When Genres Collide (Part One)

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I was apparently one of the very few science fiction fans who wasn’t blown away by Guardians of the Galaxy, certainly being less impressed than those who voted it Best Dramatic Presentation for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2015.  I wasn’t bored when I saw it in a theater, but it went in one eye and out the other, and at the time, I figured it was because it all too obviously followed the same story structure as The Avengers:  a gang of ragtag but super-powerful and/or talented misfits are gathered together to keep a super-powerful MacGuffin from falling into the hands of a super-powerful would-be conqueror, but must learn to get along with each other and overcome their differences after a crushing defeat so they can achieve a final victory.  When I saw it again on television, I unfortunately was bored, and not just because of the feeling that Marvel was merely putting its characters through a series of repetitive mechanical motions had been further reinforced by the mediocre Age of Ultron. It became clear on this second viewing that Guardians of the Galaxy was a fake science fiction film. Although some hardcore science fiction fans don’t consider the comic book movie as properly belonging to the genre in the first place, what I mean by this is that it is a movie that didn’t need to be told as science fiction, since so much of it is obviously lifted from other genres. Like too many other supposed science fiction movies and TV shows of the past forty or thirty years, GotG shamelessly borrows characters and plot elements from Westerns and war movies alike, and also pilfers the crime genre as well, specifically the heist and prison film subgenres.  You can take the same basic plot, characters and devices (minus their alien attributes, of course), and transplant them to 1930s New York City, or 1870s Texas with little difficulty or change.

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The notion of the “fake science fiction film” is one  I first encountered in the critiques of Eighties science fiction film made by Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova, among others, attacking Hollywood’s tendency to take hoary old cliches and devices from outside genres, and thinking that simply placing them in outer space or the future they could sell them as science fiction to an ignorant public.  Specifically, they both attacked Star Wars as a prime example of a fake science fiction film (today’s fanboys would no doubt be aghast at them and verbally tar and feather them the same way they do Neil DeGrasse Tyson). However, as far as I know, it was given its proper name by the late SF film historian John Brosnan in his excellent book The Primal Screen, and who provided a very simple way to determine whether something was “fake” or “real” science fiction: can the story still support itself after you remove of the science fiction aspects? If yes, it’s fake; if the answer is no, that removal of the science fiction elements also removes crucial parts of the storyline, then it is genuine science fiction. As an example, Brosnan compared Alien Nation (1988) and The Hidden (1987), which are outwardly similar as “cop buddy” films where one of the police officers happens to be an alien, but actually very different in that one is fake science fiction whereas the other is real science fiction. Alien Nation didn’t need to have one of its officers be an alien since the movie proves to be no different than Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Red Heat or any of the other “buddy” films that glutted the box office in the Eighties. Mandy Pantikin’s cauliflower-headed alien could just as well come from any real-life country, and the storyline would not need to be altered a bit. The Hidden, on the other hand, is completely dependent on its central science fiction premise for it to work as not just a movie but as a thriller, being very similar to Hal Clement’s Needle in its basic plot about an alien criminal able to insinuate itself into and take control of host bodies. Another example of a fake science fiction film cited by Brosnan is Predator (1987), which is normally thought of as being a blatant attempt to combine Aliens (1986) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) with some of The Terminator (1984) thrown in for good measure. However, it’s really just another iteration of Richard Connell’s classic short story The Most Dangerous Game, which was itself made into a superb motion picture in 1932 and copied many times since. When you get down to it, the alien predator is really no different from Spider-Man villain Kraven the Hunter or any other variation of Count Zaroff that has come down the pike in nearly a century of homages and rip-offs.

Obviously, a good genre hybrid needs to satisfy the requirements and criteria of a good story in both of the genres it derives from in order to be considered successful, but it also needs to go beyond this, and find a way to get these separate and often disparate generic criteria to work together and play off one another without compromising either. Too many attempts at genre hybridization unfortunately merely try to mash together cliches or re-stage familiar storylines but when done properly, it can result in not just a satisfying story, but one that illuminates the relationships between its parent genres. Let’s now look at some examples to see how it can be done right; we’ll begin with hybrids of the Western genre this week, since as unlikely as it sounds, they’ve been among the most common, or at the very least, the most visible.

The Western

 

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This is probably the most familiar of all genres to be fused with science fiction, namely because it has long been the most contentious. From almost the very beginning, serious science fiction fans and writers have exasperatedly tried to explain to novice writers  that you simply can’t take the conventions of the Western, transplant them to outer space or the far future, and call the results science fiction. In fact, the very term “space opera” was originally a term of derision, comparing the more juvenile pulps to “horse operas,” itself  a derisive description for the formulaic “B” Westerns that were a major part of the film industry from the Twenties through the Forties and was later applied to “dime store” Western novels as well. When Galaxy magazine was launched in 1950 with the intent of providing a consistent source of high-quality socially relevant SF, it made it clear in a back-page editorial that it would not allow hack writers to lazily attempt to quasi-plagiarize stories by Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour and then pretend they could be published alongside Jack Williamson and Clifford Simak. As a result, “Bat Durston” has become a pejorative term among SF fans to describe stories and books (especially poorly-written ones) and sometimes even authors that demonstrate a complete lack of awareness of this very basic fact.

 

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Although the Bat Durston story is now extremely rare in written SF, and the term itself has become much less commonly used, it has ironically done more to increase the public’s awareness of the genre’s existence than anything else. Both Star Trek and Star Wars qualify as Bat Durstons, as they were pitched specifically as “Space Westerns,” with Star Trek even going by the working title of “Wagon Train to the Stars.” One reason it’s no longer considered an insult for a story to be called a “Space Western” is that so many beloved media franchises (as opposed to literary ones) have embraced the term wholeheartedly. Of course, I am speaking specifically here of not just Star Wars and Star Trek, but Firefly, possibly the most blatant attempt to disguise a Western as science fiction since the 1981 movie Outland or possibly even 1969’s Moon Zero Two. Whereas forty or thirty years earlier it would have been rejected by many in mainstream fandom as a typical Hollywood misunderstanding of what science fiction really is, it is now used as a litmus test in some quarters to determine one’s credentials as a “hardcore geek,” an attitude I decidedly do not embrace myself. Long before Joss Whedon started making a fool of himself on Twitter, he didn’t impress me with the way he paraded his ignorance of the science fiction genre when hyping Firefly in interviews at the time of its premiere. That the show managed to succeed at all as science fiction is due likely to showrunner Tim Minear, the Gene L. Coon to Whedon’s Roddenberry. Minear has demonstrated a considerable knowledge of science fiction in both its written and filmed formats, and was most likely responsible for such concessions to scientific realism as the lack of sound in space scenes, or having all planets visited being products of terraforming to explain why no life support gear was necessary. He was also likely responsible for the show’s libertarian slant; although Whedon has since gone guano de murcielago crazy with far-left politics, Minear is an admitted moderate conservative with libertarian leanings. For this reason, I’m especially disappointed that his planned adaptation of Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress has never gotten off the ground.

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An even more overt libertarian message is laid out in the 1957 novel A Planet for Texans by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, which would belatedly win a Prometheus Award forty-two years later, but more importantly to the subject of this essay, it’s one of the best examples of how to merge to conventions of the Western genre into a science fiction storyline while remaining good science fiction. In fact, it’s not a Western at all: despite taking place on the planet “New Texas” where gigantic cattle-like beasts roam, characters dress in stereotypical cowboy garb, and the type of frontier lawlessness depicted in the likes of Shane and My Darling Clementine runs rampant (this is a world where citizens have the right to assassinate politicians if they feel their freedoms are being infringed), it’s pure science fiction, albeit nowhere near being hard science fiction. If anything, it can be read as a satiric inversion of the Bat Durston story, where six-shooters and Stetsons replace ray guns and bubble helmets instead of the other way around. It is also a serious attempt at trying to depict what a pure libertarian society would look like, making it approachable to the reader by drawing a direct analogy to the most lawless era in American history, before antitrust laws put an end to “robber-baron” industrial monopolies, and despite being sympathetic to the such a society also questions the practicality and morality of such a system, ultimately concluding that a civilizing influence is necessary to achieve justice and order in a truly free society.

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Both Michael Crichton’s film Westworld and the current series based on it are also similarly not actual Westerns but straight-up science fiction using one genre to comment on another. The movie specifically adopted certain Western cliches and conventions (not tropes, dammit!) to comment on the distorted and sanitized view of American history that winds up getting commodified and sold as entertainment (also a theme that recurs in Crichton’s similarly-plotted novel Jurassic Park, only instead it comments on how entertainment franchises sell romantic vision of nature and wildlife in the name of profit), using science fiction conceits as rhetorical vehicle to get this message across. The artificial landscapes in both the movie and TV show do not just replicate a distorted view of history, but serve as mirrors for our own selves and ask us to reflect about the role we play in this distortion. In the movie, we identify very closely with the characters played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, who like us movie audience members, willingly partake in a fantasy view of history and the world sold as entertainment.  The new series has seemingly reversed this scenario by making the robots the main characters and the human guests the antagonists, but it shares the same concerns and makes an even deeper critique on not just our compliance but complicity with the misrepresentation of history in the name of entertainment, as the robots serve as stand-ins for those who lived in the actual past and are helpless to have their true stories told properly. Whereas Westworld the movie comes out of the revisionist Western movement in the American cinema at the time that attacked romantic notions of the Old West, Westworld the TV series comes out of the television tradition of Deadwood, which aimed to provide as gritty and raw depiction of the past as possible (a goal which hasn’t been limited to Westerns, as Boardwalk Empire is also very much part of this agenda of new realism and deglamorization as well).

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So far, all the examples we have discussed aren’t really hybrids; they’re just science fiction stories with Western trappings. The reasons why they don’t qualify as true Westerns is quite simple: whereas science fiction is among the most wide-ranging of genres across  time and space, the Western is the among the most limited.  Like a number of other types of historical fiction from around the world-the Chinese wuxia story,  the German Heimat story, the Italian peplum, the Japanese jideigeki – it is a genre limited to a certain country or region during a specific period of time. Its closest relative is the very similar gaucho literature of South America, and like it and the other nationally-specific literatures mentioned would probably be considered a subgenre of historical fiction had it not become such a prolific and popular genre, not just in North America but all around the world.  It’s not surprising then that it is difficult to write a story that’s a genuine hybrid of both science fiction and Western that satisfies the demands of both genres, making use of the idioms, themes and premises that can be shared in a mutually satisfactory manner. But as Lisa Joy, one of the showrunners of the recent Westworld series has noted, the Western and science fiction share one major thing in common, a mutual preoccupation with the notion of frontiers. Writer Andrew Liptak has noted that many of the great early practitioners of Space Opera-Smith, Burroughs and especially Jack Williamson-grew up in or worked for a time in the American West when it was still an open frontier and that the pioneer mentality thoroughly permeates their stories. One of the papers I wrote in film class in fact centered on this similarity, specifically through an analysis of the first Toy Story film (stay with me, here), arguing that Buzz and Woody were stand-ins for respectively, the science fiction and Western genres, in which I not only pointed out the shared frontier mythology, but how both genres have been criticized for it, one for extolling a mythic, overly-romanticized view of the past, the other for a simplistic and one-dimensional vision of the future. Crichton’s Westworld is in fact a critique of not only the Western’s approach to the frontier theme, presenting it as downright dangerous when conflated with the complexities of the real world, but with its pessimistic attitude towards human and technological failure, critiques science fiction’s approach to the same frontier theme as well, and the TV series continues with this double-sided, Janus-faced critique of our tendency to overly romanticize the past and future alike.

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So is a successful hybrid of the Western and science fiction genres really possible? Why yes, of course!  In fact, one of the best-ever TV shows made in either genre was such a hybrid. No, not Star Trek or Firefly, but The Wild Wild West, which was not only a clever variation on the TV horse operas of the period, but worked brilliantly as science fiction as well. Featuring both fantastic science fiction gadgetry (time machines, robots, and the other infernal machinery employed by the show’s rogue gallery) as well as plausible devices that were nonetheless decidedly out-of-place (any of the spy gadgetry used by Robert Conrad and Ross Martin) in a period Western setting, the show slyly commented on how the hi-tech spy thrillers that were all the rage at the time were just descendants of the Western adventures of years past. It thus commented on our fascination with technology the way only science fiction can, exaggerating it to reflect on contemporary trends and obsessions, as well as more subversively commenting on how all television Westerns are in fact also imaginative fictions that are just as fanciful as it was. In fact, along with Blade Runner and Tron, it’s one of the few instances where a media offshoot has directly influenced SF literature, as it had a marked impact on the later Steampunk subgenre and fandom. Such Steampunk novels as Joe R. Lansdale’s Zeppelins West and Michael Resnick’s The Buntline Special are direct descendants of the show, with the type of technology and storylines imagined by Jules Verne placed in the American West imagined by Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour. Of course, the show had its own antecedents, going all the way back to 1868 with proto-science fiction dime novels such as The Steam Man of the Prairies, and the very infrequent instances where a B Western included science fiction elements, such as Tim McCoy’s The Ghost Patrol in which the bad guys use a death ray to down mail planes and most famously Gene Autry’s serial The Phantom Empire in which a futuristic city lies beneath the Earth’s surface, just under the hero’s ranch.

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What these early films had in common is that they were usually marketed not as SF at all but as typical “oaters,” no different from the usual, more mundane stories and movies (scroll up yonder for The Phantom Empire lobby card). As fantastic as the SF gadgetry was, it was usually subordinate to the Western elements, and easier to swallow than the aliens and space journeys of the SF pulps and serials.  One can be a fan of both genres, but one’s expectations are different from when one picks up a Western and one picks up an SF book. An alternate history story featuring advanced technology for the period such as Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South can be sold in either genre, as while it depicts a past that never was, it is nonetheless one that is plausible and conceivably could have been possible. When aliens or other examples of sheer speculation are introduced, that’s when the story is necessarily sold as science fiction, as we have completely exited the realm of the conceivably possible. Writing a good story about an alien encounter in the Old West comes with its own set of difficulties due to the need to balance the fantastic premise with the gritty and solidly realistic setting and treatment expected of a Western. The results are usually awkward when the approach is heavy-handed, as the 2011 movie Cowboys and Aliens demonstrated, but when treated lightly, as with Howard Waldrop’s delightful novelette Night of the Cooters or the bizarre but lovable Mexican musical comedy film Ship of Monsters, they can also be highly entertaining. At least one great Golden Age author, Theodore Sturgeon, turned to the American West (old and modern) so often, that an anthology of his SF stories in this setting, Sturgeon’s West, was published in 1973. Considering that not just the premise of aliens but the theme of alienation itself were ever-present in Sturgeon’s work, it seems only natural that he would choose it as a setting; with its sparse populace and foreboding landscape, it was an appropriate locale for the stories of loss, loneliness and escape that he was famous for.

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Finally, I cannot end this discussion without mentioning my favorite product of this particular hybridization, the “Cowboy and Dinosaurs” story. It’s rather a natural outgrowth, considering that the American and Canadian West have provided some of the richest Mesozoic fossil troves in the world. The history of paleontology is in fact intertwined with the history of both country’s regions, as the fossil hunts of the mid-late 19th Century helped to drive their economic growth and cultural development and contributed to the mythology of the region, as demonstrated by the enduring interest in the infamous Cope-Marsh rivalry. It’s quite appropriate then that when W.J.T. Mitchell wrote The Last Dinosaur Book, a study of the iconicity of dinosaurs in American culture, the cover illustration depicted an Alamosaurus fighting off a pack of dino-rustlers that originally had been made for Sharon Farber’s “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi” when it was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.  Of course, other science fiction writers have been unable to resist the idea, including two of the authors we’ve already mentioned, Harry Turtledove with “The Green Buffalo” and Howard Waldrop with “Green Brother,” as well as Brett Davis’s novels Bone Wars and its sequel Two Tiny Claws. But the premise has perhaps been made most familiar through such movies as The Valley of Gwangi and The Beast of Hollow Mountain, both based on stories originally written by Willis O’Brien.

And what of other genres, you ask? Well, in our next installment we’ll look at how science fiction has been combined with genre closest to it…and it’s probably not the genre you were expecting.

 

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