William Gibson’s Alien3

…the biological equivalent of a machine gun, hideous in its perfection. Alien. [William Gibson’s description of a wasp’s nest, from Neuromancer.]

Alien3As a sort of followup to my previous look at Anthony Powell and Ursula Le Guin’s script for an Earthsea film, I thought I’d look at another un-produced film script by a favourite author: William Gibson’s go at Alien3. It’s odd to think, given the William Gibson we have now — author of three trilogies of literary techno-thrillers set in a series of progressively closer futures — that he might once have been considered the obvious candidate for an Alien script. The draft that’s out there on the internet (I got mine here) is apparently an early one, Gibson’s first ever go at a movie script, for which he only had the scripts for Alien and Aliens as a guide. (According to Gary Westfahl’s book on Gibson, this is actually a “shortened version” of what Gibson produced.) Gibson’s Alien3 is far more the sort of thing you’d expect as a followup to those first two films than what we actually got. It’s also far more a product of the 80s, when it was presumably written, than the overpoweringly dark 90s film David Fincher ultimately produced.

The Sulaco, from Aliens

It starts with the Sulaco — the spaceship carrying Ripley, Newt, Hicks and Bishop at the end of Aliens — straying briefly into the territory of the Union of Progressive Peoples, a clear USSR-analog, considering the fact that they exist in an uneasy nuclear standoff with the “capitalist cartels” that include the Weyland Yutani corporation, and the fact that their people have names like Suslov and Lenko. The UPP board the Sulaco, lose one man to a face-hugger (Gibson gets the alien action in quickly — a face-hugger and full-size creatures within the first few pages), then depart with android Bishop’s upper body, before letting the Sulaco drift on, to be picked up by the space station Anchorpoint (“the size of a small moon”). Anchorpoint supposedly has no military or Company loyalties — it’s populated by what the Company’s Milisci division dismiss as “idealists”, “liberals”, and people with “a certain antipathy to Military Sciences”, in other words ordinary citizens — but the Company have been wanting this bio-weapon since Alien, and they’re not going to let anything get in their way. The trouble is, as they soon realise, the UPP have probably got the alien, too, and it’s at this point the script seems most of its era: the UPP and the Company both suspect that the other is going to develop the alien for potential use as a weapon, therefore the only thing to do is develop it themselves just to keep up. A biological arms race begins. And, with the alien creature as technology rather than just a movie monster, this seems far more like William Gibson territory.

Gibson reworks the alien, stripping it back literally to its DNA. In one scene, we get to see how a strand of alien bio-matter wraps itself around human DNA and transforms it instantaneously. (In a nice touch, a microscope shot of alien bio-matter reveals how its micro-structure echoes the macro: its “lines and textures recalling the interior of the derelict ship in ALIEN.”) Suddenly, the alien is not just the creature we’ve encountered in the previous two films, it’s a virus that works at the genetic level. Gibson’s “New Beast”, as he calls it, doesn’t emerge as a chest-burster, but as a full-person burster, ripping off its human host like the Hulk rips off a shirt. And it’s not only humans who get the alien-DNA-bonding experience. Gibson gives us an alien lemur, primates strung up with Giger-goo awaiting “the change”, and even an alien-ised cabbage.

Yes, an alien-ised cabbage:

Two of the Styrofoam structures have been overgrown with a grayish parody of vegetation, glistening vine-like structures and bulbous sacs that echo the Alien biomech motif. Patches of thick black mould spread to the styrofoam and the white deck.

HICKS: It was… cabbages or something…

My favourite alien cabbage, the Rutan from Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock

My favourite alien cabbage, the Rutan from the Doctor Who story, The Horror of Fang Rock

Back in the UPP, before the aliens escape, Gibson has one of his pseudo-Soviets speculate on the technological nature of the aliens:

SUSLOV: Perhaps it is the fruit of some ancient experiment… A living artefact, the product of genetic engineering… A weapon. Perhaps we are looking at the end result of yet another arms race…

(Which chimes in nicely with the direction Ridley Scott took the franchise in with Prometheus.)

For about half the script, Gibson’s Alien3 brushes against the sort of futuristic Cold War techno-thriller that’s more his kind of thing. Then the alien breaks free in both the UPP space station and Anchorpoint, and we’re where we expect an Alien film to be: a race to escape from the base before it self-destructs, but on a larger scale than the previous two films. Gibson sticks to the Alien and Aliens formula, but uses his new, viral version of the alien to provide some interesting riffs on what we’ve already seen (including a man turning into an alien while in a space-suit, and an alien chase in the vacuum outside the space station).

Ripley is all but absent, waking up only to see an alien and become instantly catatonic. Newt, too, is seemingly there for continuity’s sake alone. (She gets shipped off to Earth before the aliens escape. And Ripley is jettisoned in a lifeboat while still comatose, so she can return for a sequel.) The main stars of this version of Alien3 are Hicks (the surviving marine from Aliens) and Bishop.

Newt and Ripley

The script has a few signature moments of laconic description from Gibson the hard-boiled techno-writer and futuristic beatnik: “The cubicle, terminally sloppy, resembles the nest of a high-tech hamster.” “His office is furnished in the best futuro-Pentagon style…” “…his smile a heartless display of state-of-the-art enamel-bonding techniques”. A chest-burster is “suspended there like an eyeless fetal dolphin”. Best line of all, though, has to be: “The Aliens tear into the Marines like living chainsaws.”

At the end, Gibson opens the way to further sequels by having Bishop suggest it’s time to stop running from the aliens, track them down to their source, and wipe them out:

BISHOP: This goes far beyond mere interspecies competition. These creatures are to biological life what antimatter is to matter.

He even suggests this might be a way to end the Cold War:

You’re a species again, Hicks. United against a common enemy.

I quite like Gibson’s Alien3. Had it been made, it would have been more what people expected from the franchise, though its transformation of the aliens from large-scale creatures to a sort of genetic virus would have ramped up the pace of future films to near Apocalyptic proportions — suddenly, anything could at any moment turn into an alien version of itself. And with Newt (infected?) already shipped off to Earth, and Ripley drifting yet again in a lifeboat, you can see how an Alien 4 might map out.

According to David Giler (on the making-of documentary on the Alien3 Blu-Ray), they got Gibson to write the script because they were expecting a lot of good ideas that could then be formed into a proper film script, but what they got, in his opinion, was “a perfectly-executed script that wasn’t all that interesting.” I can see what he means, in that Gibson toes the line of the previous two films, rather than providing the sort of game-changing wild ideas you might have expected from this happening, hip new writer. But this expectation may have been down to misunderstanding just what it was that was happening and hip about Gibson. He wasn’t — and isn’t — a machine for transforming genres, although that may have been how he was perceived at the time; he’s a writer who’s best at doing his own thing, who just happened to transform a genre (SF, cyberpunk) on the way.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer first HBRe-reading Neuromancer, I still feel the excitement of the first time I read it — the whole surprising, new-thing-ness of it — though it always makes me wonder if someone coming to it for the first time might wonder what the fuss is about. Its major impact comes from ideas that have been so subsumed into the culture, they’re almost invisible as ideas — much in the way the artificial intelligence Wintermute ends the novel breaking free of its bonds as an AI to expand and in some way become one with the whole matrix of cyberspace itself, “the sum total of the works, the whole show.” Gibson’s conception of cyberspace came just in time both to prepare us, imaginatively and conceptually, for the rise into daily life of computers and (some time after) the internet, and to give us a constant reminder of how naff what we actually ended up with is, compared to what he imagined (by combining the way kids got totally immersed in the low-res graphics of arcade video games, and the way the then-new Sony Walkman provided an immersive, portable otherworld you could plug yourself into): the “consensual hallucination” and “graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system” (full quote here), data and software you could experience sensually, directly. The strange thing is how much of Neuromancer is so rooted in old culture: how it’s basically a hard-boiled noir take on SF (just as is Blade Runner — seeing which while writing Neuromancer almost made Gibson give up on the novel), and a re-imagining of Faerie/the land of the dead as a TRON-like world of bright, primary-coloured geometric shapes: “Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…” But then again, this seems to be true of all the great, game-changing works of imaginative fiction — the way they can be seen, on the one hand, as incredibly new, but on the other as “why didn’t I think of that?” recombinations of what went before.

Cyberspace, from 1995's Johnny Mnemonic

Cyberspace, from 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic

What always feels so life-affirming, to me, about Gibson’s works, even though (particularly with the Sprawl trilogy of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) they’re so mired in the relentlessly downbeat, rusted-with-cynicism worldview of noir, is how his human beings are always finding ways of asserting their individuality not just in the face of a highly technologised world, but thanks to it. Case, Neuromancer‘s protagonist, would arguably be a nobody at any date prior to the invention of the technologies that allow him to jack into cyberspace and manipulate what he finds there with a seat-of-the-pants, intuitive skill; and where would Molly Millions be without her surgically implanted mirror shades and razorgirl claws? New technology, in Gibson’s world, becomes one more way of expressing essential human individuality. He’s interested in how people take up a new thing and use it not for its intended purpose. (From Count Zero: “The street tries to find its own uses for things, Mr Turner.”) But his is also a very dark, very 1980s world with a huge divide between those who have and those who don’t — and in this case the “have” refers not so much to money as power, and a specific type of power at that: “Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power.” It is power, not technology, that is the chief dehumanising factor in this world:

“Case had always taken it for granted that the real bosses, the kingpins in a given industry, would be both more and less than people… He’d always imagined it as a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system, the parent organism…”

Or, from the followup novel, Count Zero:

“…she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.”

So here’s a theory. In the 1970s, technology was perceived as part of the structure of power. They had the cabinet-sized mainframes with their whirling, eye-like pairs of tape reels, just as they had the nuclear weapons. Look at all those wonderful seventies dystopias and you’ll find that, if technology isn’t implicitly inimical to humankind (as in Westworld and Futureworld and 1980’s Saturn 3), then it is certainly inseparable from the oppressive, controlling state (Logan’s Run, THX1138, Rollerball). In the 1980s, though, technology — the computer part of it, not the nuclear weapons — became cheaper, and suddenly everyone could have a home video recorder, an electronic calculator, a digital watch, even their very own computer. And so technology, available to everyone, became part of popular culture, where it was thoroughly explored for its use in entertainment and self-expression, and no longer seen as a symbol of oppression. (You could even say that 1983’s WarGames, which is for me the archetypal home-computer revolution movie, is the point at which everything turns, as we see our hero teach a computer not to start a nuclear war.) Neuromancer was part of the reclamation of technology for the masses. And to me, this aspect of the novel — that humankind can endlessly take on board new technologies and make them (sometimes literally) part of itself while expanding, not narrowing, the bounds of what it means to be human — still feels new.

Neuromancer PBThis isn’t to say Neuromancer denies the dangers of technological dehumanisation. Rather, it acknowledges dehumanisation as an ever-present threat — just one of those things people do to themselves — with technology merely one of its means. As the novel opens, Case is deadened to his own feelings, to the extent that he’s goading the lowlifes of Chiba City into completing his unconscious suicide. When he finally manages to feel, it’s at the crucial halfway point of the novel, and even the unpleasant feeling of rage is like a “new thing”, a “treasure” compared to the emotional paralysis that went before:

“He’d been numb a long time, years… But now he’d found this warm thing, this chip of murder. Meat, some part of him said. It’s the meat talking, ignore it.”

“Meat” is the cyber-cowboy’s disparaging term for the body, and technology is certainly one of the ways that the divorce of mind and body can occur. But so are, in the novel, drug addiction and cynicism. And this is exactly the thing that feels so old-school in Neuromancer — it’s the same atmosphere that pervades Raymond Chandler‘s fiction. (Though Gibson, apparently, dislikes Chandler, preferring Dashiell Hammett — see this excellent Paris Review interview, for instance.) The hero, whether Philip Marlowe or Henry Dorsett Case, is battered to numbness by an unfeeling, dehumanised world, but makes the breakthrough back to feeling, back to an ideal or a recovered morality. The return to full humanity is the first, vital step to becoming a hero.

In the end, it’s power that dehumanises the most. And the powerful can be dehumanised by power alone, without any need for technology. (Though it does, of course, help. I particularly like Gibson’s description of the Tessier-Ashpool clan’s approximation to immortality through cryogenics as “a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter.” Plus, they can afford their very own vat-grown ninja…)

Neuromancer PB2Gibson’s protagonists use tech with such style. This — so much more than its current use with “steam” — justifies the “punk” in cyberpunk. These really are people with the hi-tech equivalent of a safety pin stuck through their nose; crude conglomerations of tech and flesh, welded together with hi-end surgery and micopore tape, brushing up against the massive data structures of zaibatsu megacorporations then bedding down in a cheap, run-down coffin hotel.

Reading Neuromancer is all about dipping into a writer’s sensibility and pool of ideas, his way of looking at the world and thinking about how it might become. Our world still might become like this. And though I’m not sure I’d elect to live in Gibson’s world, I’d certainly be happy to do so if I could take Neuromancer with me, and use it as a how-to guide.

William Gibson’s Burning Chrome

The narrator of William Gibson’s story “The Gernsback Continuum” is a photographer who, commissioned to snap examples of the sort of futuristic architecture America produced in the thirties and forties, finds himself slipping into a reality where that future actually happened, as he sees an enormous propeller-driven, boomerang-shaped aircraft gliding impossibly against a cityscape of “zeppelin docks and mad neon spires” (something similar to the one brought to life in 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, perhaps).


It’s fitting Gibson should touch on that thirties/forties dream, because it was the only even vaguely optimistic future the 20th Century produced — till Gibson’s came along in the eighties, that is. By that time we’d long since ceased to believe in the sort of technological utopia promised by those hover-cars and jetpacks of the early SF pulps, but Gibson’s future had the advantage of not being limited by the possibilities of the real world. His idea, cyberspace (which he also referred to as the Matrix), was another reality altogether, a world we could jack ourselves directly into, a landscape of computer data turned into geometric shapes in “Bright primaries, impossibly bright in that transparent void”. A world curiously reminiscent of Disney’s wonderful 1982 film Tron, in fact.

It’s now more than twenty years since Gibson’s cyberspace made its first appearance (in “Burning Chrome”, 1982), and we don’t look much closer to achieving it. Excel might be able to produce nice looking pie-charts of your expense accounts, but it comes nowhere near the “electronic consensus hallucination” of Gibson’s computer reality where we’d exist as bodiless intelligences in a world of pure data.

Gibson’s fiction still feels relevant, though. Not because cyberspace is a possible future (I’m sure jacking your brain directly into a computer is as far off today as it was when Neuromancer first came out). Cyberspace wasn’t really a re-imagining of the future, it was a re-imagining of the imagination itself. It is once-upon-a-time land updated in neon colours, with data instead of gold and computer programs instead of magic spells. It’s just as full of angels, demons, ghosts, animal helpers and monsters as the world of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales.


One image that has really stuck in my head from my (very) early reading was a double-page spread in The Usborne Book of the Future. It had two views presenting two possible futures. One was all dark skies and people in gas-masks, the other was bright sunshine and people with wristwatch TVs. I remember staring at those two images for hours, hoping with all my might that the future I’d live in would be, if not the wristwatch TV one, at least not the dark skies and gas-masks one. Outside of cyberspace, Gibson’s rundown, citified future is much more reminiscent of the darker of those two alternatives, though in this he’s generally acknowledged to have borrowed from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, another powerful exploration of how the future might be, partly inspired by Philip K Dick, but more derived from Scott’s encounters with massive industrial processing plants in contemporary England.

I know this seems to be reducing Gibson’s future to the influence of two films — Blade Runner and Tron — but I love his work too much to leave it at that. His real strength lies not in prediction, but in writing about how people deal with a changing technological culture. In a potentially de-personalising world of mega-corporations (a dystopian nightmare prevalent in late seventies and early-eighties SF films like Rollerball, Alien and Blade Runner), Gibson’s characters use technology to emphasise, not erode, their individuality. He’s often at his best when writing about people whose (usually artistic) talents are only really released by technology, as in, from his story “The Winter Market”: “…you wonder how many thousands, maybe millions, of phenomenal artists have died mute, down the centuries, people who could never have been poets or painters or saxophone players, but who had this stuff inside, these psychic waveforms waiting for the circuitry required to tap in…” His future is a digital bohemia our iPod-equipped world is coming more and more to resemble, even if we don’t get to actually jack into it via cyberspace. (Do white earplugs count?)