Last week while pondering swords & sorcery as I jotted notes for the roundtable S&S discussion for SF Signal Podcast #108, I had a neat revelation. Lou Anders, Hugo-winning editor and huge S&S fan, mentioned the same thing during the podcast, so this connection has clearly caught other peoples’ eye too.
Swords & sorcery and Westerns are very close kin.
The similarities jump out at you. A strong feel of adventure. A “gritty” hardscrabble environment. Hardscrabble characters, often from the lower levels of society, trying to eke out a living. Often weighed down by emotional baggage or scarred backgrounds. Often on the darker side of law or morality. Often battling antagonists from higher levels of society (rich cattle barons instead of rich sorcerers!).
These parallels are quite fitting. Westerns have a powerful lure in American culture–something about the freedom and adventure in gorgeous untamed lands, in elegant firearms, in carving out your own existence in a wilderness. Swords & sorcery has a similar lure–not so much the American classics of freedom and carving out an existence, but definitely adventure in awe-inspiring (fantastical) lands and elegant (pre-gunpowder) weapons. And they both are a perfect backdrop for troubled heroes and bitter struggles.
This may explain why I so love “Weird West”–the uncommon spec-fic subgenre that combines paranormal stuff with Old West settings. Whether a historical Old West, like Kenneth Mark Hoover’s Haxan stories, or a fictional Old West-flavored world like Erin Cashier’s “Hangman” or J.S. Bangs’s “The Judge’s Right Hand.” It has the same hardscrabble feel as S&S, but in a setting that feels fresher in SF/F yet still has a strong pull of adventure.
I wish there were more Weird West. And I’m going to add more Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry to my stack of Fritz Leiber and GRRM.