Film and TV

The Literary Triumphs of Alan Dean Foster, King of Sci-Fi Novelizations

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The Black Hole
Boy, did this movie suck.

All us nerds flocked to this back in 1979, of course, because the special effects looked promising. And they were great, at least if memory serves. Even the computer graphics in the title sequence, which a teenage kid could probably generate on his or her phone nowadays, were pretty impressive, especially to the accompaniment of John Barry’s ominous music.

But the human characters would have seemed like two-dimensional stick figures on Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, the story was routine, and there were those embarrassing comic-relief robots voiced by the unfortunate Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens. And then there was that ending [spoilers!].

In the end of the picture, it need hardly be said, the astronauts are sucked into the title orifice. They encounter the floating body of the mad scientist (Maximilian Schell) who falls into an embrace with his big badass robot Maximilian (no relation) as if they’re at last admitting their love for each other, but no, next we see that robot and master have somehow become one, and appear to be presiding over the flaming pit of Hades (an idea later used by 1997’s Event Horizon). Fortunately the crew then passes through what appears to be the Pearly Gates, led by what appears to be an angel, after which their ship is excreted back out of a different black hole.

And that, after all that buildup, is what we get—a short, wordless tour of a conventional version of the Afterlife, and then the end credits. This was the first Disney movie to get a PG rating, in part on the basis of a few mild cusswords. But this ending provoked far stronger language from nay of us in the audience. One of the epigrams to Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of The Black Hole was from Hamlet: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But the movie suggested otherwise.

To end his book, Foster had to use, you know, words—he couldn’t hide the story’s massive failure of imagination behind the fact it was presented in state-of-the-art special effects. Here’s what he came up with:

“They blended, flowed together, thought itself strained beyond its normal borders under the unimaginable weight of the collapsar. Then they were through…and amazingly, still whole…They were themselves…and yet something strange and new…

They had been compressed, compacted, but had passed beyond and through with their selves still intact. With the passage came peace, and time to contemplate…

Their thoughts spanned infinity, as did their finely spread substance, and they now had an eternity in which to contemplate the universe they had become…”

Uhm… Okay. Why not? Indeed, considering what he had to work with, not bad.

Alan Dean Foster isn’t thought of as a big producer of short stories. As Foster himself frankly notes in the preface to his 1990 collection The Metrognome and Other Stories, “The rewards are in novels. The financial rewards, that is.”

All the same, he has written quite a few short stories, including this sly gem, published in the Canadian magazine Andromeda in 1979 and included in The Metrognome. It was, he explains, inspired by a Poul Anderson story about a spaceship that was fueled by beer. Foster decided to see (non-explicitly) if he could accelerate an interstellar craft by harnessing the power of the crew…well, getting it on.

Imagine the speed if James T. Kirk was aboard.

Design for Great-Day
Lots of authors write novelizations of movies or TV shows. But how many can lay claim to having written a novelization of a short story?

Alan Dean Foster can. His agreeable 1995 novel Design for Great-Day is an expansion upon a 1953 short story (later republished under the title “The Ultimate Invader”) by one of Foster’s idols, the witty Brit sci-fi master Eric Frank Russell. It concerns a visitor, seemingly human, who arrives on a planet inhabited by six-limbed creatures at war with another planet.

Sauntering into the lair of the planetary “Great Lord” with an insouciant manner, the invader, James Lawson by name, blandly lays down the law: What you do on your own planet is none of our affair, but the open space between planets may no longer be used for war, only exploration and commerce. Asked for an “or else,” Lawson, who claims to represent the superpowerful “Solarian Combine,” only says “You’ll be sorry.”

The story is just a satirical variation on The Day the Earth Stood Still, but the portrait of alien bureaucracy makes for good comedy, as does Lawson’s unruffled flouting of the threats of the alien bigshots. It’s an enjoyable read, and it must have been tremendously satisfying for Foster to put his own spin on the work of a revered favorite, and to share a cover credit with him.

The same year that The Empire Strikes Back was released, Alan Dean Foster taught us that killer whales talk just like Yoda, except that they roll their consonants more:

“Timme to swim, time to go. Time to kill a little more the parasite impatience, the germmm of boredom, beneath a fairr upper sky…To the where of sudden screaming and the realms of the vanished men, to therrre we go…”

Sperm whales, on the other hand, talk in capitalized words, and with Shakespearean usage:

“I Would Debate Philosophy With Thee Longer, Little Female,” Lumpjaw said, “But There Are Those In The Pod Who Grow Anxious. We Have Distances To Travel And Thoughts To Think. Thou Hast Interrupted Both.”

As for the slow-thinking baleen whales, their speech recalls that of The Hulk:

“Mind-pain hurts!...Make mind-pain go away.”

Thus does Foster render the electronically translated discourse of the sentience-enhanced cetaceans that swim the oceanic world of Cachalot, to which all such species were transported centuries earlier by humans as a penance for nearly hunting them out of existence a few centuries earlier. Now the floating human settlements of Cachalot have begun to disappear, along with all of their inhabitants, so a human scientist has been sent, along with her rather annoying daughter, to investigate.

Set, though almost parenthetically, within the “Humanx Commonwealth,” this 1980 novel is one of Foster’s most intriguing and compelling. There’s nothing especially mind-blowing about the resolution of the mystery, but the water-world of the title stirs the imagination, with its weird yet plausible indigenous species and its wary Terran sea mammals, tolerant of humans but as unable to forget their history as Jews are to forget the Holocaust.

And scattered throughout the novel are passages that bring the otherworldly or futuristic into focus so matter-of-factly that they seem like the essence of sci-fi:

“Could he be a mechanism, a robot? On rare occasions the Commonwealth was known to make such substitutions for organic personnel. No, she decided. He could not be a machine. A robot assigned to such a position would have displayed far more warmth and affection. Hwoshien was too mechanical to be mechanical.”

Alien vs. Patti Smith
Okay, this is a personal story, recreated from memory, and I must admit upfront that it does me no credit. But it does, at least arguably, do credit to Alan Dean Foster.

In 1979, between my junior and senior years in high school, I worked as an usher at the Warner Theatre on State Street in Erie, Pennsylvania. Among the shows that played there were many rock acts, and from time to time one would be asked to work “The Pit,” that is, the orchestra pit, as a sort of unpaid security officer, ensuring that rabid fans didn’t try to get from the seats to the stage. This was considered hardship duty, because one was situated in a folding chair right in front of the amps, and would normally have mild hearing loss for a few days afterwards, especially if one was, like me, too imbecilic to wear earplugs.

Well, I happened to pull Pit duty one night during a show by the great Patti Smith, who at the time I would not have recognized as great, having an obnoxious nerdy scorn for most rock music. With this particular show, however, there was a ramp which extended from the lip of the stage to the lip of the orchestra pit, so that Smith could go all the way down to interact with her adoring fans. This meant that I and another usher, a guy named Steve, had to be positioned not in front of the amp but on either side of the ramp, to keep an eye on the crowd during these encounters.

So I sat there I sat on my folding chair, in front of a sell-out crowd of thousands of screaming fans, a few feet away from a rock legend in her prime… reading Alan Dean Foster.

Yes, I sat there reading Foster’s novelization of Alien. At a certain point I glanced up, only to see the audience staring at me. I cranked my head the other way, and there, two feet above me, was Smith, stretched out on edge of ramp, singing me a love song. I smiled politely up at her and listened until she wandered off toward the end of the song, and then… I went back to Alien.

Set aside the rudeness. Set aside the unprofessionalism. Set aside the failure to appreciate talent. I was 17 years old, and an actual woman was actually looking at me. I remember Steve, on the other side of the ramp, being at least as nerdy as I was, but when Patti Smith jumped down into The Pit with him, he had the good sense to dance with her.

Anyway, Patti Smith, if you ever read this: My apologies. And Alan Dean Foster, if you ever read this: Much as I’ve enjoyed your work over the years, if I ever get to see Patti Smith perform again, she’s getting my full attention.
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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead