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The Buntline Special by Mike Resnick

01/01/2011. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy The Buntline Special in the USA - or Buy The Buntline Special in the UK

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pub: Pyr/Prometheus Books. The Buntline Special (A Weird West Tale) by Mike Resnick. 319 page enlarged paperback. Price: $16.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-249-0).

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The term ‘steampunk’ has now created its own sub-genre. Not only are there books like Stephen Hunt’s trilogy, but it also has its own gathering. Aficionados produce spectacular costumes and devices. Peter Harrow has even produced a remote-controlled steampunk Dalek and ‘Locus’ has devoted an issue to the phenomenon. For those not familiar with the term, steampunk is a kind of Victorian Science Fiction where the motive power for most of the machines, including space ships, is steam. The purist SF reader will be able to shoot down the idea, producing a plethora of reasons why it is scientifically illogical. The point of it is that it is fun.

Anyone clued in to the history of science will know that the development of electricity, especially the AC form, triggered a move away from steam. It wasn’t an overnight change – there were some factories still using steam power in the 1950s – but it did allow technology to move on and miniaturise. I don’t think any over-stretched imagination could conceive of a mobile phone run on steam that would still fit inside a pocket. The next step after steampunk must surely be sparkpunk.

‘The Buntline Special’ is the first of Mike Resnick’s projected ‘Weird West Tales’ series. Most readers have heard of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral between the Earps and the Clantons even if they do not know all the details. In ‘The Buntline Special’, Tombstone is very much the frontier town most would imagine, except for a few important points. In this alternative version of history, the expansion of the European settlers was stopped at the Mississippi by the magic of the Indian chiefs, including Geronimo. Thomas Edison and Ned Buntline both live in Tombstone and work together, Edison coming up with the ideas and Buntline putting them into action. They have been sent there by the government to try and find a way of negating the shaman magic that prevents expansion. So far they have managed to equip the town with electric street lighting and build electrically powered armoured carriages that can convey travellers across Apache territory safely. There are electrically powered whores in the brothel run by Kate Elder. When there is an attempt on Edison’s life, Wyatt Earp is charged with his protection. He sends for added assistance in the form of Doc Holiday, thus assembling one of the teams for the face-down at the O.K. Corral.

Much of the narrative unfolds much as the well-documented story does, the tensions between the Earps and the Clantons moving inexorably towards the showdown. There are other quirks that Resnick has added to lead the reader wondering if, in this alternative history, the outcome will be the same. For example, the man who has been hired to kill Edison is Johnny Ringo. Although he has been reported as killed in a gunfight, he has been re-animated by Hook Nose, the Cheyenne chief helping Geronimo keep settlers pinned in the east of the continent. Ringo and Holliday are the only educated gunslingers and are prepared to put aside their enmity temporarily to discuss classical literature.

The book is full of humour that appears incidental and is beautifully illustrated with black and white interiors by J. Seamus Gallagher. If there is any criticism it is that the text is not long enough. The basic plot is well-known and well-researched but it would have been nice for the narrative to go at a slower pace in order to allow the reader to savour the layers and inventiveness within it. Despite this, reading ‘The Buntline Special’ is great fun.

Pauline Morgan

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