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Calling All Space Cowboys

Space Cowboy

See you, space cowboy! Photo by Arlys Endres

The Western genre, so popular in my youth, has fallen out of favor in recent years. It survives mainly in “shoot ’em up” video games like Red Dead Redemption. Yet it has a lasting influence on other genres, especially science fiction. Though despised by sci-fi purists, so-called space westerns have attracted legions of fans.

Combining sci-fi and westerns seems like a weird idea until you consider the historical context. The 1950’s were in many ways a “coming of age” for the science fiction genre, the latter half of its “Golden Age.” At the same time, cowboys were everywhere in the popular culture. It’s only natural that there was some cross-pollination. Also, when there’s a high demand for any type of fiction, the market is bound to attract lots of hack writers. People will think, why not combine the two genres and make it even more popular? That’s probably why space westerns have such a bad rap. Galaxy Science Fiction magazine satirized them in a 1950’s ad campaign for an imaginary pulp novel starring “Bat Durston,” and the name still pops up in sci-fi circles.

Two sci-fi TV shows, both which generated their own cult followings, proved Galaxy to be wrong. One was the Japanese animation Cowboy Bebop (1999); the other was Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002.) Both combined space and Western themes artfully and both, unfortunately, lasted just a single season. Older fans often mention Wild Wild West (1965-69) which has its own enduring following, especially among steampunks. This one, however, being an alternate history with sci-fi elements, does not fit the “space western” genre. All three of these series demonstrate that combining disparate elements can create good fiction.

When you look beyond the disparity in settings, sci-fi and westerns have a lot in common. The two genres are dominated by American writers and publishers. Both feature characters and plots which espouse the American themes of individualism, self-reliance, and justice. Both have an element of the frontier, with its central conflict of man against nature. There is a strong element of escapism in the two genres.

The purists are free to continue to judge space westerns harshly. If so, they are missing out on some very creative and original work. The rest of us will continue to ignore their opinion. In closing, I’ll quote the ending screen from Cowboy Bebop: “See you space cowboy.”

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