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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.

After Earth by Peter David

after-earth

After Earth by Peter David (Del Rey, 2013) is a film novelisation adapting the script by M. Night Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, based on a story by Will Smith, a species of books I only bother with when I’m interested in the author. Since I’m something of a fan of the series featuring Sir Apropos of Nothing, I decided to read this — if I have the time, I’ll also watch the film to see how it compares. This is the story of Kitai Raige, son of Cypher Raige, the first man able to ghost. At this point, I’m going to diverge from book and film to talk about relevant parallels. When I was young, A E Van Vogt was considered very impressive. He’s another of the authors where I achieved completion. Anyway, my feeble memory recalls the story “Co-operate Or Else” which has Professor Jamieson stranded on an inhospitable planet and hunted by a predatory six-legged alien. It’s one of a species called the ezwall and was later fixed up as part of The War Against the Rull. I mention this because Van Vogt also wrote The Voyage of the Space Beagle which was allegedly the source of the plot for the seminal film, Alien. While I’m not suggesting the team behind After Earth has copied “Co-operate Or Else”, it’s an interesting coincidence.

Anyway, the alien species in this film, which humans call the Ursa, has been bioengineered to track and kill humans. This is all rather strange. In the film Pitch Black, which is terrific entertainment, we have an alien species go through entire reproductive cycle during what passes for night on this planet. The scent of blood attracts them to the humans and light repels them. They are adapted to virtual sightlessness (light frightens them for some reason), relying on a form of radar to move around and detect prey. So these Ursa have been adapted to detect the “smell of fear”. The humans speculate the creators of these predators are themselves sightless, engineering these predators in their own image. As an idea, this is actually quite ingenious, but it seems to me it has a serious defect. The alien species in Pitch Black has multiple mechanisms for navigating both on the ground and in the air. This makes it particularly dangerous. But, on paper, the Ursa seem not very well equipped to move around. Obviously they cannot see. . . but there’s no suggestion they blunder into trees or fall off cliffs. Indeed, once they get the scent, they are fixed on a given “prey animal”, and ignore others around them until the one selected is dead. Quite how they decide the prey is dead is not explained. Perhaps they can hear the heart stop beating. No wait, that can’t be right.

Peter David

Peter David

At this point I need to explain the phenomenon of ghosting. A human who develops a powerful control over his or her emotions, can become invisible to the Ursa, i.e. the body of these individuals stops secreting the chemicals associated with fear. A ghost can physically walk up to an Ursa and get nothing more than a puzzled reaction. This is convenient because the bioengineers have built in some tough defences for their creatures. But if you can get close enough, you can stick your magic blade in through the cracks and deliver a fatal blow. In Pitch Black, Riddick ghosts a large predator, i.e. stands in front of one and is not detected. This is explained. The alien has radar projectors on either side of its substantial skull and Riddick is able to stand absolutely stationary in a blind spot directly in front of it. When the alien moves, it sees the human in the same way it might detect a utility pole, i.e. as a narrow inanimate object. Yet the Ursa seem not to be able to detect a human by any means other than the scent of fear. The tactics for fighting one are therefore interesting. Teams of eight surround one of the beasts. Once it imprints on one, the other seven are then free to close in on the beast and kill it. Except, of course, once seven humans start pricking it with their blades, this beast gets not a little upset and, with six paws to strike out with and a head full of teeth, it can randomly disable the attackers without directly perceiving them. So it can feel when it’s pricked, and it can find doors and walk through them, but it can’t detect a human unless it’s afraid. It seems these alien bioengineers have gone to a lot of trouble to manufacture a predator that’s severely handicapped. When the bioengineers were developing the chameleon-like ability to camouflage to the point of invisibility, you would think they would have given their beasts more sensory input and tracking skills.

As a standalone novel, Peter David has done a good job in providing a context for the main action. We have a wealth of backstory on the ironically named Raige clan — they do get worked up sometimes but stay calm in a crisis. They are natural leaders who manage both to inspire confidence in the people they lead and to show powerful intellectual abilities. It’s thanks to their commitment that the best of Earth leaves the planet and settles on multiple worlds. When the aliens turn up and start releasing Ursa to drive us away, they organise the defence and, ultimately, develop the right mental state to ghost the Ursa. Not surprisingly, the tiny percentage of people who can successfully ghost have either spent generations breeding for the possibility or have been psychologically predisposed not to show fear. They are cold fish and this explains why the father and son in this film have this strange relationship. As an action adventure, I can visualise what this must look like on screen and it’s one cliché after another. This is not Peter David’s fault. He’s just picking up the money to write the novelisation. I was interested in the overarching context but found the immediate adventure, coming-of-age plot tedious.

There are three short stories bound into the volume by Robert Greenberger, Michael Jan Friedman and Peter David. The second by Friedman is the best thing in the book, asking and answering the question of what might happen if humans decided to modify the brain of one of their soldiers so that he could ghost. This is a natural progression from the aliens bioengineering their predators. Why can’t humans modify themselves to fight back? There’s a lot of cod psychology on display throughout and I find myself relieved I did not pay to see this film on a big screen. Assuming the book to be an accurate version of the story, it’s not worth seeing but I might watch it anyway for comparative purposes.

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

Resident Evil: Retribution by John Shirley

February 10, 2013 1 comment

Resident Evil

When I was younger and a completist, I would always read the “other” books by the authors I collected. This included the novelisations. Many of these books actually proved quite interesting because, although they stayed within the broad framework of the scripts, they often shed light on the events only shown on the screen. Interior monologues also added depth to the charcterisations. These enhancements to the viewing experience gave the books a bonus quality. All that was more than twenty years ago. However, as an experiment, I thought it would be interesting to read a contemporary novelisation and, because he can write rather better than average, I picked Resident Evil: Retribution by John Shirley (Titan Books, 2012). I’ve seen two of the franchised films but, for reasons connected to my emotional health at the time, decided not to pay to see this latest addition when it did the rounds last year. As with the previous outings, the responsibility for the script fell on to the broad shoulders of Paul W S Anderson. In theory, this creative consistency should give the cinema franchise more heft. Except, of course, when the back themes under development are less than exciting.

For those of you who’ve been living in a cultural bubble for the last fifteen years or so, the Resident Evil phenomenon began life as a horror video game and then moved to take over all associated media. The cinema version personalises the original first- and third-person-shooter format by following the adventures of Alice as she battles to save herself (and the world) from an outbreak of the T-virus. Milla Jovovich has been battling flesh-eating zombies and other mutants throughout. Mr Anderson (no connection to The Matrix, of course) has been producing variations on this theme as the Umbrella Corporation’s genetic experiments produce a range of bio-weapons which then escape and cause an apocalypse. The hook is that Alice is the key to saving what’s left of the world. If she can survive and keep fighting, she will somehow find a way of either reversing the mutations or at least eradicating them so that the remaining humans can begin the slow task of rebuilding. All this is a not unreasonable premise but, somewhere along the way, it became complicated as different factions and groups, some independent and others formally within Umbrella, began to dispute what the final outcome should be.

John Shirley with funds in hand ready to get back to proper writing

John Shirley with funds in hand ready to get back to proper writing

When I began reading the novelisation of the latest film, I was hopeful the book would follow the conventions of other books written in a series. So as someone coming to the fifth instalment without having seen the fourth, I needed an update on what had happened after the third. Unfortunately, the book does not contain useful infodumps to bring naive readers like me up to speed. It’s sink or swim time. This forces a realisation that, without exception, the previous novelisations I had read were either of standalone films or I had always seen the preceding films in the series. I had no need of brief background notes to make sense of what I was reading on the page. In this instance, I was forced to Wikipedia so that I could try to make sense of the opening sections of this book. Frankly, it was all not a little incomprehensible. Being faithful to the screenplay is a wonderful brief when the only people you are writing for are the fans who know every last detail of who everyone is and how they came to be in these starting positions for the book to take off. I was lost and demoralised.

So here comes the inevitable bifurcated review. For those of you who are the guardians of deep wisdom on all aspects of Resident Evil, this book will no doubt broaden if not deepen your understanding of the script. There’s good forward motion in the plot leaving our two groups respectively in Washington and on Catalina. Neither group is entirely safe but Alice has had her powers restored so there’s hope. But if you’re like me and not well-versed in this gaming universe, you will think this beautifully written — John Shirley is incapable of writing badly — but not an enjoyable read. I prefer something capable of being understood in its own right and not depending on external knowledge to make it work.

For my other reviews of books by John Shirley, see:
Bleak History
Borderlands: The Fallen
Doyle After Death
In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of
New Taboos

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

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