"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Alan Dean Foster and John Carpenter's The Thing: celebtating 35 years of the 1982 novelization

In the period 1981-1983 I read more novels by Alan Dean Foster than any other writer.

I read:

Splinter of the Mind's Eye
Star Trek Log 1-?
The Black Hole
The Thing

I can still remember practically verbatim the first few paragraphs of his novelization of John Carpenter's The Thing (1982):

The worst desert on Earth never gets hot. It boasts no towering sand dunes like the Sahara, no miles and miles of barren gravel as does the Gobi. The winds that torment this empty land make those that sweep over the Rub al Khali seem like spring breezes.

There are no venomous snakes or lizards here because there is nothing for them to poison. A bachelor wolf couldn't make a living on the slopes of its Vinson Massif. Even the insects shun the place. The birds who eke out a precarious life along its shores prefer to swim rather than fly, seeking sustenance from the sea rather than a hostile land. Here live seals that feed on other seals, microscopic krill that support the world's largest mammals. Yet it takes acres to support a single bug.

A mountain named Erebus stands cloaked in permanent ice, but burns with the fires of hell. Elsewhere the land itself lies crushed beneath the solid ice up to three miles thick. In this frozen waste, this gutted skeleton of a continent unlike any other, only one creature stands a chance of surviving through the winters. His name is Man, and like the diving spider he's forced to carry his sustenance on his back.

Sometimes Man imports other things to Antarctica along with his heat and food and shelter that would not have an immediate impact on an impartial observer. Some are benign, such as the desire to study and learn, which drives him down to this empty wasteland in the first place. Others can be more personal and dangerous. Paranoia, fear of open places, extreme loneliness; all can hitch free and unwelcome rides in the minds of the most stable of scientists and technicians.

Usually these feelings stay hidden, locked away behind the need to concentrate on surviving hundred-mile-an-hour winds and eighty-below-zero temperatures.

It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances to transform paranoia into a necessary instrument for survival.

When the wind blows hard across the surface of Antarctica, the universe is reduced to simpler elements. Sky, land, horizon all cease to exist. Differences die as the world melts into blustery, homogeneous cream....

At which point a helicopter and a dog enter the narrative and we are off to the races.

I found this P.R. fluttering in my paperback. Old-fashioned and charming:

ALAN DEAN FOSTER, a Scorpio, was born in California where he completed his schooling. After serving a hitch in the U.S. Army, he worked as a copywriter in a public relations-advertising firm. Since then he has taught Motion Picture History and Writing at Los Angeles City College, as well as Literature at U.C.L.A.

A prolific writer, Foster has written very successful novelizations of Alien, Dark Star, The Black Hole, Outland and Clash of the Titans. He has also had ten novels published including the five Humanx Commonwealth volumes, Midworld, Cachalot, Icerigger, Mission to Moulokin and his most recent one, Spellsinger.

A red belt in Tang Soo Do (a form of Korean Karate), Foster's hobbies are backpacking, body surfing and basketball. He and his wife recently deserted the Pacific Coast to live in the Arizona desert.

Sounds like a pretty nice life.

Macready and Childs don't end up so nicely situated:

.... [Macready] leaned against the handmade bar and lit a cigar from the pub's undamaged stock. His hands were heavily wrapped. No gloves were lying conveniently about, but there'd been plenty of insulated tape in the ruins of the infirmary. What was left of his hands benefited from the bandaging anyway. He puffed on the cigar and poured a double, no soda please, into a glass that was only slightly chipped.

Something grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. He was too exhausted to scream.

A face stared back into his own: Childs. White-and-black blotches mottled the exposed skin and icicles decorated the mechanic's woolly beard.

"Did . . . did you kill it? I heard an explosion." Childs's mouth wasn't working too well. His lips were cracked and stained with dried blood. A weak gust of wind caused the powerful frame to stagger. Lack of food and exposure to the elements had severely depleted the mechanic's strength.

"I think so," Macready told him

"What do you mean, 'you think so'?" Childs stumbled backward a few steps.

They eyed each other suspiciously, the voices guarded. Macready was suddenly alert.

"Yeah, I got it." He gestured with a mummified finger at the mechanic's face. "Pretty mean frostbite."

Childs kept his distance and exhibited a puffy, pale hand.

"It'll turn again soon enough. Then I guess I'll be losing the whole thing." He kicked out first his right foot, then the left. The movements were feeble, shaky. "Think my toes are already gone."

Macready had salvaged one of the card tables and set it up nearby. Carrying bottle and glass he limped over and sat down in the single chair. The back was cracked but the legs were still intact.

A chess set rested on the table, its power wire hanging loosely over the side. By some miracle the box of pieces that had been buried beneath it had survived the cataclysm. Several piles of cards lay nearby. Macready was in the process of combining them to form a single, complete deck.

The two men continued to eye each other warily. "So you're the only one who made it," said Childs.

Macready was setting up the chessboard. Tiny magnets held each piece to the metal board despite the steady wind.

"Not the only one, it looks like."

Childs found a couple of blankets and gratefully wrapped them around his upper body. "The fire's got the temperature way up all over camp. Won't last long, though." He nodded toward the pub's missing wall.

"Neither will we."

"Maybe we should try and fix one of the radios. Try and get some help."

"Maybe we shouldn't."

"Then we'll never make it," the mechanic said calmly.

Macready puffed on the cigar until the tip glowed red, then reached down into the bundle of supplies he'd gathered. From the middle of the pile he pulled a small, cylindrical metal shape.

"Lookee what I found. This one works." He carefully put the blowtorch on the table next to him.

"Maybe we shouldn't make it," he added speculatively.

Childs eyed the blowtorch. "If you're worried about anything, let's take that blood test of yours."

"If we've got any surprises for each other," the pilot replied, "we wouldn't be in any condition to do anything about it. Any testing can wait." He paused, then ask cheerfully, "You don't play chess?"

Childs studied the pilot, then hunted through the wreckage outside the pub. He returned carrying a second chair in reasonably good condition and placed it across the table from Macready.

"I guess I'll be learning."

The pilot grinned and handed the mechanic the bottle. Childs leaned back and drained half of what was left. When he put the bottle down he was smiling.

Around them the persistent fires smoldered on, riding a sea of frozen water. Bright embers levitated by the wind rose lazily into the night sky The ghostly ribbon of the southern aurora pirouetted overhead, masking many of the stars that had come out in the wake of the storm.

Macready nudged a pawn two squares forward

And that's how Foster ends it. Magnificent.

13 August 2017

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