“Cowboys & Aliens” isn’t the first western crossbred with science fiction, with “Westworld,” “Wild Wild West,” “Jonah Hex,” and even “Back to the Future Part III” to name a few. Most sci-fi westerns dealt with time travel, but rarely the possibility of an extraterrestrial invasion. With Jon Favreau’s adaptation of the “Cowboys & Aliens” graphic novel, it’s easy to get caught up in novelty. But what did cowboys think when they gazed up into what would have been spectacularly dark skies?
“Cowboys & Aliens” takes place in 1873, around the time some intriguing alien ideas were cropping up. Jules Verne’s novel “Around the Moon” was published in 1870 with characters discussing the possibility of life on the Moon. It was in 1873 that Lewis Page Mercier actually translated Verne’s French novel, a sequel to “From the Earth to the Moon,” into English.
In England, polymath William Whewell theorized about water and life on Mars in 1854. Whewell is known for coining the term “scientist” to more accurately define natural philosophers. Whewell’s theories about life on Mars influenced American astronomer Percival Lowell, who theorized that a series of canals had been built on Mars. The canals were also observed by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, but better telescopes eventually debunked these observations.
It did bring the term “Martians” into popular use, which at the time was reference to beings from Mars but became broadly used for extraterrestrials from anywhere. It was these Martian theories from Lowell, Schiaparelli, and Whewell that author H.G. Wells based his 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds” on. That was science fiction, though, and in the late 19th century woman astronomers were making serious contributions.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt proposed groundbreaking theories about the luminosity of stars while working at the Harvard Observatory. These theories fueled Edwin Hubble’s discoveries that changed our view of the universe by observing galaxies beyond our own. Also working at the Harvard Observatory was Annie Jump Cannon, who discovered and cataloged more stars than anyone in history at the time.
These “celestial computers” and “ladies of luminosity” were collectively and degradingly known as “Pickering’s Harem.” It was Edward Pickering who opened the Harvard Observatory to women in 1877, where they studiously searched the cosmos. The story goes that in Pickering’s frustration with a male assistant, he claimed his housekeeper could do a better job — literally. Said housekeeper was Williamina Fleming, who was one of 40 women Pickering hired to compute and catalog stellar observations.
The first American woman to be regarded as a professional astronomer was Maria Mitchell. She discovered a comet in 1847 and became director of the Vassar Observatory in 1865. While male astronomers of the late 19th century were dreaming up Martian canals, the underpaid women of astronomy were taking leaps of progress in spectral observations and cataloging.
This has a certain resonance to “Cowboys & Aliens” in that a woman plays the key role in defeating the invaders. (Spoiler Alert) While Ella Swenson, played by Olivia Wilde, isn’t exactly human, it’s interesting that she takes on the feminine form. Her character is like an embodiment of the cosmic understanding that women brought to astronomy at the time. In retrospect, amongst all the machismo and head-nodding between Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, the more interesting female character reflects a substantial piece of 19th century astronomy.