Science-Fiction Westerns and End of the World Frontiers

Young Ones (2014)—director Jake Paltrow’s second feature—is an exceptional science-fiction western that deserves to stand alongside Jonathon Lethem’s Girl in Landscape, Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002–2003), Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981), William S Burroughs’ The Place of Dead Roads and George Miller’s Mad Max series (1979–2015) as a fascinating example of what can happen when these two genres meet.

Most science-fiction westerns have a tendency to ‘play it for it laughs’ and serve up great doses of campy-cheese; think of Wild Wild West (1999) or Cowboys and Aliens (2011), or the innumerable steampunk-science-fiction-western mash-ups that fill the shelves of secondhand book shops. Works like these tend to use the tropes and themes of both genres at a superficial level, cherry-picking the most obvious and explicit genre signposts to provide something that (while often undoubtedly entertaining) tend to lack both depth and originality. They too-often eventually prove unsatisfying as either works of science fiction or westerns, and their tongue-in-cheek tone inevitably detracts from the potential greatness that can exist when the two genres are combined. Even an acclaimed (albeit lighthearted) science-fiction western like Back to the Future III (1990) is sometimes guilty of this, its creative flair and distinctive genre-melding let down by the occasional appearance of the worst kind of science fiction and western caricatures and stereotypes.

Young Ones, though, is imbued with a serious tone and an almost absolute avoidance of kitsch. Much like the other previously mentioned examples, it both rises above the dross that tends to overshadow this particular subgenre and offers up a new world for us to explore.

At first glance, science fiction and the western seem to have about as much in common as ballerinas and baboons—the former is primarily concerned with the creation of future worlds that can logically (if not always convincingly) be connected back to our contemporary world, while westerns are typically grounded in an approximation of historical reality. Think here of the differences between intergalactic space flight, artificial intelligence, time travel and alien life, and the real-world locations of 1800’s Arizona, Montana or Wyoming and the real figures of Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid. However, when we look closer, we soon see that something fascinating lurks behind these surface appearances and obvious differences.

Often, both genres not only share certain plot devices and character types, but also emphasise themes of survival and extreme adversity, as well as exploring the use of ‘sanctioned force’ as a means of ensuring this survival. What’s a cowboy without a Colt .45, or a spaceman or alien invader without a laser gun? The main connection, though, is the metaphor of the frontier. So important is this metaphor that not only have numerous critical works been published detailing the narrative and thematic links between science fiction and the western and the importance of the frontier to them both, but one of the most recognisable ‘brands’ in the history of science fiction (Star Trek) makes explicit this importance in its tagline: ‘Space: The Final Frontier’. Gene Roddenberry himself—Star Trek’s creator—even referred to his creation as a ‘wagon train concept’.

However, the frontiers encountered in science fiction are very different from those of the western. To explain: the metaphor of the frontier in the western emerged from actual historical circumstances (the settlement of the American West), even if western narratives often used such ‘real world’ locations and frontiers in fictional settings. For example, Monument Valley is a real place and was historically important to the settlement of the American West, but the character of Ringo Kid—from John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939)—was wholly fictitious, and never strode its dusty plains. In contrast, the frontiers of science fiction are both fictional through-and-through and far more abstract. First-contact stories, tales of intergalactic spaceflight and the exploration of alien worlds, the blurring of the lines between human and machine (especially in the sub-genre of cyberpunk), the innumerable time-travel narratives involving visits to the distant past or the far-flung future; all rely, to varying degrees, on the metaphor of the frontier.

Another key difference is that the protagonists of science fiction usually fall back on technology as a means of coping with and understanding the different frontiers that confront them. Think of the untamed Martian landscapes of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars), and the fantastic technological wonders that he conjured up to fictitiously terraform these wilds. Sometimes, though, this particular type of highly technological frontier serves to further reflect its western credentials. Outland is an excellent example of this: a blatant science fiction remake of the 1952 classic western High Noon, the fact that it is set in an enclosed mining city on Jupiter’s moon of Io only increases the sense of tension and imminent danger that defined High Noon. But, unlike the vast desert wilds that sometimes tempted Gary Cooper’s Marshall William Kane, on Outland’s Io there is literally nowhere to run and (almost) nowhere to hide.

As mentioned, in cases like these, the narrative emphasis is usually on integrating these frontiers with the technologically-focused society and culture that the protagonists are a part of. This contrasts strongly with the western, where the emphasis is usually on practical ways of understanding and accommodating these frontiers, in order to eventually overcome them. While a film such as Outland shows that the two types of frontiers aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, further questions do occur to the more curious reader and viewer: what if science-fiction narratives removed the framework of these technologically-focused societies and cultures, without jeopardising or abandoning their genre credentials? How would the metaphor of the frontier function if this happened? At its core, post-apocalyptic fiction strives to answer these questions.

In his essay The Remaking of Zero, science-fiction writer and critic Gary K Wolfe claims that real-world holocausts and apocalyptic events are often: “Associated with new technologies or the introduction of technologically superior weaponry… but in the fiction of the holocaust, the world is often transformed by a reversal of this historical process: available technologies are removed from the world, rather than new ones introduced. Much of the impact of such fiction arises from the speculations it offers about the effects of the loss of technology on machine- dependent populations.”

This (fictional) removal of available technologies from a technologically-focused society and culture can also allow writers of post-apocalyptic fiction to recreate the frontier of the western in a radically different setting, without necessarily modifying the specific function it holds within the western genre. In this way, the frontier(s) of the western and the frontier(s) of post-apocalyptic fiction often mirror each other, with both genres sharing specific themes and concerns. A seemingly contemporary society devoid of technology and reduced to a small-scale, agrarian level in which practical skills are valued over theoretical and intellectual skills—this could be the setting for a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction or a western.

The setting described above, as well as the attitudes and outlooks fostered by the tropes and themes associated with it, aren’t the only seemingly fixed narrative conventions shared by post-apocalyptic fiction and the western. Especially common to both genres is an emphasis on society reduced to a less ‘sophisticated’ level (an aspect that unfortunately too-often features such outdated and negative qualities as a simpler yet more brutal lifestyle, an emphasis on ‘men being men’, and less complicated and more oppressive gender, racial and societal politics), and a pessimistic representation of cities and urban centres and their associated ‘baggage’ (high population densities, a lack of open space and natural environmental features, domestic and urbanised occupations and lifestyles). In a similar way, both genres also often highlight the presence of the bandit and settler archetypes (‘black hats’ and ‘white hats’) and have a tendency to focus on the challenges brought on by either an established wilderness or a return of the wilderness (be it in the form of animals, the environment, or the aforementioned bandits). The biggest similarity, though, is the prominent narrative place of the ‘Lone Wolf’ protagonist, an independently-minded individual who operates according to his own ‘code’ and exists outside of the humdrum concerns of ‘regular’ society (think of Hig and Bangley from Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars and William Munny from Unforgiven (1992), or Eli from The Book of Eli (2010) and Bennie from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

In light of this, when we look back at our earlier list of science-fiction westerns, the connections between the two genres soon seem obvious. Mel Gibson’s Max Rocktansky could easily be a future-version of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name; Sean Connery’s Marshal William T O’Neil (from Hyams’ Outland) is a space-faring version of Gary Cooper’s Marshall William Kane; Lethem’s Girl in Landscape tackles revisionist westerns by relocating John Ford’s The Searchers to Mars and reinterpreting the story from the perspective of a young girl rather than that of a grizzled outsider; while Paltrow’s Young Ones shows us a crumbling and drought- stricken future America that is slowly regressing and beginning to resemble its lawless and unforgiving western past. If you haven’t read these books or seen these films, do yourself a favour and get hold of them sooner rather than later. They’re much more than just cowpokes in space or frontier towns on the moon; they’re a fascinating blend of the best of both genres, and are inspiring and entertaining in equal measure.

(Originally published in Aurealis #77, February 2015)


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