As you might imagine, the first time I heard the term ‘Space Western’ my first thought was Space What?!?!
I mean, who wants to see a cowboy ride around a rocket? I like science in my science fiction, thank you.
Well, I’ve since been educated a bit. You see, there was this little show called Firefly and this nifty follow-on movie called Serenity. That’s when I realized, that, you know, Space Western isn’t so bad afterall. Granted, really, some SF authors have been doing this for a while anyway. The general concept, that a frontier is a frontier, whether it be on Earth or on some distant world, has circulated throughout science fiction. Heinlein used it quite well in a number of his stories, for example. To be certain, it is something of wish fulfillment, that the new frontiers of space will be similar to the American West.
Still, the basic idea of transposing a time of societal change, a sense of exploration, and the tough, independent individuals is one that captures the imagination. This is not the sterile Wayland Corp of the Aliens movies. This frontier is a place of wild adventure and excitement. Prospectors, priests, whores, businessmen, doctors, robber-barons, and a dozen other types populate this frontier with people we can identify with, understand, love, and hate. Western stories are popular because of the spirit of independence, the satisfaction of a hero driven by his or her own strength of purpose and convictions who succeeds on his or her own efforts.
And of course Space Western trades in some of the traditions of western for the trappings of space. The horse and the six gun trade out for a space ship and a blaster, but it retains the sense of exploration and the spirit of independence. Space Western is often about the people and their stories more than it is about the technology. And, when it comes down to it, the best stories often are.
Some excellent examples of Space Western, both old and new: Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, Joss Whedon’s TV Series Firefly, the original Star Wars Trilogy (Han Solo is basically a cowboy and the Millenium Falcon his horse), the John Carter books by Edgar Rice Borroughs are pretty much a cowboy directly transposed into space opera. Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is probably borderline as to whether you could consider it Space Western or not, but the principles are there, I think. In any case, that is a good selection to read… and if you want more, my short story: Look To The Stars, is Space Western and proud of it.