The Many Faces of Western: Foreward from Gunsmoke & Dragonfire

This excerpt is a sneak peak at the foreward for Gunsmoke & Dragonfire: A Fantasy Western Anthology (publication scheduled March 2019). This excerpt has been set for this blog post only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.

Most of us are used to the concept of a science fiction western by now.  However, as a writer who works in the blended genre, I find that fantasy western is a harder sell.  But I think it’s a natural fit.

The truth is that the Wild West, as visualized in the North American consciousness, is a myth.  And like all myths, it has a certain universal human appeal; at least, if it’s done well.  Fantasy also deals primarily in myth.  Many of the themes common to both milieus are older than remembered time.

In curating these stories, I decided that there would have to be more than a thin veneer of cowboys grafted on to a speculative fiction story.  In addition to its fantastic elements, each story would have to be a western at heart.  The question then becomes: what, exactly, is a western?

Westerns focus on the myths of settling the wild frontier, although they share much with the Knight Errant tales of Europe, the ronin stories of Japan, and sometimes, trickster-heroes of a variety of cultural myths from around the world.  Stories center around survival in a hostile and alien environment, whether they tell of pioneering, running away from something, bringing elements of the civilization left behind to the wilderness, or fighting for the land’s possession.  Outlaws flee justice, and sheriffs or vigilantes dispense it.  Settlers and native folk compete, often violently, for space or resources.  Above all, codes of honour are personal, because the only law is the law of the gun.  In these stories, the landscape itself often becomes a character, lending its favour to the protagonist, or dispensing its wrath; or often, both.

Author and screenwriter Frank Gruber identified seven main plots of westerns:

  • the Union Pacific story – establishing modern technology or forms of transportation, such as a telegraph, railroad or wagon train;
  • the Ranch story – a ranch defends itself against rustlers, rich landowners, or the environment;
  • the Empire story – a rags-to-riches story about establishing a financial empire (or trying to);
  • the Revenge story;
  • the Cavalry and Indian story – “taming” the wilderness for settlers, or fighting back against them;
  • the Outlaw story;
  • the Marshal story.

In all of these plots, clear divisions of good and evil are often subjective or non-existent.  For example, it might be the Outlaw who is the moral character and the Marshal who is immoral; or the one who dispenses justice now may have been a cold-blooded killer in their youth.  While I prefer not to emphasize the problematic elements of these tales (for instance, I do not find genocide heroic,) I think you’ll find that all of the stories I’ve selected fall into at least one of these patterns.

There are several recognized subcategories of western, mostly defined by change of location or time period, a blending of cultures, or a mix of other genres or genre elements.  One example is the Weird Western, which is when westerns meet supernatural elements, most often in the form of horror.  Space Westerns are stories of wagon trains to the stars – space, after all, is the “Final Frontier.”  Apocalyptic Westerns explore western plots and characters in a post-apocalyptic setting, with a collapsed central authority, that serves as a new hostile environment to survive or “tame.”  Cattlepunk stories are western-steampunk stories.  This anthology has a selection of all of the above, and a few things that defy these labels besides.

Like a western, my motives for putting this anthology together are morally ambiguous.  I wanted to draw attention to this unique blend of genres because I write in it.  However, I recognized that I could not be alone in this.  So, I also hoped to draw attention to other writers who share my interest, because they’re fun and interesting and I think they deserve recognition!

In these pages, you’ll find an international cast of traditionally published and indie writers, established and emerging writers, and one or two who are brand new.  You’ll find that often, standard tropes and stereotypes are challenged, subverted, or upended entirely.  You’ll find stories that take place in the past, present, and future, from the familiar American West and Mexico, to a post-apocalyptic Canada, to the drought-plagued plains of Mars, to other dimensions and other worlds weird and wonderful.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

Diane Morrison

December 6, 2018

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6 thoughts on “The Many Faces of Western: Foreward from Gunsmoke & Dragonfire

      1. I think the purpose of blogs is to remind us all that no one should be writing without an editor 😉

        I’m a firm believer it’s the most important underappreciated job in human history.

        Liked by 1 person

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