Wild Wild Alt-West

This past May, with the manuscript and revisions for Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer delivered and my eyes burning from months of reading the faded handwriting of countless 18th-century letters and receipts, I went on a fiction binge. Reading fiction — Jeffrey Barlough’s Anchorwick, Tim Powers’s On Stranger Tides, Brian McNaughton’s absolutely incredible The Throne of Bones — but also writing it.

I scribbled a lot of short fiction back in the 90s before abandoning it for nonfiction, which truly is the stranger of the two. Yet recently I’ve returned to it as a counterpoise to features and inverted pyramids, as an approach to those questions and issues raised but elided by factual accounts. Ever try to discuss the existence of God or the meaning of life on the Internet? Good luck with that. Fiction, meanwhile, allows a metaphorical dialogue that is otherwise culturally inexpressible.

And so — because after writing a book, I like to unwind with a little writing — this summer I banged out a series of stories in a genre I love but had never before attempted myself: alternate history. Specifically, alternate-history Westerns.

Now you’re probably thinking, Jackson! Are there really enough publications out there willing to buy short stories set in an ahistorical North America west of the Mississippi River between the years of 1850 and 1900? Isn’t that a fairly niche audience?

You’d be surprised. Some of the market abundance is due, I think, to the general mainstreaming of science fiction — even though there is nothing scientific about history or historical speculation. Writing history, like journalism, is more of a work ethic, a way of doing things.

I suppose alt-hist is lumped into science fiction because it is the inverse of traditional sci-fi: an imagining of what could have happened rather than what could happen. Yet more specifically the growing acceptance of weird Westerns owes a lot to the popularity of steampunk. The number of markets open to speculative Westerns, if not dedicated to an explicit Western theme, is an American co-opting of steampunk, of moving it from English Victorianism into a uniquely American embrace.

Oddly enough I’m not a fan of the literary Western beyond the shorts and novels of Elmore Leonard. I am, however, a huge fan of the cinematic Western, particularly those of Sergio Leone and other spaghetti directors. Geography is such a vital part of the genre that the analogy is perhaps more strongly communicated visually than it can be on paper — existence is a wilderness and a man or a woman is alone in it — but regardless it’s precisely that loneliness and uncertainty I attempt to bring to the page.

“Glorieta Pass” appears in Science Fiction Trails 7, available in hardcopy or for Kindle.

“Galveston” appears in Another Wild West, out now for Kindle and Nook, and available in paperback December 2011 from Amazon and B&N.

“Quivira” will appear in Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, spring 2012.

This is just the first batch I sold. More to come, let’s hope, behind the setting sun. Happy Thanksgiving!

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