Bernard Schaffer’s GUNS OF SENECA 6 is a science-fiction Western, and anybody who enjoyed the short-lived and much-mourned television series FIREFLY can tell you, those are two great tastes that taste great together.
But as undoubtedly enjoyable as GUNS is, it isn’t a perfect blend of the two genres. For one thing, it tilts much heavier toward the Western than the sci-fi. This isn’t a problem on its own, but it does create secondary problems that crop up now and then, which did jar me out of pure enjoyment.
Let me go on record as a huge fan of genre mash-ups. I mean, I wrote at least two, so otherwise my hypocrisy would know no bounds. (See what I did there?) Because of that, you can also believe me when I say that synthesizing two or more genres into one without the seams showing can be a lot harder than it looks. The good news is the devil in those details shows up much more in the first half of GUNS and almost not at all in the back end. By that point, you’re ready to join the posse no matter what burs found their way under your saddle before that.
Case in point, this is a Western in space. There are boots, hats, horse-like mounts, Native American analogs, Doc Holliday stand-ins, tough-but-fair sheriffs, hard-nosed marshals and six-shooters — all going on at the frontier of civilization. But to show you where I felt the seams started showing, the Native American analogs are noble savages who smoke peace pipes, live in tribes, go on vision quests, and scalp the white man. All of which makes them less analogs and instead just Native Americans … but in space.
Another example are the guns. The firearms are all massive six-shooters with bullets … and battery packs. What do the battery packs do? Nobody ever says, but they sure keep checking that their cylinders are packed full and their batteries are fully charged.
I appreciate a lack of useless world-building (one of the reasons I read so few straight fantasy novels), but Schaffer seems to err too far the other direction. I’m no FIREFLY fanboy — and yes, I’m prepared to be crucified by nerds everywhere for that sin — but I’ll point to its second best aspect: the world-building. Joss Whedon wanted a cartoon caricature of the Old West so he could move it into space and did just enough world-building to make that happen. He created a reason for a frontier, a reason for a “Civil War,” plausible excuses for the simpler clothing and weaponry, the works. The reasons were, you’ll note, plausible, not breathtakingly clever. But that’s okay, because they weren’t the point of the show; they were just a vehicle to get where he wanted.
Schaffer skips that step and just plops us down in a frontier town that just happens to be on another planet covered with natives from which the inexplicably uniformly white miners could land grab. This felt a bit unsatisfying.
There are also characters who are direct and obvious analogs to characters from the history-fiction of the Old West. Sometimes, I’ll admit, these characters felt dropped in without more specific reasons than Schaffer wanted Doc Holliday (for instance) in his story. I love Val Kilmer as much as the next guy, but Schaffer is too good a writer not to put more of his own spin here. It’s absolutely his prerogative as a writer to not do so, but I can’t help feeling things would be stronger if he had.
So there’s the lack of explanatory world-building, more-obvious-than archetypal characters and what can feel a bit like a checklist of Western tropes. If that doesn’t trip you up, then you should definitely read this book because there is way more good than bad or ugly.
For instance, I don’t care if it is on another planet, this is a by-God Western with all the grit and dirt that comes along with that. These are a frontier people, the majority of whom want peace and quiet, but are nevertheless willing to scuff their knuckles up getting it. There are outlaws with hearts of gold, reprobates with senses of honor and humor, and good folks who give up on getting by so they can do a little good. There are also evil men with no other desire than to live on the frontier so as to get away with their reprehensible deeds. These evil men need holes put through them, and those other folks aim to be the ones what perforate them.
There’s a story of family legacy and homecoming. There’s a story of the rot that can happen in a small town when its good heart is torn out. There’s a story of insane men gaining incredible powers and doing unspeakable evil with them. There are noble savages who befriend less-than-noble civilized men.
Schaffer also graces us with dialogue and descriptions that are my favorite part of both Western and noir. He tells us about places in simple terms that, despite their simplicity, cannot hide their poetic grace. The white hats always talk tough; the black hats are incredibly menacing and sinister; but the gray hats always get the best lines.
Despite its rough edges and somewhat questionable narrative choices on the front end, I enjoyed the living hell out of GUNS OF SENECA 6. Schaffer is a very good writer with a firm grasp of the Western genre and a desire to do right by it even when it happens on space stations and distant worlds. I can’t wait to read the sequels and wholeheartedly recommend this book to people who want to ride into the sunset with a good Western whether the high plains it drifts through west of the Mississippi or beyond the Outer Rim. —Joshua Unruh