Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

1979: Alien (Foster, Alan Dean)

Faithful novelization with poor pacing (4/5)

Having loved reading science fiction for a full seven years, one would suspect the reviewer of also loving science fiction movies; here, one would be incorrect to a great degree. Generally, I really don’t like many science fiction movies for a number of reasons: (1) over-glamorizing the science-y aspect, (2) injecting cheesy Hollywood drama, (3) rehashing so many SF clich├ęs, (4) interweaving the genre with fantasy or the paranormal, (5) pushing the movie toward more action than substance, (6) featuring Tom Cruise or (7) basing the movie on some lame premise. Good science fiction movies are far and few between.

One movie stands out among all others for its original blend of science fiction and horror, action and substance, quality and appeal, and timelessness. To be blunt, Alien scared the shit of me when I was young; even now it sets my nerves on end (genuine horror or nostalgia, you be the judge). Considering that the story is now thirty-five years old and still haunts the memories of past impressionable minds… only Star Wars (I may never say this again) can be compared to its impression. For me, Alien, to this day, epitomizes an excellent science fiction movie plot (obviously without regard for social science fiction—give me flamethrowers, aliens and spaceships!).

Call is nostalgia if you like, but when a fan of Alien and science fiction literature, like myself, picks up a novelization of a movie, you can bet that the expectations are high and fuelled purely by nostalgia. Thanks to Alan Dean Foster’s fine prose and perspective, the novelization of Alien reflects the movie very closely. Although I didn’t almost pee my pants, my eyes did remain glued on the pages, all 218 pages of which I consumed in one day.


I read the Omnibus edition (Warner, 1993), so the page numbers may differ from the cover featured (Titan Books, 2014).
Movie tagline:
“In space no one can hear your scream.”


Light-years from Earth, the deep-space commercial tug Nostromo slides through the featureless void of subspace with two billion tons of crude oil. As the automatic refinery processes the oil, seven dreamers lay in their cryogenic chambers and Mother, the ship’s artificial intelligence, watches over them like its name suggests. When Mother detects something like a distress signal, it puts the Nostromo and its crew on a course to investigate the source of the signal. The crew is awoken.

Unbeknownst to the crew aside from the captain/pilot Dallas, their three-month journey home should have landed them in Earth’s orbit with the blue marble itself gracing their view screens. When they are unable to locate Earth or even contact traffic control, Ripley, the ship’s warrant officer, discovers that they are in fact in the system of Zeta II Reticuli. Dallas informs everyone of the beacon broadcast, a non-standard signal almost certainly of alien origin. The science officer, Ash, confers with Mother on a number of possibilities but it’s Ripley, again, who discovers that the distress beacon is actually a quarantine warning. Ripley begins to doubt Ash’s position among the crew and his loyalty to their humanity.

Ripley takes the ship down to the surface of the planet, which is nearly as dense as Earth but much smaller and covered in an inhospitable atmosphere choked with dust. It’s this dust which clogs intakes, overheats engines, and creates fires in power cells. Landing, the ship is in obvious need of repair while a team of three—Dallas, Kane and Lambert—venture through the yellow dusty mist to While Ash, Ripley and the two engineers, Brett and Parker, stay aboard the Nostromo, the latter two begrudgingly make repairs and bitch about not receiving full shares, the three who ventured forth discover the source of the signal: a giant, u-shaped craft held at a precarious angle on the planet’s surface.

The huge derelict alien craft has three open ports which Dallas, Kane and Lambert access and discover the physical source of the beacon. Curiosity gets the best of them and they attempt to explore the depths of the ship. Having set up a winch, Kane is lowered through an interior channel where he discovers a vast cavern he assumes to be a storage room. The oppressive heat of the cave causes him discomfort and the well-organized leathery sacs cause him confusion. In an ignorant attempt to pry one open, he succeeds and is gripped by the unwelcome embrace of a facehugger. When Dallas and Lambert reel him back up, the unsightly spider alarms them and they flee back to the ship with Kane in tow.

Ripley is unwilling to allow the three-man team back into the ship for fear of xenological contamination; even with the commands and threats of Dallas, Ripley does not open the exterior hatch, but Ash does comply, going against all protocols of decontamination. With Kane supine on the autodoc, Ash probes the facehugger with an assortment of tools, only to discover that it uses an extremely acidic defense mechanism—its blood dissolves linen, plastic and even the metal of the hull. Seeing facehugger regenerate its wound, the only option is to let it remain on Kane’s face for fear of either killing him via the parasite or destroying the ship via the corrosive blood.

Brett and Parker complete their arduous task of fixing a number of systems and prepare the ship to leave the planet and dock with its massive cargo of oil in order to return to Earth. Meanwhile, Ash watches over Kane and calls the crew to come observe two sequential events at the autodoc: (1) the facehugger detached itself from Kane’s face and is not lifeless and (2) Kane’s recent recovery, who has symptoms of amnesia and a ravenous hunger, but he physically appears to be in fine form. Homeward bound, the crew look forward to ten months of cryo-sleep and decide to share one last meal together. Kane’s three-meal hunger is interrupted by a pain in his chest, the cause of which bursts through his chest and scurries off to hide, a grotesque creature covered in Kane’s organs and blood.

The shocked crew decide it can’t exactly kill the creature because of its corrosive blood, so a method of shocking and netting the little creature is started. They have one week to capture it and send it out the airlock before the ships runs out of oxygen and before they return to cryo-sleep to await for their return to Earth. As they hunt for the creature with electronic trackers, Brett is assigned to recover Jones—the ship’s cat—but ends up being taken by the alien which stalks the air ducts. Both Ripley and Parker observe the alien’s incredible strength as it lifted Brett clear off the floor. As they cat had fled the equipment bay during the attack on Brett, so too do Ripley and Parker run away from the scene of fear.

Realizing that rods of electricity were not going to tame the alien predator stalking their lives, they upgrade their weapons to flamethrowers and remain convinced that they must corral the creature toward an airlock, where they can eject the fearsome hunter into the vacuum of space. After Dallas’s unexpected death, the five remaining crew are skittish to every susurrus or scrape made within the Nostromo. Parker is the first to warn Ripley of the alien’s location next to an airlock. From her console, she starts the sequence to close the airlock; the alien is mesmerized by the flashing green warning light, but when someone triggers the klaxon, the alien drops out of the lock, gets its arm stuck in the closing door and flees from the scene, knocking over Parker in the process.

The acid of its amputated limb corrodes the metal of the door; air leaks through the hole causing a hull breach. The crew panic and struggle to regain control of their precious atmosphere. When the incident comes under control, Ripley is the first to ramp up her suspicions of Ash; she consults Mother with the following query: IS ASH PROTECTING THE ALIEN? Is one man at fault in the Nostromo for the travesty unleashed, or is the Company—concerned for the matters of “maximizing profit, minimizing loss” (200)—the prime culprit?

Yet, the alien, a “perfectly organized organism” (203), continues to stalk the remaining crew.


From my memory, I presume the novelization of Alien to be faithful to the movie. The one aspect of the book which doesn’t make the movie is the pace; at the half-way point through the novel, Ash and Dallas discover the facehugger had detached itself from Kane’s face.

The first half of the novelization feels bloated with dialogue between the engineers Brett and Parker. There are sections where the reader is dragged through their technical conversations about power cells, welding, striping components, and replacing modules. The stodgy dialogue characterizes the disgruntled duo but adds very little to the plot. Perhaps it’s also an attempt to characterize the Nostromo as a sympathetic cause. While the name Nostromo lives well in our memories of science fiction—“This is Ripley … warrant-officer, last survivor of the commercial starship Nostromo, signing of this entry” (217-218)—no one really sympathizes with the ship… only the circumstances within the ship.

One sensation was captured beautifully in Foster’s novelization, which matches my memories of the movie: the sense of fear doesn’t rest in the physical sight of the alien, but in knowing that it’s there, anywhere. Just as the alien is occasionally glimpsed in the film, Foster pens a few brief scenes where only portions of the alien are visible to the crew: its arms tearing Parker from the floor, its hand pulling Dallas through the grating, its tail bobbing near the airlock, its arm stuck in the airlock door, its head peering through the glass of Ripley’s closet door. Here in the novelization, the fearsome alien is never seen in its entirety—only the innate fear of the creature is visible in the crew’s desperate attempts to drive it from their ship, their home.

Which brings to mind a famous JFK quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. To the reader, this means that the characters’ fear is the catalyst for the reader’s fear, not the manifestation of the fearful object. While the alien may scare them witlessly when their in its terrible presence, the lurking fear of its arrival and their death is their prime sense of hopelessness.

Because of the long introduction with all the technical dialogue, the conclusion is rather abrupt. The action sequences in the book weren’t as well paced as the movie, resulting in jittery scenes of flight or fight. The key scene of Ripley’s frustration with the self-destruction mechanism isn’t highlighted in the novelization—it’s given a cursory mention. That was one scene in the movie where my memory is the most vivid: the elaborate self-destruct sequence and the impending doom from the well modulated, comforting voice of Mother.

Thankfully, the novelization doesn’t self-destruct. Foster’s prose is occasionally eloquent and his choice of vocabulary interesting. Of course there are the occasional deeper insights into the functioning of the Nostromo or further depth to characters, but nothing is errant. On the technical side, there’s only one flaw concerning the Doppler effect and the speed of light: “The Nostromo achieved, exceeded the speed of light … Stars ahead of them became blue, those behind shifted red” (128): if you exceed the speed of light, there is no light to shift.


Back in 2007, Alien was my 22nd novel of the year. Later, Aliens was the 60th novel of the year and Alien 3 was the 101st (busy year of reading that was!). Now, seven years later, I’m on an eight-day holiday all alone and I will do the honor of reading the three books in sequence (along with some additional horror short stories). I may be scared of the dark during the next few days.

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