Saturday, April 4, 2009

Alien (Foster, Alan Dean)

Rating: 3.5
Year: 1979
Genre: Sci-Fi/Horror
Read Again? Maybe.

** New material added 4/14/09

Yet another short book before diving back into Lackey Land. I've been an unrepentant hater for a couple of decades where Alan Dean Foster's movie tie-ins are concerned, and in the interest of fairness I wanted to see if I was remembering things right.

A few pages into "Alien," I decided that Foster is the male Mercedes Lackey, only not as good. Both of them tend to pad out their prose, as if they're paid by the word. Good writing doesn't need padding; style shouldn't call attention to itself over the story. It should be subtle. But where Lackey favors "in no way" and other passive fill, Foster goes for the thesaurus (i.e., why use "contact" when "apposition" has more syllables, and therefore sounds more science-fictiony?).

I've wondered about this "technique" (having seen it in other writers) from time to time--is it just boredom? A desire to seem smarter? An attempt to make the prose more technical or complicated sounding (it's SCIENCE!-fiction, after all)? It's never seemed effective to me, either in writing or in the real world. The principal at my high school did the same thing, trying to sound highly educated and upper-crusty, yet incapable of pronouncing some of that multisyllable word salad pouring out of his pie-hole. I've heard cops, management, politicians, and other "authority" types padding out a statement with extra syllables or words that don't see much common usage. But if you can't do it effectively, it just sounds phony--and your audience can see through it.

Some readers won't give a rat's about that; I went to the Google and asked it if Alan Dean Foster sucked. Computer said "no." I was shown interviews with him, articles about him, and the word "suck" wasn't attached to him. I also tried "crap" and "hack," but by far the praise outweighed the pans. Gotta say, I just do not get it. I don't hate his style like I used to in my firebrand teenager days (when I knew everything); I just find it distracting from the story. I just HAD to include these two samples:

'The captain had assembled a metal tripod from short lengths of metal.' (page 83; Dallas, Kane & Lambert have found the derelict ship; Kane's about to take his trip down into the belly of the beast). As opposed to a metal tripod made from pieces of paper?

or dialogue like this:

"The emergency lies elsewhere--specifically, in the uncharted system we've recently entered. We should be closing on the particular planet concerned right now." (page 28; Dallas is briefing the crew on the reason for coming out of hypersleep).

Who talks like that? A good bit of the dialogue is strangely formal and everyone sounds like Foster himself, especially within the first 50-60 pages.

That said, Foster does stay faithful to the script, but we're a third of the way into 270 pages before Kane actually meets the face-hugger (p.96). We don't see the chest-burster for nearly 80 pages after that (p.171). It's an easy enough read, but the true crime of this book is that it is boring and plods along, and even the actiony stuff isn't actiony so much as boring. Gotta pour 1.5 points of acid alien blood on it.

On to the story:

The space tug Nostromo is on a return leg to Earth, towing a load of petrochemicals in a massive refinery barge. The ship is diverted to answer a supposed distress call. They leave their load in orbit and run down to investigate. Of the three who go hiking across the face of a rocky planetoid, two come hiking back, carrying the third...and a passenger attached to his face. Hey, guys! Let's try to cut it off of him! Acid for blood? Okay, it can stay.

Seven against one, right? Well, six against one. The passenger chews its way out of its first victim and skitters away. Little thing like that should be easy to catch with six people working on it...

Well...five. How'd it grow so fast?!

Four? Flame throwers and motion-detectors are no match for a 7-foot tall alien, kid.

Three. This one doesn't count--he was a murderous android, and it was self-defense. He was trying to keep the alien alive.

Two. Oh, I forgot the cat. THREE, then.


Ultimately it's Ellen Ripley and the ship's Space Cat, Jones, who face off against the alien, holed up in the Nostromo's shuttle.

How does it stack up against the movie? The movie's pacing is much better, given that they need to get us into the suspense more quickly and keep us wondering who the critter's going to kill next. This book would have been much better had Foster gone the same route. I could even deal with his oddball choices of words if the book wasn't so boring.

There's not a lot of character development. Foster's Dallas comes across as an ineffectual nonentity (Tom Skerritt plays him as an actual man who is tired of your shit, now get back to work). Only Ripley seems to care about chain of command or proper procedures--and only Ripley and the Space Cat get out alive. Foster throws a few weak hints about Ash the Mandroid, but it all amounts to "he's different." Wow. Ian Holm played him much better: creepy guy who just doesn't seem to play well with others. The quiet one that you really should watch out for.

The most amusing thing for me is the back-cover blurb: "This was not their galaxy." NOWHERE in the book or movie is it mentioned that the Nostromo is traveling outside the galaxy, just between star systems. When they're brought out of hyperspace to investigate the "distress" signal, they're roughly 6 to 10 months from Earth. But we all know that cover-blurb writers are insane and incapable of summarizing a book properly.

Maybe I've mellowed out: I was locked & loaded, ready to nuke Foster from orbit (it's the only way to be sure), but he's not as awful as I remembered. Bad, but not awful.

Watch the movie instead.


Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you on Foster's novels, whether movie tie-ins or not, but I love his short stories. I've not yet read a short by him I didn't enjoy, and some, like "Why Johnny Can't Speed", are mini-masterpieces. His anthology "With Friends Like These..." is a book I reread at least once a year, and some of the stories more than that. -- LR

JW said...

I probably shouldn't have, but I went right into "Aliens."

Never seen any of his shorts or his own novels. Is his style any different between novels and the shorts?

Anonymous said...

There must be a style difference, simply because I've always gotten bored with his novels and have only finished two (barely), and both of those were back in the early 80's, but I couldn't specifically point to any weaknesses.

I think the problem for his original work is he can come up with ideas, but he just can't sustain them for the length of a novel. Nor Crystal Tears and "The Empire of T'ang Lang" are both told from an insect alien's point of view and deal with first contact with a human, but the first is tedious, even though it's set on another world and involves whole societies, and the second is interesting despite just being a normal bug in a back yard. (He never spells out what sort of insect, but I gather T'ang Lang is a male praying mantis, which makes his ego very humorous, since every female bug in the garden could whip his butt then eat him.)

I've always avoided movie novelizations, so I don't know how well he does those, but I would have guessed with someone else providing the whole story it wouldn't be as tedious. Maybe he's paid by the word for those, which would explain the Mercedization of the story *snicker* -- LR