Fiction Reviews

The Buntline Special

(2010) Mike Resnick, Pyr, £13.99 / US$16.00, 321pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14249-0

On one level, perhaps from a first impression viewpoint, I thought to myself what a great idea fun this is, a marvellous conceit, a total hoot, but then again, mmm, read on if you dare.

The title of the novel refers to a legendary version of the Colt revolver. I say legendary because while the gun was allegedly commissioned by novelist Ned Buntline there is no record of such an order or manufacture in any of the Colt archives, but folklore contends that Buntline seemingly paid for the production of five guns with 12 inch barrels which he then gave away to five lawmen he admired, one of which was Wyatt Earp and another being Bat Masterton. While there are no company records to substantiate the existence of such a gun, Colt did put 16 inch versions of their guns on display back in the 1870s and used to charge one dollar per inch to anyone who wanted a barrel over the standard length of 7.5 inches. Did the gun exist? Google it and make up your own mind.

In our world we have a mystery about the manufacture of a gun while in Resnick’s world it is Buntline who is not the commissioner of the guns but the miracle manufacturer himself, having invented an all-purpose, pliable form of brass; and able – seemingly almost at will – to be able to turn the inventions of Thomas Edison into reality, but electric lights are one thing, and motorised stagecoaches are another, because it’s going to take a lot more than those two marvels if America is going to fulfil its destiny and go West. In this novel there is no Wild West because the magical powers of the American Indian medicine men have prevented expansion beyond the Mississippi, apart from the odd settler that is, and of course, allowing the establishment of the town of Tombstone itself. The one chance of defeating the powers of the shaman and heading West en masse lies in new technology and the inventions of Edison, who has survived an assignation attempt at the cost of his arm which is replaced by a motorised version. In order to protect him, Wyatt Earp is sent to Tombstone, following two of his brothers who are already there, and he brings reinforcements along in the shape of gunslingers Doc Holliday and Mat Masterson.

Thanks to the work of Edison and Buntline, Tombstone is a town with all sorts of technological wonders, ranging from electric streetlights to mini-Gatling guns that come in pistol versions to cyborg prostitutes who are part-woman, part-robot, to completely artificial prostitutes. With their past and current publishing history is it any surprise that this is a Pyr book, given their involvement with Steampunk books such as the Vampire Empire series by Clay and Susan Griffith, and The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder. Having read both of those books, and George Mann’s Ghosts of Manhattan, I would have to say that The Buntline Special is the weakest part of their Steampunk catalogue to date.

Why? For one reason the dialogue is clipped and riddled with clichés, spoken by earnest, jaw-jutting lawmen, and unfortunately the dialogue drives most of the plot. Description is sparse, as is motivation. You never really get into the heads of any of the characters who don’t even double-take at the most outlandish of events. At one point, after visiting Geronimo’s camp, and killing one of his braves, Bat Masterson is cursed not only to be bat by name, but bat by nature, and from then on when night falls, he will turn into a giant bat. The first time he does this he flies off towards Tombstone and Doc Holliday who witnesses the event hardly bats (ouch, pardon the pun) an eye-lid. Thus a marvellous opportunity for some tension and plot twists are totally missed as we head in quite plodding A to B fashion towards the inevitable show down at the O.K. Corral, a shootout most people are familiar with through films such as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Hour of the Gun, and Tombstone. It even featured in a classic Star Trek episode 'Spectre of the Gun'. Just as well if you do know it, because despite the build-up it hardly features here. All in all, this is great idea for a novel, it is just not very well executed. Maybe the inevitable sequel will be better, although I doubt it. 3 out of 5.

Ian Hunter

See also Sue’s review of The Buntline Special.

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