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Alien3: The Unproduced Screenplay cover

Alien3: The Unproduced Screenplay by William Gibson by Pat Cadigan and William Gibson

(Titan Books, 2021)

Reviewed by Dev Agarwal

While no BSFA reader would ever judge a book by its cover, you may find that Alien3 comes so loaded with cultural signifiers that you have to parse them before cracking it open. Like a riddle it has both two authors and only one. It is unproduced (as a film) yet it is also the third adaptation of William Gibson’s script (following a graphic novel and an audio drama).

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) are both such prominent works that they need no introduction here. The documentary of the film, Memory: The Origins of Alien (Alexandre O. Philippe, 2019) is testament to the ongoing attraction that the concept holds to genre consumers and film fans alike.

Pat Cadigan, BSFA President, and her fellow multi-award winning author, William Gibson, equally need no introduction either. Their names resonate throughout SF as two of the original cyberpunks.

Memory’s talking heads inform us that “Every film is a product of its time. And every successful film tells you something about the time it was made.”

Similarly, Alien3, as a story tells us something as it wasn’t a successful film. Cadigan’s novel reaches us decades later from a script that was specifically commissioned by producers David Giler and Walter Hill to bring cyberpunk aesthetics to a mass audience (almost a decade before the film Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longon, 1995)) and Gibson drew on the producers’ interest in a “Marxist space empire.”

As the cognoscenti will know, Renny Harlin was attached to direct and rejected Gibson’s script on the basis that it was “Space commies hijack alien eggs—big problem in Mallworld.”

Those 80s’ references to cyberpunk, Marxism, superpowers and the cold war may need some explanation for Gen Z readers.

If that wasn’t enough, Gibson was asked to write the protagonist Ripley out, in the producers’ expectation that she would not appear in a sequel. Gibson pulled off the trick of taking Ripley out of the story while also setting up her return back into the franchise later on.

Gibson wrote in Neuromancer of “Human DNA spreading out from gravity’s steep well like an oilslick” and it transpires that while the Colonial Marines waged war on LV 426 in Aliens, the communists of the eastern bloc (Russian, Vietnamese and East Europeans) were building the apex of their oilslick, Rodina, a remote space station.

The “mallworld” that Harlin dismissed is Anchorpoint, a space station built by the corporation Weyland-Yutani. As in the real cold war, American capitalism builds bigger, with more commerce and amenities.

Calling Gibson a cyberpunk writer does him the disservice of failing to appreciate his ability to see what’s in plain sight and repurpose it or to make connections that seem glaringly obvious to the rest of us afterwards. The robotic Bishop was torn in half in Aliens. Gibson looked at Bishop and thought, no problem. He’s synthetic, so he can be glued back together. And as an alien queen tore him in half, that’s yet another opportunity and his script has Bishop’s body infected with alien DNA. Gibson then engineers Bishop’s theft by the Marxist Union of Progressive Peoples, who extract the DNA before shoddily repairing Bishop and returning him to Anchorpoint.

As well as building a socio-political background from the ground up and the aesthetic of two space stations, Gibson added to the franchise the idea that if you research the genetic origin of the alien species you can move from eggs and impregnation to spreading the alien through infected DNA.

Onboard Rodina, the UPP regime speculates that the alien is a biological weapon, mimicking the arms race between Marxists and capitalists. Seizing the alien as a military asset, they fatally experiment with it, learning, as Carter Burke discovered, that you can trap the alien but you can’t necessarily hold it.

Now spreading like a virus, human beings no longer “chest burst” into aliens, instead, they transmogrify into human-alien monsters. Both Rodina and Anchorpoint become battlegrounds.

The challenge for any novelisation is how to remain true to the script while also turning it into a fully realised novel. A key issue is that a screenplay is equivalent to a novella in length, so creating a novel requires adding material without detracting from the feel of the film. Also, a novel presents the opportunity for interior thought and motivation of its characters. Gibson is famous for his distinctive prose style (including his command of dialogue). Cadigan, also a master craftsman, knows when to develop and when to leave Gibson’s dialogue to do the narrative work.

Cadigan has said that she immersed herself in the script so that she could envision it as thoroughly as possible. Cadigan is, among many other achievements, an experienced novelisation writer and she observed that a peculiarity with Alien3 is that there are no production stills, costumes or sets to refer to.

She was also careful to balance background with story. Cadigan said that “Everything doesn’t need to be explained; you could spend thousands of words going into background information that ultimately has nothing to do with the plot and won’t advance the story.”

The screenplay was designed for an action film with big pyrotechnic moments. One way to enjoy these is through Cadigan’s realisation (and as most readers will know, the pictures are better inside our heads than in the cinemas).

Bottom line: if you’re a fan of Alien stories, Gibson’s 80s’ period or Pat Cadigan, her novel presents a unique take on an avenue of what might have been in the Alien franchise. There is plenty to enjoy in her novel.

Review from BSFA Review 16 - Download your copy here.

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