Lang­ford goes West while Bon­nie ’ fesses up.

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

Not many peo­ple re­mem­ber the orig­i­nal soap op­eras – nev­erend­ing US ra­dio se­ri­als, like The Archers but re­lent­lessly com­mer­cial and called soap opera be­cause spon­sors mostly tried to sell you soap. ( James Thurber has a long funny sur­vey of the soaps in The Beast In Me And Other An­i­mals.) The story qual­ity was low, the cliché count high. Nat­u­rally, unin­spired hack Westerns were soon dubbed horse op­eras, and in 1941 Wil­son Tucker – him­self a nifty SF au­thor – coined the phrase “space opera” for the “hacky, grind­ing, stink­ing, out­worn, space­ship yarn.”

At­ti­tudes change: New Space Opera as writ­ten by the late lamented Iain M Banks is ever so highly re­spected in SF cir­cles. But the West­ern con­nec­tion used to be too close for com­fort when pulp-mag­a­zine au­thors re­cy­cled horse opera as space opera, with six- shot ray­guns and ra­dium claim- jump­ing on the Milky Way’s Wild West­ern fron­tier:

“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.’”

That’s not the real thing but a cun­ning spoof. From the 1950s, Galaxy mag­a­zine ran a regular ad with West­ern and space- opera ver­sions of the same hack story open­ing ( guess which ap­pears above), plus the stri­dent claim YOU’LL NEVER FIND IT IN GALAXY! Never mind the crit­ics who rudely re­torted that you did oc­ca­sion­ally find it in Galaxy, and not just in ads.

There are some good SF Westerns, like Bob Shaw’s se­ri­ous “Skir­mish On A Sum­mer Morn­ing” or – played for laughs – Poul An­der­son’s and Gor­don Dick­son’s “The Sher­iff Of Canyon Gulch”, in which im­pres­sion­able alien teddy- bears adopt Wild West ways, and Howard Wal­drop’s “Night Of The Coot­ers”, where a stray Mar­tian in­va­sion cylin­der from The War Of The Worlds lands in 1890s Texas to be­devil the lo­cal sher­iff. But mostly it was Bat Durston stuff.

Bat came sud­denly to mind, a nasty habit of his, when I read The New Yorker’s ex­pla­na­tion of how an out­right SF novel – Sta­tion Eleven by Emily St John Man­del – crashed the ex­clu­sive “lit­er­ary fic­tion” short­list of the US Na­tional Book Awards. It’s “set in a familiar genre uni­verse, in which a pan­demic has de­stroyed civil­i­sa­tion. The twist – the thing that makes Sta­tion Eleven Na­tional Book Award ma­te­rial – is that the sur­vivors are artists.” If that’s all it takes… “Bat Durston, have you gone plumb loco?” grit­ted the space­poke’s raw- boned pard­ner Lefty, scratch­ing his ear with his snub- nosed, six- cham­bered neu­tron de­po­lariser. “What in tar­na­tion you do­ing there?”

“Reckon I gonna need a mite more gam­boge in them thar high­lights,” drawled Durston lazily, squeez­ing paint from a space- ra­tions tube onto his big rugged pal­ette. “If art’s what them dan­ged Na­tional Book Award judges want, art is what they gonna get.” Smoke curled from Bat’s sto­gie as, nar­row- eyed and grim- jawed, he plied his brush with the speed of a strik­ing sex­crazed strooka. Time am­bled by like an ornery space- do­gie. Out­side, space- tum­ble­weed rolled across great vac­uum- prairies, past the float­ing mesas of the west­ern as­ter­oid belt.

“Shucks,” Lefty spat at last, “a five- year- old kid could paint bet­ter than that.”

Bat grinned a wide, non-representational space­grin. “I’m fig­gerin’ we’re not just fixed with the NBA – this is a cinch for the Turner Prize!”

The West­ern con­nec­tion used to be too close for com­fort

David Lang­ford is spurring his Mus­tang- class speed­ster to head off the green­skins at the pass.

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