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Expanded Universe

Alien | How We Gave the Xenomorph 'Extended Universe' Plenty of Bite

The Alien universe is being expanded through a new series of novels and an RPG. David Barnett has written one of the books, and here speaks to his fellow authors.

When Alien was released in 1979, it simultaneously gave us a cramped, claustrophobic, haunted-house-in-space tale of a ship’s crew being picked off by an unknown extraterrestrial menace, at the same time as giving a glimpse of a whole future universe where mankind was spreading out among the stars… and was most definitely not alone.

More than 40 years later, the Alien franchise has expanded markedly, with a further three movies (Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien: Resurrection), two little-loved mash-ups (AVP: Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem), two prequels (Prometheus and Alien: Covenant), yet more sequels and prequels announced, a forthcoming TV series, novels, comic books, video games, and RPGs.

As ever, when a story is extended through different media over four decades, it becomes difficult to keep track of what is happening when and which of these stories is canon.

Titan Books has in the last couple of years begun to publish a loosely-connected series of novels in the Alien Extended Universe, drawing together characters and settings from other media and, crucially, tying in with Alien: The Roleplaying Game from Free League Publishing, and even Aliens: Fireteam Elite, a survival horror videogame from Cold Iron Studios.

Alien: Colony War by David Barnett was released on April 26 by Titan Books and includes a scenario for Alien: The Roleplaying Game – a great example of how the writers are working together to build an Alien ‘Extended Universe’. | Titan, 2022.

This modern era really began with Alex White’s 2018 novel The Cold Forge, and their follow-up Into Charybdis in 2021, and continues with my novel Colony War, published this year, along with Inferno’s Fall by Philippa Ballantine and Clara Čarija this July.

So I gathered some of my fellow Alien authors, including Andrew E.C. Gaska who has overseen and written the RPG, to talk about what makes an Alien story.

Our crew comprises Andrew, a novelist who served as 20th Century Studios’ franchise consultant on Alien for five years and has also written two books in the Planet of the Apes setting; Alex White, who was born in Mississippi and has lived most of their life in the American South, and is the author of the Starmetal Symphony Trilogy and The Salvagers Trilogy, and their latest, August Kitko and the Mechas from Space; Philippa Ballantine, a New Zealand born fantasy writer and podcaster whose novels include the Books of the OrderThe Chronicles of Art, and The Shifted World series; and Clara Čarija, an Australian story and game consultant known for her work on the award-winning Alien: The Roleplaying Game from Free League.

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Introductions to the World of Alien

So, to get the ball rolling, what was everyone’s first introduction to the Alien universe? For me, I was too young to watch Aliens in the cinema, but at some point, during the endless summers of the ‘80s, I did watch it on home video, probably among a slew of big-name movies and straight-to-video turkeys. Of course, Alien shone out as a classic, and by the time Aliens was released in 1986 I was just about old enough to watch it in the cinema.

Alex White: “My first movie was Alien, which I watched immediately after Terminator 2 when I was about twelve. I’d heard the second one was ‘better,’ but even back then I was a completionist who had to do things in order. It struck me that the film was such a slow burn when compared with the adventure stories I liked so much. I was accustomed to my movies about space wizards, and the idea that someone could have a nail-biting thriller and a regular job at the same time was wild. I liked Aliens more as a child, but that’s because I liked the toy aspects. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that Alien is the future I inhabit in America.”

Clara Čarija: “My introduction to Alien was through my cousin Suzanne who watched horror movies while babysitting me, I watched Alien, then Aliens at around age four in 1986. I think my tastes have changed as subsequent movies came out. I think Alien is the best one followed by Covenant which is my absolute favorite. My least favorite is Alien 3 just because for me personally it has challenging themes with the inmates and the Ripley attempted rape scene. But its interesting parallels to rape, consent, abortion, and autonomy in the film make it an interesting topic of discussion.”

Some highly evocative art from the Alien: The Roleplaying Game core rules by Swedish publisher Free League – also responsible for Tales from the Loop and the forthcoming Blade Runner RPG. | Free League, 2019.

Philippa Ballantine: “Back in the dark ages, when I was in college, Aliens was the first of the franchise I watched. It is a specific, and beloved memory for me of that time. After playing D&D all day with my friends, we’d put on Aliens and eat dinner while watching. At the same time, we were always quoting the movie, a bit like a Rocky Horror Picture-type thing. So I would definitely have to say that Aliens was the most impactful. Afterward, I did go back and watch Alien, and it genuinely scared me, but for me, it was always Ripley vs the Queen.”

Andrew E.C. Gaska: “When I was a kid, I was a bit squeamish. My mother sent me to bed early when Alien was going to be on TV for the first time (I was 8ish). I got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, just in time to walk in on the chestburster scene. Suffice to say, I was scarred for life. My favorite movie is by far the director’s edition of the original 1979 Alien. However, my favorite character in the series hands down has got to be David. Fassbender is fantastic. His David is an evil genius who no matter what bad thing he does, he somehow seems to get the audience on his side.  The one that misses its mark for me is Resurrection—its tone and comedic undertones don’t quite fit the franchise as I see it—even though its themes do very well.”

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The Key Ingredients of an Alien Story

Alien and Aliens have, understandably, the biggest and longest-lasting impact. When I was commissioned by Titan about my novel Colony War, I was given a fairly broad brief that included a necessity to set up future novels by instigating the titular war among the far-flung colonies. But it wasn’t enough to have a political action thriller; this had to be an Alien novel. There had to be Xenomorphs, of course, and space marines, and horror, intrigue, and battles. What are the main ingredients of any Alien story?

“Alien is body horror in space,” says Andrew E.C. Gaska. “It’s ponderous methodical pacing punctuated by white-knuckled page gripping terror. It is fear of the unknown; fear of what is lurking in the dark, and what it intends to do. It’s about human hubris and not understanding what we are dealing with. It involves humans and androids who would play god to control the uncontrollable. It’s about regular everyday people caught in a living hell and both the bonds and betrayals between them in the face of creeping danger. It’s about furthering our glimpse into the unknown, providing answers that only lead to more questions. Finally, it’s about making sacrifices for higher ideals.”

Alex White is the author of the Starmetal Symphony Trilogy and The Salvagers Trilogy, and in addition to their work in the Alien ‘Extended Universe’ they have also written a Star Trek book, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Revenant. White’s most recent novel is August Kitko and the Mechas from Space, out later this month from Orbit Books. | Courtesy of Alex White.

What about Alex White? What do they think an Alien novel needs?

“Aliens,” they say. “Okay, no really, I think you need deep-seated injustice masquerading as everyday civilization, which is pretty easy to come by in our modern times. You need shitty day jobs, which many of us have. You need an interesting and potentially-hostile environment. There are other elements, too, like the depersonalization/commodification/consumption of one’s body. Most importantly, you need deeply human characters who are driven by reasonable causes… so they can get eaten.”

“Capable female protagonist,” says Philippa Ballantine of her checklist. “Corporations gone wild with power. Underdogs you can root for. Body horror. Risk to family, blood and found.”

For Clara Čarija, the science fiction essentials of “sense of wonder, excitement and hope” are vital. She adds, “Also, the atmosphere of separate classes, identifying their struggles against each other with a dash of corporate subterfuge. Having the everyday person mixed up somehow with the appearance of or inevitable clash with the Xenomorph. The story should always make you question yourself and what you think you knew or assumed about humanity. For better or worse.”

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Global Perspectives in the ‘Extended Universe’

One particular benefit of exploring the universe in novel-length stories is that it gives the writers an opportunity to show readers a richer portrayal of society both on Earth and in the colonies than the movies especially have been able to. Into Charybdis was centered on an Iranian-run colony world; mine focused on a breakaway British faction that prompted the war among the distant worlds, and the joint Antipodean writing team of Ballantine and Carija shows us yet more of how we live in this future world.

Philippa Ballantine says, “The New Zealand and Australian content is pretty high in Inferno’s Fall – no great surprise considering the creators I suppose. Though those two nations have been changed by events in the Aliens universe. There is one real Easter egg that I snuck in, for a bit of levity I suppose, but it isn’t a plot point of any kind. I tend to think, that there are some brands and inventions that will just happen, regardless of timelines. We are still talking about Earth after all. Some things feel like fixed points in time.”

The Alien universe’s link to our own is something others are exploring. Setting Colony War in 2184, after Alien but before Aliens, I extrapolated some existing real-world corporations and entities would still exist 160 years hence. Thus, budget airline RyanAir is operating budget spacetravel as RyanSpace, and some of the current British media brands such as The Guardian and the Sun still exist. It’s not always successful for some readers; they don’t like to be bumped out of a future world with references to contemporary life, while others think this is a natural progression.

A Xenomorph looms in the darkness in this illustration from the Alien: The Roleplaying Game core rules. Free League’s game has served as the centrepiece for the Alien ‘Extended Universe’. | Free League, 2019.

Alex White isn’t necessarily convinced:

“I see this all the time in Star Trek, and I think we flatter ourselves with the idea that our media is somehow good enough to remain relevant forever. Sure, there will be a couple of standout hits, but most of us will be as forgotten as a lost commercial jingle. I crack up every time I see some 20th-century-loving captain playing the ‘classics,’ because it feels fetishistic to me.

Alex White, author of Alien: Into Charybdis and Alien: The Cold Forge.

“The corporations that control much of our lives, however, will still be in existence in some form. Their anti-competitive attitudes and religious branding ensure that their wealthy owners enjoy untold power, and so long as we have rich assholes, we’ll have their misbegotten organizational offspring. I can almost guarantee you that privatization will result in American-style extortionate health insurance if the Alien future comes to pass because that’s one of a corporation’s major loci of control over its employees.”

Alien: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set is an ideal starting place for experienced roleplayers and first-timers alike, coming with cut-down rule book, pre-generated characters, a map, game markers, and equipment cards, dice, and a fully playable scenario – Chariot of the Gods by Andrew E.C. Gaska. | Free League, 2019.

Clara Čarija adds, “Many of the films and books referenced music as a way of connecting with the audience or provoking a feeling, I really enjoyed your book when you had your character listen to music I put it on in the background while I read the book and it was a delight. The use of RyanSpace is kind of similar to the way they gave the naming to Weyland-Yutani so I don’t find the recipe for the naming convention of the ship. But my nerd self would choose something Joseph Conrad related which would coincide with the story or character arc. I spent a lot of time researching current mining equipment and mining in space to ensure some sort of influence on my future imaginings of technology and progress in the Alien universe.”

For Andrew E.C. Gaska, the Alien universe is definitely an extrapolation of our own, with the rider: “Even though the timelines have already begun to diverge as we get that much closer to Peter Weyland’s TED Talk of 2023 (a virtual video Scott created for Prometheus a decade ago) The fourth movie even mentions Walmart (although it is somewhat unsuccessfully played for laughs).  Sci-fi always reflects the issues in the world around us, so I see those things as easter eggs. In my novel, Death of the Planet of the Apes, I mentioned a proposal to build a wall around Ape City to keep unwanted humans out. Some people chuckled and took it in the spirit intended. Others were critical of it, stating it threw them out of the narrative. I feel as authors we have to find a balance that works for both us and the audience.”

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Keeping the Xenomorphs Out of Sight

One of the interesting things about the Alien universe is that, of course, the action in any type of story is always centred on Xenomorphs — otherwise, what’s the point? But by necessity, the wider universe is largely ignorant of the creatures.

“Given how many Alien EU stories there are, it’s kind of hilarious no one knows about them.” laughs Alex White. “My first series book, Alien: The Cold Forge, takes place on a classified facility orbiting a star to obscure its presence. I wrote it that way because I didn’t want to shake things up too much. My second book, Alien: Into Charybdis, chose a different path for its ending – directly confronting the people of the United Americas and the Independent Core Systems Colonies with unassailable evidence of the Xenomorphs. No matter what happens, there’s no unringing that bell after 2185.”

Inferno’s Fall by Ballantine and Čarija takes both tacks. On the one hand, says Philippa Ballantine, they have Zula Hendricks and her team whose job is hunting down Xenomorphs, She adds, “On the other, we have a group of survivors who are shocked and surprised to find themselves suddenly at the wrong end of snapping jaws. The counterpoints of both these points of view were a lot of fun to put together.”

Alien: Inferno’s Fall by Philippa Ballatine (bottom right) and Clara Čarija (top right) is the next book in the series and is due to be released July 26 in the UK and August 9 in the US. | Titan, 2022.

For Clara Čarija, there’s perhaps a resonance with today in the way that there is a lack of information and even disinformation about the Xenomorphs. She says, “I just need to gesture at the pandemic or how easily if there are enough wild stories mixed with true ones it makes everything seem outrageous. Just look at the pandemic, Flat Earth, people are barely able to survive discerning truth from fiction peddled as fact. I think it is entirely credible that swathes of the population see the domination through other humans by domesticating an alien lifeform or foolishly think so.

“The Aliens are a metaphor for our own destruction. Can our current structures like democracy and capitalism survive out in space for light years or thousands of years? Can the entirety of humankind survive not knowing the Xenomorph threat? I enjoy the search for the answer to that question.”

Clara Čarija, co-author of Alien: Inferno’s Fall.

Andrew E.C. Gaska takes a similar view. “Corporate cover-ups and government conspiracies. It’s not that a lot of people have never seen an alien, it’s that most that have seen them have not survived. Those in power want to stay there. They will do whatever is necessary to cover up anything that could be a threat to their checkbook and position—so they would rather wipe out entire worlds than be held responsible for anything they inadvertently let loose. At the point in the timeline, we are in the current novels and RPG, there are whispers of some creature lurking in the shadows with metallic teeth, but it’s generally hand waved and chalked up to paranoia and the ravings of fanatical cultists.”

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Keeping the Alien EU Firmly Canon

Čarija has almost supernatural knowledge of the Alien universe — she was invaluable to me when writing Colony War, and Alex White sang her praises in their acknowledgments to Into Charybdis.

“I don’t know. She’s like a freaking android or something. I’ve never met anyone like her,” they say of Čarija. Philippa Ballantine adds, “I can only think she is in fact a xeno-encyclopedia on legs. While we were plotting out Inferno’s Fall, she came up with so many ideas it was a joy. I know she’s a collector on a large scale of anything to do with the series.”

“My mind plagues me with questions, and I want to find out the reasons and how they fit into the narrative,” says Clara Čarija by way of explanation. “I think it started with me and my friend Mike trying to translate David’s drawings, trying to understand David’s drive. Then understand the storyline of Weyland and how he essentially set in motion the universe as we know it over a hundred years and how many stories does that timeline hold that doesn’t contain the alien, but what other stories can it tell about us and the human condition. How can themes in the film or a book or a comic convey that feeling of Alien? How is it inspired by high art, poetry, and our current human struggles and how would that translate into the future.”

For Andrew E.C. Gaska, the magic came in tying up all the diverse threads and characters from the various media into a cohesive whole. “It’s the basis of everything I’ve done for Alien,” he says. “Between my franchise consultant work at 20th Century Fox and developing the setting for the RPG, it has been my goal to help coordinate the expanded universe releases—video games, novels, any other media—to interact with each other to present a unified universe. 

“One of my tasks at Fox was to put together a canon tier list for all releases. The period these novels and the game take place in draws upon the 40-year legacy of the franchise—there are so many interesting stories and ideas to tap into and expand.  I reached out to Cold Iron Studios and Titan to bring elements of the RPG into their releases and vice versa. Fans want a coherent universe they feel they know, and outside of Star Wars, this is rarely done with different licensors on a single license.”

Andrew E.C. Gaska, writer of Alien: The Roleplaying Game and Alien franchise consultant.

And that has laid the groundwork for these interconnected novels. Philippa Ballantine says, “Clara and I definitely went out of our way to weave in threads from the extended universe. We even had a conversation with Cold Iron, to bring in some pieces from what they’ve done with Fireteam Elite. The most fun however was bringing in characters from the comics, and other novels. We’re pretty proud of the Easter eggs in the book, and can’t wait to see when people find them.”

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Loving the Alien?

Whether political intrigue, all-out war, or humanity’s inhumanity to itself forms the backdrop of an Alien novel, at its heart there will always be the Xenomorphs, which is why any writer really wants to be gifted the opportunity to write in the universe. What is interesting is how different writers tackle them, and what they think the Aliens’ ultimate purpose or destiny is within the wider framework. Can anyone envisage a future where humans and Xenomorphs are not on opposite sides?

“I think the Xenomorphs could be the key to unlocking a host of important scientific discoveries, but that possession of one is utter hubris,” says Alex White. “They always get out. They breed at an alarming rate and can adapt to almost anything. Their extremophilic nature ensures that they’re hard to exterminate.

“However, we currently have much scarier biological and conventional weapons on the planet, ghost guns are printable and garage gene hacking is already underway. While the Xenomorphs are bad news, I have to question how much worse they actually are than something we’ve already made or are in the process of making. Is it better to be overrun by x-rays, or slowly suffocate as we poison the world our children are to inhabit?

“Both outcomes, of course, would be the result of corporate governance.”

Philippa Ballantine says, “The Xeno intelligence, which seems to mostly reside in a Queen, does not care for humans. They are merely a container for the young. That is their only purpose in the colony. Unless the xenos change how they grow, that isn’t likely to be any different. However, as squishy and useful as humans are, never entirely count them out. If they can use their intelligence to adapt a xenomorph into a dog, they’ll give it a go. Just look what happened to the wolf. Also, humans are a pretty voracious and cunning species themselves.”

Alien: The Roleplaying Game, the core rulebook, and the most recent expansion, Heart of Darkness. A new scenario by Andrew E.C. Gaska, Heart of Darkness is currently available for pre-order and expected to ship this summer. | Free League, 2019/2022

For Clara Čarija, the Xenomorphs are a force of nature, “and you cannot control nature”. She adds, “Humans go into space and terraform and change things to suit their desires draining planets and moons of their natural resources. Then you have the Alien, is survival is based on evolving with the current flora or fauna and creating a strong hybrid to challenge the native species and become the default, that’s how it chooses to proliferate. Which is more deadly or capitalistic, obviously it’s humans, we can travel between stellar bodies and spread the Alien, if humans just left them alone they wouldn’t be a threat. The real threat is humans. I also think the only way humans could survive Aliens is to just leave them alone, but that’s like asking all countries to give up their nuclear weapons, they won’t.”

Andrew E.C. Gaska agrees: “The motivations of the Xenomorphs should never be clear—just when you think you know where they came from or what they are doing they throw us a biological curve—a new stage in their life cycle or variance that doesn’t act like what we were led to believe.

“Sometimes they loom over you and offer a quick gory death, but sometimes they move in for the kill, nudge you, and leave instead, forcing you to wonder what’s wrong with you. Whether they are created by beings called engineers or an insane android doesn’t matter—they are a force of nature in the universe no different than a storm or a volcano.”

Andrew E.C. Gaska, writer of Alien: The Roleplaying Game and Alien franchise consultant.

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David Barnett is an author, journalist and comic book writer. He writes novels, including Alien: Colony War for Titan and The Handover for Orion, journalism for a wide range of outlets including The Guardian and The Independent, and comics for DC, IDW, 2000AD and more. He lives in West Yorkshire but remains devoutly Lancastrian.

Twitter: @davidmbarnett 

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