EXCLUSIVE: Sci-fi legend Alan Dean Foster on his Alien novel, giant parasitic wasps, and rescuing Jones the Cat

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May 30, 2014, 2:45 PM EDT

Celebrated author Alan Dean Foster is best known for his superb film novelizations of Star Wars, Alien, Transformers, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, and nearly every major science fiction movie of the '70s and '80s, from The Thing to The Last Starfighter.  In his acclaimed 40-year career, he's written more than 120 genre novels, including the Spellsinger fantasy series and Humanx Commonwealth books.   Perhaps his finest hour was the elegant literary adaptation of Alien, accentuated with eerie atmospheric details, synthesizing Dan O'Bannon's 1978 screenplay into a perfect companion piece with all the terrors of Ridley Scott's stylish masterwork intact.   

Blastr recently chatted with Foster from his Arizona home about Alien's 35th anniversary, the genius of H.R. Giger, ghostwriting for George Lucas and his admiration for big, gnarly bugs.  Pull up an antigravity lounger and listen in ...

This month marked the 35th anniversary of Ridley Scott's Alien, and your novelization received just a plain reissue of the original paperback. Were you disappointed a deluxe edition wasn't offered?

That would have been pleasant, but that's a commercial decision. The Alien Omnibus collection put out by Warner Books is available, with all three Alien books in a single volume, but only in Great Britain. It would have been so simple to just take that book and do it in premium hardcover and a brand-new foreword. I find that funny. And it's not like a rights problem. It makes no sense for them not to import and change the price from pounds to dollars.

With your screen story for Star Trek: The Motion Picture completed, how did the gig to do the Alien novelization land in your lap?

My agent called and said 20th Century Fox is doing this science fiction film, and would you be interested in doing the novelization? I'd done the Star Wars novelization as a ghostwriter and written the followup, Splinter of the Mind's Eye. What was interesting later, watching the Alien film, I saw the credits with co-creator Ron Shusett's name up there, and he's had great success with movies like Total Recall. We'd both collaborated years earlier at UCLA on a couple Robert Bloch short stories he had the rights to.

You managed to enhance and illuminate the story with evocative prose and visceral details, developing the Nostromo as a character and instructing readers on the hellish hazards of space travel. Was this part of your strategy, or did it emerge naturally through drafts?

Well, you strive for those quiet moments but there was great source material. In a book you have opportunities for slowing things down to fill out the story. I did the novelization of John Carpenter's Dark Star, and to get a novel out of that was arduous. Any time you try to make those moments work it contributes to the story and the atmosphere.

It came out in the drafts as I was reading the descriptions of the alien ship and the Nostromo. I changed it from a mining ship to an oil refinery. I thought it would make more sense. The only thing I complained about was Jones the cat. In the first version of the screenplay, the alien kills the cat. I told them they couldn't kill the cat. Everybody likes cats, and you just can't kill the cat.  I'm gonna take credit for that, and I don't give a damn. I never heard back from anyone. On Alien 3, I did get this letter from Walter Hill when I made controversial changes to the Newt and Hicks characters. Hill wanted them to follow the screenplay.  It's why I didn't do the Alien: Resurrection novelization. That's the great joy of doing a novelization, as a fan I get to do my own director's cut.

What did you think when you viewed concept art for the derelict on LV-426?

When I saw the spaceship, it was like holy smokes! It's an alien ship that looks like an actual alien ship! Where are the wings? Where's the cockpit? Where are the fins? I got really excited and thought they'd probably screw it up somehow, but they didn't. The movie holds up because it's largely atmospheric, it's not hardware, and that's a real credit to Ridley Scott.

That's the thing that bothers me about Hollywood spaceships. They tent to be largely empty, like the mothership in Independence Day. Why would the aliens construct this massive ship and then leave it empty inside? These are the things that are easy and cheap to fix. Sometimes the screenwriters and directors listen to my suggestions and fixes, and sometimes they don't.

The fossilized corpse of the Space Jockey is absent from the novelization. Any special reason?

What comes to mind is that I'd seen Giger's concept art painting of the Space Jockey, but it wasn't written into the early version of the screenplay I was given to reference.

How did you conjure up the xenomorph in greater detail than the early Giler/Hill/O'Bannon draft?

Fox wouldn't let me see any pictures of the alien. I had no idea what he looked like. The studio wanted to keep that a complete secret. Nobody had even ever heard of H.R. Giger. I said, "How can I write this book without any images?" So I wrote the whole book without any material.  I had read a lot of Lovecraft at that point, I and read everything I'd get my hands on. In his work there was a lot of this creeping, crawling, nameless horrors kind of thing. All adjectives and no nouns. Up to that point most modern horror was based in European fantasy, and Lovecraft tossed in astronomy, chemistry and physics, and grounded it all in reality. 

Your adaptation has many subtle differences from the movie. The discovery of the warning beacon/SOS device is in the novel, but never seen on screen. Why?

It was in the screenplay, and there were a lot of omissions when the film was finished, and they all revolved around the derelict spaceship. But they only had so much time and couldn't delve into the history of the ship.  They needed to get the creature on board the Nostromo and off the planet. And those cuts are the things we wanted to learn about most. What happened to the alien crew, what was the SOS signal, what was the cargo?  That's why I referred to the unseen alien crewmen as a noble race. It took them 40 years to finally answer those questions in Prometheus, a movie I have yet to see.

What was your response to Kane's chestburster scene when you first read it?

I'd studied natural history since I was a kid and was familiar with parasitic wasps and tarantulas. And that's probably where Dan (O'Bannon) got the idea for it, and so it didn't really shock me. It was just like the tarantula hawk and the tarantula. The tarantula hawk wasp is one of the largest flying insects in the world and stings and paralyzes a tarantula, then lays eggs inside its body. I read that as a kid and remembered it vividly.

What was it like working with Ridley Scott, and did he offer any instructions for the book?

No, I've never to this day met or talked with him. And that's too bad. I would very much like to talk to him about his 2005 Crusaders film, Kingdom of Heaven.

When did you first see Alien, and what was your initial reaction?

I saw it when it premiered in Los Angeles, and I thought it was terrific, but I wanted to see more of the alien. I remember thinking wow, this is bisymmetrical and insectoid, and it looked like an alien, and it was really spooky.  The best thing about it is that it has no eyes. As a human, you have no place to make contact with this creature, no reference point of engagement, with the eyes being the window to the soul, and I thought that was a great design choice. I never thought of Alien as a horror movie, I always saw it as a sci-fi film. I think the key thing is that the alien has no human attributes to it. It doesn't act human in any way whatsoever. If you look at other film aliens, whether in Star Trek or Star Wars, there's always something human about them to connect with. Like when Kirk fights the Gorn in the "Arena" episode. But you keep looking at the xenomorph and you can't find it.  And that's extremely unsettling.

Growing up, what was your gateway into the sci-fi and horror genres?

My father always read science fiction at home, and my uncle, Howie Horwitz, was a very well-known producer on '60s TV shows like Batman and 77 Sunset Strip and was a big sci-fi fan, too, but never did any. The first sci-fi book I ever read was The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree. I was in the fifth grade.  The second one was Nine Tomorrows, an anthology of Isaac Asimov short stories, and I couldn't get through it and put it aside for a while. Later, in my 20s, I remember seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in Hollywood when it was released, the uncut version with no subtitles, with three friends from UCLA and all sci-fi fans. There were all these people wandering around after the show asking us what that was and what it meant. We'd been reading science fiction for years and perfectly understood. That was my senior year in 1968 at UCLA. Westwood was a wonderful place. Everyone went to see movies, and it was laid back and it was a lot of fun. You'd go see films all the time.

Swiss artist and Alien designer H.R. Giger passed away this month. Did you ever meet him?

I did once. It was at an American Booksellers Association convention in L.A. in 1979. They had a special screening of Alien with all these sophisticated book dealers and writers, and they all screamed like little kids. I went out in the hall and there was Giger just standing alone, kind of hobbit-sized, and he was pleased to speak with someone in German. He looked very out of place and was all dressed in black and spoke almost no English. Mostly we talked all about H.P. Lovecraft, and I think it was a nice diversion for him. I always thought it would have been wonderful if he had done a Lovecraft film project at some point. Now, in retrospect, I wish I'd spent more time talking to him.