Cowboys & Aliens: “But Seriously…”

“Cowboys…and aliens?” Smile when you say that, pardner, but don’t you laugh. Seriously. It’s a book, it’s a movie, it’s cool fun in the hot summertime—but it’s not a comedy.

A lot of people did laugh, when I first told them the name of the movie for which I was writing the novelization. But it isn’t Blazing Saddles. Far from it.

For anyone out there who hasn’t yet seen a poster or a trailer for the film, Cowboys & Aliens is a historical western, true—and of course science fiction—and a thriller/horror story, with a little romance, and a few grins thrown in.

But at its core is a perfectly serious premise, not played for laughs: What would happen if aliens—hostile aliens—had landed in New Mexico in the 1870s?

In the 1870s, monsters or demons out of Hell would have been a lot more “believable” to anyone on Earth than beings from another star system. What could people living then possibly make of such an enemy? And how could a society with a relatively primitive level of technology, whose people can’t even get along with each other, defeat invaders from outer space? Would it actually be possible for humans to do anything to save themselves?

I think that’s a very intriguing question. When I read the screenplay, I felt that what the writers had done with it was great, too—taking it seriously without sacrificing the story’s spirit of adventure, or its sense of wonder.

I happen to like stories about people who struggle heroically against overwhelming odds, for good reasons—just like most people do, and always have. Furthermore, the script also had what, for me, is the most important ingredient of any good story—characters who weren’t just cardboard cutouts. Cowboys & Aliens is about characters who are believable, flawed individuals, who have to wrestle their personal demons to the ground before they can hope to find a way to defeat the real enemy. I genuinely wanted to spend time with them, and get to know them better.

But those weren’t the only reasons I felt like this was a movie I could put my heart into recreating in words. (My book is a “novelization”—and for those who wonder exactly what that is, it’s a novel based on a movie’s script. Surprisingly few movies are actually based on novels.) I’ve spent most of my adult life writing science fiction, so of course that aspect of the story appealed to me… but Cowboys & Aliens also brought with it an intense flashback: I suddenly remembered how much I loved westerns when I was a kid. My first great love was “cowboys”—I cut my teeth on countless TV and movie westerns, and played “cowboys” with the other kids on my block as often as I played with my dolls.

Joan Vinge, little cowgirl

Photo by Carol Dennison. Click to enlarge

Before I reached high school, my interests had expanded to science fiction and fantasy, and in college I majored in anthropology. Anthro for me was like a special lens—a way of looking at the past and the present—that made them seem as mind-expanding as the possible futures of science fiction. That “cosmic” insight happened for me personally at a time when the whole country was struggling to find a better, more inclusive way of viewing itself—struggling to see things like “the Old West,” with all the myths that shrouded its harsh realities, in a clearer perspective.

Now, more than a century later, decades of more honest appraisal of western history have gradually scraped layers of paint from our country’s past, and Cowboys & Aliens can actually tell its “classic quest myth” in a setting that reflects the actual cultural diversity—and conflict—of New Mexico Territory in the 1870s. That’s more important to the storyline than you might think, when you’re dealing with the potential end of the world: Adding just enough true grit keeps the reader/viewer firmly placed in the same world and mindset as the characters—and more easily believing, in this case, that they might be humanity’s only hope against a horde of aliens with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

I expect this novelization will stay on my list of “personal bests,” not just because I always liked cowboys or aliens, or because I got to immerse myself up to my eyeballs in history and ethnography, or even because I fell hard for the characters, and was permitted the freedom to explore their thoughts, their pasts, and the changes they undergo in the novelization, in a way that an action movie doesn’t have time to do.

But if you still think the storyline is too unbelievable, you might be surprised.

There’s another reason why I found this story so engrossing, and you might, too: We all have demons to face… and some of them are real.

This is the first book of mine to come out in ten years—because nine years ago I was in a car that was hit by a fifteen-ton truck. I walked, more or less, away from it. But I was left with a closed-head concussion. (Don’t ever let anyone tell you that’s “not a serious injury.” It is, as too many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can testify.)

Like certain characters in this story, I know what it feels like to lose your identity, or your soul’s reason for existing, or the one thing besides your life that you thought could never be taken away from you.

I watched an out-of-control truck come at me out of the darkness, and in my disbelief—like the citizens of Absolution, NM—I thought a monster with glowing eyes was coming for me. And then I thought, quite seriously, “I’m going to die.” No time for my life to flash before my eyes—although I did think of my half-grown children, and all the stories I had left to tell. Like anyone who’s seen a lot of movies, I’ve heard many characters gasp, “I can’t die yet, I have too much left to do—” I always thought those words were a hopeless cliche. But that was virtually word for word the last thing that filled my mind.

Miraculously, I didn’t die. If my life was fiction the story would have ended there—triumphantly, if a little melodramatically by most standards.

But life goes on. And so, echoing the movie in another way, a demon in the night was only the beginning of the real trouble, for me. For several years I wondered if the various parts of my brain would ever again agree that they were really an inseparable whole, and cooperate for the greater good—which was the only way I could overcome the “alien attack” that had wreaked havoc in my life, most specifically with my career.

“Write what you know,” writers are often told. That may seem a little ridiculous when it comes to writing science fiction, but it still applies. I’ve never have a desire to write about my own life as thinly-disguised fiction; and yet everything that happens to and around a writer becomes grist for the mill of creativity. Imagination is a balloon; experience is the string that keeps it from flying away… and empathy is the hand that guides the string.

So in that way the car accident, and what came after it, became for me a microcosm of what the individuals, and fractious factions, in Cowboys & Aliens were facing: They had to realize they were all part of a whole, pull themselves together and act like one, before they have any chance of overcoming their truly formidable foe.

We all face things that take courage and resolve almost every day; but rarely do we get so much as a nod of gratitude in return. We may not even recognize what we’ve achieved ourselves, when a Journey of a Thousand Miles has been made taking one short step at a time. It’s easy to lose your sense of perspective in the day-by-day; the long view, either ahead or back the way you’ve come, fades too easily into heat haze or clouds.

That’s reason enough to enjoy a story like Cowboys & Aliens the way it’s meant to be enjoyed… like a lifetime of highs and lows compressed into a single exhilarating rollercoaster ride. “Escape” is not really a dirty word—and sometimes imagination is the lifesaver that keeps our sanity afloat.

So saddle up and ride out with the hero of your choice, to a place where “any day above ground is a good day.” Get muddy, get a little choked up, dare to cuss somebody out, grin a lot, feel pain and loss… and saddlesore, and thirsty. Most of all, feel happy to be human and simply be alive. Let your imagination lift you up where you belong. The view from there is terrific.

Trust me. It’ll do you good.

Joan D. Vinge, the author of the novelization of the Cowboys & Aliens screenplay, is the winner of two Hugo Awards, one for her novel The Snow Queen. She has written several dozen short stories, and nearly twenty books, including her Cat novels, Psion, Catspaw, and Dreamfall, and the other Snow Queen cycle novels, World’s End, The Summer Queen, and Tangled Up in Blue. She has had a number of bestselling film adaptations published, including  the #1 bestselling The Return of the Jedi Storybook and novelizations of Ladyhawke, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Return to Oz, and Willow, among others.


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