Space Western is a subgenre of science fiction which uses the themes and tropes of Westerns within science-fiction stories. Subtle influences may include exploration of new, lawless frontiers, while more overt influences may feature literal cowboys in outer space who use rayguns and ride robotic horses. Although initially popular, a strong backlash against perceived hack writing caused the genre to become a subtler influence until the 1980s, when it regained popularity. A further critical reappraisal occurred in the 2000s with Firefly.
A space Western may emphasize space exploration as "the final frontier". These Western themes may be explicit, such as cowboys in outer space, or they can be a more subtle influence in space opera.:3–4 Gene Roddenberry described Star Trek: The Original Series as a space Western. Firefly and its cinematic follow-up Serenity literalized the Western aspects of the genre popularized by Star Trek: it used frontier towns, horses, and the styling of classic John Ford Westerns. Worlds that have been terraformed may be depicted as presenting similar challenges as that of a frontier settlement in a classic Western. Six-shooters and horses may be replaced by ray guns and rockets.
Westerns influenced early science-fiction pulp magazines. Writers would submit stories in both genres, and science-fiction magazines sometimes mimicked Western cover art to showcase parallels. In the 1930s, C. L. Moore created one of the first space Western heroes, Northwest Smith. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were also early influences. After superhero comics declined in popularity in 1940s America, Western comics and horror comics replaced them. When horror comics became untenable with the Comics Code Authority in the mid-1950s, science-fiction themes and space Westerns grew more popular.:10 By the mid-1960s, classic Western films fell out of favor and Revisionist Westerns supplanted them. Science-fiction series such as Lost in Space and Star Trek presented a new frontier to be explored, and films like Westworld rejuvenated Westerns by updating them with science-fiction themes. Peter Hyams, director of Outland, said that studio heads in the 1980s were unwilling to finance a Western, so he made a space Western instead. Space operas such as the Star Wars film series also took strong cues from Westerns; Boba Fett, Han Solo and the Mos Eisley cantina, in particular, were based on Western themes. These science fiction-films and television series offered the themes and morals that Westerns previously did.
This frontier view of the future is only one of many ways to look at space exploration, and not one embraced by all science-fiction writers. The Turkey City Lexicon, a document produced by the Turkey City science-fiction writers' workshop, condemns the space Western as the "most pernicious" form of a pre-established background that avoids the necessity of creating a fresh world. Galaxy Science Fiction ran an advertisement on its back cover, "You'll never see it in Galaxy", which gave the beginnings of make-believe parallel Western and science-fiction stories featuring a character named Bat Durston. Such scathing attacks on the subgenre, along with further attacks on space operas, caused a perception that all space Westerns were by definition hack writing and not "true" science fiction. Although the underlying themes remained influential, this bias persisted until the 1980s, when the release of the film Outland and children's cartoons such as Bravestarr and The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers re-popularized explicit themes of cowboys in space. In the late 1990s, anime series such as Cowboy Bebop and manga such as Outlaw Star and Trigun became prime examples of the genre. In the 2000s, Firefly won critical acclaim, further causing a critical reassessment of space Westerns. Games such as StarCraft, the Borderlands series and The Outer Worlds have also popularized the space Western theme.
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