Durston. Bat Durston.
As I’m writing this it happens to be August 31st in the good ol’ U.S. of A., also known as the birthday of one Clint Wolf. Having a birthday fall in the middle of a busy work week is a bit underwhelming, but it’s possible I could con someone into at least taking me out for some drinks this weekend. We shall see.
Another option could have been celebrating this past weekend, but that was mostly spent engaged in a marathon D&D session. I hit level 6 with my Protector Spirit Shaman. Good stuff.
Now if you haven’t ever had the experience of “tabletop” gaming, you may not be aware that a good portion of the time is actually spent not on the game itself but discussing various topics with your fellow nerds. In this case, I was talking of how my recent post regarding Steampunk for The Satellite Show had come about because of someone claiming Firefly/Serenity was somehow a Steampunk offering, and how nuts I found that concept.
Nah, my friend Justin said, Firefly isn’t Steampunk. It’s a Bat Durston.
A what? I’d never heard this term before.
“Bat Durston, Space Marshal.” Justin went on to introduce me to the gentleman known as Bat Durston. He was the invention of the editor of the 1950′s science fiction anthology Galaxy Magazine, a parody of the already common practice of transplanting Western tropes wholesale to a galactic setting and calling that Science Fiction: The “Space Western”.
H.L. Gold, the editor in question, was not a big fan of this trend. Actually I think it’s fair to say he outright hated it, and Bat Durston was his man for showing why. The infamous back cover of Galaxy provided two oddly similar tales printed side by side:
Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing…and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand.”Get back from those controls, Bat Durston,” the tall stranger lipped thinly. “You don’t know it, but this is your last space trip.”
Hoofs drumming, Bat Durston came galloping down through the narrow pass at Eagle Gulch, a tiny gold colony 400 miles north of Tombstone. He spurred hard for a low overhang of rim-rock…and at that point a tall, lean wrangler stepped out from behind a high boulder, six-shooter in a sun-tanned hand.”Rear back and dismount, Bat Durston,” the tall stranger lipped thinly. “You don’t know it, but this is your last saddle-jaunt through these here parts.”
Beneath the two, Gold spelled out this little corner of his philosophy: “Sound alike? They should—one is merely a western transplanted to some alien and impossible planet. If this is your idea of science fiction, you’re welcome to it! YOU’LL NEVER FIND IT IN GALAXY!”
Gold went on to say that what you would find in Galaxy was “the finest science fiction… authentic, plausible, thoughtful… written by authors who do not automatically switch over from crime waves to alien invasions; by people who know and love science fiction… for people who also know and love it.”
So Gold doesn’t as much imply as outright state that if you write science fiction this way, then your story sucks and he’s trashing it. Was he correct in his views? To a lot of professional SF writers, he was correct enough that in the Turkey City Lexicon the Space Western entry reads:
“The most pernicious suite of “Used Furniture”. The grizzled space captain swaggering into the spacer bar and slugging down a Jovian brandy, then laying down a few credits for a space hooker to give him a Galactic Rim Job.”
This might all be starting to sound very elitist, and throughout the years since Bat Durston came on the scene there have been defenses of Space Westerns, such as people pointing out that Ray Bradbury’s Martian works have a very frontier feel to them but yet are still considered the good sort of SF. From my point of view I always hate blanket dismissals of a certain genre as being somehow less worthy than others. It goes against Sturgeon’s Law; Theodore Sturgeon being a science fiction author once famously quoted as stating “Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That’s because 90% of everything is crud.” Note how he didn’t single out any particular aspect of science fiction there.
But even if I’m not prepared to dump the entire concept of the Space Western in the ashbin just for being, I’d confess there’s still room to scoff at the particular style of it embodied in Bat Durston. Mr. Durston has grown beyond his humble roots to represent any sort of lazy writing where an exotic setting seems totally irrelevant to the plot or characters, to the point where the story can be transplanted to a completely different time and place if you just change a few words around.
Anyhow, if you’ve been reading this comic you’ve probably sussed out that I have a fondness for genre “mash-ups”. I’m writing one, after all. So Bat Durston seems to be a bogeyman of mash-up attempts who I didn’t know was lurking in my creative closet until just the other day. Thankfully, despite its SF/Western elements I don’t think Zombie Ranch quite falls into his territory. The zombies replace cattle, for example, but they don’t quite replace cattle, if that makes any kind of sense to state.
In the end, I think as long as there’s thought going into your story and background beyond merely “Gangsters in Outer Space” or “Angsty Teenagers with Fangs”, you can keep ol’ Bat at bay.
Now pass me the space whiskey. I gotta spend some quality time pondering another year clocked on this ol’ corral called Earth.