Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, July 17, 2014

1986: Aliens (Foster, Alan Dean)

Aliens run amok, terror reigns the weak (4/5)

The Alien series blends science fiction wonder with the terror of being stalked—lions, tigers and bears are for children. The xenomorph in the series epitomizes our most basic fears: it’s dark, unctuous, and scaly. On top of this, the xenomorph can’t be reasoned with, can’t be stared in the eye, and can’t be intimidated.

The movie’ sequel—Aliens—,and its novelization, develop the xenomorph a lot more… thereby making it even scarier: how it breeds, where it prefers to nest, how the hive is structured… all but the purpose of the xenomorph. If you thought the unknown was terrible… think again.

I read the Omnibus edition (Warner, 1993), so the page numbers may differ from the cover featured (Titan Books, 2014).
Movie tagline:
This time it's war.”


Ripley and Jones drift blindly while in cryo-sleep. After fifty-seven years away from the horror of the Nostromos, her sleeping figure is still haunted by the loss of her crewmates and the impossible terror which stalked them. She’s rescued by a passing ship and taken back to Earth orbit—Gateway Station—where she meets Carter Burke, a representative of the Corporation. Predictably, he’s most concerned about the loss of the Nostromos and its cargo, something which Ripley has an understandably difficult time accepting. After a short convalescence, she appears at an inquest where she tells her story, of which they are very skeptical of. Ripley, of course, becomes emotional and curses their intention. In the end, they simply revoke her pilot license due to mental instability.

Meanwhile, on Achernon, a colonists is dispatched by the Company is investigate a previously “unexplored” region on the planet. There, the family discovers a giant alien ship. While mom and dad are out scavenging the relic, Newt and her brother make due in the transport… until her mom bursts through the door and her father slung to the floor with an abomination latched on to his face.

Ripley continues to live her life with the knowledge that her only daughter had died some years ago at an advanced age. She is working as a dock operator and maintaining a quiet life at home with her cat Jones, when an unwelcome visitor comes to her door with an even more unwelcome offer: join a platoon of space marines for a search and rescue mission on the godforsaken, bootstrap colony of Achernon, on the same dustball she and her tug found the alien. She would act as a consultant because of her knowledge of the aliens, but the Company is straightforward about their task: investigate the colonists and go in shooting if any aliens are found. Very reluctantly, with the promise of receiving her pilot’s license back, she leave her cat with the troop aboard the Sulaco.

Along with the twelve marines, Bishop is a “synthetic” whose primary role on the mission is the executive officer. Because he’s an android, Ripley is initially defensive because of her experience with Ash on the Nostromos, whose actions killed the entire crew save herself. The commanding officer, Gorman, seems to be an unskilled lackey who somehow became in control of this dangerous yet important mission. Hicks is one of the other marines whose calm demeanor and general niceness endears him to Ripley. Though she may be unknowingly walking into a hive full of aliens, at least she has someone to watch her back… one with a pulse rifle and a shotgun (the best kind of friend!).

With the marines on the ground and in the colony, two things quickly become apparent: (1) no one is left alive and (2) there was a major holdout and battle around the infirmary. The mayhem of the colony offers a surprise of one survivor, a solitary girl who had been living in the air ducts, of which she knows so well. Ripley treats her like a long-departed child of her own while the marines search for the colonists, who seem to be amassed to the atmosphere exchange tower where the fusion reactor continually cleans the atmosphere for terraforming.

When a small exploratory unit descend to Level-C of the tower, they encounter bizarre organic additions to the facility. They are perplexed how or why the colonists would construct such additions, until they realize that the colonists probably aren’t responsible—they see gutted remains and bodies pinned to the walls, where one utters, “Please—kill me” (333). Behind them, a alien stirs. The marines torch the pained bodies and engage the aliens. Being so close to the reactor, they are commanded to resort to flamethrowers, but the knavish smartgun operators clip in and spray the level with gunfire, resulting in the death of a few aliens and piercing some vital systems.

Ripley demands their retreat, but the inexperienced and reticent commander Gorman refuses, to which Ripley asserts her strong character and leads the retreat for the marines. While racing from the scene, aliens attack the armored transport, tearing off alloyed reinforcement like stickers from a child’s coloring book. Gorman is incapacitated by the tail-sting of an alien while Ripley makes showy exit by running over an alien, its acidic blood splattering the pavement and pocking the wheels.

Back in the main complex, Bishop studies the dead facehuggers while two of the monstrosities remain in stasis in the infirmary. As Ripley and marines retreat to the main colony, they begin to evacuate the compound but the atmospheric craft is attacked and destroyed by an alien, making them withdraw into the complex again in order to mount defenses in expectation of an alien offense. They establish autoguns at the main subterranean thoroughfare, a blockade which kills hoards of the marauding ebon hunters.

After a particularly selfish and cowardly act by the now revived Gorman, Bishop and Ripley conceive of a plan for their rescue: for Bishop to guide the last atmospheric craft from the Sulaco down to the surface, where it can pick them up and take them to the safety of orbit. There only remain two limits: (1) Ripley must rescue Newt from the aliens’ nest and (2) the reactor is about to go critical. Choice: slow death by playing host to an alien chestbuster OR quick death by nuclear meltdown?


Even before I begin my watered-down synopsis, I digress: terror or horror? The word “terror” is derived from a Latin word which means “to frighten”; the word “horror” is also derived from a Latin word, but its meaning is “to tremble”.

Some common words used in association with definitions of “terror” include intense fear, panic, and dread. Common associations with “horror”, rather, include abhorrence, shocking, and fearful. So, to revert to an SAT tactic:

If terror is to fear; then horror is to shock.
If fear is to reaction; then shock is to inaction.
If reaction is to survival; then inaction is to death.

From this diminished separation of the two words—terror and horror—we can analyze the actions, reactions, and emotions of the characters in a story to see if (a) they are simply scared and plan action against its source or (b) they witness grotesque abominations resulting in non-logical action toward its source. Do the characters in Alien and Aliens react logically or illogically? Do Alien and Aliens induce terror or horror? Is the series a work of terror or a work of horror?

Considering the protagonist Ripley and her persistent rate of survival through the series, she seems to act logically while being able to coordinate both offensive and defensive tactics and she’s able to analyze her enemy. Thus, Ripley fights terror through the series; she stalks, attacks, retreats, recuperates, attacks again, and escapes. These are not symptoms of shock, so it is not a work of horror (the same cannot be said for parts of Alien 3, however).

You can only blame Ripley for putting herself into the terror she experiences yet controls. While circumstances in Alien may have been beyond her initial control (what with the hidden agenda of the Company and Ash’s tampering), but Ripley was either desperate, naïve or depressed for her to accept a mission to the same planet where the crew of Nostromo first found the facehuggers.

What did she honestly expect from the stingy, conniving Company?
(A) trophy for her consultation
(B) reassuring words for her good attitude
(C) generous bonus for her assistance
(D) free Jam of the Month membership
(E) knife in the back

Both the Company (care of Burke) and the Space Marines (care of Gorman) are unable to assess the danger they are in and are unable to assess the inhuman enemy; only Ripley has a basic understanding of the aliens’ motivations, methods of attack, and tenaciousness. When the Marines get destroyed and demoralized, Ripley takes charge; when the Company is overwhelmed and dumbfounded, Ripley leads the way. Amid the carnage, the now daughter-less Ripley seeks emotional shelter in the form of Newt, the motherless orphan. She has more forms of hope than either the synthetic yet trustworthy Bishop or the gallant yet wounded Hicks.

The one aspect of Aliens which is most appreciated—by me and others, I presume—is the development of the alien as a species rather than just a solitary killing machine. The reader begins to understand its lifecycle, basic social structure, limits, strengths, weaknesses, and even composition.

This is a novelization, so comparisons must be drawn between the book and the movie. Perhaps it’s my faulty memory, but I don’t remember the movie having such a large portion given to Ripley’s deep-space retrieval, recuperation, judgment, and life back on Earth. The novelization dedicates three chapters—or forty-five pages—to this. It’s a nice change and a nice, gradual complacency before the reign of terror begins.

There was only one scene in the novelization which ruffled my figurative feathers. One of the most iconic scenes from the movie was Ripley’s heroic donning of the Caterpillar P-5000 Powered Work Loader and shouting at the queen alien, “Get away from her, you bitch!” Thus ensues a pretty cool fight scene. However, in the novelization, Foster has decided to write a mickey mouse version of the classic one-liner: “Get away from her, you!” (457). This is strange because Valquez drops the F-bomb once and “damn” is used three times. Why the deletion of “bitch”?


Now two-thirds the way through the Alien trilogy, I can see a pattern emerge: (1) if the book's scene match my memory of the same scenes, then I'm a satisfied reader; if there's something extra, it's of minor interest, (3) if something like a memorable quote is changed, I protest. BUT, that's expected of novelizations. Aside from the Alien trilogy, I have only ever read the Back to the Future (1985) by George Gipe. While the movie was excellent, the novelization was quite forgettable... not the same with the Alien trilogy. Full steam ahead!


  1. I had no idea there were books on this series. I love the movies. I will try to read them soon. Thanks for the review.

  2. The novelized series is a good romp. Foster actually has some skill to showcase, unlike many authors who pen novelizations. Foster's Voyage to the City of the Dead (1984) and Sentenced to Prism (1985) are worth a look. Thanks for stopping by!