PrintE-mail Written by Andrew Marshall


Reissued by Titan Books to mark the 35th anniversary of the seminal movie, the novelisation of Alien by ridiculously prolific sci-fi/fantasy author Alan Dean Foster skilfully preserves its sense of bleak isolation, foreboding tension and relentless terror.

You all know the story: the skeleton crew of a commercial space craft unwittingly bring a hostile alien aboard that begins to stalk them through claustrophobic corridors and pick them off on by one. However, while Alien is doubtless first and foremost a space-set horror film, in Foster’s hands the story is transformed into hard sci-fi while maintaining the atmosphere of primordial fear. Details the film skips past (how the Nostromo traverses light-years in the space of months; the mechanics of space flight; the practical layout of the ship; the physical enormity of the mining refinery the ship is dragging; the functionality of the alien’s biological necessity to be immune to its own acid; speculation of what kind of people the space jockeys were) are effortlessly incorporated without seeming like appended afterthoughts. Likewise, rather than appearing as jarring departures, the expansion of the basic plot is seamlessly integrated into the recounting of the film’s events. The only real problem is that the text jumps between character perspective with alarming regularity and little more than the occasional ellipsis to warn us, and as such keeping up with whose viewpoint is being presented takes some focus.

The film’s script was written with the idea that each of its characters could be played by anyone, meaning the crew are only described the most general of physical terms, with their attitudes to their tasks and responsibilities aboard the ship and their position in its more clearly defined hierarchy forming much of their development. The story twists hold up when read with advance knowledge, such as thoughts from Ash’s perspective remaining consistent with his later reveal as an android without actually giving it away, and Dallas easily being the most prominent character for most of the book, thus preserving the film’s suckerpuch of his early departure after the alien is loosed. Within the context of the tense nightmare, even the transferred cinematic tropes that have become somewhat clichéd since the film’s debut – such as the Final Girl and It Was Just The Cat – don’t come off as such (while relevant in the film, the lack of character description negates Black Guy Always Dies and English Guy Is Evil).

Foster seems to have been working from an early version of the screenplay, as the book includes a number of sequences and exchanges absent from the theatrical film (and in some cases, shot and then later cut), most significantly Ripley’s discovery of Brett and Dallas’ bodies, the latter still alive and trapped in a transmuting cocoon, begging her to kill him. Also, one scene describes a dark shape on Kane’s lungs after being brought back aboard with the facehugger attached, foreshadowing his fate; another where the alien is almost ejected by opening an airlock, but is startled into safety at the last second by an alarm set off by Ash; and further exploration into just how much the Company knew about the situation the crew were being sent into, thereby amplifying their inhuman, profit-driven calculation.

Most surprising is how effective the generic descriptions of the alien itself are. Although lacking the iconic imagery of H.R. Geiger’s chimeric nightmare, the alien manages to remain a terrifying threat by evoking the fear of the unknown. A creature so defiant of natural laws and utterly incomprehensible by any stretch of human knowledge or understanding, its very existence is almost as abominable as its actions. The “purity” of its motivations mark it as the ultimate apex predator, an entity without the emotion to be threatened or the intellect to be reasoned with, only the biological imperative to propagate itself regardless of what stands in its way.

While three and a half decades of sequels, prequels, crossovers and endless pop culture references might have diluted much of Alien’s original shock factor, even in text form the primal dread conjured by its events and themes is as timeless as the cold and empty darkness from which it spreads.

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