's A Planet for Texans (1958), or John Jakes's Six-Gun Planet (1970), along with many others – are self-consciously so described; many more examples of the Western in this encyclopedia are modestly covert but easily recognized.

Almost all early film Westerns, from the turn of the century on, are nonfantastic.The first sf Western films may not have been filmed until the early 1930s, with the very first example possibly being The Phantom Empire (1935) directed by Otto Brower and Breezy Easton, with Gene Autry in his first starring role. Many subsequent films have been described as sf Westerns, but in many of them one of the two significant markers of the Western – a specific arena for the action to take place in; a performative, action-heavy storyline with actors to fit – may not be present. Several films in the Star Wars series, Star Wars (1977) itself as mentioned above, up to Solo (2018), are central examples of the sf Western. Firefly (2002) and its sequel Serenity(2005) both directed by Joss Whedon are innovative plays on the format. There are more worth noting. Many, however, are not.

The Commedia dell'Arte survived for centuries. Inherently less integrated than that model, and more vulnerable to digressive exploitation, the sf Western may, or may not, continue to recycle its fragile dream of fruitful action in a designer arena. [JC]

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