The Emancipation of Bat Durston, or: "I'm from Iowa, I Only Work in Outer Space"

By Nathan E. Lilly

Bat Durston is trapped!—trapped, my friends, not in an asteroid mine or a Martian canyon, but in little definitions and in small minds; little definitions and small minds that are always looking towards the future, forgetting the whole time the past behind them; the very past where the content of those minds has come from.

And just who is Bat Durston? He is the folkhero of the space Western genre. He is THE space cowboy, although you might know him by other names: Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Tom Corbett are but a few. Consider the following ad that emblazoned the back cover of issues of Galaxy Magazine in 1950, in which Bat Durston's reputation was maligned:

Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing . . . and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand.

"Get back from those controls, Bat Durston," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it, but this is your last space trip."
Hoofs drumming, Bat Durston came galloping down through the narrow pass at Eagle Gulch, a tiny gold colony 400 miles north of Tombstone. He spurred hard for a low overhang of rim-rock . . . and at that point a tall, lean wrangler stepped out from behind a high boulder, six-shooter in a sun-tanned hand.

"Rear back and dismount, Bat Durston," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it, but this is your last saddle-jaunt through these here parts."
Sound alike? They should—one is merely a western transplanted to some alien and impossible planet. If this is your idea of science fiction, you're welcome to it! YOU'LL NEVER FIND IT IN GALAXY!
H. L. Gold

H. L. Gold, editor of Galaxy during its "Bat Durston" ad campaign

The Galaxy Magazine ads produced under the editorship of H. L. Gold gave space Western stories a beating that it took 30 years to even begin to recover from. Many younger science fiction fans, who grew up in the '80s with the overt space Westerns the likes of Bravestarr, Silverhawks, and The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, don't understand the derogatory light in which space Westerns in general have been held.

More importantly, the Galaxy Magazine ad shows us that space Westerns are a historically important sub-genre in science fiction; that they aren't a new genre, born fully formed from the mind of Joss Whedon; and that they have been around since the beginning of science fiction. The Galaxy Magazine ad proves that there was a genre of stories, stories found in other magazines, which transported Western genre themes into an Interplanetary setting, and that that style of writing was prevalent enough for a major magazine to advertise against it, that the market was filled with this "Bat Durston"-style fiction, and that Galaxy Magazine was being published to offer an alternative to the "discriminating" fan.

Even a (self-admittedly brief) perusal of the Science Fiction genre in 1953 by J. B. Priestley led him to define three types of science fiction. The first, the so-called Western aspect of the Science Fiction genre, he declared as being barely fit for human consumption and, by his reckoning, composing the majority of the genre.

. . . Roughly [science fiction] can be divided into three kinds. The first is bosh consisting of corny short stories, on the gangster or Western pattern, with a few rocketships, atomising pistols, and mysterious planets thrown in; they are essentially no different from the stories we used to read about Chicago, Dawson City, and Tombstone, Arizona. If such hack work could arouse thought, then we should think what a pity it is that our idiotic species is shortly proposing to spread its dreary melodramatic doings from here to Sirius. But no thought comes. This is trade rubbish, like the beads and Brummagem gauds that the nineteenth-century traders took with them into the jungle. We can forget this kind, though its specimens must far outnumber the rest.[1]

What Priestley was saying, although he might not have been familiar with the term, was that many of these stories were, in fact, Bat Durstons: stories of Westerns genre themes masquerading in Science Fiction tales. They were space Westerns. Too many works have been dismissed in a similar fashion, as "cowboys and injuns in space" and "frontiersmen among the stars." And that is the heart of the matter. When a science fiction critic wishes to wholly dismiss a work they have been known to call it "just a space Western." Good writers, intelligent people, have used the term as a crutch to hold up their opinion that there is no literary value to the works to which they are applying the term, that taking Western genre themes and transporting them to an Interplanetary setting is the antithesis of Science Fiction. But if authors can freely admit without contempt that a work of the caliber of Asimov's Foundation series was inspired by History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, then why is it so hard to say that stories like Asimov's "The Martian Way" or novels like Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles are inspired by tales from the American frontier experience? Why is one transmigration believed to be more deserving of literary value than the other?

Even at the very beginning of writers' careers they are given a basic prejudice against space Westerns. The Turkey City Lexicon, a primer for science fiction writing workshops, describes the space Western as "The most pernicious suite of 'Used Furniture,'" as if the flights of fancy which helped spawn the likes of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, who grew out of and defined the space cowboy archetype, have no literary cache to influence modern science fiction as it exists today. The problem with this thinking is that we lose all sense of history. The fact that Western genre themes appear in many science fiction stories has been largely ignored. Stories where six-shooters were replaced with ray guns and horses were replaced with rocket ships, and heroes went from saving the town to saving the planet (and/or galaxy) were commonplace even before the term "space opera" was coined in 1941 by Wilson "Bob" Tucker to mean a "hacky, grinding, outworn space-ship yarn".[2]

Or a few years later, in 1944, when the Fancyclopedia defined "space opera" as:

A hack science-fiction story, a dressed-up Western; so called by analogy with "horse opera" for Western bangbangshootemup movies and "soap opera" for radio and video yellowdrama.

The 1959 Fancyclopedia II expanded on that definition:

. . .Of course, some space operas are more crass about their nature than others; early Captain Video TVcasts were a hybrid of original space scenes and footage from old Western movies (purporting to represent a Spy Ray checking up on the Captain's Earthly agents). Terry Carr once unearthed a publication genommen Space Western Comics, in which a character named Spurs Jackson adventured in a futuristic Western setting with his "space vigilantes," and the old prewar Planet Comics intermittently ran a strip about the Fifth Martian Lancers and their struggles with rebel tribesmen.

None of these definitions mention galaxy-spanning empires, interplanetary councils, or planet-shattering technologies of unimaginable destructive capacity that have become associated with that genre. This would indicate that, from the point of view of science fiction fandom at least, the early space opera owes more to the Western genre than to science fiction. It was from Westerns that space opera assimilated many of its themes and tropes: the space cowboy archetype, good vs. evil, racial competition, "alien" genocide, defense of the weak, etc.; and in this sense the terms space opera and space Western were nearly interchangeable. It is this very form of science fiction that Galaxy Magazine is advertising against in its Bat Durston ads.

I would even go so far as to say that the current revival of interest in space Westerns signifies an era of New space opera, if the space opera revisionists of the 1970s (Del Rey, et al.) hadn't already reclaimed and redefined the term "space opera" (what I designate as classic and modern space opera). After Brian Aldiss edited his anthology notably entitled Space Opera: An Anthology of Way-Back-When Futures in 1974 (the first such anthology dedicated to space opera), and by the time that the mainstream reviewers latched onto the science fiction writer's use of the term for the movie Star Wars (1977), the re-definition, and transition from a derogatory term to outright genre, was unknowingly complete. As many Sci-Fi aficionados know, once something becomes written in the book of the mainstream, it's almost useless to fight against it.

The term [space opera] is both vague and inspired, and must have been coined with both affection and some scorn, analogously to soap opera and horse opera. And, analogously with opera itself, space opera has certain conventions which are essential to it, which are, in a way, its raison d'être; one may either like or dislike those conventions, but they cannot be altered except at the expense of the whole. Ideally, the Earth must be in peril, there must be a quest and a man to match the mighty hour. That man must confront aliens and exotic creatures. Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher. Blood must run down the palace steps, and ships launch out into the louring dark. There must be a woman fairer than the skies and a villain darker than a Black Hole. And all must come right in the end. [3]

Stories in the vein of the New Space Opera, which is actually space opera's fourth incarnation by my count (old, classic, modern, and new), are edited by David G. Hartwell in The Space Opera Renaissance (2006), by Rich Horton in Space Opera (2007), and by Gardner Dozois in The New Space Opera (2007). These stories depict the building of galaxy-spanning empires, interplanetary councils, and large-scale military operations, mostly, but not entirely, devoid of "Western" origins. As such, if the redefined space opera mirrors the world of the 1910s through to the 1960s—with its great wars, united organizations, and weapons of destruction on an unimaginable scale—set in space, then a space Western (what I've begun to affectionately call Ol' Space Opry to put it in the proper context) would be inspired by the earlier era: the frontier stories, explorer stories, pioneer stories—in the outer space setting.

This only brings us back to seeking out the basic definition of the term space Western: a Western set in outer space. It's as seemingly a straightforward, to the point, shoot-from-the-hip answer you'd expect of such a genre. But it really doesn't tell us much. We need to relate exactly what we mean by Western, what we mean by outer space, and how the two coexist in a single genre. At the same time, we need to avoid any illusions that cause us to see a space Western in stories where none really exists. As Andrew Tudor says in Theories of Film:

To take a genre such as the "Western," analyse it, and list its principal characteristics, is to beg the question that we must first isolate the body of films which are 'westerns.' But they can only be isolated on the basis of the 'principal characteristics' which can only be discovered from the films themselves after they have been isolated.

Unfortunately, because many writers have denied that their works are space Westerns, we find ourselves stuck in a position where we need to define space Westerns retroactively, in much the same way that the fiction of Jules Verne, H.G. Welles, and Mary Shelley are retroactively defined as science fiction or that the fiction of E. E. "Doc" Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and Jack Williamson are retroactively defined as classic space opera. We'd also like to isolate a body of works which are space Westerns, without including any false positives. We wouldn't want to inadvertently classify a work of such greats as Heinlein, Bradbury, or Asimov as a space Western if there wasn't a strong relationship. Such a proclamation could very well cause the general cursing and gnashing of teeth from the many Bradbury, Asimov, and Heinlein fans around the world.

Western, Not Westward: The Western Setting

[Westerns are] about the contact with nature, not completely primeval but not yet under the control of man; it's about technology that is already impressive but retains its human dimension; it's about the forces of government trying to exercise pressure but failing.—Jean "Moebius" Giraud

If that sentiment by Jean "Moebius" Giraud about Westerns doesn't sum up works like Firefly, Star Wars, and even The Martian Chronicles, then I'll eat my hat. It becomes apparent that we need to take a closer look at what constitutes the Western genre, and what the addition of the outer space setting adds to it.

The Western is a distinctly American genre, perhaps comparable only to Jidaigeki (Japanese "period drama"/Samurai genre) in its specificity. A convenient definition of a "Western" setting is anything set west of the Mississippi River. With a little bit of argument we could be more inclusive and extend it even further to define the Western setting (i.e. the early frontier) to be the North American continent west of the land claimed by the original 13 colonies, so as not to rule out Ohio, Tennessee, or even western Pennsylvania — this latter definition would also allow for the inclusion of Mexico and the Canadian frontier.

The generally accepted time period for the American West, the Wild West, is from 1865 (just after The Civil War and the initiation of The Homestead Act) to 1890 (when the U.S. Census Report declared the frontier closed). In some cases it could be stretched from the exploration of the West in the early 1800s (beginning with the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition) to the mid 1950s (post-WWII, the beginning of the Interstate Highway Project, and launch of Sputnik 1).

Neither the location nor the time of a Western setting is fit for the generally accepted definition of a space Western. When speaking of space Westerns we're not speaking of the Western genre in terms of setting. The setting for a Space story is generally the future (after humanity has invented space travel) and outer space (where there is no West, both figuratively and quite literally). This doesn't discount stories in which aliens invade the West such as in Cowboys and Aliens, The Misadventures of Clarke and Jefferson, Harold Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters," and Bruce Boxleitner's Frontier Earth books, although it does set them apart.

What we're looking for is a plausible way to extend the Western frontier to the final frontier: to explore how our reactions to the untamed American West also characterize our reactions to the unexplored depths of outer space. Aren't Westerns more than, as the Western Writers of America defines them, "works dependent in whole or in part on settings, characters, conditions, or customs indigenous to the American West or early frontier"? Isn't there some inherent quality or qualities beyond the elements derived from simple locality that would allow the Western genre to break free from the American West? There must be some Western theme by which to define a Western, without resorting to naming the trappings of Westerns (cowboys, six-shooters, Indians, et al.). That would have to be the case for the space Western sub-genre to have any legs at all. Wild West vernacular doesn't make a story a Western; neither does techno-babble make a story become science fiction. It's about the character, themes, and mythic patterns of the Old West, and our reaction to them. Just as science fiction isn't properly defined as having rocket ships, and Westerns aren't properly defined as having cowboys, space Westerns certainly aren't properly defined as cowboys on rockets. What we want is a definition of the "Western" as a genre that relies neither on location nor specific era. We want to be able to define Westerns without the West. In essence, we're trying to separate the gold from the soil in the Western genre.

This isn't to say that setting is of no account, just that the setting should be more than the American Old West. space Westerns treat outer space in the same fashion that the landscape was treated in Westerns. In "The Martian Way" by Isaac Asimov, the twelve-month drive to the rings of Saturn and the serenity felt by the Scavengers (space-junk wranglers who must brand their catch before sending it planet-side) in the vastness of space during their spacewalks both play important roles. The story hinges on the fact that scientists have decided that human beings can't tolerate being in the outer space environment for longer than six months without severe psychological harm, yet the protagonists of the story would need to remain on ship for twelve. But the Scavengers are special—a breed apart—simply by the virtue of their living on the frontier. Living on the frontier has changed them, and they are able to do what any Earth-bound human cannot: head out into the outer reaches, round up some ice from the rings of Saturn, and drive the newly acquired stock back home. The interaction with the "landscape" of space is a major theme in "The Martian Way," as is the protagonists' desire to roundup the ice and deliver it back home in order to break the government-imposed restrictions on Earth water. Taking a spacewalk and viewing the rings of Saturn were treated just as vividly in this story as riding along a trail in the Painted Desert in a story by Louis L'Amour.

Similarly, in the series Firefly, the multiple planets, the terra-forming, the literal space between planets, and even the ship all play the important role of the landscape. Joss Whedon ties the landscape to the ship by naming the ship after an important valley in the series. This importance is signified by the multiple occurrences of the word serenity—in the name of the valley where the war ended, in the name of the ship that Captain Reynolds commanded after the war, in the name of the series' pilot episode, and in the name of the major motion picture that followed the series. In this way "serenity" doesn't represent a peaceful state of being so much as where you are: a location, a landscape. In Firefly, like in Moebius' quote, and in Asimov's "The Martian Way," it seems that we'll only find peace and liberty far from civilized intervention.

The setting (ship/space travel) becomes an important active character that helps to define and drive the action. The spaceship becomes both a means to access the landscape (the horse) and the landscape itself. Science fiction fans have been known to become as emotionally attached to their spacecraft as Western genre fans become to their frontier. It isn't about interplanetary wars or extraterrestrial travel or the advance of technology or the destiny of forging an empire that motivates the characters in a space Western to act, but it is the personal convictions of the characters themselves—their desire to live unfettered — that drive the story, convictions that could only have been formed in that specific environment. Space Westerns, much like Westerns, are about the impact of living independently on the hostile frontier, and how living in a harsh frontier environment shapes your actions, lifestyle, and culture.

Learning the Tropes: The Western Character

. . .to discuss the Western genre is to address neither a single Western film nor even all Westerns, but rather a system of conventions which identifies Western films as such. —Thomas Schatz, Film Genre and the Genre Film

The standard synopsis of a classical Western goes like this: The hero rides into an area of civilized space on the edge of the frontier, performs some derring-do—rights a wrong, saves the girl, defeats the villain (sometimes all three in one fell swoop)—and hopefully learns something about humanity (his own or in general) along the way.

The overall pattern isn't anything new. Joseph Campbell defines it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the monomyth, more popularly called the hero's journey.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

It's been seen again and again in stories around the world, since the beginning of narration: the romances (chivalric romances) begat the scientific romances begat the planetary romances begat space opera.

But what is different about this pattern, the essential progressive step as seen in Westerns and by extension space Westerns, is who defines what is right and wrong. It would be unheard of in a Medieval Romance to not lay the foundation of morality at God's feet. Westerns take place in a setting where traditional law and order has broken down, which leaves it open for people to define for themselves. You'll see it time and time again in Westerns: the hero doing what he believes he's morally obligated to do (out on the edge of civilization), rather than what he's ethically, legally, or even sensibly obligated to do. In the Western it often falls on the hero to provide some semblance of justice, rather than relying on some external authority.

In The American Monomyth, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence argue for the monomyth's existence in a distinctly American flavor and define the pattern as:

A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.

This is the monomyth that was derived from the Western genre, as seen in stories like Shane and The Lone Ranger. This is the same monomyth that can be found in science fiction, from Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon to Star Trek, Quantum Leap, and Sliders.

Even John Cawelti in The Six Gun Mystique Sequel defines the essential elements of a Western as:

"a 'complex of characters' comprised of 'townspeople or agents of civilization, the savages or outlaws who threaten this first group, and the heroes . . . possessing many qualities and skills of the savages but fundamentally committed to the townspeople.'" [4]

And you can see this same basic pattern in Serenity, with the tension between the Alliance, the Reavers, and the crew of Serenity. You even see this in Star Trek, where the townspeople are the planet colonists, miners, or what have you, the savages are the Klingons, Gorn, or Romulans, and the heroes (who possess many of the same qualities of the savages that the townspeople lack) are the crew of the Enterprise.

Nimbus III

Dust, horses and gunsligners choke the air of Nimbus III, in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Elsewhere, Star Trek lacks the obvious trappings of a Western, but it still has a Western's plot structure.

It was H. L. Gold's criticism of early space Westerns that prejudiced early science fiction writers to conclude that if it's good then it can't be a space Western. And yet, there must be more to it than that. For a space Western to exist there must be something to come from it beyond the setting. There must be some reason that space Westerns continue to be produced.

Despite the commonly held belief otherwise, in the '20s through to the '50s science fiction and Westerns coexisted happily side-by-side. The early writers of science fiction pulps often wrote for the Western pulps as well, and vice versa. It wasn't uncommon for a writer at the time to write in many different genres. As was often the case, a story turned down for Wild West Yarns, would be slightly rewritten (call the rabbit a smerp) and sent to Amazing Space Thrills. In a like manner, the same back lots, screenwriters, and actors who were used for stories like Flash Gordon and Battlestar Galactica were also used for the likes of Billy the Kid and Bonanza. With all of the writing in multiple genres, it is sheer lunacy to try to believe that science fiction wasn't influenced by the Western genre. Science fiction throughout its existence clearly borrowed from the Western genre writing field.

Gene Roddenberry wrote Westerns before he wrote Star Trek, which was his first science fiction story to be broadcast. So it's not surprising that Star Trek reflected his earlier Western tendencies: treating the stories as morality tales of good versus evil, traveling from planet to planet (i.e. town to town) making things right. It's even reflected in his protagonist (who sums up the space Western genre quite well): Captain Kirk is from Iowa; he only works in outer space. But there were things that Roddenberry could do in science fiction that he wouldn't have been able to do in a traditional Western—especially regarding race and gender issues. And that's why he didn't simply write State Trek, a story about the U.S. Cavalry on a five year tour of duty traveling across the American West: to explore the new frontier; to seek out new peoples; to boldly go where no civilized man has gone before.


It's about time that we set Bat Durston free, my friends. He's committed none of the crimes against literature that he's been accused of. He was run out of town in the '50s and he's been punished long enough. It's about time that we let these stories take their place in the lineage of American literature as an extension of the early Leatherstocking tales through to the Dime novels and novels of the American West. It's true, in many ways they're essentially the same stories in different dress, and that's all right; there is a certain continuity to it all.

Stories that are competently written often escape the space Western label, while a story that is undeniably a space Western and yet remains well written is called "a space Western, but a good space Western." A perfect example of this returns us to the essay by J. B. Priestley,

The third kind [of science fiction], still sparsely represented, differs from the other two in being genuinely imaginative and having some literary merit. One of its authors, whose work can be found sampled here [in New Statesman], is Mr. Ray Bradbury.[5]

Following that statement, Priestley cites a story which could only have come from The Martian Chronicles, and yet he places it on a level far above the low-born Western-derived science fiction—failing to note that The Martian Chronicles contains many of the elements that he has just previously decried. He ignores Ray Bradbury's own rocket ships, atomising pistols, and mysterious planets—and The Martian Chronicles' obvious analogy to the taming of the American Wild West.

Northwest of Earth

C. L. Moore launched her writing career by creating Northwest Smith, a smuggler who deals with colonists and "planetary primitives."

In the fifty years since, the reputation of space Westerns as a whole seems to be turning around. The first signs of this were in the '80s with the appearance of overt space Westerns such as Outland and several children's shows. The '90s brought several anime explorations of the space Western concept with the likes of Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, and Outlaw Star. It became more prevalent when the three of Firefly's thirteen episodes had been nominated for Hugo Awards and the motion picture Serenity actually won both a Hugo and a Nebula. Several notable writers are willing to let the old wounds heal, among them George R. R. Martin, Bruce Bethke, David Gerrold, and Orson Scott Card. That isn't to say that 90% of the space Western sub-genre isn't crud, but the remaining 10% that is competently written shouldn't be ignored just for the fact that they've been labeled as "space Westerns." Sturgeon's Law holds true. Some of the obvious gold consists of: Phillip Nowlan's Buck Rogers; the classic Flash Gordon franchise; C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith series of short stories; Andre Norton's The Beast Master series of novels; Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles; Robert A. Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky (among others); Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek franchise; George Lucas's Star Wars franchise; both incarnations of Battlestar Galactica; select works from Mike Resnick's Birthright universe and Widowmaker series; and, of course, the much more recently appearing and unashamedly space Western works: Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, Firefly, and Serenity. The list could go on mentioning other major and minor works, but that, I believe, is a tentative (and potentially incendiary) list to start.

What these works have in common is what I believe attracts us to space Westerns: they are about people. They are about the triumph of the human spirit over gross matter; the sense that while technology continually advances, the spirit and essence of mankind, the character of humanity, what it basically means to be human, does not change; that at heart, no matter what technological advancements may come or however far we may roam from our birthplace, we will still remain human, driven to the frontier to create order. This, I believe, is what initially attracted us to Westerns, what powered the rise of science fiction during the Golden Age, and what continues to attract us to space Westerns. Whatever the future brings, we will still remain prone to the same flights of ignorance and arrogance periodically interrupted with the same intermittent bouts of wonder and fits of imagination that have gotten us to where we are today.

It cannot be doubted that the speedy settlement of these lands constitutes the true interest of the Republic. —Andrew Jackson, 1832[It is] time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement which, in many ways, may hold the key to our future on Earth. —John F. Kennedy, 1961
. . .breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities. . . —Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis, 1893. . .to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before. . . —Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, 1966

Sound alike? They should. They are merely frontier sensibilities that highlight our desire to conquer the stars. If this is your idea of science fiction, welcome to it. You'll find it across the galaxy!

Footnotes

[1] Thoughts in the Wilderness "They Come From Inner Space," p. 21, 1955 (New Statesman, 1953)

[2] Le ZOMBIE #36, p. 9

[3] Space Opera by Brian Aldiss, p. xi, September 1973

[4] The Six-gun Mystique Sequel, p. 29

[5] Thoughts in the Wilderness "They Come From Inner Space" p.21, 1955 (New Statesman, 1953)


Nathan Lilly edits Thaumatrope, SpaceWesterns, and Everyday Weirdness. He provides web development services to SF pros through GreenTentacles.