19 Oct 2015

Hybrid Vigor in Genre Fiction (or “You Got Fantasy in My Western!”)


Guest post by Tex Thompson

You know, I WAS feeling pretty good about this post. “Man, I’m going to write about genre mash-ups and what spec-fic and Westerns have in common and why they’re so awesome when you put them together and how it’s really all about Beowulf, and everybody’s going to be all like, ‘Oh my God Tex, you’re so cool and rad—please teach me to be like you,’ and I’m finally going to be Internet-famous—WHO WANTS TO TOUCH ME?”

Then I realized that that had already been done.

Like…twenty years ago.

By Pixar.

I mean, think about it. They paired up Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Old-school pro and new kid on the block. Western and SFF. And that makes for a cute little analogy and all, but here’s what’s blowing my mind: Woody and Buzz are perfect symbols for everything people love and loathe about their respective genres.

Take the Western, for starters. It’s been a moribund genre for years, always dying but never quite dead, gasping along in the public consciousness with a big-budget movie once every couple of years. Sometimes they’re excellent. Often they’re execrable. And they  trade heavily in stock characters. Here’s the hard-bitten stranger, the winsome frontier woman, the black-hatted desperado. As my friend Jonathan said, “Westerns often feel like a game of chess: there might be two million possible games, but you’re playing with the same pieces every time.”

On the other hand, think about all those people who gave you grief for reading those LegendSword of the Elf-Castle Prophecy books back in middle school (or, you know, last week). Elves are dumb. Spaceships are silly. And isn’t it really the same story every time? Something-something-special-snowflake, blah, blah, saves the world? My man Jonathan again: “The reason I’ve stopped picking up most fantasy novels is that I’m tired of reading about main characters who turn out to be Goku.”

Of course, we know better. When you love a genre, you see it for what it can be, not just what it has been, or what it often is. You know that Westerns aren’t just hats and horses and hoary old tropes, and that spec-fic isn’t just a self-indulgent smorgasbord of magic swords and space-lasers and Chosen One clichés. In fact, I’d say that these are two of the most potent and potentially limitless genres we have. Whether we’re talking about civilization vs. the wild frontier, law vs. lawlessness, or just the upheaval caused when the railroad comes through town, the Western is fundamentally about the conflict between the world you know and the one you don’t—and spec-fic is all about the one you don’t. It could be a future that might happen, a past that never did, or the present seen through a funhouse mirror. Is it any wonder that these two genres blend so well together?

And let’s be clear: it’s not that these mash-ups are always winners. When they’re badly handled, you can get the worst of both worlds: there’s Woody with his pathetic, outmoded pull-string (“There’s a snake in my boot!”), and there’s special-snowflake Buzz, boorishly bumbling along in the center of his personal universe.

But when they do get their act together, they make a hell of a team. Westerns are GREAT for atmosphere, for turning ordinary people and small-scale problems into gripping drama, for telling epic, unforgettable stories with nothing but forty acres and a mule. (Aliens? Firefly don’t need no stinkin’ aliens—we got a train to rob!) Sci-fi and fantasy give us amazing settings, high-concept premises, imaginary people and places that invite us to reconsider everything we think we know about our own world. (“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed”…and as they did, the shadow of The Dark Tower reached from their world clear through to ours.)

I think that’s what excites me about genre fusions in general, and this one in particular. At their best, they are far more than the sum of their parts. They’re Toy Story, as it was in 1995—a new kind of tale, timelessly told.

Arianne “Tex” Thompson is a home-grown Texas success story. A relentless fantasy enthusiast dual-wielding a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in literature, Tex has since channeled her interests into an epic fantasy Western series, which kicked off in 2014 with the release of ONE NIGHT IN SIXES and its 2015 sequel MEDICINE FOR THE DEAD. In addition to writing cowboys-and-fishmen fantasy, she is an active member of SFWA and currently serves as editor for the DFW Writers Conference. Find her online at www.thetexfiles.com and on Twitter as @tex_maam!

one night in sixes_final


1 Comment

  1. Heather

    Love this post! And not just because I love TOY STORY (though I do), but I love the way you described how and why westerns and sci-fi actually complement each other. You’re absolutely right that mash-ups, when done well, are brilliant and fun and fresh.


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