Genrely Speaking: Weird Western

Boy oh boy we have not done this in a while. Long time readers know that genres are a thing that fascinate me, they are at once an attempt to codify stories and make discussing them easier and, at the same time, somewhat arbitrary groupings that carry different connotations among different people. For whatever reason the standards, exceptions and idiosyncrasies of genre classification entice me to think about stories through new lenses as I try and narrow down exactly what defines a story and its thematic content. Now all genres are broad categories and they tend to spawn a bunch of subgenres that narrow the scope to an extent, which for the purpose of Genrely Speaking are counted as regular genres rather than some beast of their own. A subgenre is almost narrow enough to be a useful tool for analysis rather than just a section in the library. 

That is, when it’s not just two genres pasted one on top of the other. 

Enter: The Weird Western. 

As the name implies this genre is built on a base of the Western. It has all the open horizons, independent lives and harsh consequences as that genre but it layers something… extra on top of that. That extra usually comes in the form of some kind of Space Opera or Low Fantasy (or, on rare occasions, some other Fantasy genre). On the one hand a Space Western can serve as a look at technology or social trends when they’re boiled down to just one or a handful of people surviving in harsh places. On the other a Fantasy Western takes many of the superstitions and traditions of the West and makes them real, living forces that the protagonists have to deal with on a daily basis. 

Given the many facets this broad genre can take I’m going to confine “weird western” to the realm of the second half of the blend, the Western with Low Fantasy, and refer to the first half as a Space Western. Note that this doesn’t rule out the Weird Space Western for the truly ambitious writer (see: Jack Irons, the Steel Cowboy.) Given this context, what are the pillars of the Weird Western? 

  1. Personification of the forces of change. This can take many forms, from clashes between Native American and European figures of myth to the personifications of railways directing expansion west to some kind of magical disaster driving people across the plains, some form of the supernatural will be involved in humanity’s move westward. This is true even if the Weird Western is set in some fictional world with no historical ties to the United States. One interpretation of this theme that I found particularly interesting was Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century, where zombies started slowly overrunning the West in a metaphor for the creeping dehumanization of mechanization. 
  2. Magic as a treasure to acquire. The West was a place where people grabbed for a great many things. Land, water, livestock, transportation and precious metals to name a few. While all of those things still hold value in most Weird Westerns most of the players in the story are more interested in magic, which serves as a stand in that simplifies and streamlines the many different conflicts of a traditional Western into something a modern audience can easily understand. As modern culture has moved away from the kinds of work that defined the Old West fights over pasture or farm land and the relentless expansion of the railways have lost some of their immediate impact. Many Americans today don’t even own their own property, much less property that they use to sustain themselves. They are more used to wealth and prosperity in the abstract, in terms of bank balance, investment and the like. Magic in a Weird Western typically serves as an analogy to these more familiar landmarks of prosperity and survival and frames the characters’ desires in a format modern readers instantly resonate with. 
  3. A focus on outsiders. While the Western has always had its love for characters from ‘outside’ communities, from the traveling gunfighter to the displaced veteran, they still tend to focus heavily on specific communities. High Noon, Shane and Tombstone all feature very, very local stories with mostly local casts adding maybe one or two outsiders to provide prospective or an audience vantage point. This makes the narrative a bit more grounded and lends the tale an air of believability (roving gunslingers were by far the exception in the West, after all). In Weird Westerns outsiders are often a much bigger part of the narrative, with large numbers of them roving the West in search of the things that make them powerful and effective. Or, on the flip side, the story may feature people who have been displaced from a quiet town or camp and forced into bigger, more mystical environments that they must then learn to survive in. This lends the Weird Western Genre a tendency to build casts of hunter gatherers, rather than farmers or miners. If not balanced properly it can undercut the Western feel of a story (see the novel A Few Souls More for an example of this). 

What are the weaknesses of the Weird Western? It combines two genres that have a limited appeal. The most popular flavors of fantasy are some kind of Modern or Urban Fantasy and High or Epic Fantasy while Western is a genre few people pay much attention to at all. The tropes and archetypes that define the genre just aren’t as immediate and appealing to most people as they used to be. 

The genre also runs a serious risk of doing too much to really excel at any one thing. Most Weird Westerns try to blend a magic system or two with building a realistic supernatural West, strong characters, historical events and real world cultures. They also need a good plot, the ability to write dialog that is at once snappy and somewhat archaic and a sense of the bittersweet nature of a vanishing frontier. The author needs to do all of these things while balancing them so neither half of the Weird/West balance overwhelms the other. It’s a hard genre to do well and not a lot of people will be excited even if you execute perfectly. 

What are the strengths of the Weird Western? Like many forms of fantasy it gives us the ability to examine difficult questions at a bit of a remove. But more than that, when done right it taps into a section of myth that is powerful and currently quite fresh and new to the modern mind. The West is also one of the best settings to juxtapose modern knowledge and understanding with the conflicts of might and right, civilization and nature. Many of the conflicts we face today are the same as were fought in the West, and with the supernatural to personify the clashing forces there’s much you can say quickly and easily in the Weird West. 

The biggest struggle in the Weird West is building a world that will hold both the supernatural and mundane human portions of the narrative. The West was a very specific place and time, as I’ve mentioned before, and you have to be careful how you introduce anything new to it if you wish to keep the defining elements of the Western present. It’s fun, for sure, but also a tricky challenge. There may be something to talk about there. Hm… maybe we’ll take a crack at that next week. 

Fantasy is Inescapable

One of the most common complaints a modern fantasist hears about his or her work is that fantasy stories are so incredibly trivial. By the same token every modern fantasist has written some kind of rebuttal to this notion. George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, each took up the standard in turn. Other authors, from bestsellers like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King to lesser known talents like Bill Willingham and Larry Correia, have donned the mantel and defended the fantastical in turn. While I’ve looked at the question of why we love fantasy myself, years ago, I’ve never thought about how to defend the fantastical tale if I had to justify its existence. 

Even now I’m not sure why people question fantasy. We’re surrounded by things that evoke wonder every day. Sunrise and sunset, birth and death, history and nature, all hint at deeper truths that underpin the world as we know it. Humanity’s response to these deep truths has always been the fantastic. From the earliest days of recorded civilization we have had a very sophisticated and story driven way of grappling with the portions of the world beyond our comprehension. 

From the beginning of recorded history the fantastic has come and gone in the stories we read. Gilgamesh fought and befriended Enkidu, the wild man, and together they slew the Bull of Heaven. Then Enkidu died and his death drove Gilgamesh to seek immortality. In a nutshell we see the contest of man versus nature, the cost of building a civilization and how it drives men to memorialize these sacrifices in the fabric of their culture. A sociologist or anthropologist could discuss these concepts in terms of numbers, pressures or psychological drives and add a great deal to the overall picture. But in a single fantasy the basic concepts are expounded on and laid bare to the casual listener in a way no other kind of discussion can. 

The English language is no stranger to fantastic stories either. From the early days of King Arthur’s legends to the plays of Shakespeare, fantastic characters have given voice to such abstract forces as the legitimacy of rulers, the forces of nature and the human drive for vengeance. Edgar Allen Poe transformed the influence of a hostile and overprotective father into a garden of poison that would slowly kill or warp those who lived in it. George MacDonald transformed the battle between good and evil in the human heart into the slow, horrific distortion of the human body. All of these were serious stories for sober minded men attempting to understand the world as it is. They left their marks, great and small, in our own understanding of the world. But all pale before the king. 

The most influential novel in the English language is undoubtedly Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s been parodied or homaged in every long running TV show or, in the old days, radio play. It’s been adapted to stage and film more than any other story in the Western canon. Everyone from Sir Patrick Stewart to the Muppets has taken a crack at it. And on a very fundamental level, A Christmas Carol is a fantasy. 

Ebenezer Scrooge is surrounded by ghosts. These specters embody any and every idea about the human condition you could want – greed, generosity, family, loneliness, regret, past, present, future, death, redemption and second chances. All of these things have faces and voices – or a lack thereof – that makes their impact on Scrooge felt with greater strength than millions of pages of academic prattle about these concepts ever could. In fact, millions of pages of thoughts on A Christmas Carol undoubtedly exist, but none of it comes close to equaling the thing itself. 

And this is a truth paralleled in Dickens’ tale itself. Scrooge understands all the fundamentals of Christmas from the first word of the book. But that simple understanding is insufficient. Ebeneezer understands Christmas but he cannot live it until he meets with it. And he hasn’t met Christmas in such a long time that it will take something fantastic – or, in the book’s own words, wondrous – to effect that meeting. This is why the first words of the book remind us of a simple fact: Marley was dead, to begin with. And later on Dickens reiterates this theme with the following words: 

“There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” 

The meeting of Scrooge and Marley, seven years after Marley’s death, was a wonder that opened the door for Christmas to meet Scrooge as well. And it was this meeting that would turn the grasping, clutching covetous old sinner into a man who could live Christmas all the year round. A transformation easy to miss in the mundane world but obvious  to all when it speaks to us through fantasy. 

A Christmas Carol is one of the first stories I can clearly remember my mother reading to me. It was the first play I saw live on the stage. And, perhaps because of this, I have never once had an issue with abstract ideas like generosity or regret wearing a human face and speaking its own mind. Add in a lot of reading of myth in high school and I’ve always assumed fantasy is an integral part of human culture. We need to hear the voices of progress and nature, heroism and despair, judgement and redemption. We need these things to be more than abstracts, we need them to walk among us and talk to us before we can truly come to grips with them, as Ebeneezer Scrooge did. If giving voice to those concepts, if giving them the power to make their will known, somehow classifies my stories as fantasies then that is what they must be. That is how humans are best equipped to hear them and that is how I want to tell them. 

The Loss of Western Symbolism

So remember when I talked about the use of goblins as a metaphor for human frailty? Well I’ve been thinking a lot about modern failures to make effective use of traditional symbolism and I’ve reached an almost inevitable conclusion – many Western symbols have been undermined to the point where they are entirely useless as storytelling tools. Yes, a lot my thoughts of late have been returning to various themes and my essays will be reflecting this. So let’s talk about symbolism. 

Symbols are the bedrock of communication. Words are essentially symbols for abstract concepts. On a lower level, even letters are symbols for individual sounds. We string three letters together to write ‘cat’. Those symbols tell us to think of a specific series of sounds which in turn we connect to the concept of a domesticated animal that humans adopted for the purpose of shedding fur on all of our black clothing. Language is essentially symbolic. Imagine if I were to write a sentence where short grinder hammerhead portal normalize traffic wrangle. Nothing would make sense, right? I can’t just use a word and change the meaning it symbolizes to something else, that would strip all attempts at communication of meaning and purpose. 

Our larger scale cultural symbols are just as important and just as vital to cultural coherence as words are to coherent communication. So I’ve been thinking about them and mulling them over and asking myself – are we even trying to communicate the core of these symbols anymore? Or is one of the reasons our culture seems unable to cohere any longer because we’ve abandoned the language that’s supposed to be holding them together? 

As with many big questions of this nature I have few answers. But there are two interesting data points to look at: Monsters and Relics. Let’s break them down, shall we? 

Monsters 

I already talked some about the nature of monsters in fiction when I talked about Goblin Slayer but let’s look a little deeper. Beginning with the Greeks monsters were seen as symbols of the ills of the human condition. In fact, many monsters were a result of human misbehavior if not actual humans transformed for evil actions. As examples Arachne was transformed for her pride and Medusa for lust and adultery (and public fornication). 

Moving forward into medieval times we see interesting stories like Saint George and the Dragon, where a country is poisoned by the influence of an evil creature that is devouring their children. George captures and executes the beast and the country is converted to Christianity. It’s an interesting inversion of the Fisher King, where the ills of a country are personified rather than its health. But the material point is that the recovery of the land is tied to a new moral system, symbolized in George’s battle with the Dragon. 

A wonderful modern take on this symbolic application is George (not a dragon slayer) MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie, where a simple miner boy finds he has to fight an entire royal court that is slowly transforming into an army of monsters. Again, the transformation into monsters is driven by failings of character. 

But in modern tales there’s a strong resistance to allowing monsters to fill this symbolic purpose. Part of this comes from the creative desire to do something new, and rather than carve out new expressions of a symbolic theme many creators have chosen to just look at the symbols in a new light. Unfortunately that new light is almost entirely a literalistic one. Rather than look at monsters as metaphors almost all modern fantasies and fables try to grapple with monsters as stand-alone creatures that must be complete in and of themselves. 

Consider The Dragon Prince. The whole premise of this show is that there is an entire nation of exotic and fabled creatures brimming with magic and culture, and humans are locked in a struggle with them. There’s nothing wrong with that premise. But the story constantly invokes the symbology of dragons, complete with their hording, their vengefulness, their pride and their destructive temperament. And instead of overcoming them, the characters simply decide they must live with the dragons. 

And there’s a life lesson there, for sure. You will meet people like this, and you will have to live with them. But what this take on the symbolism of monsters misses is that, while classic monsters cannot exist without humanity, neither can humanity exist without monsters. 

The pat, easy answer of The Dragon Prince is that our difficulties are primarily external. They stem from misunderstandings or an unwillingness to compromise, not from flaws of character we must grapple with and overcome. But this kind of simplistic externalizing of internal struggles is far and away the norm these days, robbing a powerful symbol of its cultural impact. 

Relics 

This isn’t really the best word for what I’m getting at, as a ‘relic’ generally refers an item of some kind of great cultural or spiritual significance whereas here I mainly refer to items that take the measure of a man. Again, in early myths we see relics as measures time and again. The most common measure these relics took was the worthiness of a ruler. That’s seen in early forms in things such as the Golden Fleece but probably most significantly in the swords of King Arthur. Both the Sword in the Stone and Excalibur (when they aren’t the same sword, your legend may vary) are weapons that only worthy men can acquire. This was kind of a theme in the British Isles, as the Dyrnwyn was another, lesser known British sword that supposedly burst into a flaming weapon in the hands of a worthy man. Additional British relics include a whetstone that would only give sharp weapons to brave men, a coat that only fit the brave, and a mantle that only reached the ground on a woman who had honored her marriage vows. 

We see this theme in legends of the Norse as well. Modern culture brings to mind Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, which only the thunder god was supposedly strong enough to lift – but in the ancient legends the weapon wasn’t limited in that way. In fact, it was stolen more than once. But Sigmund the Volsung also acquired a magic sword which only he could only pull free. The sword is as much a curse to Sigmund as a blessing but does serve as a mark of his exceptional nature as acknowledged by Odin. 

Of course the relic as measure of a man is a symbol we see in modern fiction as well. Even in the very recent examples of the MCU it’s everywhere. Not only is there the modern interpretation of Mjolnir but there’s Captain America’s shield, an item he receives in acknowledgement of his status as America’s greatest soldier and can only use effectively because of his skill and intelligence, and even Iron Man’s armor, which he wields by virtue of his scientific brilliance and character (such as it is). 

However, even the relic is beginning to fall from grace. In the MCU, Mjolnir was destroyed and Thor had to learn to do without it. In the Hard Magic novel series there are relics which serve to keep magic safe and usable but, eventually, are destroyed in favor of making magic more accessible. In fact, in many urban fantasy series relics that take the measure of their user get subverted into items that restrain their owner, a kind of shackle that keeps their owners on a preset path. In other cases they’re simply powerless items used to prop up shams or pretenders. 

Where the transformation of the monster is a somewhat understandable outgrowth of a more literal minded culture and the creative mind’s constant striving for new takes on old stories, the subversion of the relic strikes me as more an outgrowth of the dreaded postmodernism. A weapon like Excalibur cannot actually measure a person’s worthiness to rule so it has to be a prop intended to make people appear worthy to rule. The loss we suffer from this kind of perspective is pronounced. 

One of the things a relic as a symbol for worthiness can easily illustrate is why we must be cautious with those who are entrusted with power. All the British relics that measure worthiness inflict consequences on those who attempt to use them but are unworthy. Consider the cook pot – brave men can eat from it but cowards will starve. So be brave! Keep yourself and your community fed! Relics create an immediate sense of what the stakes are for having or not having the qualities they measure. Subverting them as a symbol for virtue internalizes something that should be external – if what we need comes from within ourselves or is just an idea we project onto the item to justify ourselves then, in almost paradoxical fashion, the consequences of falling short of that standard are no long our fault but the fault of our circumstances. Cowardice isn’t what led us to starve, there simply wasn’t a brave person here to get food and share it with us. Or perhaps we were just caught up in how society told us we should eat instead of considering new ways of thinking about meals (like food poisoning!) 

There are a lot of reasons to want to tweak things like symbolism in your storytelling. But every time this is done it’s like assigning a new meaning to a word. The more it’s done, the more overworn the word or symbol becomes and the harder it is to clearly convey the other concepts the word addresses. That’s a loss for communication, and it really needs to stop. Our symbolic language is part of our culture, part of how we share ideas, and if we lose it then art and culture become that much harder to propagate.

Five Betrayals of Alita’s Character in the Battle Angle Movie

A couple of years ago I wrote a breakdown on the failures of the movie Alita: Battle Angle to properly translate the villain of Yukito Kishiro’s manga (Gunmn in the Japanese, Battle Angle Alita for us English speakers). For a while I considered doing a full breakdown of that adaptation and all the many ways it failed but ultimately I didn’t want to spend any more money or time on a film that fell so short of what I wanted. So I forgot about it. 

Then they decided to rerelease the film in theaters.  

This could be a last ditch attempt to salvage the theater industry by pumping old films back into them. I know many fans of Alita hope this will lead to a sequel. What these people need to understand is that, even if they get a sequel, they will not get what they want. The Alita film does not understand the characters of its source material and it cannot develop them effectively. While Alita and her friends were not horribly betrayed like Nova was I don’t really believe James Cameron can effectively develop the story – this is the man who wrote Avatar after all. Beyond that, I don’t think he wants to develop the story of Alita, I think he is using the visuals Kishiro developed to try and tell his own story that, as I said before, is trite and overplayed these days. If my breakdown of Nova didn’t convince you of that, or you just don’t want to go back and read that post, here are five ways Cameron betrayed the heroine’s character in his film. 

  1. Movie Alita fails to learn. While manga Alita is not a genius like Nova or Ido she does learn and grow from the things she experiences. In fact she quickly picks up on Nova’s headgames and does her best to work around them. She rarely succeeds, as Nova is a truly formidable villain, but she does learn and grow. Movie Alita doesn’t seem to learn her enemies’ gambits at all. In fact, even though Vector’s deal to send Hugo to Zalem proves to be a flat out lie she immediately turns around and trusts that Motorball champions get to go to Zalem, even though this promise ultimately comes from the exact same place. Zalem itself. It makes her look incredibly stupid and shows that she’s not at all the same character as Kishiro’s heroine. 
  2. Movie Alita shows no compassion to her enemies. From the end of her encounter with Makaku, manga Alita showed the ability to form an understanding of her enemies and shows a deep sense of compassion for their circumstances and how they reached the place they did. She still defeats them but rarely does she fail to acknowledge their humanity. There are a few instances where Alita completely dismisses her opponents and just fights them senselessly and when she does it’s a moral failing on her part. Instead it is her acts of compassion, not her acts of violence, that have the biggest impact on the world and ultimately defeat Nova. Movie Alita never shows this connection with or sympathy for the evil people she must dispatch. She is far less humane than she should be. Worse, she executes Vector in cold blood when he poses no threat to her at all. This deprives Vector of his opportunity to grow and transform into a major pillar of society future as Kishiro’s Vector did. In spite of the many failures of the movie elsewhere Vector’s murder is what ultimately convinced me Cameron didn’t understand Alita. 
  3. Movie Alita cannot face the lessons of Motorball. The unfortunate truth is, by transforming Motorball into just another obstacle between Alita and Nova, the movie abandons the lesson Motorball teaches manga Alita. In the manga Motorball was one of the lowest points in Alita’s life. After losing Hugo she dives into Motorball so she can find a way to indulge her violent impulses without running into trouble. Except ultimately Alita does run in to trouble, and leaves the sport after a resounding defeat at the hands of Emperor Jashugan. She’s warned by her former teammate that she’s bad for the sport because she never came there for Motorball but just because she was seeking selfish fulfillment and that makes it impossible for her to be a true Motorball player. This rebuke was a decisive moment where Alita began to overcome her selfish impulses. Add in the low likelihood that Jashugan will decisively defeat Alita if he’s a barrier between movie Alita and Nova, thus depriving her of an insurmountable obstacle, there’s little chance movie Alita will get any of the value Motorball brought to manga Alita. 
  4. Movie Alita will never face her karma. In the manga Alita’s intervention between Zapan and Hugo was fundamentally unjust. Manga Zapan went looking for the spine thief by posing as a victim and trying to capture Hugo when Hugo tried to steal his spine. Manga Hugo never changed direction and thus earned his comeuppance from Zapan. Tearing Zapan’s face off was a grave injustice driven by Alita’s selfish blindness to Hugo’s evil actions. When Zapan and Alita fought again later on Alita was forced to face all the destruction her selfishness caused to both Zapan and her community. By allowing movie Hugo to turn over a new leaf and turning Zapan into a disgruntled rival who hunted Hugo as a sideways way to get back at Alita, the movie incarnation of Alita will not grow through facing the consequences of a significant selfish action. 

WARNING – SPOILERS FOR THE BATTLE ANGLE ALITA MANGA 

  1. Movie Alita cannot accept the Secret of Zalem. It’s a significant manga plot point that Zalem removes the biological brain of its citizens and replaces them with solid state computer chips. Zalemites are not told this substitution takes place. In typical cyberpunk fashion, once they learn this fact most Zalemites suffer mental breakdowns as they grapple with their sense of self and what this substitution might mean about what they are. Many Earth bound humans are also repulsed by this fact. There are three characters utterly unphased by this revelation – Lou (unimportant to this analysis), Alita and Nova. Nova’s sense of ego overrides any sense of humanity in the traditional sense, he’s far too monstrous to bother with the physical pieces that make up bodies, even his own, he’s lost in the intellectual challenges he wants to tackle. Conversely by the time Alita learns the secret of Zalem she’s developed such a sense of compassion for others that she treasures humanity no matter what physical parts make it up. Without the final secret of Zalem to bring out this part of her character Alita cannot reach the zenith of her character or show her ultimate contrast with her villain. And the hard reality is, movie Zalem does not use brain chips. Nova, Ido and the rest all have normal meat brains. How do I know this? Because we see Chiren after she’s been broken down for parts by Vector and her brain is clearly visible. Chiren is supposedly from Zalem. Thus brain chips are definitely off the table and with them the Secret of Zalem. 

SPOILERS END HERE 

Now I know, it’s possible to have two stories start in the same place and end in completely different places. Keep a hero the same and change the villain and you can still tell a compelling story, just with your hero growing in different and new ways. And I suppose that means an Alita sequel could be a decent film, even if it’s got nothing to do with Kishiro’s tale. But my core premise has and always will be, that Alita: Battle Angel should have been a retelling of Yukito Kishiro’s classic cyberpunk manga. Not Susan Collins’ dystopian YA novels. Not Cameron’s Avatar with cyborgs instead of blue people. But the latter two are closer to what we got. As far as I’m concerned Cameron can keep it.