From the Desk of Michael K. Johnson: Speculative Visions of the American West

Michael K. Johnson is Professor of American literature at the University of Maine at Farmington. His books include Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West (University Press of Mississippi, 2014) as well as two biographies, Can’t Stand Still: Taylor Gordon and the Harlem Renaissance (University Press of Mississippi, 2019) and A Black Woman’s West: The Life of Rose B. Gordon (Montana Historical Society Press, 2022). He is also co-editor (with Kerry Fine, Rebecca Lush, and Sara Spurgeon) of Weird Westerns: Race, Gender, Genre (University of Nebraska Press, 2020). His most recent monograph is Speculative Wests: Popular Representations of a Region and a Genre (University of Nebraska Press, 2023).

On the first day of my Popular Genres course, I tell my students that we start the class with the western, and, that, “really, the western never quite goes away.” There are elements of the western in the post-apocalyptic thriller Mad Max: Fury Road, in the horror film Nope, and even in vampire movies like Near Dark (all part of my syllabus).

After showing a variety of clips from westerns like Stagecoach, Shane, and For a Few Dollars More, I show the students the opening scene of the Disney Plus series The Mandalorian, set in the Star Wars universe, and starring Pedro Pascal as the body-armor-clad titular bounty hunter who walks into a saloon in search of his quarry, and, well, things happen.

What was western about that scene? I ask my students. Someone always volunteers with a smile, “Everything.”

The western, whether reset in a galaxy far away or taking place in contemporary or historical settings in the American West as with the current television series Yellowstone and The English, is having a cultural moment. My recent book, Speculative Wests: Popular Representations of a Region and a Genre, suggests that such moments are often located in stories with speculative elements, in science fiction, horror, and fantasy narratives that are reinventing the western while also offering new perspectives on the American West.

Even a story with a classic 19th-century setting like The English, at times feels more like a horror story than a western, as it draws on horror tropes (extreme violence, body horror, disfigurement) to provide a revisionist take on the western and a critical perspective on the ideology of manifest destiny and the genocidal violence that accompanied westward expansion.

The currently airing (and highly popular) HBO series The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic adventure story (based on a videogame of the same name) that intentionally draws on western tropes and conventions. Main characters Joel Miller (played by Pedro Pascal, this time without body armor) and Elle Williams (Bella Ramsey) journey westward from Boston. As in many post-apocalyptic stories, the setting suggests the classic western through its portrayal of characters trying to survive frontier conditions, which have been brought about by a civilization-collapsing disaster.

Apropos of the moment, that disaster in The Last of Us has been brought about by a global pandemic, this one spread by a fungal infection that takes over human bodies, turning them into something like interconnected zombie plants that attack (and infect) other humans.

As the characters move further west, the setting becomes more western generically as well. After a couple of episodes in the New West metropolis of Kansas City (or what’s left of it after years of battles between rival surviving groups), the episode “Kin” brings Joel and Elle to Wyoming, where the resort town of Jackson Hole has been transformed into a kind of frontier fort surrounded by a giant wooden fence, and is protected by kerchief-wearing mounted riders. The episode is full of visual references to the western, especially once Joel and Elle are on horseback, riding over the empty winter landscape, sometimes in profile against the skyline or the sunset.

Speculative Wests looks at a variety of contemporary literary and popular culture texts that, like The English and The Last of Us, reimagine the western and the American West within the framework of speculative narratives. These texts speculate about the past, present, and future of the American West, sometimes literally revisiting western history through time travel, as in Alfredo Véa’s novel The Mexican Flyboy.

Focused primarily on literature, film, and television that appeared between 2016 and 2020, Speculative Wests is particularly attentive to a historical moment when writers and artists of color are emerging as innovative cultural producers in the fields of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. In doing so, these artist are also engaging critically and creatively with the western and, more generally, with representations of the American West.

Thus, the speculative versions of the American West that I examine include African American writer Justina Ireland’s zombie western Deathless Divide and Mexican American writer Rudolfo Anaya’s western time travel story ChupaCabra Meets Billy the Kid

This emphasis on using the hybrid form of the speculative western to tell the stories of people usually marginalized or misrepresented in the classic western does not stop in 2020. See, for example, Anna North’s alternate western history novel Outlawed (2021), which reimagines the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang as a multiethnic gender- and sexually-fluid group of women; or Tom Lin’s The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu (2021), with its Chinese-American gunslinger and his traveling companions, a troupe of magic-show performers whose talents involve actual magic.

Likewise, the 2022 series The English continues this trend, with Native American actor Chaske Spencer (Lakota) cast in the lead role. Likewise, The Last of Us (2023) centers on the character played by the Chilean-born Pascal, and the episode “Kin” features guest actors Graham Green (Oneida) and Elaine Miles (Cayuse/Nez Perce), as well as African American actress Rutina Wesley as one of the leaders of the Jackson Hole community.

Speculative Wests, I hope, is a timely book. It offers a mapping of recent cultural history of representations of the American West, but it also serves as a starting point for the future mapping of the new work that continues to be published and created and the new speculative visions of the American West that continue to emerge in literature and popular culture. 

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