Site icon

Cowboys in Space: A Mixed Metaphor

I’ve always wondered why people were so fascinated by stories of cowboys in space. For me, it’s always been a non-starter. Granted, maybe I’d like these stories better if I liked the characters and writing better, but the widespread for Firefly kind of baffles me, though of course we could chalk it up to different tastes with the writing, or my lack of fannish devotion to Joss Whedon.

Lately, though, I’ve been trying to think in terms of why things do or don’t appeal to me… to figure out my own tastes, as it were. After all, I’ve liked very few of the Space Westerns I’ve seen very much, and there have been a lot of them.

Clearly someone thinks they’re a good idea. Why don’t they work for me?

Well, I think I’ve figured it out.

First things first: I’m just not that crazy about cowboys. There, I’ve said it: I can enjoy a Western here and there, but the genre has never really grabbed me. When I was a kid, and the one TV station in my small town in the mid-80s switched from airing oldie The Twilight Zone episodes to airing The Lone Ranger on Saturday mornings (before original series Star Trek), I was disappointed. When they finished Star Trek and  starting showing Bonanza reruns in Trek‘s old timeslot, I was guttered, and found other things to do on Saturday mornings. So while I’ve gotten more comfortable with Westerns since, they’re not my go-to genre for entertainment, really.

That could be it: the whole explanation in a nutshell… but I think there’s more to it than that.

The other day, I wrote about the parallels between the poetry of Ezra Pound and the writings of Robert Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, and H.P. Lovecraft. The crucial line?

… Howard’s Conan fantasies are clearly about exploring the tension between the pleasures of civilization and its restrictions–the same sort of dynamic we see in Westerns, which use the “Old West” to the same purpose Howard used Hyboria–about about masculinity, mortality, bellicosity, and morality–stories written in a world still recovering from one World War, while another was already in sight on the horizon.

I’m not sure that this Frank Frazetta painting is actually supposed to be Conan, but it’s certainly a Conan type, like many of Frazetta’s barbarian portraits.

Now, to reiterate the disclaimer from that previous post: I have only read a couple of original Conan stories. I got my Conan on the street, as they say–the odd comic book here and there, the films, and so on. (I do intend to read some of Howard’s stories… sometime.) Still, the parallel is hard to miss, especially when one considers that in Howard’s oeuvre, the writing of Conan stories dies down as his writing of Westerns picks up and takes over.

Which is to say that the underlying concern of the Western, and the underlying concern of the Conan stories, is pretty similar: the tension between “freedom” (as in freedom from the strictures of civilization) and the various “attractions” of civilization–comfort, plenty, and of course, soft’n’purdy wimminfolk. Questions about violence, power, morality, mortality, and masculinity are explored in ways that that seem parallel, if not subcutaneously identical… and I feel like the same holds true of a certain subset of space opera, too.

And the Western is quite cross-culturally transposable: this “Kimchi” Western explores similar concerns, in a Korean context, by setting its “Old West” in the wilds of Manchuria during the Japanese occupation.

So if the Old West is a metaphorical setting for the exploration of those questions, and if space opera of the ship-adventure kind is a metaphor for the exploration of those questions, then what is the Space Western?

I guess it’s a mixed metaphor, or, metaphorical overkill.

Of course, there’s always the question of internal logic in worldbuilding: why would some futuristic spacefaring civilization, however fractured, start wearing cowboy hats and jeans and behaving like people from Old Westerns? People don’t engage in cowboy-styled self-presentation on the Internet, although for us that’s another place that’s become metaphorical for the same questions. (Hence the cowboyishness of so many hackers in cyberpunk fiction.) Unless you really love cowboys for their own sake, the transposition requires even more suspension of disbelief… and if you’re not particularly crazy about cowboys, may require a distractingly high degree of it. In Firefly, the “explanation” is that these people are settlers on colony planets, and that dressing like cowboys is just practical when you’re living in a harsh, uncivilized world. (I’d expect settlers to be dressed in spacesuits, though.)

This might be why I’m less annoyed by the idea of a cowboyish John Carter on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars, running around with a sword and dealing with aliens–mixed metaphors stacked one upon another, really. The transposition there requires less suspension of disbelief than, say, Firefly, where you have actual spacefarers from some period in the deep future engaging in fashion-archaeology and culture-wide cosplay. Like I said, it’s just something I can’t suspend my disbelief about, because it clashes too much with the setting. (“Sensible” and “rugged” clothing has already moved forward in our own time, after all, let alone where it’ll be at by 2500 CE.)

It’s certainly why, while I am thinking of writing a “Steampunk Kimchi Western,” perhaps set like The Good, the Bad, and the Weird in Manchuria, or perhaps on the Mongolian steppe, I would be setting it around the turn of the century–of course, in the same universe I’ve set my other steampunk stories, “The Clockworks of Hanyang” and “Trois Morceaux en forme de mechanika.” Interestingly, I feel like there’s far less overlap between the kinds of generic concerns of Steampunk alt-history and Westerns than Space Opera and Westerns. Maybe I just haven’t been reading the “right” kind of Steampunk, to catch the parallels, though.

Still, I guess, for me it seems that it’s the mixed-metaphor that’s the bigger turnoff for me. Maybe for some others, the “mixed metaphor” in fact is more like a metaphorical doubling, or something: like chocolate and peanut butter. Some people must figure, I like cowboys, and I like space opera: two great things, why wouldn’t they be even greater together?

Which I suppose is a valid argument as long as everyone’s having fun. Far be it from me to try to dictate what others ought to like.

(Though I will step up and say that in a story where aliens are a metaphor for American Indians, though, surely someone’s not having fun, right? Even when the slaughter of the aliens turns out to be a horrible, horrible thing? Because Native Americans aren’t aliens, and they weren’t all slaughtered, and there ought to be space for Apaches or Comanches in your space opera or planetary romance or steampunk adventure, and not just as white dudes in redface–or even as “doomed but noble warriors”–right?)

But in the end, I think my biggest problem with Space Westerns is just, you know… well, I like kimchi, and I like sour beer, and they share a lot in common (like complex mixed fermentations, and sourness, and complexity of flavor)… but sour beer made within kimchi in the fermentation tank sounds like a hell of a bad idea to me.

Exit mobile version