The Secret about Historical Fiction and Sci-Fi

Chicago is known for its long horrible winters, and being a writer and avid reader, I always have plenty to do indoors. However, sometimes the writing is arduous and you need a break. Then you get to that weird in-between-good-books place where you’re trying to read something and it’s your third or fourth lackluster book. You want to quit it and move on.

I also like to cook, so that takes up some indoor time. However, when you cook, you eat, and when you eat too much you get fat. So sometimes watching TV seems okay.

I’m probably cable TV’s best customer because the channels I like are so off the typical grid I have to get an expensive cable package just to get the array of a few I like. I have a Chromecast and stream, and use HBOGo and Netflix.

So you would think I’d be set. Not so, really. Movies are often too long of a commitment. That’s how I started to fall in love with old TV shows on ME-TV. And what surprised me is that it was 1950s and 1960s Westerns.

I’ve never been a big fan of Westerns, but one murderously-cold, snowy hateful Saturday I watched ME-TV and it was westerns. These shows seemed like low commitment, easy-in, easy-out entertainment. If I really liked one, I wouldn’t have to wait for a “new” episode either. What surprised me was how much I liked them.

"He's got his badge, he's got his gun, but most of all, he's got his son."

“He’s got his badge, he’s got his gun, but most of all, he’s got his son.” — The Rifleman

Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Big Valley, Gunsmoke, The Rebel, and many others, most of which I’ve never seen, were fascinating. The scripts were actually good. Sure, there was a lot of shooting to solve problems. But the stereotypes I expected weren’t there. Some guys were tough, and some were chickenshit. Some women were ladylike and some were, like Miss Kitty, bold business owners who spoke their mind. Good acting was everywhere. People like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen  were in these shows.

What impressed me even more were the stories, and how they related so well across generations and genres. One of the first episodes I watched was Wagon Train, in which the wagon train that seems to endlessly go somewhere (but never gets there) hosts an array of characters. Each week there were the core people, and they had to get involved with a wagon train member who was that week’s guest star– thus, a character you’d never see again. This episode was about a person on the wagon train who had some dread disease, maybe smallpox, and could no longer hide it. At the same time the news was braying about “Ebola in America” and the looming disease crisis that would render all Americans helpless and ill.

In all these old western TV shows, there was an evergreen story line. Man loves his wife but another woman in town catches his eye. Man drinks too much, smacks around his kids, and the kids run away. New person comes to town and doesn’t feel welcome in the clannish nature of the community.

This reinforced a belief I’ve held about both historical fiction and science fiction: it’s not really about that era. A western is not about life in a dusty Nevada town in the 1870s. A science fiction tale is not really about young people who have to fight in manipulative games to get food for their province.

Both historical fiction and science fiction are about the present.

New relationships. Breaking up of old relationships. Inclusion. Competition. Heartbreak. Parental love. Defending territory.

As much as we believe historical fiction and science fiction will “take us there,” the one thing we writers need to always remember is that it will take us “there”–but not to the past or the future. It takes us into the deepest recesses of our hearts where we can find the truth about human nature.

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About chuckmall

Fiction and food writer in Chicago. Author of "The Owl Motel: And Other Places Where You Are Not Welcome."
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