Friday, 13 June 2014

A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra Series - Science Fiction and the Western Frontier (1)

May 5, 2014 Calgary and Blackfoot Crossing, Alberta
Part Sixteen – Science Fiction and the Western Frontier (1)

Question: Here we are near Calgary, in southern Alberta, Canada, the heart of what most people think of, when they think of western North America, Canadian version.  It’s the home of the world-famous rodeo, the Calgary Stampede, as well as many cattle ranches (working and historic, such as the Bar-U), and other things associated with the western frontier days.  There are also many First Nations communities, including sites deeply associated with native culture – for example, sites where natives drove buffalo over cliffs during hunts.  Some of these are managed by the provincial government (Head-Smashed Inn Buffalo Jump), others are showcases of native culture that local First Nations communities built and manage (e.g. Blackfoot Crossing).  I can’t think of a better place to talk about the connections between Science Fiction and “western frontier mythology”.

I am here with Helena Puumala, writer of the Kati of Terra series, among other works.  So, Helena, when you think of cowboys and SF, what springs to mind?
Answer (Helena): I do remember reading that Gene Roddenberry described Star Trek as “Wagon-Train to the Stars”, when he was pitching the idea to network executives.  And some of the SF writers that I have read made use of western motifs, including native traditions.  Andre Norton would be one, for example, in her Beast Master series.  They featured a culture similar to the Navajo, on another planet, if I recall correctly.

Question: That’s interesting.  But for now, let’s carry on with the Star Trek theme, since that’s SF that is known by a wide audience, myself included.  I recall a few western themed episodes, especially in the original series.  One of these used the gunfight at the OK Corral as the central event (editor’s note: The Spectre of the Gun).  Another featured Captain Kirk marooned on a planet after an injury producing amnesia, where he joined the equivalent of a North American Indian tribe, falling in love with, and marrying a “native beauty” (editor’s note: The Paradise Syndrome).  What archetypes do you think were being explored in that latter episode.
Answer (Helena): I suppose it was connected to the archetype of the frontier.  The frontier allows people to explore relationships and roles that they are otherwise constrained from.  Writers such as James Fennimore Cooper and Canadian commentators on the Courier du Bois made use of the theme of “marrying the chief’s daughter”.  That was actually useful to fur-traders historically (and to the native tribes involved), but in imaginative work I think it also represents an intuitive desire to re-connect with a non-European or better yet, non-rational, non-scientific world view.  Science Fiction has an intrinsic tension about science and rationality versus the intuitive.  Jung represents this as the contrast of the sense/reason versus feeling/intuitive.

Question: We are talking about the different ways that a human being, or indeed any sentient creature, can gain knowledge of the universe, or reality.
Answer:  It’s a tremendous recurring theme in SF.  The meeting of “enlightenment” Europeans with “pre-rational” native Americans is one of the most important events in history that gets re-worked and re-imagined in Science Fiction.  You might say it is the struggle between the reductionist thinking that lay behind the Enlightenment versus the holistic thinking more prevalent in other cultures. Given that the “S” in SF stands for science (reasoning thought), but the “F” stands for fiction (intuitive thought), this tension will always exist in SF.

Question: Perhaps that is the most significant value of Science Fiction to our culture and even our species - it keeps that mental culture clash alive in the imagination, so we will have access to both sides of this duality.
Answer: That’s one of the things that struck me when I was young and reading the not-so-schlocky books that I read at the time.  I often came across those culture clash themes in historical fiction, such as the western.  But I think SF has picked up on this and supplanted it, as the western genre is often seen as old fashioned and clichéd, not to mention racist.  For those reasons it simply can’t carry these nuanced themes as well as SF.  Perhaps we had to go out into the large universe to continue to explore these ideas.

Question: Ok, let’s look at the other western-themed Star Trek episode that we mentioned, “The Spectre of the Gun”.   It is based around the gunfight at the OK Corral in the 1880s in Tombstone Arizona.  For those who don’t know, that was a famous shootout between two sets of gunmen, the Clantons and the Earps (and their respective allies).  In the episode, the Enterprise landing party is forced to live out this event, by a race of telepathic aliens.  They are given the role of the losing side, the Clantons, as punishment for intruding on this alien race’s space.  What archetypes and themes are being played out here, and why use western themes and settings to advance those ideas within a Science Fiction vehicle?
Answer: That episode also had strong metaphysical or psychological elements relating to how we can know reality, and how can we trust that knowledge.  After all, it turns out that the events of the episode are just happening in the minds of the Enterprise crew - there is no external reality to the OK Corral shootout that they seem trapped within.  As Spock says, it is all shadows, without reality.  Even the ultimate reality, a deadly speeding bullet turns out to be a ghost.

As far as the western them goes, it seems like it was was fairly straightforward - the lawman against the desperado.  The shootout is presented as a failure of the rule of law, of order itself, where pure power reigns supreme.  That’s another theme that was inherent in the western frontier sagas, that SF picked up and continued to explore.
Question: Those are good points.  Here’s something else that occurred to me about the episode.  I think the title of the episode gives this angle away - “The Spectre of the Gun”.  I wonder if the writer wasn’t sneaking in commentary about gun control and the general futility, and indeed, the tragedy of letting the gun settle disputes.  The Enterprise landing party was stuck in this gun-haunted role as the Clantons, who were doomed to be shot down at the OK Corral.  There is a strong sense of being trapped - they literally couldn’t leave the town and they couldn’t reason with the inhabitants to forestall the gunfight that would kill them.

Answer: Aha!  Rather like Americans who want gun control, but are stuck in a political and cultural reality that won’t let them escape The Spectre of the Gun.  The old west was the ultimate example of that reality, where most people packed a sidearm at all times and where a gunfight could be used to settle disputes, the ultimate arbiter.  At any rate, that was the legend of the old west.
Question: Yes, and Spock, the ultimate scientific intellectual, is the one who manages to reason his way out of the situation - to see that it can be overcome.  Indeed, he has to mind-meld with the other members of the landing party to ensure that they too can see through the situation.

Answer:  So this can be seen as a case where the tropes of the western are brought into Science Fiction to pose a problem that the tropes of the SF genre can then solve.

Question: Speaking of the OK Corral and Science Fiction, let’s not forget to mention the episode of Doctor Who that was set in that same time and place. 
Answer:  Yeah, that one was a hoot.  I believe it actually preceded the Star Trek episode - it featured the first doctor, Grandfather. (editor’s note: Dr Who Ok Corral was aired in 1966, Star Trek OK Corral was aired in 1968).  The plots are somewhat similar, in as much as both revolve around cases of mistaken identity which put the major characters in mortal danger.

But I would say that the Doctor Who episode had a lighter touch - it was mostly just good clean fun, perhaps because gun violence isn’t the problem in the U.K. that it is in the U.S..  There is also more playful romanticizing of the old west in the U.K. and Europe than in North America.
Question:  How about the series Firefly and the movie Serenity?

Answer:  Yeah, Josh Whedon definitely seems to set that in a sort of Science Fiction old west, right down to the events occurring shortly after a civil war.  Mal definitely gives off a cowboy vibe.

And the planets have a frontier feel, due to terraforming.  I suppose that you could say the Europeanization of the old west, turning vast herds of wide ranging buffalo into cattle ranches, farms, towns and cities, for example, was a sort of terraforming as well.

Question:  Turning to your own work, I sensed some western themes at work, especially in Kati of Terra Book One, Escape from the Drowned Planet.  For example, there was the long trip through the Northern Continent desert, on Narra Beasts and then later on Runner Beasts.  I know neither of these are actually horses but the do remind one of the standard western motif of the long horseback journey.  And the border guards that Kati, Mikal, Yarm and Jocan spend some time with describe themselves as “long riders” a term that I associate with the west. 

Answer:  Well, I hadn’t consciously planned any such connections, but as is clear from our conversation, I have some familiarity with the genre, so I guess it’s not surprising that it would show up in my work.  I don’t doubt that it metamorphosed through my imagination into a slight different form than the usual western motifs.  As you know, my books attempt to create a less violent environment than what is traditionally thought of, when we think of the old west.

Question:  But, Kati and her companions have a run-in with what could reasonably be compared to outlaws or rustlers - the “desert louts”.  That led to a chase and shootout scene, of a sort.  And finally, there is the amusing and exciting episode with the “wild tribes”.  That led to some potentially life-threatening results. 

Answer:  Indeed.  Hmm. There was some violence there, definitely.  But then telling a story generally requires a fairly high degree of conflict of some kind, and a certain judicious use of violence or the possibility of violence is one major element of conflict.

I should just note that the wild tribes weren’t posited to be indigenous tribes in the sense that North American First Nations are.  Rather, they were the outcome of small family groups or small communities being geographically and genetically stranded for centuries after the global warming catastrophe on the drowned planet, Macros III.  Thus, they evolved their own peculiar cultural norms and genetic traits, leading them to being considered “wild tribes” by other inhabitants of the planet. 
Question:  Yes, those are good points to bear in mind.

Ok, I guess we should wrap this up.  It has been interesting.  Next time we will talk about some of the native star-lore that we learned about at Blackfoot Crossing here in southern Alberta, and about the similarities between native American mythology and what we might call Science Fiction mythology.

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