Space Cowboys in Austin

By Sheila Addison: Labor Day Weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, TX.  The museum is hosting a special exhibit, “COWBOYS IN SPACE AND FANTASTIC WORLDS: A journey through the history of Westerns in Science Fiction,” through December 1, 2019.  The museum’s exhibit blurb reads:

From Jules Verne’s 1868 book, Trip to the Moon, Gene Autry’s 1935 Phantom Empire, Star Trek, Star Wars, and on to a galaxy full of contemporary science fiction, visitors discover how the cowboy went from herding cattle on the Texas plains to flying spaceships around distant planets and fantastic worlds.

The exhibit does a fantastic job of connecting themes and tropes from classic Westerns to the use of those same tropes in Sci-Fi movies, books, and comics, digging deep into the history of genre entertainment to draw connections between the two.  Check out this Italian poster for Star Wars” which deliberately evokes Spaghetti Westerns:

One of the more interesting pieces in the exhibit is a video presentation of scenes from movie and TV westerns, put side by side with similar moments in SF, some of which could almost be shot-for-shot recreations. I can’t effectively include that here, but I can share the wonderful “Jukebox” they created to play versions of the ultimate crossover song, “Space Cowboy”:

Perhaps of interest to the 770 crowd, there are a number of books and comics on display, including a first edition of a Jules Verne with a gorgeously designed cover:

There’s a good many toys on display as well, and naturally material from Firefly, the ultimate modern “space western.” 

There was a section on women in “western” SF, featuring of course Zoe Washburn but also Wilma Deering and Judge J.B. McBride.

I particularly appreciated the final section which looked at how SF aliens are often presented using the same tropes that authors & directors of Westerns apply to Native Americans.  The exhibit also commented on SF’s use of slavery as a cause of conflict, in a genre which often completely ignored actual Black people’s existence. 

The exhibit ended with a nod to “indigenous futurism,” though this section reflected more art than narrative.

Since the exhibit runs for another month, perhaps some 770 readers can still check it out in person.

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9 thoughts on “Space Cowboys in Austin

  1. I’ll wave as I pass through DFW — can’t stop for this, but it looks fascinating. I’d like to know more about the intent and bounds of the census declaration at the front of the exhibit, as there are still places with <2 people per square mile (e.g. all of Alaska, which is still only ~1.3 and was bought in 1867).

  2. The first pic keeps stopping me: the rider has a helmet, but the horse doesn’t? Is it a robot with air tanks for the rider in its body?

  3. Sheila, it’s interesting that part of the exhibit notes similar tropes being used to depict aliens in science fiction and native Americans in westerns. The photo that caught my eye was the display of the front and back covers of the first issue of Galaxy Magazine (which I read from my late father’s collection as a kid). The ad features nearly identical paragraphs dressed up as sf and western fiction: “Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere …” versus “Hoofs drumming, Bat Durston came galloping through the narrow pass …” , with copy promising that Galaxy would publish real science fiction, not just fiction from pulp writers dressing up their stock fiction for whatever genre they could sell. The question that comes to mind is, was most of the similar stereotyping in sf and westerns due to the same writers selling to both genres? Or was “good” science fiction of this era caught up in the same dismissive depictions of beings from other worlds as savage Others?

  4. I wondered myself whether they would have the famous Bat Durston ad, and sure enough, there it was. This was obviously put together by knowledgeable people who did their research. My wife has some family in Austin, so it might be worth making a weekend trip to visit this and them.

  5. @Jim Meadows: from distant recollections (of reading older-than-me SF because there was so little new coming out), most SF then was dismissive of aliens; Poul Anderson was a little better (although his aliens still didn’t display a wide range of behaviors) and Andre Norton was significantly better, but they were mostly later — and there was still a strong strain of aliens-as-dumb-Axis-soldiers in Astounding (not universally, but some authors are notable for the offensiveness of their portrayals).

  6. Thanks for this writeup, Sheila! This is really interesting, and I’m glad that you made it possible for me to see so much of the exhibit.

  7. I was actually in Austin over Labor Day Weekend; I’d hoped to get this written sooner so folks might have a chance to plan a trip if desired but life, uh, found a way (to interfere).

    @Chip – good question. I took more photos of the didactic material as the exhibit went on, when I realized “hey, Filers might really like this and maybe I should document it?” but I suspect that panel didn’t have further explanation.

    @Jim – Great question, and one I don’t have an opinion on – perhaps it’s one of those “why not both?” situations. Get a load of this “Space Patrol” “totem helmet” that was a cereal box gift:

    @David – if you get to go, I’m curious what you think! Another part of the exhibit I didn’t photograph was a vintage-style “radio cabinet” that played pieces from a library of old SF and Western radio shows. I would have liked to linger but could not.

    @Andrew – Fair point. First English edition? This page suggests it’s from 1874:

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