Sunday, April 29, 2018

#GIFcon18 - The Fantasy of the West

This is part two of "Once Upon a Time in the West" - the keynote address I delivered for the Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations conference in April 2018. 

So in the quest to write a truly American fantasy, I started looking at Westerns, because of course it's the quintessentially American genre.

Question for the assembly: what do you think of when you think of a Western?

There are guns, of course, and horses, and hats, and all those good things - but those are just the set props, the tropes - they are the "envelope" of the genre. Think about fantasy for a sec: the "envelope" includes swords, dragons, and elves, but what is the essence of fantasy? It's magic. It's adventure. Above all, it is 'what if'.

So let's talk about the essence of a Western for a minute. Setting all of the props and movie set backdrops aside for a moment (and speaking strictly in crass generalizations for the time being), here are the essential features of a Western that stood out to me.

What I noticed is that:

1) In a Western, who the hero is or where he is from is ultimately immaterial. He doesn’t turn out to be the son of a wizard or a king, and there’s no Hand of God aiming a prophecy square at his head saying “right, you – get on with it.”

Instead, 2) he becomes heroic by being the person who looks at the problem, hitches up his britches, and decides to go handle it. He's not the hero because he has a special power, a special object, or special knowledge. He's usually not the only person who CAN handle the problem. He's just the only person who WILL.

And 3) that problem is usually intensely small-scale. We’re often talking about one town under siege by bandits, or one rancher’s daughter about to lose her land to the bank, or think of Jack London’s To Build a Fire – the stakes are literally one fire, one person’s life.

And because the stakes are so small, 4) the hero’s deeds will go unnoticed and unrecorded by the outside world – what he does matters intensely to the people involved, but does not change the larger status quo.

And yet, 5) there is an incredibly intense moral code involved.

Let's talk about that last part. Have any of you ever seen HBO’s Deadwood? It’s a revisionist Western series from a few years back, and I’d like for us to look at the first scene together. (Fair warning: there's a hanging involved, and a healthy dose of swearing.)


1. Both the prisoner and the sheriff have the same understanding of the rules of their society: the prisoner was caught stealing horses, and that’s a hanging offense. Which may seem strange and cruel, but think about it with me.

Let’s say I’ve caught you stealing my horses. You don’t seem like a bad sort, really. I understand you were desperate. But out on the frontier, there’s no proper prison to put you in, and we couldn’t really afford to feed you and keep you even if we did, so ultimately I have to either kill you or let you go. In a kinder, more generous world, I would let you go. But in this one, letting you go means taking the risk that you will steal my neighbor’s horses next, and I will be liable and he will be ruined. And so what happens next is going to be hard for both of us, because we are the children of a hard place.

2. Because we have the same understanding of the rules, we can afford to be kind, even friendly to each other, despite our mutual sadness at what must happen next. Ultimately, the sheriff and the prisoner are on the same side - they have a common enemy.

3. When the outlaws show up, they threaten to wreck those rules. And even though it hardly seems to matter whether the prisoner dies by shooting or hanging, the moral stakes are tremendously high here: if we let the outlaws have their way, then we admit total powerlessness in the face of violence and anarchy. We lose order and society itself.

4. The sheriff does not push the prisoner. He beckons him, and waits for the man to step off the platform of his own accord. The sheriff’s kindness goes beyond what is strictly required (asking for last words and wishes) and grants the prisoner this tiny measure of agency in his own death. Again, a small, crucial measure of control as chaos threatens. (He does him a second kindness by jerking his body downwards to give him a quick, sudden death, so that he does not suffer.)

5. In this way, justice prevails – and anarchy loses its power. The outlaw leader has lost status in the eyes of his men, who see nothing else worth fighting over. Everyone leaves peacefully, without a shot fired. In the end, the result is just what it promised to be at the beginning of the scene – the sheriff and his deputy depart for Deadwood, as planned, and the prisoner has died lawfully, (almost) as planned, and the sleeping townsfolk have no idea that anything was ever out of the ordinary. But the WAY in which these things were accomplished feels tremendously weighty, as if we have fought and won the battle for civilization itself in the space of five minutes.

…and that’s what really enchants me about Westerns, y’all – that feeling of living at the edge of the firelight, as it were.

 Are any of you Firefly fans? Do you remember how many episodes were about survival? They were out of food, or out of money, or broke down and out of gas in space. That lack, that want, drove the plot forward (often without any need for a villain), and gave us so many great situations and stories that you can’t do in Star Trek, say, where there is plenty of everything. More than anything, the Western is a tale of scarcity.

So often, the virtues that the fantasy genre fights so valiantly for – charity, mercy, kindness, redemption – have to be painfully rationed in the Western. They are as rare and precious as water in the desert, more valuable for being so difficult to come by.

And to come back to the theme of our event, that to me is where we escape the escapism. A decent story of whatever kind might end with killing the bad guy and going home a hero. But a great story, to my mind, asks us to consider not just whether we CAN do the right thing, but what the right thing IS – and what it might cost. This is how Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter stuck the landing, as it were: there was no victory without cost.

And what is fascinating to me is that we seem to have an endless appetite for stories of any genre that indulge our fantasy of smallness. The ones that say, “remember when we were tiny helpless creatures – when we didn’t worry about crushing the planet with our carbon emissions – when we could be devoured by giant nameless creatures or disappear mysteriously in the night – when we huddled close by the campfire and prayed to survive until morning.”

And this is where it finally clicked for me, y’all. This is where I finally found the connection between the fantasy novels I read in the car and the Western vistas passing by through the window. They DO work well together, because they share a common origin. They are the children of a single timeless parent. Both fantasy and Westerns can trace their lineage back to the time of Beowulf, when the lone Geatish gunslinger first rode into town to liberate the Danes from the ravages of the outlaw Grendel.

At its heart, whether we are talking about outlaws or wilderness survival or the railroad coming through town, whether it is set in Arizona or the Yukon or Japan or outer space, a Western is fundamentally about the conflict between the world you know and the one you don’t… and fantasy is the one you don’t. Literally the only requirement for a fantasy story is that it takes place outside the world as we know it… and that gives it power like no other.

Examining fantasy and Westerns side-by-side is such a valuable way to understand our common past – and I believe that bringing them back together can help us chart a path to a better future. Here’s how.

Part 3: Fictional Identities and Real-World Protagonism --> 

<--Part 1: Building Droughtworld

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