The space western genre is one of the most fun in all of science fiction. It’s associated with the earliest days of the pulp era, but sci-fi authors have gone on to develop and grow the genre ever since. It captures the pioneering feel of classic western tales, but within the setting and genre conventions of science fiction. This countdown of the best space westerns will give you a good insight into what the genre is all about.
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Santiago is perhaps the archetypal space western story. It features a notorious bandit on the run in the far future. The flavor and feel of Santiago are truly of a reckless, legendary character, very reminiscent of classic cowboy fiction. If you want a frantic plot full of thrills, pursuit, and revelation, you’re in the right place. One of the most enjoyable examples of western sci fi for longterm fans and newcomers alike.
Time Enough For Love
Robert A Heinlein
Have you ever seen a cowboy film where the protagonist is a wizened type of guy, sharing his stories from the old days? This is taking to the absolute extreme here in Time Enough For Love! Not content with featuring a grizzled, older character, Heinlein chose to make him the oldest man in existence. The result is an interesting blend of western sci fi in terms of feel, and sci fi romance in terms of focus. A mixed bag which divides modern science fiction fans, as most of Heinlein’s stories do.
In true Japanese style, Cowboy Bebop mashes together a world of disparate influences in a way which totally ends up working. Similar to the anime, Cowboy Bebop deals with a lawless space world in which crime has replaced law and order as the dominant force. Seeing as the State is unable to control the scale of the problem, bounty hunters have to step in to pick up the slack. Not an original premise, but almost always an entertaining one, and Cowboy Bebop does it way better than most.
Simon R Green
The first book of Green’s Deathstalker series sees a group of ragtag misfits trying to overthrow an oppressive, powerful force. Honestly, this is hard to classify as strictly space western, it’s so out there. It contains a mixture of almost everything imaginable, but manages to be massively entertaining at the same time. An enjoyable, trippy sci-fi tale for fans of weird westerns.
Daniel Arenson has written plenty of commercially and critically successful science fiction. But Alien Hunters is perhaps his best yet. It can legitimately said to be the ‘Ghostbusters’ of space sci fi. If there’s something strange, in your galaxy, and it don’t look good, who you gonna call? Alien Hunters! Seriously though, if you’re in the mood for fun and modern science fiction, this is the book for you.
Want the weirdest example of space western on the whole list? Look no further! Earthman’s plot is too bizarre to be believed, but it features a mixture of old West elements along with...sinister children’s fiction? Yeah, this isn’t easily categorized! Your best bet is just to grab the book, buckle up, and settle in for a uniquely unsettling experience.
Through Darkest America
Neal Barrett Jr.
Imagine a post-apocalyptic America in which your whole family is murdered by the State. Things might seem familiar, but they most certainly are not. That is the setting for Neal Barrett Jr’s Through Darkest America, an epic mix of revenge style Western and post-apocalyptic sci-fi. If you enjoy this first introduction to the Darkest and Dawn series, you’ll be sure to get lost in the rest of Barrett’s books.
The Martian Chronicles
Originally taking the form of separately published stories, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is now a fully realized work, showing the legend’s approach to the Space Western style. It deals with the colonization of Mars by humans and the inevitable conflicts that arise. As ever with Bradbury, the quality is high, and interesting variations on familiar themes come across well as a result.
In The Company Of Others
In The Company Of Others deals with topical themes in a way which is sure to be pleasing for sci fi fans. Czerneda’s story explores what happens when overcrowding causes people to flee, but also to become stranded before reaching their intended destination. Worry not, the story is exciting, gripping, and doesn’t cross the line into being overly moral. If you want a gripping, modern take on a space western, be sure to check this out.
Lone Star Planet
H Beam Piper
Ready for one of the weirdest tales on the list? Yes, that’s not the first time that claim has been made. But try this for size. A planetary version of Texas being attacked by a race of dog aliens. Yep. That’s what’s on offer here. If you’re in for a fun and truly imaginative take on the Space Western genre by H Beam Piper, this is the book for you.
What Makes a Space Western Science Fiction Book?
Back in the earliest days of science fiction, science was a lot less developed than it is now, naturally. The authors had far fewer real world examples to work with, so they often had to look to other popular genres of fiction for ideas for their work.
This concept can be seen in other ways in early sci-fi. For example, a lot of the oldest stories feel a lot more like fantasy than sci-fi. In fact, a lot of them are basically ‘fantasy in space’. This is because there wasn’t an established body of work to build upon, coupled with the lack of inspiration from real science.
So how does the Western tradition come into play?
If you think about it, there are a lot of natural parallels between the Old West and space exploration. In fact, famously, space has been described as “the final frontier”. The idea of pioneering into new territory and exploring somewhere unknown made the Western and Sci-Fi genres natural friends.
Broadly speaking, authors took two approaches to space westerns - literal and subtle. Let’s take a quick look at each.
Literal space westerns. Sometimes, authors scrapped any subtlety, and out and out wrote about cowboys in space. These stories can be fun and enjoyable reads when they are done well, but they somewhat stretch the limits of believability. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief, you might find a lot to enjoy here.
Subtle space westerns. In this type of space western story, the authors don’t out and out show Western characters or use that type of language, but draw upon themes relating to the Old West. These can include the concepts of pioneering, survival, colonization and adventure.
The vast majority of space westerns lean more towards the subtle side of things, but there are plenty which have a lot of fun doing things in a more literal sense.
What Makes a Space Western Science Fiction Book?
The concept of a space western has filtered out of print and into the wider science fiction media ecosystem.
As mentioned, Star Trek refers to space as the “final frontier”, and there are many classic episodes of Star Trek which take the literal route. Star Trek characters dressed in cowboy hats is something which crops up from season to season.
Also, modern television has made use of the space western legacy. Although an adaptation in itself, the modern release of ‘Westworld’ makes use of the space western concept. It blends together ideas from existential robotic science fiction with images and moods from the space western genre.
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