The Iconic Western & Sci-Fi Heroes Who Inspire My Writing

Molly Gloss
September 26 2019
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I have always written across the borders of genre—science
fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, even the occasional contemporary story.
It seems to me we are every bit as distanced from the past as we are from the
future, so the challenge for a writer, in bringing those worlds to life—past or
future—involves the same rigorous evocation of detail and the same attention to
the indelible human questions that, in my case, and even in my science fiction,
are often the questions that circle around the Western American experience.

As a girl, I was a sucker for the cowboy hero and the romantic
images of Western mythology. I soaked up the novels of Zane Grey, Ernest
Haycox, and Max Brand—but the book I read and reread obsessively was Jack
Schaefer’s Shane, the story of a solitary wanderer who wants
to give up his guns and live a peaceful life but must, in the end, turn to
violence as the only way to save the defenseless homesteaders from the forces
of evil.

Shane is fearless and honorable, a defender of children and women
and animals, but like all our cowboy heroes, all the Western heroes I loved
when I was a girl, he’s a wandering, rootless paladin; he lacks family ties and
a childhood history—no parents, siblings, never a wife nor children. Incredibly
skilled with his fists and a gun, he solves every problem, no matter how
knotted or difficult, with violence. And when he has finished with the
necessary killing, he heads back into the remote mountains, sacrificing himself
to loneliness.

As a girl, I was always deeply moved by that story, but I came
slowly to understand that a terrible sorrow lay under the violence—that there
was a dark underbelly to our Western mythology. This understanding grew from my
reading the thoughtful memoirs of people who had grown up in the ranching West:
Teresa Jordan’s Riding the White Horse Home; Bill Kittredge’s Owning
It All
; Eileen O’Keeffe McVicker’s Child of Steens Mountain(written with the guiding pen of Barbara J. Scot); and Bette Lynch Husted’s
Above The Clearwater: Living on Stolen Land

And as I began to turn away from the simple heroes of traditional
Westerns, I came finally to the few women who were writing the West—Willa
Cather, of course, and Mari Sandoz, Mildred Walker, Dorothy Johnson, Leslie
Marmon Silko. In their work, I found a darker, more complicated mythology, and
other kinds of heroes, never the rootless, violent gunslinger. When I squint
hard, I can even see Silko’s novel Ceremony as a retelling of Shane—a
retelling in which the bravest thing Tayo does is turn away from the killing.

In science fiction, just as in my reading about the West, it was
women writers—Ursula Le Guin first and foremost, but also Vonda McIntyre,
Cherry Wilder, Octavia Butler, Kate Wilhelm, Marge Piercy—who showed me a
different world. Theirs were stories focused not on what a technological object
could do, but on how the world is, or how it could be. The science in their
science fiction could be anthropology, psychology, sociology, the human
sciences —“archaeology of the mind” to use Jane Yolen’s phrase. And biology,
botany, the sciences of animals and all living things, the very sea itself, and
the earth.

I believe strongly that storytelling—mythology—can not only help
us to understand who we are as a people, what we care about, but that stories
can help us think about those things in fresh ways. In my Western fiction,
following the model of Silko and Cather, I have tried to reshape the
traditional story, to find a central place in it for women, to retell it as a
narrative of community, to shape it around realities that are sometimes darker
but always more complicated and therefore more interesting, and more human,
than the stories we usually tell. And when I write science fiction, I am often
following Le Guin and McIntyre, imagining another path into the future, exploring
and reinventing the tropes of marriage, and of child rearing, and creating a
new religion, or even a completely new culture, concretizing metaphor by
imagining psychic communication or a first encounter with an alien.

I believe American culture has been fundamentally shaped and
influenced by the mythology of our Western past, and that science fiction is
the mythology of our modern world—or one of its mythologies, now that we live
in a world profoundly changed by science and technology. It has always seemed
to me that we have as much trouble believing the past was real, that its
people walked the earth and felt the same things we feel, as believing
there will be a future world in which people go on living their complicated
lives after we are dead and forgotten. But in the novels and stories of
Leslie Silko, Ursula Le Guin, Willa Cather, and Vonda McIntyre, I saw how it
could be done—how they were able to bring those worlds, past or future, to
life. And I saw my own way into writing new mythologies.

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