content by

Noah Berlatsky

Not All Worldbuilding Needs to Be Meticulous to Be Effective

The goal of building a fictional world isn’t to build a world. It’s to build a metaphor. And the success of the world you build isn’t measured by how complete or coherent or well-mapped the world is. It’s measured by whether the world and the meaning map onto each other.

Arguments about worldbuilding in SFF don’t generally focus on metaphors. Instead they often focus, somewhat paradoxically, on realism. How can you best make a world that feels as detailed and rich and coherent as the world you’re living in now, complete with impeachment trials, global warming, pandemics, pit bulls, and K-pop? Should you, in the manner of Tolkien, systematically construct every detail of your fantasy realm, with maps and histories and even complete languages? Or should you leave spaces to suggest vast uncharted bits? Maybe sometimes it’s more evocative not to tell your readers what lives on every part of the map, or what the Elvish means. As China Mieville says, “A world is going to be compelling at least as much by what it doesn’t say as what it does. Nothing is more drably undermining of the awe at hugeness that living in a world should provoke than the dutiful ticking off of features on a map.”

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Du Maurier, Hitchcock, and the Judgement of the Birds

The horror genre loves punishment. Daphne du Maurier’s famous 1952 short story “The Birds” is hardly alone in unleashing a judgement upon the whole human race, but it delivers its damnation with a distinctive, deftly mysterious economy. Set in rural Cornwall, the narrative follows part-time farmhand Nat Hocken, who hears strange sounds from his children’s bedroom one winter night. Entering, he sees the window is open, and the next moment realizes his boy and girl are under assault by apparently crazed birds. Things escalate rapidly from there, and soon the country, and apparently all of civilization, have collapsed beneath a blind but determined onslaught of beaks and talons wielded by thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of sparrows, gulls, finches, gannets, all seized not so much by madness as by a blank determination to exterminate.

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The Costs of Colonization: Cleverman as an Anti-Western

There are hundreds of Westerns, but virtually none which center Native American stories or perspectives. Some movies, like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) or the Kevin Costner vehicle Dances With Wolves (1990), acknowledge the history of violence against Indigenous people, and include native characters or storylines. But these films still feature white stars, and view native people primarily through white eyes. This is so consistent, and so ubiquitous, that the Western as a genre could even be defined as narratives about the American West presented from the point of view of colonizers.

Space westerns have a more abstract relationship to the actual American West, but the tropes are much the same. The Mandalorian and Star Trek ask viewers to identify with explorers and pioneers, not with the explored and pioneered. Movies like Outland are as white as their Western predecessors, set in a landscape pre-emptied of Indigenous people. There are only white people in space—just as, in Westerns, there are often, counter-historically, only white people in America.

The 2016-2017 Australian independent television series Cleverman isn’t an exception to the colonial perspective of space Westerns, primarily because it isn’t a Western. Instead, it can be seen as a kind of anti-Western. By focusing on the stories of Indigenous people, it turns Western genre pleasures inside-out—and shows why those pleasures are only possible when you strap on the colonizer’s gunbelt.

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Stingray Sam Delivers the Weirdest, Best Space Western Ever

Space Westerns are inherently odd ducks with the heads of ferrets wearing cowboy hats. They came about because of commercial incentives; Westerns were the dominant genre in Hollywood for years, and it made sense for filmmakers to steal from them to hedge their bets as they blasted off to different solar systems where no trope had gone before. But as far as internal logic goes, taking the attitudes, aesthetics, and conflicts of the U.S. in the 1800s and transporting them hundreds or thousands of years in the future and then adding hyperwarpdrivespeed, alien ears, and intergalactic space wizardry is an exercise in nonsense. As seriously as some filmmakers might take this oddball mutant genre, there’s also a sense that we might as well be watching underwater caveman adventures or some other unlikely mash-up.

No one captures the essential silliness of the space western quite like that genius of essential silliness, Cory McAbee. An independent filmmaker, singer, and all around performing weirdo, McAbee debuted his hour-long space western musical sketch comedy Stingray Sam in 2009, to critical confusion and commercial indifference. The world wasn’t ready for a searing critique of the prison system disguised as a space opera about male pregnancy and an addiction to olives, and/or a space opera about male pregnancy and an addiction to olives disguised as a searing critique of the prison system. Also there are secret handshakes and catchy tunes. Maybe the world still isn’t ready for that. Maybe it will never be! Alas!

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Outland (1981) vs. High Noon (1952): Quick Draw Duel!

Both Westerns and science fiction can be relevant and up-to-the-minute because they’re dislocated in time. George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, and many other writers have found it easier to write about their current dystopias by projecting them into the future; sometimes it’s easier to talk about what is happening right now by moving it forward a few years. By the same token, High Noon, released in 1952, was able to make its criticism of the Hollywood blacklist because that criticism was shoved back into an imaginary past.

Space westerns, though, look forward and backward at the same time, which makes it hard for them to speak quite as pointedly to their own day. The 1981 film Outland is a case in point: it’s a movie with stylish futuristic special effects, a love of the Western genre, and a garbled, ambivalent relationship to its own Reagan/Thatcherite present.

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Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars: Genocide and the Space Western

Star Wars was widely hailed as a space western. So Roger Corman, with his talent for the obvious, decided to remake it by adding 90% more Westernness. George Lucas, in making his film, borrowed some scenes and visuals from John Ford’s The Searchers. Corman, in 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars, ripped off the plot of The Magnificent Seven wholesale—a theft which was all the more brazen since The Magnificent Seven was already a shameless imitation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

Once again, peasants threatened by ruthless marauders seek help from a ragged band of underdog mercenaries… but this time in space, with the swords-replaced-by guns replaced, one final time, by futuristic energy weapons.

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A Long Time Ago, on a Ranch Far, Far Away: Star Wars as a Space Western

The original Star Wars is not exactly a Western. But it likes to dress up as one.

George Lucas’ film (also known as Episode IV: A New Hope), released in 1977, is a bricolage of iconographic and generic references. As many critics have noted, Lucas was a visual pack rat, taking bits and pieces from numerous other films. Everything from the distinctive wipe screen transitions to widescreen composition to the female lead who gets to fight was lifted from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. The serial adventure structure came from early space adventures like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The Mos Eiseley cantina on Tatooine, a “hive of scum and villainy” nestled under the nose of an authoritarian regime, is borrowed from Casablanca. So is one of the movie’s most important character arcs; like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in the 1942 film, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is introduced as an amoral ruffian who, by the end of the film, is committed to battling the authoritarian regime.

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Cowboys With Phasers: Star Trek’s “Spectre of the Gun” and the Genre of Space Western

“Space: the final frontier.” The opening words of the original Star Trek series intro handily sums up the logic of the space western genre. The Wild West is no longer wild, and has not been for some time. But space is unexplored, untamed, and not fully under the control of a central government, and/or federation. Exchange six-guns for lasers, a horse for a starship, and cattle rustlers for Klingons, and you’re ready to send those old adventure tropes off to the galactic rodeo.

In the original series, Captain Kirk swaggers like a border sheriff through many a lawless outpost. But the episode that most directly shoots at Star Trek’s Western roots is Season Three’s “The Spectre of the Gun,” aired in 1968. Faced with old timey gun fighters, the crew of the Enterprise both lean into the Western genre and try to escape from it—with mixed success. Even at warp speed, it turns out, it’s hard to outride the horse you’re sitting on.

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“Insects Don’t Have Politics”: Jekyll, Hyde, and The Fly

Now the hand of Henry Jekyll…was professional in shape and size: it was large, firm, white, and comely. But the hand which I now saw, clearly enough…was lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair. It was the hand of Edward Hyde.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1886 science-fiction novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the estimable Dr. Jekyll’s hand is white. But the hand of his evil alter-ego, Mr. Hyde, is “of a dusky pallor.” Jekyll creates a potion that turns him from an upstanding citizen into someone “wholly evil.” And for Stevenson, someone who was wholly evil had also to be non-white.

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Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives: Feminist Horror That Can’t Escape the Patriarchy

“I like to watch women doing little domestic chores,” says Diz Coba, the creepily smug leader of the Men’s Club in Ira Levin’s 1972 SF paranoid feminist thriller The Stepford Wives. The women in Stepford scrub floors and clean counters; they straighten and dust and fix their makeup. “[T]hey even fill their [grocery] carts neatly!” as protagonist, and new Stepford resident, Joanna Eberhart realizes in horror.

The cleanly, ominous order of Stepford is an uncanny threat. But it’s also the structural aesthetic of the novel itself. The Stepford Wives, like the Stepford wives, is a flawless machine, every detail of the plot carefully arranged like a well-ordered kitchen. The frictionlessness, fussy regimentation is so insistent that it calls into question the novel’s sympathies. Is Levin, with Joanna, looking with horror into those symmetrically-ordered grocery carts? Or is he, with Coba, leaning against the wall, appreciating the smooth polish of perfection?

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Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby: Patriarchy Without Feminism Is Hell

Ira Levin’s bestselling horror novel Rosemary’s Baby is a paranoid fever dream about patriarchy. The main character, Rosemary Woodhouse, is the target of a literally Satanic plot of rape, forced birth, and domesticity. She is, in other words, the victim of the same conspiracy of sexism, misogyny and male entitlement which targets all women in a sexist society. “There are plots against people, aren’t there?” she asks, with a plaintive insight.

But while Levin’s book is devastatingly precise in its analysis of patriarchy’s disempowerment and control of women, it isn’t exactly a feminist novel. In his 1971 book The Stepford Wives, Levin mentions Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and talks directly about the growing women’s movement. But in Rosemary’s Baby, feminist consciousness is notably absence, which is part of why the novel is so bleak and terrifying. The narrative recognizes that Rosemary’s fate is diabolically unjust. But it offers no way out, narratively or theoretically. The devil’s victory is total not because he defeats feminism, but because he rules over a world in which feminist possibilities don’t exist.

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The Evil Dead Reboot: Stealing Sam Raimi’s Soul

Since Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II is essentially a remake of The Evil Dead, the film that had launched his career six years earlier, you might think that yet another remake would be gory, superfluous overkill. And you wouldn’t be wrong. The 2013 Evil Dead reboot, directed by Fede Álvarez, takes the Raimi originals as a blueprint and borifies them by about 50%. In doing so, though, the newer Evil Dead highlights what was brilliant in Raimi’s work—and shows why a conventionally well-made movie and a good movie are often not the same thing.

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Sam Raimi vs. Evil Ash: Army of Darkness

“Good, bad—I’m the guy with the gun,” Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) tells his evil doppelgänger after blowing him away in Army of Darkness. The third film in the Evil Dead series is notable for its ambivalence about evil. Part of that is because the whole movie is a goof; like The Naked Gun or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, its plot is little more than an excuse to get from one gag to another. But it’s also because director Sam Raimi and Campbell are semi-ironically, semi-genuinely fascinated with the toxic masculinity of action movie heroes.

Ash is, to put it bluntly, a jerk; there’s not much difference between him and his evil double, except that, as he says, he’s the one with the gun. As a result, it’s not exactly clear whether we’re rooting for him because he’s on the side of the angels, or simply because he’s better looking than the evil dead, and because we know he’s going to win.

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Evil Dead II: The Deadites Are Right

Like much horror over the past 80 odd years, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films are indebted to H.P. Lovecraft. Evil Dead II in particular opens with intoned exposition about the Necronomicon. Lovecraft’s eldritch book is associated with madness and tentacular things that should not be. It’s also, as with most things Lovecraft, infected with the author’s racist loathing and terror of non-Western cultures. Supposedly written by a “Mad Arab,” the book within Lovecraft’s work links extradimensional eldritch evil with non-Western culture, tying them up together in a vile bow of cosmic terror and xenophobia.

Raimi isn’t a committed eugenic racist as Lovecraft was, but Lovecraft’s monstrous beliefs still snuffle and whisper around Raimi’s cheerful gorefest, whispering “Join us! Join us!” You can cast out the demons with an incantation, but there are uglier things in those woods that are harder to exorcize.

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