Film and TV

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

Breathes there a nerd born between, say, 1955 and 1990 that has never held an Alan Dean Foster book in his or her hands? It might just be a qualifying requirement for fully enfranchised American nerd-dom of that generation. Born in 1946, Foster, a Prescott resident for decades, has been an insanely prolific writer of sci-fi and fantasy originals since the early ‘70s, especially his tales of the “Humanx Commonwealth,” like the “Pip and Flinx” books and the Icerigger trilogy, which overlap like a sci-fi version of Balzac’s Comedie Humaine. He’s also the author of the Spellslinger series, the “Mad Amos” stories and any number of stand-alone books.

He’s perhaps even better known, however, as the King of Sci-Fi Novelizations, having turned movies ranging from Krull to Outland to The Last Starfighter into paperbacks, among others including a certain 1977 space opera by the guy who directed American Graffiti. Foster’s novelization of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released as an ebook on December 18, with a hardcover edition to follow on January 5 (just in time for the holidays).

In recognition of this august literary occasion, here are a few memorable tips of the massive Alan Dean Foster iceberg:

The Tar-Aiym Krang
There’s this Krang, see. But this particular Krang isn’t just your run-of-the-mill Krang. No, this Krang is a Tar-Aiym Krang.

Alan Dean Foster’s debut novel, from 1972, is also the introduction to his “Humanx Commonwealth” universe, a distant future as densely imagined as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, in which humans live in harmony with the praying-mantis-like Thranx, among other alien races, in a more or less benign interplanetary alliance.

It’s also the first of the many “Flinx and Pip” tales (first in order of publication, that is, not in story chronology), focusing on the empathically gifted “ethical thief” Philip Lynx, or Flinx, and his dragon-like little pal Pip, a winged “minidrag.” Flinx grew up on the planet Moth, so named because its Saturn-like rings, interrupted in the middle, resemble moth wings.

This adventure tells of how Flinx leaves Moth and his adoptive parent Mother Mastiff and becomes part of an expedition to locate the title Krang, which, in case my earlier explanation wasn’t clear enough, is vast labyrinthine device built eons ago by the ancient Tar-Aiym civilization. Reminiscent of “The Teacher” from the Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain” as well as the Krel technology in Forbidden Planet, the Krang is both a weapon and a musical instrument, and it’s operated by the brain of a user who lies under a transparent dome. Guess whose mental abilities are awakened when he tries it out.

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye
Near the top of the list of Alan Dean Foster’s claims to fame is as the author of Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, the very first Star Wars novelization. This was a ghostwriting gig; the book, published by Ballantine in 1976, was credited not to Foster but to George Lucas.

Foster did get cover credit, however, for an original Star Wars sequel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, published by Del Rey in 1979. This tale follows Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, along with R2-D2 and C-3PO, to the very Dagobah-like planet of Mimban, where they encounter various aliens and vile Empire bureaucrats and a wise if shifty crone called Halla, all seeking the “Kaiburr Crystal,” which amplifies the possessor’s abilities with the Force. Darth Vader eventually enters the story.

Among other notable aspects of the book, Leia gets slapped and knocked around in it to an eyebrow-raising degree, almost like a woman in a Mickey Spillane novel. More striking still is the amount of sexual tension between Luke and Leia. I wasn’t a Star Wars Studies major, so maybe this is a very 101-level observation, but since the book was presumably written with the blessing of Lucas, wouldn’t that sort of undermine the claim that Lucas had his whole grand saga planned out from the start? Otherwise, in light of what’s eventually revealed about Luke and Leia’s relationship: Eeeewww.

Anway, from Star Wars to Star Trek

Star Trek Log Seven
Possibly my favorite episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series was the very last, “The Counter-Clock Incident,” scripted by Fred Bronson under the pseudonym “John Culver.” You may recall that it involves the Enterprise entering a sort of Opposite Day alternate universe in which space is white and the stars are black and people start out old and gradually turn into youths and then children and then babies and eventually, presumably, into fetuses and embryos.

This process kicks in on the Enterprise crew in a rather accelerated manner, allowing us the joy of hearing William Shatner turn his voice into an adolescent squeak. It’s a sci-fi variation on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Benjamin Button” premise (more recently it was also amusingly treated in David Eagleman’s delightful Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives), and most adapters might simply accept the conceit as a bit of absurd but charming whimsy.

Not Alan Dean Foster.

No, in Foster’s novel-length version of “The Counter-Clock Incident,” which takes up the whole of Star Trek Log Seven, he refuses to let it go at that. Foster makes the episode we saw on TV one part of a larger yarn in which (spoiler!) the Enterprise and the Klingons are trying to secure a new super-weapon, and eventually the whole time-running-backwards thing turns out to have been an illusion. Perhaps he could be hired to write an extra verse to “If I Could Turn Back Time” in which Cher explains that she cannot actually turn back time.

Dark Star
Star Wars wasn’t the first movie for which Alan Dean Foster penned the novelization, however. By 1974 he was writing not only the Star Trek Log series, adaptations of the animated Star Trek, but also of Luana, based on the Burroughs-style Italian jungle adventure pic (and graced with a glorious Frank Frazetta cover) and Dark Star, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s shoestring sci-fi comedy.

In the latter tome, recounting the wanderings of the title scout ship and its cosmically bored crew in search of habitable planets, Foster does an impressive job of getting across the perpetually daydreaming inner lives of Talby, Doolittle, Boiler and Pinback, and the slow-grinding effect of tedium and isolation on their psyches. He’s also careful to take a straightforward, deadpan tone, even in broadly slapstick passages like Pinback’s encounters with the beachball-shaped alien mascot, which makes them all the funnier. He even sneaks the word “kaleidoscope” into the finale, in which the lads are scattered into the cosmos, presumably an acknowledgement of Ray Bradbury’s 1949 short story. Nice touch.