Did that awful pun get your attention, yes? Good – apologies, it was a shameless, cheap artifice but it sounds a darn site more engaging than “The Book of Alien/Aliens Colonial Marines Technical Manual – Book Reviews”, and is far less of a mouthful. With Prometheus looming and palpable anticipation oozing from every sci-fi and cinegeek on the planet as to it’s link to the Alien franchise, what better time than to revisit two publications that delve into the first two movies from the series, Alien and Aliens. The Book of Alien (pictured below left) is a behind the scenes look at the production of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece of sci-fi horror, complete with artwork, production stills, and accompanying text. Aliens – Colonial Marines Technical Manual (pictured below right) is conversely a fictional guide and history to the United States Colonial Marine Corps, its weaponry, tech, vehicles, and operational strategies as featured in the movie along with some internal files, records, and rumours surrounding the incidents of the movie.
The Book of Alien
As an unabashed Alien franchise fan both of these books are fantastically engaging. The Book of Alien is, in paper form, a kind of making of featurette that might of (and indeed has) found it’s way onto a DVD/Blu-ray special features disc. It is filled with concept and pre-production art work, prop and set photos, behind the scenes images, artwork to film comparisons – in essence a veritable treasure trove of visual information regarding the production of Alien that will be a pleasure for fans of the movie, or anyone interested in cinema production.
In particular there’s a chartable course visible between the early concept artwork by Ron Cobb and Chris Foss and that of later pre-production artwork and models as Ridley Scott became involved. But if the startling difference between the various ship/vehicle ideas are interesting they are nothing compared to the dramatic visual turn the movie took with the involvement of infamous Swiss artist H.R. Giger who is responsible for the now iconic Xenomorph Alien design. Giger’s artwork is equal parts stunning and disturbing and his flair for creating biomechanical visuals are what made the Alien, the derelict, and the space jockey so foreign and therefore horrifying back in 1979.
Spread throughout all the images is are a series of anecdotes and histories from Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross that chart the production of the movie from the genesis of the idea to the production and end result. What’s particularly engaging about this text are the ideas for the Alien and the planet that were never realised, things that Ridley Scott couldn’t make due to time and money restraints and things that had to be cut from the story – in particular it might prove very fascinating if any of these elements had any baring on his return to the Alien universe in Prometheus.
Though quite brief, coming in at a scant 112 pages, The Book of Alien’s information is at least illuminating – how illuminating will depend on your attraction to the series and whether you’ve invested the time to trawl through the extensive making of sections on the Quadrilogy/Anthology box sets. The physical quality of the book leaves a little to be desired, it’s paperback and printed on paper that’s just a bit too thin allowing occasional bleed through from pages behind, but it’s size probably doesn’t justify a hard back edition and this way keeps it’s selling point quite low. As a reprint of the original 1979 movie accompaniment the layout and design is outdated and very bare, bordering on bland, but what’s needed is present – plenty of rich visual stimuli. Certainly more than worth it for franchise fans and to appease those frothing at the mouth for Prometheus.
Aliens – Colonial Marines Technical Manual
In contrast to the non-fiction production account of the previous book, Aliens – CMTM is a fictitious expansion on the universe created in James Cameron’s epic 80′s action follow up Aliens. This book is rich with imagery just as above, but it’s of an entirely different variety, but for every image there are several more pages of text making up a far larger and more text heavy book than the one for Alien. In fact this book’s description and elaboration on the technology and weaponry used by the fictional United States Colonial Marines far exceeds what anyone would expect, or indeed require, from a movie tie-in. After a brief description of the purpose, function, and general structure of the USCM the book delves into descriptions, specifications, schematics and user advice for every piece of technology, weaponry, and vehicle seen in Aliens – and even some that aren’t. If suspension of disbelief was a burden for the viewer rather than the creator of a fiction then this book was created in order to throw that disbelief out the window.
Sprinkled throughout the, frankly alarming amount, of technical data are extracts from reports/interviews from marines that describe various situations, usually regarding the actual use of the tech being described. Some of these are brilliant little snippets of information that lend credence to the wealth of ‘fact’ being thrown at the reader. So technical and relentless is the stream of technical information that not only must it have been written by, or in consultation with, military personage but that after a while you find yourself skipping over large chunks and focussing on the anecdotal stories instead. The CMTM isn’t the sort of book you would necessarily pick up and read cover to cover – much like people rarely read the manual for anything in full – more likely is that you’ll focus on certain sections that are of interest to you and dip in and out over time.
In amongst all the data is a technical description of how the famous motion trackers work, providing a much more scientific explanation of how they work using ‘doppler-shift discrimination’ rather than Ash’s much lampooned bullshit line from Alien “micro changes in air density”. For those paying attention there’s also a passing reference to Cyberdyne Systems in one of the anecdotes surrounding androids, which acts as a subtle nod to Cameron’s other sci-fi masterpiece (pre-Avatar) The Terminator. Along the way there’s also a plethora of nonsense science, and sci-fi cliches like using a tachyon shunt for faster than light travel… real boilerplate nerd fodder.
Also present is an increasing amount of references to the Alien and the events of LV426, which build until the whole final section is an appendix of communication that would run concurrent to the movie narrative, the subject of which is “the company’s” internal/behind the scenes discussions on the Alien. This is a marvellous insight into the corruption and single-mindedness of Weyland-Yutani and the United States military and their propensity for deceit and cover ups. As an expansion of the Aliens narrative this is a great little aside that also ties together the two movies quite well. The ending communications, that I won’t spoil, have some particularly interesting implications for future stories/films, and since this book was also originally published after Alien³ this might have been early steps in Fox laying groundwork for a sequel that never happened.
Any production discrepancies that The Book of Alien is guilty of are not present here, while CMTM is still paperback it feels more robust than the former and the paper stock used inside a lot heavier and therefore not only more pleasing to turn the page and lacking in translucency, but also doesn’t blow around when reading outdoors. The sheer wealth of information alone makes this book a must for franchise fans, even if trying to read it all at once might make you go slightly nuts and believe you’re in some sort of future battlefield!
The Book of Alien and Aliens – Colonial Marines Technical Manual are both available now from Titan Books.