Friday, October 25, 2013

The West Is Wilder In Space

The Space Western is a genre that takes little effort to write, but a lot of effort to write well. The 'Turkey City Science Fiction Writer's Workshop' calls this sub-species of science fiction "The most pernicious suite of 'used furniture'..." in that it borrows from two old established groups of tropes that are easily combined, but rarely combined well. Take a Western, turn horses into hovercraft and six-guns into blasters and you're done. The hard part is making the pieces work together without exposing the gory stitches in your Frankenstein creation.

Firefly changed the perception of the genre. Now, every hardcore naysayer of the Space Western has been forced into silence for fear of being cursed at in Chinese (something about the universe falling out of their ass?) or, worse, being walloped in the head by a bright orange pom-pom-bedecked cap, by any of the millions of fans of the show who may be within earshot.

Firefly, however, was not the beginning of my connection to the bastard genre. Back in the late 80's, there was a cartoon called Galaxy Rangers, which borrowed liberally from Clint Eastwood's The Man With No Name character in their creation of a shape-shifting gunfighter. Boba Fett, everyone's favorite anti-hero, was acknowledged by George Lucas as being inspired by the same Sergio Leone stoic warrior of the wasteland. I collected a comic book called Evangeline in the early 80s, written by Chuck Dixon, which was a big inspiration to me. The first story in that series was about an assassin-nun (yes, really) who traveled to Mars to kill some bad guy who had wronged the Catholic Church in some way. Although she wasn't a bounty hunter, per se, she carried the same strength and coldness of Clint's character—and was commissioned by God, however, not 'dollaro'.

In college, my freshman year, I finally experienced the source material behind all that was influencing me. A local UHF station (before cable, you young whippersnappers) aired all those classic Spaghetti Westerns during what happened to correspond with finals week. Art Majors like myself didn't have finals to study for, so I spent each night that week getting drunk on rum and cokes and immersing myself for the first time in that dusty world. The following semester, I took a creative writing class and wrote my first Space Western—Outlaw—about a gunslinger in a shooting competition on an alien world. Not very original, and my writing professor booed it as cliche and TV-ish. He wasn't wrong. It stayed with me, though. I had plans to adapt that story into a comic book series. It never happened.

My first written work to appear in print was in a title by Caliber Press, a one-shot comic book called Petit Mal. This comic was a collection of my stories loosely strung together into little slices of much larger tales. One of those sequences was about colonists on Mars. In this tale, Mars was a kind of lost colony—the planet frozen-over from rogue terraformation, and its population abandoned by the machinery of capitalism—the colonists were left to fend for themselves, and they degraded into in-fighting as resources dwindled. Petit Mal was published in 1992. I abandoned that world and pursued other projects.

Like many others, I missed out on Firefly's first flight. I caught it as a collection on DVD in 2005 and immediately fell in love again with the genre. Joss did it right, and he inspired me to dig up my Mars story again. As I started plotting and writing out scenes and history, I realized that committing all of this to a comic book format would take me years to tell. I had just come out of a bad relationship with a self-published comic book series I wrote and illustrated and decided to take the plunge and write my first novel. Five years later, I had a draft I wasn't embarrassed to share. I did a lot of research behind the science of the fiction, the mindset behind a spacefaring culture, and the PTSD of soldiers returning from a war, as my main character had done. Lots of research. Lots.

The Ballad Of Jeremy Diggett, my contribution to Five Broken Winchesters, takes place during the generation before my novel's timeline. All of the history, the technology, and the circumstances were already worked out for the novel, so it was easy to drop in again. Yes, there are blasters. Yes there are hovercraft. And yes, I crammed in as many old tropes associated with Westerns as I could fit.

The Ballad of Jeremy Diggitt is just a warm-up. I plan to tell a lot more stories set in this world. And if you enjoy it, my novel Little Agony (if and when it ever gets published) will give you even more blasters and hovercraft to enjoy.