Forty Years After Alien

In 1979, I was travelling in Europe—the posters advertising Alien were everywhere in Paris. In space no one can hear you scream. Geez, that didn’t sound too friendly. This wasn’t, of course, in the days of the internet complete with: instant trailers, social media leaks, high powered promotions across multiple media, accessible by just reaching into my pocket. That future few people could foresee, almost as impossible as it is in 2019 to look 25 years up the time stream and make a prediction.

I’d been a Sci Fi fan all my 25 year old reading life. To me, in 1979, SF movies had been notoriously clunky, boring, badly put together and plot dissolute. It’s true that 2001 was already a classic film but I wasn’t a huge fan, which wasn’t a popular view. There was also Silent Running – interesting, Westworld – entertaining, but a little like a western, Close Encounters – okay, Logan’s Run – dated before it’s time. And Star Wars – a classic almost straight away. A movie approaching the future visions that SF books alluded to. It featured: star fighters in battle, alien planets, alien entities, the base of a mythos, and incredibly clever photography with a good plot.

My friend and I travelled over the Channel to England just in time for the release of Alien. I was not a bloke driven to watch horror movies, in fact, I had avoided The Exorcist, happy enough to read the dark and frightening book. Alan Dean Foster wrote Alien (based on the movie), and I thought I would shore up my nerves by reading it before watching the movie.

We drove to Brighton to view the film. Having read the book, I knew what to expect, but still fortified myself with 10mg of valium—a real scaredy-cat, fasure. It’s hard to believe that smoking in cinemas was okay in 1979. I blew through half a packet easily.

The production values of Alien (to me) were so far ahead of any SF film I’d ever seen. The Nostromo, a giant refinery driving through space; the rag tag crew wearing… whatever they liked; Ripley’s strong role; the flakey engineers; the grimy ship—so what I expected of an industrial space freighter; the sure footed Captain; the dodgy video feed from the vacsuits as they set out to find the SOS beacon on LV-426.

Dan O’Bannon, responsible for the story, had met the artist H.R. Giger:

His paintings had a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.”

As a writer of SF novels I know how hard it can be to make primary elements of the story come together in a dynamic way. For example: how will I get a horror-show alien onto a spaceship in an interesting and diabolic way? Well, that’s history now.

I left the cinema feeling astounded by R. Scott’s direction, S. Weaver’s performance, and the crew’s portrayal of doomed humans, hunted by an indestructible alien from our deepest nightmares with nowhere to run, thanks to Mr Giger.

So, Alien became, to me, the standard for SF movies. I look back over the decades since its release, and there are notable films: Blade Runner, The Terminator, Aliens—easily as good as a sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, The Matrix, Avatar, and Sunshine, Interstellar, Gravity, Ex Machina… and more, of course.

From here, on my perch in 2019, I can recall how much that film blew all other SF movies to tiny pieces. I still can feel the breath-holding excitement, the horror and fear of this unbelievable creature stalking through the Nostromo. All in one incredible film package.

It’s hard to believe that 40 years have passed by. I think Alien has not aged one particle.

The so-called Golden Age Of Sci Fi

My writing nook

I will declare my interest straight away.

I’ve been a fan of SF since I was a child. I can clearly remember trying to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, J Verne, by torchlight under the covers. I read all EE Doc Smith’s Lensman series, Asimov, Blish, Bradbury – the only author I could tolerate reading short stories of (because each story was like a little gem of surprise).

In my teens I read Herbert’s this and that, Ballard’s The Drought, Terminal Beach and the Drowned World. Clifford Simak, Harry Harrison and Robert Sheckley I thought were extremely humorous and wrote great stories to boot. I read plenty of van Vogt, Arthur C Clarke, Heinlein, Silverberg, PK Dick (especially A Scanner Darkly – a tour de force), Pohl, Poul Anderson, T Sturgeon, Kate Wilhelm, David Niven, Philip Jose Farmer and U Le Guin I put in a different category (which I’ll mention in a minute). Some other authors I’ve mislaid or may have forgotten after a mid-twenties upheaval when my material things went missing. I picked myself up, as we all do, and trudged on.

I would say that the authors I’ve mentioned above would easily qualify for being within the Golden Age of SF writing, to a greater or lesser extent.

I am still an avid reader of SF. I decided four years ago that I would like to write SF novels myself. The only piece of advice I carried with me was: write a novel that I, myself would like to read. A very underrated tip, I think.

Now, I spend a lot of time writing but I always try to tack reading onto the the end of a writing session. I don’t spend as much time reading SF now though I’m aware there is a lot of it about. I have become sidelined by Virginia Woolf and R Bolarno, with some Stephen King thrown in for relief.

Now I will come to the reason I’ve tapped out this missive:

I have tried and tried to make these Golden Age writers, their masterpieces, and not so much, work for me as an interested reader. I must confess that trying to turn the pages of Heinlein, Pohl, P Anderson, Arthur C, Silverberg, Sturgeon – I could go on – has been as though I’m trapped in some retrogressive goo made intolerable by their prose and dialogue. Even PK Dick’s, The Man in the High Castle, I could not cop. Is it because of the many decades that have passed? How much the style of writing, the prose, the dialogue, has become more realistic, the plots more energised? Some of the scenarios these writers have built into their novels appear, to me, to be the most banal and narrowly wooden conceived.

If I search out the best 50, or 100 SF books ever written, I can be sure to unearth – well, you know. I just do not understand this knot of SF sanctity that cannot be cut through. I still own collections of old editions of some of these classics. I pick them up now and again, and thumb through the brittle pages: no no no. I can’t bare it – I put them back.

I will give a get out clause to Ursula le Guin and PJ Farmer – they aren’t in the same boat.

I realise that we now live in a different time, many years after these writers, and allowances must be made, but this has been bothering me for a while. What better way to deal with it than writing about them.