Reading the “Alien” Trilogy (2014) and Reflecting on a Dystopian Science, Part 1

This is an example of a style of writing that I’ve been developing for communicating popular science at my blog,

Out-of-the-shadowsAllan Decker had a secret. His father had told him to: “hold it tight inside you.” You see, Decker and his father were empaths that could feel the emotions of others around them. He had hidden his talent over his career with the Interstellar Commerce Commission  (ICC), where he was a Deputy Commissioner. But on this day, in the latter part of 2496, on the newly terraformed planet New Galveston, formerly the desolate and barren LV-178, his anonymity would be uncovered and his secret revealed.

The paragraph above is my summary of how Alien: Sea of Sorrows begins. I’ll return to fill you in with rest once I’ve introduced the other novels in the trilogy. I will also attempt to answer the question of how it all relates to dystopian science.

The Alien Trilogy

Now that I’ve finished reading the Coyote trilogy, I’m eagerly awaiting the concluding novel in Cassandra Clare’s Dark Artifices series (Queen of Air and Darkness) and I’m awaiting the final instalment of James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse series (Tiamat’s Wrath), originally due December, now due March 2019.

On a whim, but I’m glad I did it, I started reading the Alien trilogy:

  1. Out of the Shadows (2014) by Tim Lebbon which is set between the movies Alien and Aliens (book cover [1]).
  2. Sea of Sorrows (2014) by James A, Moore, which is set sometime after Alien Resurrection.
  3. River of Pain (2014) by Christopher Golden, which is set preceding and during Aliens.

All these are from Titan Books and the films are from 20th Century Fox. As well as the printed novels, there are audiobook versions from Audible (2016-8). As confirmed in an interview with Tim Lebbon [2] all 3 books are a part the Alien canon and all 3 authors received plot direction and final editing instructions from 20th Century Fox.

Warning: there might be spoilers in the following paragraphs if you haven’t read the books.

Alien: Out of the Shadows is set on, and in orbit above, the barren, storm-swept planet LV-178, 37 years after Ripley escapes on a shuttle from the doomed space cargo vessel the Nostromo. This would place it in the year 2159. I’m not sure how you’ll react to having Ellen Ripley brought back in Out of the Shadows and the way that the timeline is finagled to fit between the movies Alien and Aliens. My reaction was similar to the reception described for other readers in the Wikipedia article for Book 1.

However you feel about Out of Shadows it does manage to set up a very rich and detailed scenario for Book 2, Sea of Sorrows which I found to be thoroughly intriguing, as I began to describe in the first paragraph above.

The Undoing of Alan Decker

Between Books 1 and 2, 337 years have passed. The bleakly desolate rock LV-178 has been terraformed by the Weyland-Yutani Corp. into the warmly hospitable planet of New Galveston. There are 3 major human settlements on New Galveston. Before a 4th major settlement can be constructed, it’s Alan Decker’s job as Deputy Director of the ICC to sign off that the site chosen for 4th settlement can be safely handed off from Weyland-Yutani Corp. to the colonial government.

The hand-off is expected to be a formality but Alan Decker and his associate Lucas Rand have discovered a big problem in the form of a 60-km-wide stretch of toxic black sands, given a biblically inspired name: “Sea of Sorrows.” Naturally, this is where the title for Book 2 comes from. Furthermore, black nodules of silicon grow in this sea of sorrows like misshapen trees. Decker and Rand judge that the black sands are likely the result of undisclosed toxic by-products from trimonite mining and processing, sometime in the distant past. However, the silicon nodules remain unexplained.

The sea of sorrows is where Alan Decker becomes undone, when he, Rand and a scientific team try to set up a drilling station to take core samples. Decker’s emphatic sense leads him into the middle of a dispute with fisticuffs between workers. In an attempt to break it up, however, Decker loses his footing, sinks into the toxic black sands and has his leg pierced by a silicon nodule.

18772460Unbeknownst to Decker, the silicon nodules are breathing tubes for alien Xenomorphs in a suspended state, deep underground, since Ripley and the crew from the mining spacecraft Marion encountered them over 300 years before (Book 1). The scent of blood from Decker’s injury awakens the Xenomorphs who regard it as spoor from the enemy.. Unfortunately, for him, Decker is a distant descendant of Ellen Ripley [3]; the Destroyer; the enemy to be hunted and killed at all costs.

Owing to his empathic abilities, Decker’s mind is assaulted by waves of pure hatred and enmity issuing from the newly awakened Xenomorphs. At the point in time that the medical team are recovering him from the sea of sorrows he losses consciousness, as he has a grand mal seizure. For the remainder of the book, Alan Decker will never again have a drug-free night of sleep without terrible nightmares.

The Scenario

The next thing that Decker is consciously aware of is that he is on a transport back to Earth.  He has a few hours to complete his report on the New Galveston settlement before he/s scheduled for hypersleep.

Back on Earth, his report has not been received well. His boss suggests he make changes to it. He makes some minor changes but sees no reason to change the conclusion.  Decker finds himself isolated and helpless. Although his physical injuries have healed, on account of his seizure, the company question his mental health. He’s sent to psychological therapy, his report is sidelined and Weyland-Yutani Corp. do an end-run-around him with Lucas Rand, back on New Galveston.

Now that Decker has brought long-forgotten mines on LV-178 to their attention, for Weyland-Yutani Corp. the question has morphed from a new settlement to reopening the trimonite mine, which they proceed to do. Since this is an Alien novel you can quickly grasp that a scarily disastrous maelstrom involving hypersalivating Xenomorphs [4] is about to erupt.

During Decker’s company-directed visits with psychologists, they learn of his “talent” to sense the presence of Xenomorphs. Because of this he soon finds himself abducted by mercenaries, hired by the company, brought back to New Galveston, ostensibly to deal with the Xenomorph menace. But, in reality, he’s there to ensure that the company executives get to realise their long-held obsession to possess their own Xenomorph specimens.

Having a character who can sense where and when the Xenomorphs are going to attack adds a new layer of interest to the action sequences in Sea of Sorrows. Trouble is Decker is always so terrified and on the verge of a mental meltdown that the casualty list in dead and dying mercenaries, and others, is still extraordinarily high.

Interestingly, they do get to nuke the site from orbit this time. Weyland-Yutani Corp. then covers up the real reason with the deception that the nukes were to neutralise a deadly virus outbreak.

Dystopian Science

So what does all this have to do with dystopian science I hear you ask? Did you not see it written above in the section above under the heading “The Scenario”?

Consider what has been discussed: Alan Decker is the legal representative of the regulatory authority, the ICC. It’s his mandate to enforce safety standards on the terraforming operations of Weyland-Yutan Corp. Additionally, Decker has the experience, backed by the expertise of a science and engineering team. and data they have collected.

Contrast this with what actually happens: Decker is discredited by misuse of confidential medical information. His boss, the ICC director, fails to back him or his report. The ICC is worthless as an industry regulator. In fact, the ICC is worse than useless because Weyland-Yutani executives do whatever they please whilst operating under the pretence of ICC regulation.

What’s scary is that there’s nothing to say that this scenario can’t happen in the here and now of 2018, with any current large corporation. Indeed it does happen and even has a name:  regulatory capture. In regulatory capture, interest groups (often private corporations) are prioritised over the public interest leading to a nett loss for the wider community. When regulatory capture occurs, the effect can be worse than having no regulator at all.

US-InterstateCommerceCommission-SealIt’s very likely that the ICC in the Aliens novels is meant to parallel the Federal US Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) which was established under President Grover Cleveland in 1887 to regulate interstate transport by railway and later by road and trucking. The US ICC is often regarded as a textbook example of the negative effects of regulatory capture. As a result of its failure, the US ICC was abolished in 1995.

Seemingly, the authors, publishers or 20th Century Fox wanted to provide a connection between the Alien novels and the USA of the late 20th century and between Weyland-Yutani Corp. and current era large corporations.

Scared Yet?

In this article hope I have scared you or at least made you feel uncomfortable. By both stirring up your latent memories of the Alien and Aliens movies and by revealing a potential dystopian future for regulatory science. I’ve written about regulatory science but science in agriculture and food, health and medical and environment and energy are all targets for capture by corporate interests over the public interest.

The Xenomorphs were never really the true evil of the Alien fictional universe. The xenomorphs act on a biological imperative for survival. Albeit a totally alien and unnatural biology.’They lie in a dormant state, for unknown aeons. They’re brought to life by unsuspecting humans directed by executives of the truly-evil Corporation. As menacing and terrifying as the Xenomorphs are; they are activated as a consequence of an even more pernicious problem: a dark side of human nature manifested in unlimited corporate greed and corruption. The Alien universe represents a dystopian future where science has been completely captured, servicing their interest group sponsors but not the wider human community.

Remedies

So what is the solution to the worse effects regulatory capture? The usual prescription is greater transparency and media scrutiny. That’s admirable but is there any evidence that it’s effective? You can answer in the poll question following or leave a comment below.

There are those who advocate minimal regulation, or industry self-regulation. These are views expressed, for example, by Gary Banks [5] when he was Chair of the Productivity Commission of Australia.

Poor funding, low staff morale and inadequate training help create a revolving door where staff leave the regulator in search of better pay and conditions in the industrial sector. This can be a major factor in regulatory capture.

Another perspective, offered by Chris Simms [6] is directed at overcoming the selfishness and shortsightedness that underlie regulatory capture: by employing “cathedral” thinking [7]. This envisions the current generation investing the time and resources into building a better future.

This harkens back to medieval times where architects and artisans built cathedrals knowing full well that they would never live long enough to see the final product of their labour and vision. For them, it was enough that their children and children’s children would see it.

Poll: What Do You Think?

Note: You can select up to two items in this poll.

In Part 2 you get to visit the space colony of Hadley’s Hope as it was before the events shown the movie Aliens unfolded. We get to see scientists behaving both badly and well.

____________

[1] The book covers are sourced from Wikipedia but remain the property of the authors or the publishers concerned. Because they are used to illustrate an article which discusses the books; they appear here as part of fair use provisions.

[2] Tim Lebbon, AvPGalaxy Podcast, Episode 13, AvPGalaxy online; published: 13 September 2013; accessed: 12 October 2018.

[3] In the movie Aliens Carter Burke tells Ripley that her only daughter, Amanda, passed away without leaving any desendents. However, the author, Jim Moore, in a podcast interview suggests that Burke was lying in order to manipulate her into returning to LV-426. James A. Moore, AvPGalaxy Podcast, Episode 17, AvPGalaxy online; published: 27 June 2014; accessed: 12 October 2018.

[4] The Alien trilogy, especially, River of Pain, points out that the mucous-like drool issuing from the jaws of Xenomorphs hardens into a resin on contact and helps bind their victims until they’re cocooned.

[5] Gary Banks, “The good, the bad and the ugly: economic perspectives on regulation in
Australia“; Conference of Economists, Business Symposium, Hyatt Hotel, Canberra, 2 October 2003.

[6] Chris Simms, “Canada’s new government: Climate change, “regulatory capture,” and “cathedral thinking“; The BJM Opinion online; published 6 October 2016; accessed 12 October 2018.

[7] This type of thinking can be seen in the historical novel by Ken Follett Pillars of the Earth (1989) which was set in the mid-12th Century. Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth was also made into an 8-part TV miniseries.

2 Replies to “Reading the “Alien” Trilogy (2014) and Reflecting on a Dystopian Science, Part 1”

  1. The first 2 are definitely enjoyable. Ripley in the idea of her dating, then the end, well, played, Ash (Ripley never disappoints). I noted the gap, between them, and the that Decker, her ancestor, sounded like his gift and ability, were more sensitive, even though he was not a natural fighter, it was a interesting read for me. Enjoyed it.

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