Cowboys and Steam — The Buntline Special and The Doctor and the Kid

Geek Culture

The mix of steampunk and westerns is not new — TV shows such as The Wild Wild West (and the updated Will Smith movie) and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr have demonstrated that steam-powered contraptions, vehicles, and weapons can entertain just as well in the backyard of the cowboy as those of the vested gentlemen and bonnet-wearing ladies of the London-centric tales.

Quite a few steampunk fans are already familiar with Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series that takes place on the North American continent — books such as Boneshaker and Dreadnought have been well received as worthy additions to any steampunk library (and Priest’s next release, Ganymede, is already on my pre-ordered list, and I’ll probably read it in less than two days as I did the others and then regret that choice as I wait the long 12-18 months for her next release).

I thought I was fairly familiar with most western/steam mashups, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover an unfamiliar series that starts out by taking a famous historical setting (and key event) and turns it on its side — I’m talking about the town of Tombstone (Arizona) and the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

I’m a huge fan of the movie Tombstone — can we all agree that Val Kilmer nailed the role of Doc Holliday so well that many of his most famous lines are now permanently enshrined in the Geek Quotes Hall of Fame? Yes, I’m quite aware that the movie takes liberties… a lot of liberties. The myths have been mixed with the actual events so much that no one is really 100% certain what happened in that famous showdown. But what doesn’t seem to be debated is that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday took down Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers (with Ike hightailin’ it away) and the gunfight went down as the most famous in Wild West history.

Mike Resnick doesn’t seem to want to debate this event either, but in his book The Buntline Special, he’s taking a completely different path to gathering all the key players. First, his Wild West is full of Native American medicine men (such as Geronimo) who are using their magic to keep the USA from expanding west of the Mississippi River. The US government wants to know why its army is prevented from marching west, and they send out a young Thomas Edison to Tombstone, Arizona to try to uncover how the magic works and how to get around it so the US can expand to the California coastline.

Thomas Edison is a smart man, and he’s paired with Ned Buntline (in real life, a novelist) who is a very capable manufacturer of a type of brass that apparently is stronger than steel. Buntline takes Edison’s notes and research and turns them into actual weapons, vehicles, and more. As a matter of fact, Tombstone is so far ahead of the rest of the country due to Edison’s electric lights and Buntline’s indestructible (and horseless) carriages that the US government is concerned about assassination attempts on the two men. The horseless carriages, for example, have basically put the horse-stealing Clanton family (part of the bigger Cowboys gang) out of business as no one wants to buy horses when they can get around town using Buntline’s own version of a metro rail system. And the Native American population is concerned that the new technology is going to allow cities to expand further into their territory as more and more people move west.

To protect Edison and Buntline, the US government hires Wyatt Earp to protect the men. And Wyatt, in turn, brings in his brothers, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson to help him with the protection duty. Edison’s already lost an arm to an assassination attempt (by Curly Bill), so Wyatt and his team waste no time trying to figure out who is gunning for Edison and Buntline… and how they’ll do it. Without giving too much more away, I will let you know that Johnny Ringo makes an appearance (in a most unique manner) and the Gunfight at the OK Corral is still on schedule…

The conclusion is satisfying and seriously fun. The Buntline Special is a tongue-in-cheek story, of course, so be prepared to have a handful of historical figures given a full fictional mistreatment.

The Weird West series continues with The Doctor and The Kid. Doc Holliday has found himself penniless, unable to fund his impending hospitalization for consumption (tuberculosis). Unable to gamble (no funds) and unable to work as a dentist (his bloody coughing fits tend to scare away patients), he quickly decides the only way to make money is as a bounty hunter using his skill with a Colt revolver. And needing to make as much money as fast as possible, he quickly discovers the one person with the highest bounty on his head is… Billy the Kid.

Doc doesn’t have to waste much time hunting down Billy, but he quickly finds The Kid is protected by Native American magic. And while hunting down Billy, Doc is given a job on the side by Geronimo who puts his own magical protection on Doc. Holliday can’t shoot Billy… and Billy can’t shoot Doc. But Holliday has access to Edison and Buntline who decide to help their friend find a way to satisfy Geronimo and kill Billy the Kid. Place your bets…

Again, I’m quite happy with the stories — I’ve had enough pure steampunk over the past few weeks that the superhero-mashup of The Ghost series and now this Wild West blending were a welcome change.

The Doctor and The Kid is due out in December 2011. And I’d like to thank the Pyr crew for providing me with PDF review copies of both books.

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