When speaking on the subject of Space Westerns, how can you avoid the subject of pioneers? In the early days, or so the story goes, Science Fiction was written mostly by men, and yet even from the early days of the pulps there was still a subtle (often unseen) feminine influence in the genre. — ed, N.E. Lilly
No, I don’t mean Summer Glau, Gina Torres, Morena Baccarin, and Jewel Staite; as fabulous and talented as these ladies are. And I don’t mean the extra-terrestrial school marm, the interplanetary dance-hall girl, or even the green-skinned alien hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold; as important as though character-types are to the Space Western genre. I mean: the women writers who were early innovators in Science Fiction. Yes, it’s true. Women write Science Fiction. Women have written Science Fiction since day one (whether you mean Mary Shelley or Gertrude Barrows Bennett AKA Francis Stevens).
These women wrote Science Fiction even before bras were being burnt. These women wrote Science Fiction even before Rosie the Riveter fastened her first rivet. And these women weren’t just pioneering women in Science Fiction, they were pioneers of Science Fiction in their own right. Their works weren’t just judged to be good, their works weren’t just award-winning, but also, in the grand scheme of Science Fiction, their works were highly influential and historically important.
I can forgive them for adopting masculine pen-names (and thus obscuring the fact that women wrote Science Fiction). The simple subterfuge of using a masculine pen-name kept these women from being dismissed out of hand. By doing so they were able to write in a fashion where their work was judged on its merits, and not based on the writer’s gender. They were able to escape the absurd notion that Clare Winger Harris suffered under: In 1927 she was used as an example by Hugo Gernsback for the ridiculous assertion that she “is the exception that proves the rule” that women aren’t suited to write Science Fiction.
These women wrote Science Fiction, and more importantly (to us), they wrote stories set in outer-space using Western genre themes. By “these women,” I mean C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Andre Norton.
Mr. C.L. Moore (1911-1987)
In 1936 “Mr. C.L. Moore” received a letter from Mr. Henry Kuttner, who was passing along photos at Mr. H.P. Lovecraft’s request. This correspondence became a friendship that would begin a long-time collaboration between Moore and Kuttner. The collaborations produced stories that were often published under various pseudonyms, with “Lewis Padgett” being the pseudonym most often used.
Kuttner and Moore eventually met in person at a friend’s house in California and later married in 1940. They helped usher in the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” as part of the stable of writers working for Astounding Science Fiction magazine under John W. Campbell. Classics published under the Lewis Padgett name were: “The Twonky” (which was adapted for a film of the same name), “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” (from which the movie The Last Mimsy was adapted), and the Gallegher series of stories.
C.L. Moore was a writer of some note even before meeting Kuttner, with her first short story “Shambleau” being published in Weird Tales in November of 1933. It was the first of her Northwest Smith stories and it helped C.L. Moore break into a traditionally male-dominated industry, not just to acceptance but to applause and critical acclaim. C.L. Moore continued to write stories which appeared in Weird Tales featuring Northwest Smith — and later Jirel of Joiry, the first female sword and sorcery protagonist — the bulk of which were written and published before her marriage to Henry Kuttner.
Even after her marriage and collaborations with Kuttner, C.L. Moore continued to publish a steady stream of her own work, many of which can be found collected in Judgement Night (1952) and The Best of C.L. Moore (1975). In 1950 an excellent example of a Space Western entitled “Paradise Street” appeared in Astounding. More than a simple tale of a frontiersman fighting the encroachment of civilization, it is injected with allusions to plausible folk-tales of the outer-space frontier. The Cock-eyed Giant of Mars, and the story’s namesake: Paradise Street, a metaphor for space travel.
Moore and Kuttner continued writing, separately and in collaborations, until Kuttner’s death in 1958. At that time she began working in television in earnest, writing scripts for such series as Sugarfoot, Maverick, The Twilight Zone, and 77 Sunset Strip. She ceased writing altogether when she re-married in 1963.
In a move prescient of the Bat Durston Galaxy Magazine ads, and one that places Northwest Smith firmly in our hearts as a Space Cowboy, Moore originally created Northwest Smith as a Western character. When rewriting the stories as Science Fiction, she decided that she liked the absurdity of a character named “Northwest” in space, where compass points are meaningless, and kept the name.
Described as a dark-haired man with “space bronzed” skin and pale eyes, Northwest Smith is an interplanetary ne’er-do-well who lives by a variety of criminal means, including smuggling. He is also described as wearing brown spacer’s leathers and carrying a raygun at his side (like an old west gunfighter). Despite being a cynical anti-hero he has a solid sense of justice and often does the right thing in spite of himself. Along with his alien sidekick, Yarol the Venusian, he chased adventure though-out the solar system in his small and unspectacular but surprisingly fast ship dubbed The Maid. As such, he can be seen as the prototype for such characters as Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds.
The Grand Dame of Science Fiction (1912-2005)
Andre Alice Norton is “The Grand Dame of Science Fiction,” as identified by her many biographers. She wrote more than 130 novels, nearly one hundred short stories, and edited numerous anthologies in the science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, and western genres. Among the series that she authored are: the Witchworld series, the Solar Queen series, the Central Control series, and (most significantly to us) The Beast Master series.
Originally Alice Mary Norton, upon beginning her career she didn’t just take up a pseudonym; she legally changed her name to Andre Alice Norton. She made the change to appeal to the predominantly male audience of Science Fiction readers in 1934, at the advice of the publisher of her first novel.
In 1977, she was the first woman to receive the Gandalf Grand Master Award from the World Science Fiction Society, and, in 1983, she won the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She was the first woman to be a SFWA Grand Master and the first woman to be inducted in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. The Andre Norton Award for young adult novels in her honor.
Hosteen Storm: The Beast Master
Andre Alice Norton created Hosteen Storm, The Beast Master: an ex-soldier from the Xik war, a Galactic Commando, a native of the uninhabitable Terra (irradiated in the Xik war), and an Amerindian of Navaho descent. Managing to keep his military team of genetically enhanced animals together — comprised of two meercats, an eagle, and a dune cat — he finds work on the planet Arzor keeping watch over the native herd animals.
The Beast Master (1959) and Lord of Thunder (1962), collected in Beastmaster’s Planet, contains Native American themes and a classic Western-genre revenge plot: Hosteen Storm is sworn to kill a man named Quade, for what Quade did to Storm’s family.
Ideas from these novels made their way into the 1982 film, The Beastmaster, which transformed the story into a fantasy setting and kept little else from the novel’s plot, aside from the protagonist’s empathic link with a team of animals. A BeastMaster television series was produced from 1999 to 2002, which again used concepts and characters from the novel but was more closely associated with the 1982 film.
Thirty years later Andre Norton, with Lyn McConchie, returned to Hosteen Storm’s adventures in Beast Master’s Ark (2002), Beast Master’s Circus (2004), and Beast Master’s Quest (2006).
“…this guy Brackett” (1915-1978)
Leigh Brackett’s first novel, a detective story titled No Good from a Corpse (1944), impressed Howard Hawks so much that he had his secretary call in “this guy Brackett” to help William Faulkner write the script for The Big Sleep (1946).
Years earlier, in 1939, Leigh Brackett’s talent had been discovered through an agency/writing course by Henry Kuttner, the very same Henry Kuttner who later married C.L. Moore. In the same year, Planet Stories published one of Brackett’s most influential short stories, “Lorelei of the Red Mists”, a collaboration with Ray Bradbury, featuring Eric John Stark, Brackett’s hallmark science fiction character. Adding to her Science Fiction pedigree, Leigh Brackett married Edmond Hamilton, the creator of Captain Future, on January 1, 1947 with Ray Bradbury as best-man.
Brackett’s first published story appeared in the February 1940 issue of Astounding. “Martian Quest” is described by James Sallis in Martian Quest: the Early Brackett (2002) as “a transliteration of the standard Western plot: stranger with mysterious past rides in from off-planet to a farming community in the reclaimed Martian desert, meets a fine woman, encounters distrust and rejection, solves the community’s problems and saves all.”
Brackett set approximately 35 stories in a similar setting, where she translated our future Solar system into a wild and wooly frontier. These stories were bound together by shared “facts” about biology and culture, place-names, and terminology. Much like Stanley Weinbaum and C.L. Moore, at the time that these stories were written they didn’t contradict known science at the time and after the missions of the Mariner space probes Brackett stopped writing these stories.
In addition to her stories and novels she wrote screen-plays, including such works as Rio Bravo, Hatari!, and El Dorado. Her Western genre novels include a novelization based on the screenplay of Rio Bravo (1959) and Follow the Free Wind (1963), which received the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. She also wrote the majority of the script which was to become Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, shortly before her death.
Eric John Stark
Following in the tracks of the Western-genre plot of “the White man raised by Indians” is Eric John Stark, an Earth man raised by native Mercurians. Born to Earthmen prospectors employed by Mercury Metals and Mining company, Stark was adopted by a tribe of humanoid Mercurian aborigines after his parents died in a cave-in. He was raised in the Mercurian Twilight Belt where he endured their rigorous way of life. Before he was fully grown his tribe was wiped out by another group of human miners who captured and imprisoned him. Simon Ashton, a police official, rescued Stark and raised him into adulthood.
Due to his Mercurian origins, Eric John Stark’s skin is described as “almost as dark as his black hair” (a fact which has been ignored by every one of his illustrators up until the recent 2007 release of The Secret of Sinharat by Paizo Publishing). Because of his early life experiences he is keenly aware of the injustices visited on the planetary “primitives” and tends to side with them against colonizing forces.
Brackett returned to the character in the 70s with The Ginger Star (1974), The Hounds of Skaith (1974) and The Reavers of Skaith (1976). Since space probes proved Stark’s original Solar System stories implausible, the new stories were set on a distant but primitive extrasolar planet.
Other works by N.E. Lilly
- Is Firefly “Out of Gas”? (Dec 12, 2022)
- The Emancipation of Bat Durston, or, “I’m from Iowa, I only work in Outer-space” (Dec 5, 2022)
- Interview with Phil Foglio (Nov 8, 2009)
- 10 Most Influential Space Westerns (Oct 25, 2009)
- Space Western Most Wanted (Jan 25, 2009)
- more by N.E. Lilly
- Space Western Most Wanted by N.E. Lilly (Jan 25, 2009)
- A World is Born by Leigh Brackett (Mar 9, 2008)