In recent years, Josh Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity have brought the Space Western back to the public eye. Though not a commercial success, Whedon’s tales of the crew of the Serenity have sparked a new interest in the cowboys from space.
The first Science Fiction pulp stories were not adventure-oriented. The Gernsbackian formula was typically about scientists or inventors. These poorly written tales tended to stop what little action they had to give lectures on technology, info-dumps that would be as ridiculous as you or I stopping to explain how a digital watch or traffic light works. This was one of John W. Campbell’s innovations in 1938, to say, the technology is a given, get on with the story.
This type of Science Fiction was popular within a very small circle of readers between 1926-1930, the first years of Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. What changed it was not an act of artistic revolt or innovative genius, so much as commercially driven ‘dumb luck’. W. L. Clayton wanted new pulps and charged editor Harry Bates to fill a missing fourth, since covers were published in batches of four. When Bates saw a copy of Amazing Stories he decided he’d try Science Fiction too. Unlike Gernsback, Bates was no crusader for the future of technology. He was just an editor of fiction, be it detective, Western or any other kind of pulp. What did Bates know about Science Fiction? Very little.
Enter Astounding Stories of Super-Science (also known as the Clayton Astounding). Harry Bates created his new pulp to conform to the rest of the Clayton style of magazines. At first things were hit-and-miss with stories by Harl Vincent, Victor Rousseau, Ray Cummings, Sewell Peaslee Wright, mixed with horror and fantasies like “The Corpse on the Grating” by Hugh B. Cave or “The Cave of Horror” by Capt. S. P. Meek. Bates quickly figured out his own brand of Science Fiction, one featuring heroes and heroines, alien beasties and action.
One of these action heroes was Hawk Carse by Anthony Gilmore. Actually written by Bates and his assistant Desmond Hall, the four novellas tell of a hero with a lightning draw, the fastest ship and cold, blue eyes that burn at those who have wronged him. If that’s not Western enough for you, Carse lives on a ranch on Iapetus, the moon of Saturn. There he ranches phanti, a local animal that provides a beautiful unicorn-like horn. Judd the Kite, one of Carse’s bitter enemies raids the ranch, kills his men, and steals the crop of phanti horn. You can practically smell the cow flops during all this. This is Western fiction dressed up with lasers and spaceships.
Bates and Hall had no intention of creating a sub-genre of Science Fiction (anymore than they intended to be the straw bosses behind the famous B. E. M. or bug-eyed monster.) They were actually falling back on what they knew to fill a magazine. The happy accident was a style of adventure SF that non-Gernsbackian readers could enjoy.
The Clayton Astounding would last less than four years (Carse would appear in four stories, and in 1942 a fifth in Amazing Stories) but others would improve on the mix. C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith, Leigh Brackett’s tales in Planet Stories, in particular the John Eric Stark stories, H. Beam Piper and Fritz Leiber have written Western SF. By 1954 a short-lived comic called Space Westerns from Charlton would exist. (Not all the stories were set in space. Some were Westerns in which aliens showed up, a style of fiction closer to Steampunk than Space Opera.)
There is a common thread that runs through Pulp-descended fiction. The space hero, the gunfighter, the private eye, the Doc Savage style adventurer or crime fighter, the African explorer or jungle lord, the Northern Mountie, they all walk the same path, that of the lone hero against a tough world. Violent, resourceful and deadly, they are icons of the North American ideal of the rugged individualist, one that readers in the Great Depression sought out in their entertainment. A hero needs a frontier, be it the Old West or a distant planet, in which to thrive. Anthony Gilmore never planned it but the story requirements of 1930 lives on in the adventures of Mal Reynolds and his crew of the Serenity. Which brings us to the question: why now? Do we need the same kinds of heroes in the years after 2000?