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John Scalzi – Is Science Fiction This Era’s Western?

Hey, folks. The e-mail I’m going to answer this week features an epiphany. How often does that happen? Here’s the e-mail:

I was watching the trailer for next year’s Cowboys & Aliens movie when I had an epiphany: Science fiction and Westerns are really a lot alike, separated by several decades. Both are mainly action-oriented, both are meant to appeal to young men. The difference is now westerns are dead. Do you think science fiction will also go the way of westerns, and what will replace it if it does?

With all due apologies to my correspondent, I don’t know that the idea that science fiction is the new Western is all that groundbreaking — if nothing else, the first Toy Story made it explicit that the frontier of space was replacing the Wild West as the locus of the imagination when it had Buzz Lightyear eclipse Woody as the cool toy. And while Westerns aren’t 100 percent dead — a couple a year still pop out — they’ve gone to a kind of meta, kind of arty, kind of self-referential place and have been there at least since Unforgiven, in 1992. When the big Western film of the year is a remake of True Grit by the Coen brothers, and the most financially successful Western of the last decade is the one about two gay cowboys, it’s pretty clear this isn’t your grandfather’s Western genre anymore.
Meanwhile science fiction and its overlapping brethren genres
of fantasy and comic-book films have become the places where Hollywood
goes to draw young men to the theaters (although not just young
men). Science fiction has had a good run of it — it’s been a
consistent draw for that demographic for more than three decades — and
it doesn’t look like it’s going to run out of steam anytime soon.

But could it go the way of the Western? Sure. Tastes change, and even during science fiction’s reign since Star Wars came out, in 1977, there have been times when it took a backseat to other
genres, from fantasy to cop films to comedies. That said, there are a few
things science fiction has going for it that Westerns don’t, which can
help contribute to its longevity.

1. It’s infinite. The
general era in which the classic Westerns took place is between 1850
and 1900, with the 1880s (the era of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral)
being ground zero for Western mythology, and it’s all — by
definition — taking place in the U.S. West. Science fiction, on the
other hand, can take place today or in a time close enough to it not to
matter (see Iron Man, Inception, District 9, Transformers), in the far future (Avatar, Star Trek, Wall-E), or even the past (the aforementioned Cowboys & Aliens, Back to the Future Part III, and even, technically speaking, all of the Star Wars films). Nor is it tied to any one location; it can and does happen
anywhere in the universe it wants to. This gives filmmakers quite a
lot of ways to at least superficially keep their films novel.

2. It doesn’t have to deal with uncomfortable facts about our nation’s history. Hey, remember how the Native Americans were always the bad guys in those Westerns? Yeah, that’s kind of awkward now. Not to mention all the other racial stereotyping in the Western genre or the really sort of horrible things about the actual U.S. West back in the day. If you’re a filmmaker, you can spend your time tiptoeing around those various land mines, or you can put everything in the
future, where the bad guys can be aliens, or robots, or alien robots — not humans of any sort at all (unless they’re zombies). Which
really takes the pressure off. This is not to say filmmakers today
can’t and don’t make fools of themselves — hello, Jar Jar! — but it
does mean that science fiction as a genre doesn’t have to deal with the
real-world baggage that Westerns do.

3. It’s supported in the culture. Science
fiction isn’t just popular at the movies. It’s a huge segment of the
video-game industry, as anyone who has lost hundreds of hours this year
playing StarCraft II or Halo: Reach will tell you. It’s
perennially popular on television, with its own cable network as well
as shows on major networks. Rumor has it that people even write books and
comic books in the genre. Westerns? Not so much at the moment:
they’re hanging on in books, but Western-themed video games and
television shows are few and far between. This matters because every
medium feeds others. Now, science fiction can decline in these
other mediums as well — Western-themed writing and television once
thrived — but its health in these other fields is a positive sign for its films.

So, no, I don’t expect science fiction to go the way of Westerns anytime soon. On the other hand, if Cowboys & Aliens is the hit its filmmakers hope it is, it might breathe a little more
life into the Western genre. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

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