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Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon

May 12, 2014 1 comment

alien out of the shadows

Back in 1979, I remember going to see Alien. It’s a memory I treasure although the edge was slightly taken off the enjoyment by my wife’s hostility to it. There are always some things a couple can’t share. Anyway, this original novel by Tim Lebbon called Alien: Out of the Shadows (Titan Books, 2014) fits into the time gap of fifty-seven years between the first film and Aliens (1986) where Ellen Ripley and Jones find themselves somewhat off course after escaping the Nostromo. The question for any reader coming to a book intended to add to a franchise is, “Why bother?” Both films are terrific entertainment and the novelisations by Alan Dean Foster were good of their type. The question is whether the world is a better place for converting the Alien franchise into a shared universe. I’m a sucker for all things Lovecraftian so the idea of people being free to explore strange new worlds with monsters in them is acceptable to me. I concede some of the Star Wars original books and the most recent animated series are good. The three books by K W Jeter building on Blade Runner were interesting. But I’ve found other expansions like the Man-Kzin Wars less successful. This is not to run down the quality of the source material — the gaming universes, Trek and other science fiction series are good in their original state — but I feel there’s an air of exploitative redundancy about adding novels.

Tim Lebbon

Tim Lebbon

So Tim Lebbon has picked up the challenge of writing a novel featuring Ellen Ripley. Given the performance by Sigourney Weaver, you can’t get a more iconic character than this. This plot exploits the delay in her reaching Earth after the loss of the Nostromo and has her pitched into a new fight to prevent the Aliens from getting off a planet and on their way to Earth. Ah so here’s the rub. We’ve got a big ship in orbit around the planet. It’s full of places for monsters to hide in. On the planet, there are miners who have found more than they were bargaining for underground. Some of those escaping the surface come with aliens already inside, and they burst out of chests as the shuttle approaches the mother ship. Now is this a scenario likely to produce anything new? The answer is the predictable negative. No matter how ingenious, the surviving humans have to fight the Aliens on the spaceship and, for reasons the plot will provide, later go down to the surface where they will fight more Aliens. I’m not saying this is anything but a highly professional job. In fact, it’s a beautifully written, claustrophobic novel of spaceship corridors and mine shafts full of predictable dangers lurking in the shadows. But it’s recycling exactly the same plot elements we know from the films without doing anything new. The fact our author du jour been allowed to use Ellen Ripley doesn’t save the venture. In fact, if anything, it weakens the credibility of the plot’s development because although she understands why she’s arrives on this mother ship and so can alert the crew to that danger, she says very little about the exact nature of the threat they face from the Aliens. She should be brimming with details about finding alien spacecraft on atmospherically-challenged planet surfaces, the eggs and face-huggers, and the little chest-bursters that come a few days later, but she’s remarkably unforthcoming. Admittedly there’s a big time constraint in operation which might be a distraction and her memory may have been slightly affected by the years of cold sleep. But I was not wholly convinced.

This leaves me with something of a dilemma. By any objective criteria, Lebbon has done a remarkable job in shoehorning a novel into the timeline. It’s very inventive. But for all the jacket proclaims this as an “original”, that’s the one thing it’s not. Everything that happens in this book has been seen before. No matter what you might think of Prometheus, it did at least try to take us somewhere new. So if you want to read a book that places Ripley in a slightly different setting and then has her play the same game of survival, this is the book for you. But remember one thing. It’s not a spoiler to tell you Ripley survives to fight another day in two more films. That means there’s a certain lack of dramatic tension particularly because we also know none of the Aliens make it off this planet and spread across the human universe. The only uncertainty lies in the order in which the crew members will die. If that’s enough for you, this is a terrific book. But if you prefer a better use of writing talent than recycling franchise tropes, read Lebbon’s “original” work. That’s where you see the quality of the man’s talent shining through.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Prometheus (2012)

June 8, 2012 1 comment

The first step in this review must address the elephant in the room. Prometheus (2012) is intended as one of this year’s major blockbusters, but it’s not a prequel to Alien (1979). It’s a separate science fiction film set in the same fictional universe some thirty years before before the events we see in Alien. Indeed, if my memory is not wholly at fault, the planet we see in this film is not the same planet visited by the Nostromo. Ridley Scott has done well with Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof to avoid this being a simple origin film. The opening scenes set on Earth reveal the central theme. In essence, it proposes that to create life, one must first destroy life. The science of a race that can construct a craft capable of flying between the stars can easily plant seeds in the oceans of Earth without having to kill one of the crew (assuming, of course, that the being we see die is actually one of the crew rather than a being specially constructed for the purpose — it appears to be a different kind of spaceship from the craft we saw in Alien and later see in this film. The intention of showing us this death is to reinforce the centrality of mortality. In all nature, there’s a cycle of life as the newly born first grow under the care of their parents, then take the first steps to an independent existence. This will usually involve mating and producing the next generation. At some point, the original parents die and, through this death, the children positively achieve independence. There’s no-one with the right or power to tell them what to do. While they have the health and strength, they guide their own young until death passes on the mantle of leadership to the next generation. So, in a way, the theme is almost oedipal in asserting the death of at least one parent is necessary for the next generation to accept responsibility for its own future.

Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender before the problems become apparent

 

In human terms, any child of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) would be waiting for him to die so that ownership and control of the corporation could pass. Similarly, David (Michael Fassbender), a robot created by Peter Weyland, would not have any wishes or desires of its own unless its creator dies or otherwise stops giving it mandatory instructions. Perhaps, at a metaphorical level, that’s why Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) has to die immediately after Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discovers she’s apparently pregnant. If we scale this up to the human race, we may not truly be able to achieve independence and realise whatever represents our true potential unless our “creators” are dead.

 

At this point, we need to refer back to the title of the film because, self-evidently, Prometheus doesn’t seem to fit into this theme. Except, of course, it does. In the myth, Prometheus steals a vital piece of knowledge from the Gods. It’s the difference in the level of knowledge and understanding that gives Gods their power and demonstrates their superiority over humanity. For this theft, he’s punished. So the question you have to ask is what motive underpins this expedition. In an altruistic world, the intention would probably be pure scientific research. They are going simply to see what’s there. Elizabeth Shaw herself has a more religious view of the quest for knowledge. Yes, she’s a scientist, but she also believes in the right of the children to meet, if not confront, their Creator. She believes we will be proved worthy by accepting our Creator’s invitation to visit. Peter Weyland, the man funding the expedition, will have a different agenda. For him, there’s only one thing it would be worth stealing from the gods. Indeed, he would pay any amount of money and endure any hardship to make his dream real. That it would disturb the balance of nature is not something that will deflect his ambition. Not for him the desire to bring back technology for the benefit of humanity. He’s rather more selfish. Perhaps, like the original Prometheus, he deserves to be punished.

Charlize Theron struggling to assert her authority

 

So let’s put a little flesh on the bones. Captain Janek (Idris Elba) is the quiet man of steady purpose. He sees it as his job to get everyone safely home subject to the wishes of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) who’s the representative of the Weyland Corporation and nominally in charge of the expedition. There’s steady friction between Meredith and David because the robot is working through the programming given by Peter Weyland before leaving Earth. When there’s conflict, David shuts her out of the loop. As in the original Alien, the robot is the pivotal catalyst by independently investigating what the crew finds after landing, i.e. before it can engage in the theft required by Peter Weyland, it must first find the relevant technology. This means active exploration and experimentation. There’s a further difference. In the original Alien series, the hero is clearly Sigourney Weaver’s character because she will stop at nothing to protect the Earth from infection. The true measure of the heroism is her willingness to sacrifice her life. Our new hero played by Noomi Rapace must survive. Yes, this is the first in what’s intended as a new series to fill out the general background detail to this fictional universe. That means she cannot have quite the same qualities of heroism as Sigourney Weaver. She obviously knows what has to be done and can tell others what to do, but there must be at least one other hero in the right mould and prepared to act.

Idris Elba keeping a watchful eye on events as they occur

 

So does Prometheus work? The answer is a measured yes, although there’s one feature which is absurd. No matter how good the local anaesthetics of the time, no human body could possibly come through that surgical procedure and then run around normally for the remainder of the film. In justification, all we can say is that it’s necessary for the final sequence to work out. As another aside, the body at the end is left in the wrong place. This may confirm my recollection that this is a different planet and, therefore, the crew of the Nostromo finds a different ship with another alien in the command chair. But putting the problems to one side, the general flow of the narrative is compulsively strong. It takes its time to explain what’s happening and for the crew to exchange ideas. The creatures slowly returning to life in their underground storage facility are sufficiently different to create a whole new sense of excitement except one result of human interaction is the ultimately hack cliché and so a waste of a crew member who could have been disposed of in a more creative way.

The good ship Prometheus on the ground

 

Ridley Scott uses the big screen well to create a sense of wonder as the Prometheus enters the planet’s atmosphere and explores. He also manages the ensemble cast well with everyone turning in quality performances. While many of the cast are cannon fodder, it’s good to see the director taking time with accents and attitudes to distinguish the individuals from the crowd. Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are excellent with Charlize Theron and Idris Elba allowed a reasonable amount of screen time to establish themselves. Logan Marshall-Green is a bit pallid and Guy Pearce submerged under prosthetics which reduces the opportunity to act. The only thing that stops this from being a great film is the lack of reaction to events. When the crew is in danger or circumstances require painful decisions, you don’t see the crew taking a moment to express relief they survived or telling themselves the decisions were necessary, if not actually right. Stuff happens and then more stuff happens. This leaves the level of characterisation at a rather primitive level. That said, I enjoyed Prometheus and sincerely hope at least one more film can be made to develop the theme.

 

The Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch & The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

It’s always interesting to observe the growth and development of jargon — a kind of insiders’ language, a code people can use to impress strangers. Today, I’m particularly interested in the idea of a fix-up novel — one that has been created from a group of short stories. In the days of the pulps, authors would throw off as many stories as possible to keep the dollars coming in. Some never caught the imagination. Others spawned related stories or sequels. Given a growing accumulation of such stories, authors would then edit then for consistency and, more often than not, write new connecting material to create a novel. Whether apocryphally or not, the neologism is attributed to A. E. van Vogt, one of my favourite authors of the so-called Golden Age. The best example of a fix-up is The Voyage of the Space Beagle, later plagiarised in part as the film, Alien (and its sequels).

By accident, I have read two very similar books back-to-back. The first was The Bone Key by Sarah Monette which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same protagonist. The second is The Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same organisation. Monette’s book is, in essence, a fix-up without the frame. In other words there is a kind of progression from one story to the next so that, if we close one eye, it can read as a form of picaresque novel, episodic in nature but focused on a single “hero” figure”.

Finch’s book is, as they say, a very different kettle of fish. For those of you interested in epistemology, what we know and how we came to know it can be of critical importance. It gives us a basis upon which to make rational decisions, to assess the credibility of evidence, and so on. Monette’s book gives us multiple and reinforcing images of the same thing. Because of the internal corroborations, we can feel the “truth” of the character even though the linearity of the telling may not be confirmed. Finch has written a number of short stories about the same organisation but there only one overlap of character (between “A World Waiting” and “The Roaring Ground”) and there is no general attempt made to edit the stories to achieve coherence or internal consistency. All we have are eleven different stories plus one non-fiction piece that just happen to be about the role of interpreters in a multilingual extraterrestrial culture. After the first two or three stories I had to stop because I was approaching them in the wrong way. Rather than reading them as stand-alones, I was trying to fit them together to create my own fix-up novel. I suppose there was a deliberate decision made to exclude the kind of background information available at http://www.sff.net/people/sheila-finch/fullhistory.htm

Trying to follow this way leads to frustration because the stories do not fit comfortably together. To that extent, we have to distinguish between this book published by Golden Gryphon which bravely keeps going with its specialisation in collections, and Reading the Bones, which is a fix-up “novel” published by Tachyon Press. This includes the complete text of the title novella, which won the Nebula for best novella of 1998, and then continues with an Interlude to bridge into a second novella “Bright River of Talk”.

But, if you enjoy short stories on their merits, there are some very good stories in this collection. The one which many will know is “Reading the Bones”, but there are some very affecting ideas, well explored as in “Stranger Than Imagination Can” which carefully exposes stereotypes and prejudices. There are, as in any collection, one or two where the ideas are a little threadbare and the execution flat. Overall, this is enjoyable so long as you are not expecting a fix-up.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: CorambisA Companion to Wolves, The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

 

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

June 29, 2009 3 comments

Following in the footsteps of David Copperfield, you should continue reading to find out whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by somebody else.

But, just in case you’re of a nervous disposition, I’m the eponymous author of this piece, so be reassured. I survived to the end otherwise I couldn’t have written as much as I did before I (was) stopped. Ain’t no-one who can chop logic better than me (or something).

In this, I’m following the general trend in modern fiction. Most stories with an “adventure” element promise from the outset that the main characters are almost certainly going to survive whatever is thrown at them (like the cat in Ridley Scott’s Alien). If the authors want to introduce tension and suspense, the tried and tested tactic is to build up empathy between the readers and the most favoured characters. Thus, when they are exposed to the threat of injury or death, we can feel the vicarious thrill of danger. Escapes by the skin of teeth generate the “white-knuckle” quality that makes a good thriller. If the authors can’t manage a real sense of danger then they have to fall back on wit or satire or something else that will engage our interest and make us want to read to the feel-good ending of hero/heroine triumphant. There are, of course, famous exceptions where the author cheats and the hero/heroine dies. Sometimes, this happens in a first-person narrative which increases the shock value when we read the last page.

A different exception to the general rule crops up in some time travel stories where the authors happily maim or kill off lead characters in one version of history because they can be continued uninjured in sequential or parallel timelines depending on whether history is retrospectively changed (and no-one remembers) or multiple universes are created (as in the TV series Sliders). An example of mutable timelines is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus where a small group of time travellers make sequential attempts to change history for the better. The alternative is the assumption that the timeline cannot be changed (as in the Company novels by Kage Baker). The best known example I can give you to explain why never to write a book based on this proposition is probably J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s about as exciting as watching paint dry because, having struggled through the overblown first version of history, you then get to read it all over again as the “hero” loops round to ensure that what was predestined actually results.

All of which brings me to The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman (Berkley, August, 2007). Joe (sorry about the familiarity, but I need to distinguish brother Jack) is getting a little long in the tooth. In conventional PR-speak he’s an “old pro” or a “veteran”, having first leapt into prominence with Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Forever War in 1975 — a triumph that should never go out of print. His approach to writing is simple and uncomplicated, telling the story in a straightforward way with little embellishment. This directness works really well when the plot moves along. Unfortunately, this latest effort is genuinely pedestrian. Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with pedestrians. They lurk forlorn in the corner of our eyes as we swish past in our gas guzzlers. But, in a different way, Joe is following a genuine favourite of mine, Jack Vance. The young Vance was full of passion and imaginative fire, and reading almost all his books is a delight. But that delight peters out when we come to what I assume will be his last book, Lurulu. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a perfectly readable book. But it’s not a good advertisement for Vance. Similarly, Joe’s latest book is a big disappointment with his simple prose now wooden and lifeless.

Joe is peddling the saga of a young researcher as he hops forward through time. Structurally, time travel is simply a narrative excuse to jump from one culture to another, much as Swift pushed Gulliver into meeting people of varying size, avoiding uncultured Yahoos and inquiring whether sunbeams could be extracted from cucumbers. Swift was, of course, writing a satire which might continue in a cycle with Wells’ The Time Machine, detour via Huxley’s Brave New World, and end with Sheckley’s The Status Civilization. Wells tells us a straight-laced allegorical story about innocence and Morlocks. Huxley creates a dystopia of genetic manipulation which produces a sterile, drug-based, caste-ridden society. And Sheckley gives us another of his rollicking over-the-top satires. In short, the writer’s motive for introducing cultures that contrast with our own is to hold up a mirror to edify, amaze or amuse us.

So what does Joe offer us here? Well, the two pivotal episodes are religious and economic. As to religion, early writers like Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis set the bar high, closely followed by individual classics like Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc. but Joe seems content to dally with the notion of a new Church Militant, prepared to cast the first missile and smite the unbelievers in a restoration of an archaic Puritanism. Given the polarisation in the USA between believers and non-believers, I can understand that such a theme may have a certain contemporary resonance, but the delivery is curiously unconvincing. We’re given little more than a flat description of what our hero sees with no explanation or rumination to enliven the proceedings.

In the second set-piece, we’re in a culture based on barter. Telling it straight, one of the best writers of economic SF was Mack Reynolds, always prepared to extrapolate albeit with slightly naive political overtones. Personally, I prefer to laugh and so love Dario Fo’s theatrical farces like Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay in which a protest over shop prices has unexpected consequences. But the big comparison is with one of the best fictional barter societies — another delightful satire, Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo, where the owner of a sandwich shop inadvertently invents a new currency. Sadly, Joe doesn’t measure up.

One of the worst things that can ever happen to a book is that it lacks momentum. In the barter sequence, the society is managed by an AI character called La. “She” describes the people as  “. . .complacent and rather stupid. . . addicted to comfort and stability”. Later explaining, “This is one boring world.” Was ever an admission so ironic from an author supposed to be interested in keeping us amused?

In short, this is a competent book that goes through the motions of a time loop because that’s how plots of this kind have to work. But, instead of maintaining interest with subversive wit, boundless imagination and a satirical eye, we get descriptions of societies that even the author admits are boring. If you haven’t done so already, read the early Joe Haldeman. The man genuinely deserves his royalties for past glories rather than for this current effort.

Hey, guess what? I survived to the end of this episode. Next week, I’ve scheduled a heart attack during a visit from my mother-in-law. You’ll have to read on to find out whether I can be bothered to survive. Hopefully, I’ll find a better book to read in the meantime.

For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
Earthbound
Work Done For Hire.

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