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

No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power. Jacob Bronowski

 

Book cover showing an alien xenomorph queen
The book “Alien: River of Pain” (2014).

In Part 1 the question was asked about how the system of Science could become dystopian? We looked at one way that that could occur through capture by corporations and interest groups. In Part 2, we examine how a corrupt system can infect the scientists and science that they carry out.


Dr. Batholomew Reese was in charge of the small scientific and medical team for Hadley’s Hope, a “shake-and-bake” terraforming colony on the planetoid Acheron – formerly known as LV-426. As he was enjoying some evening alone time in his quarters, a soft but persistent chime from the door interrupted him. It was his associate, Dr Mori, who was grinning ear-to-ear, which caused Bartholomew to exclaim: “you look a giddy and lovestruck teen.” Dr Mori excitedly replied: “it may be the answer to the Nostromo mystery.” What had excited Mori so much was that an executive from Weyland-Yutani company had just sent to the Colony Administrator, and to Drs Reese and Mori, a communication that included the grid coordinates for a site that should be investigated “immediately.”

Unbeknownst to the colony, the last survivor of the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley, had been recovered from many decades drifting in deep space aboard an escape shuttle. Indeed, she had been in hypersleep for 57 years before being brought back to Gateway Station, orbiting Earth. At Gateway Station, she, and had been met by the same Carter Burke that had sent the transmission to the colony that had excited Dr Mori so much.


The above is my summary of key scenes in Alien: River of Pain (2014) which gives an account of the events at the colony on Hadley’s Hope leading up to and coinciding with the James Cameron movie Aliens by 20th Century Fox (1986). In this book, the planet LV-426 (from the original Alien movie) is called Acheron, which is where the book title comes from. Acheron is a river in Hades, which according to Greek mythology, means: “river of pain (or woe).”  As in Part 1, I hope I’ll be able to scare you a little, or at least make you unnerved by the prospect of a dystopian science emerging in our present or near future.

christopher_golden
Christopher Golden (2007).

Because I’ve been a big fan of movie Aliens over the years, reading River of Pain was an exquisite pleasure for me. It brought so many of the aspects of the movie to a new light.

Christopher Golden (pictured [2]) has written a very satisfying back-story that  makes re-watching the Aliens movie a delightful fresh pleasure by giving life to unseen aspects of the movie such as the last stand of the colonists, behind welded doors in the ops centre, and the escape of the young girl Rebecca “Newt” Jorden into the air ducts. It’s in these air ducts where she’ll later be rescued by Ripley, who’ll become her surrogate mother and protector. Warning spoilers beyond this point.

Background

The colony on the planet Acheron has accommodation for up to 158 inhabitants and is a joint undertaking between the US government and Weyland-Yutani Corp. The colonists were made up from people of differing roles: including, administrators, led by Al Simpson and his deputy Brad Lydecker [3]. Nominally, the administrators represented the US Government but their paychecks came from Weyland Yutani Corp. The engineering team of terraformers, originally under Greg Hansard, but later Derrick Russell [4], and the science and medical team under Dr Reese.

Protecting the far-flung colony on Acheron was a small detachment of US Colonial Marines. I counted about 16-named Marines in my reading of Alien: River of Pain. It’s not clear whether the Marines were part of the count of 158 colonists or additional to them [5]. Captain of the Marines was the newly-arrived Demian Brackett. The Marine detachment was not nearly as heavily-armed as those Colonial Marines that arrived later with the military spacecraft the USS Sulaco, as depicted in the Aliens movie.

Many of the remaining colonists were surveyors, such as Newt’s parents: Russ and Anne Jorden, who were paid to explore and map the terrain and collect samples for the science team. The Jorden’s, like, many of the colonists, were also “wildcatters” which enabled them to supplement their income by prospecting for mineral deposits, meteor fragments, alien artifacts and so on; for which Weyland-Yutani Corp paid them bonuses. Many of the colonists also brought their families with them to Acheron. For the Jorden’s, they brought Tim with them, older brother to Newt, who was the first child to be born at Hadley’s Hope.

The True Scientific Mission on Acheron

Following on from the communication from Gateway Station (above in the opening paragraph), Another member of the leadership group for the science team, Dr Tessa Hidalgo, is waiting for Dr Mori’s return. She’s also heard of the communication from Gateway Station and is worried about the safety of the colonists in sending them out to an alien artifact without any knowledge of what they might find. Dr Mori says that she shouldn’t be worried about the colonists because the scientists have a far more important mission. So important that Weyland-Yutani Corp. has provided them with an evac ship so that they can return safely homeward with their samples if anything should go wrong. An evac ship that no-one else is aware of, including the Colony Administrator, Al Simpson.

It’s from this conversation that we learn that the science team on Acheron have two missions: one that everyone is aware of, to collect samples and monitor the condition of the planet as the terraforming operations progress. The other, is a secret mission, to search for remains and indications of alien life forms. Furthermore, Dr Mori warns Tessa that if she doesn’t change her attitude about their second, more important mission, by the time Dr Reese arrives, Dr Reese will exclude her from participating in it. Then he adds, all her work on Acheron, as well as her years of pretending to get along with such disagreeable colleagues, will have been in vain.

Interestingly, the conversation between Dr Mori and Dr Hidalgo reveals that the true parasites at Hadley’s Hope might actually exist among the members of the scientific team rather than the, as yet unrevealed, Xenomorphs [6] and their “Facehugger” and “Chestbuster” forms.

Dr. Hidalgo shook her head. “… The colony doesn’t exist just as a host body for us to nest upon.” Dr. Mori arched an eyebrow, gazing at her dubiously. “Are you comparing us to parasites?”

A valley on LV-426 orbiting Calpamos.
A valley on LV-426 showing the atmospheric gloom through which the ringed gas-giant Calpamos and another moon can be dimly seen,

Trouble Brewing

When Russ Jorden finds out about the message from Gateway Station he begs Al Simpson for the grid coordinates. As far as Russ is concerned, this is why he came to Acheron, with Anne and their family: the prospect of making a big find and earning a bonus big enough to set them up for the rest of their lives. He decides to take a vehicle and set off for the coordinates in the Ilium Range, several days journey from Hadley’s Hope. Moreover, he takes his family with him, on their own, on a perilously dangerous trip, without a Marine escort.

Despite two decades of terraforming, the planetoid, Acheron is still desolate (see the image above). The atmosphere is barely breathable and full of fine volcanic grit that gets into the eyes, nose and mouth. The storms cause frequent and, sometimes lengthy, blackouts of radio communication. For these reasons, a Marine escort to accompany colonists had been a long-standing, though unofficial, “standard” procedure, for such trips. But the new-man Captain Brackett is wanting to challenge accepted procedure because from his point-of-view, the Marines are not there to service every whim and desire of the Weyland-Yutani Corp. This is why the Jorden’s leave the relative safety of Hadley’s Hope alone, to venture out on their ill-advised journey.

Bringing Home Their Doom

What happens next you can infer from the Special Edition version of Aliens. The Jorden’s locate the same derelict spacecraft, with its mummified “spacejockey” pilot, that featured in the original Alien movie. Furthermore, the Jorden’s radio their discovery back to Hadley’s Hope, which prompts a dozen or so other wildcatters to set off for the same location, to stake their own claims.

While Russ and Anne are exploring the derelict spacecraft, they come upon a chamber of ovimorph egg sacs. Shortly thereafter, a facehugger spurts from its egg sac and attaches itself to Russ through his facemask. Anne helps him to his feet and supports him as they both shuffle back to the children, still waiting with the vehicle, after which they all rush back to Hadley’s Hope.

Back at the colony, Dr Reese is there when the family arrives. When Dr Reese sees the facehugger on Russ’s face he actually smiles which is immediately noticed by the children. Newt asks: “why is he smiling?” Then, she adds: “is he happy this happened?” Some of the Marines try to reassure her but this only leads Tim to exclaim: “bullshit!”

The next day, Tim finds out through a friend that his Dad has apparently recovered and is awake and speaking with the doctor. Tim, Newt and their young friend take to the air-ducts and crawl their way through to medlab.  They can see their Dad and Mom with Dr Komiskey through a vent in the medlab ceiling. They can hear their Mom pleading for Russ to be released. Dr Komisky was saying: “we’re talking about a newly discovered, extraterrestrial, possibly endoparasitoid  species,” and then “there’s no way he’d {Dr Reese would] allow it.” We also learn that Al Simpson had sent some of his people out to the site to see if they could find any useful information about the alien species.

It’s at that point that the children notice that their Dad is looking ill and grasping at his stomach. If you’ve seen an Aliens movie before, then you know what gruesome sight the children are about to witness. At that very moment, though, the medlab doors slam open and new wildcatter patients are brought in on stretchers, each with a facehugger attached. The children, though, see the bloodily macabre sight of a chestbuster emerging from their father’s chest but the rest of the room’s occupants are distracted. The “baby” Xenomorph is able to escape and find its way into the same air-ducts that the children are hiding in. Newt screams with all her lungs.

Shortly later, Anne and the two children find themselves on the floor of an exam room down the corridor from medlab. Anne is trying to reassure her children, Russ’s corpse is still in medlab, Dr Komisky is standing in the doorway, after having been evicted from her own lab. Medlab is has been taken over by the Science team leaders, Drs. Reese, Mori and Hidalgo. It’s at this point that the live facehugger specimens that you see in the movie Aliens are collected and placed in biosample tanks, suspended in a transparent fluid. For each specimen collected the patient dies. Dr Hidalgo tries to remove the facehugger from the patient with liquid nitrogen. It seems to work for a while but as soon as the facehugger warms up again it’s liquid-acid blood leaks onto the patient from where cuts in its tentacles were made.

Capture-for-Study

Meanwhile, Brackett, some of the Marines and colonists try to track down the escaped chestbuster Xenomorph. Khati Fuqua, an assistant to Dr Reese, is sure that it’s a “fat snake with little arms” and has armed herself with only a metre-long shock-stick. Khati states that they’re understanding orders for the facility:

“… this facility is under the operational control of Weyland-Yutani, and standing orders from the company are that any newly encountered alien species falls under the capture-for-study edict.”

When Brackett finds that a laundry-worker has been lifted into the air-ducts by the alien creature, leaving only a bloodied shoe, they quickly become dispelled of the idea that the creature is still a “little parasite.” A corpse of a second laundry worker was also found lying nearby. Soon after there are other casualties among the search party and they are forced to retreat.

The colonist’s problems will shortly become much much worst when the capture-for-study policy is attempted with the other chestbusters from the dozen or more patients in medlab. A policy of confining colonists to quarters only makes them targets for Xenomorphs to come and drag them away, mostly at night, while they sleep. Attempts to kill the Xenomorphs when they appear are largely unsuccessful.

The Nest

One of the colonists points out that they all have PDT implants under their skin so that they can be located in an emergency. Following this lead, Simpson and Brackett quickly realise that they can track the missing colonists. It’s then that it becomes apparent that the Xenomorphs are taking their victims to a nest located under the fusion power plant. Brackett organises a squad of Marines and volunteers in an attempt to destroy the Xenomorph nest. Dr Hidalgo volunteers to go as a medic against the advice of her colleagues. The rest of the colonists barricade themselves in ops behind wielded doors. A handful of Marines are left guarding the corridors leading to ops.

By this time, the colonists and Marines are too few and the Xenomorphs are too numerous for any military operation against their nest to succeed. Dr Hidalgo, together with many of the Marines are killed. Coinciding with the abortive attack against the nest, the barricade in ops is overrun by Xenomorphs. Tim and Newt both escape into the air ducts but Tim returns to try, unsuccessfully, to protect his Mom. This leaves Newt alone in the air ducts.

Meanwhile, Drs. Reese and Mori are making for the evac ship that only they and Dr Hidalgo are aware of, with whatever alien samples that they can carry. They are unaware that they are being followed by Khati Fuqua who has been infested with an alien chestbuster.

Brackett becomes aware of the evac ship though Tessa Hidalgo, before she heroically perishes. He and the few remaining Marines make for ops to try and get together the survivors for an escape attempt. When they reach ops they find that the only survivor is the child Louisa, a friend of Newts. Brackett leads the handful of survivors to the evac ship where he finds a dead Dr Reese metres from the vessel. He has chosen to commit suicide rather than be attacked by the chestbuster emerging from Khati. An injured Dr Mori is just standing there in shock.

In the end, the only survivors are Captain Brackett, a Lieutenant, Dr Mori and Louisa, who escape in the evac ship. Newt survives alone at Hadley’s Hope until rescued by Ripley when the Colonial Marines from the USS Sulaco arrive, as we know from the movie Aliens.

Dystopian Science

I find the above scenario is remarkably rich in meaning for science and scientists: good and bad. We know from Part 1 that the Science depicted in the Alien universe is in a state of nearly full capture by Weyland-Yutani and other large corporations. An interesting observation from the River of Pain novel is that under this state of capture, the scientists and the activities they perform tend to become parasitic; withholding rather than sharing their knowledge constructively with the community around them.

Before his rather ignominious death, Dr Reese’s last thoughts were:

He had dedicated his life to scientific discovery—to the detriment of family, health, and any hope of real companionship. He had eschewed courtesy and personal grace for the quest for knowledge and advancement … regardless of consequence.

But not all of the scientific team are corrupt or self-serving. Tessa Hidalgo bravely joins the military efforts to rid the colony of the Xenomorph nest. She, I like to think, represents the many scientists who join the vocation because they are internally motivated to carry on with the work in the best way they can, despite the corruption around them.

On the other hand, Dr Mori seems to represent those who just follow the path of least resistance. Anything that will allow him to work and advance without asking too many questions or doing much by the way of soul-searching.

Ethical Failure Leads to Overall Failure

The first ethical failure of the scientists was their secret agenda and the associated failure to warn the colonists about the possible danger that they faced in venturing to the derelict site, despite the protest made by Dr Hidalgo to Dr Mori.

The second ethical failure was to place their capture-for-study edict ahead of the safety of the whole colony, including their own safety. Furthermore. they went so far as to value collection of live facehugger specimens over the lives of the patients that they had the responsibility to heal, if at all possible, or at least treat humanely if healing wasn’t possible.

One reading of “River of Pain” is that the Xenomorphs are the evilness of purpose made manifest by Dr Reese’s science team, under direction from Weyland-Yutani Corp, Their self-serving, entitled, secretive ambitions; their no qualms attitude to experimentation on live patients; their quest for power and knowledge at all costs. All wrought together into the physical form of the ultimate evil and destructiveness of a Xenomorph colony. In its way, this is rather reminiscent of the creature born from the subconscious mind of Morbius in the classic sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet (1956).

In summary, the secret agenda set by Weyland-Yutani Corp. promised the scientists unlimited freedom in their quest for knowledge without accepting any responsibility. After all, they had an evac ship and could leave any unfortunate consequences of their work for someone else to deal with, even if that meant the deaths of all the colonists and Marines. However, consequences are never so easy to escape, they have a way of catching up with you in the end regardless. The only scientist to escape alive was Dr Mori.

Conclusions

There are three major conclusions to be drawn:

  • freedoms and responsibilities in science are inseparable;
  • scientific freedom is an acquired right, (i.e., it has to be generally approved by society);
  • responsibility is primary; there are no special rights that scientists can claim.

A resource for further study can be found in the Scientific Freedom and Responsibilities Statement of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Science Ethics Poll

Answer the poll question below or leave a comment.

Note: Up to two responses can be selected.

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[1] The book cover for River of Pain is sourced from Goodreads but remains the property of the author or the publisher concerned. Because it is used to illustrate an article which discusses the book, the cover image appears here as part of fair use provisions.

[2] Picture of Christopher Golden at a Ghosts of Albion promotion (2007), taken by Michael Saletnik; the original can be found at https://bit.ly/2G1B9tY. It is posted here under a Creative CommonsAttribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

[3] You can find photos of these characters, in deleted scenes from the Aliens movie, from conducting an internet search such as this one: http://bit.ly/2Qa1hHL.

[4] The presence of Derrick Russell, Nolan Cale and Genevieve Dione and their escape from Hadley’s Hope aboard the space freighter Onager is a nice acknowledgment to readers of the Prometheus: Fire and Stone comic books from Dark Horse Comics (2015).

[5] This appears to be a plot conflict between the book River of Pain and the movie Aliens. Nevertheless, the transcript of an interview with Christopher Golden indicates that the Colonial Marines at Hadley’s Hope were part of the instructions given to him by 20th Century Fox.

Edit 20 Jan 2019. Forgot to include reference 6

[6] Matt Reynolds from Wired online; published 4 August 2014; accessed 18 October 2018, points out that “Xenomorph” is a word derived from “xeno” for strange or foreign and “morph” for shape or form. So a xenomorph is just a fancy way of saying “alien creature.” Matt points out a  better name, using the zoological binomial classification, would be “Internecivus raptus” or “Linguafoeda acheronsis” but I think I’ll just stick with Xenomorph.

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