After an irregular, infrequent attempt last year to kickstart this (hopefully) recurring feature here on the blog, here I am with the second installment in less than a month!
The idea is simple: I’m a tie-in writer. Before that, I was a tie-in reader. I still am, of course, but way back when? I had no idea reading such books would lead me to writing anything, let alone my own tie-in books. Weird how life works sometimes, right? And yet, here we are.
Now that I’m a regular to this somewhat misunderstood and oft-derided genre of writing, I like to look back at the works of those who preceded me; books I read as a kid and which in hindsight proved to be something of an inspiration to me. Previous installments of this feature/wannabe column have included looks back at novels based on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, Planet of the Apes, V, and Space: 1999.
You’ll note all of these are television series, and in the 1970s and 80s tie-ins to science fiction and fantasy shows were particularly commonplace, but we can’t forget about novelizations of popular genre films. I read a whole bunch of those during this same period, as well, and no conversation about the great film novelizations of this era can happen without some mention of the one and only Alan Dean Foster. Indeed, the man deserves his own conversation on this topic, which is…well…what I’m about to do here.
Now, it’s only right and proper to start things off by acknowledging Mr. Foster is a prolific author and has been for decades. He’s written something like 80 novels of original science fiction and fantasy dating back to the early 1970s. In addition to that rather sizable mountain of work, he’s also penned a number of film novelizations and tie-novels, most notably in the Star Wars and Star Trek universes. Indeed, this is how I came to know of him and his work, and why I typed this blog entry you’re currently reading.
My first exposure to Mr. Foster’s work came in the form of his adaptations of episodes from the animated Star Trek series in the mid 1970s. All told, he wrote ten volumes translating these episodes into prose form. The first six books each contained adaptations of three episodes, which he linked together to form a larger narrative for that book. By the time he got to the seventh volume, he’d novelized 18 of the show’s 22 episodes, with four more books to go on the contract. So, he did what writers do: He expanded those four remaining episodes, one per book, to the point he was pretty much creating subplots and such out of whole cloth to beef up what was a pretty lean, half-hour television script.
After the series’ initial network broadcast during 1973-74 and in a time long before home video and streaming on-demand, the animated Star Trek was hard to find on television if you didn’t have cable, so these books helped to scratch the same itch fans were already treating by reading James Blish’s novelizations of the original series episodes. Yes, we read those, too, even though reruns of the original show were on pretty much every day, somewhere.
I know Mr. Foster also wrote stories for several Star Trek “book-and-record” sets produced by Peter Pan records during this same period, but those were things I didn’t discover until well after they’d hit the market. Instead, it was his work for the Star Wars and Alien franchises that next hooked me. When Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was published in 1978, it was like manna from Heaven to this (at the time) 11-year old Star Wars fan. “From the Further Adventures of Luke Skywalker,” as the tagline read, made this feel like it was really an actual sequel to the original Star Wars film (the novelization of which carried the tag “From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker”). It’s worth noting here that during this period, I had no idea Foster ghostwrote the film’s novelization. Neither did I understand or appreciate the concept of a film or television show’s “canon” and that books of this sort rarely if ever were included in such conversations other than to say, “Those ain’t canon.” I wouldn’t be savvy to such things for many more years, at this point. Meanwhile, I just read and re-read both the Star Wars novelization and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye until their pages came tumbling out. Foster would return to that galaxy far, far away with an original Star Wars novel, The Approaching Storm in 2003, and the novelization to 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Another book that suffered similar extended attention and deterioration to the point I was required to obtain at least one fresh copy was Foster’s 1979 novelization of the original Alien film. I’d seen the movie in theaters thanks to my uncle who didn’t have any problem taking me with him to an R-rated flick (much to his sister’s…aka my mother’s displeasure. Whoops). Mom put her foot down after that and it was a long while before I saw the film again. Thankfully, there was the novelization. Holy crap, have I long ago forgotten just how many times I read that thing as a kid. Indeed, I bought a copy just a year or so ago at a used bookstore (so I wouldn’t damage the pristine replacement first edition I have lovingly tucked away) just so I could revisit it on the occasion of the movie’s 40th anniversary, and it was every bit as entertaining as I remember. If I had to pick a single Foster novelization from among several favorites, it would probably be this one. He would go on to write the adaptations for 1986’s Aliens and 1992’s Alien 3, and then return in 2017 to pen not only the novelization for Alien: Covenant but also a prequel novel to that film, Alien: Covenant – Origins.
Other Foster film novelizations of the 70s and 80s I still love to this day include Dark Star, The Thing, The Last Starfighter, and Outland. Holy hell…Outland. If you’re a fan of this flick, then you know it doesn’t take much squinting or mental gymnastics to see how it might share a bit of world-building DNA with the original Alien film. This is helped by everything from the movie’s production design to its music (the scores for both films were composed by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith), and Foster’s descriptions of the mining colony and the people who live and work there don’t necessarily shy away from comparisons to the Nostromo’s crew from Alien.
Other novelizations from this same period include The Black Hole, Clash of the Titans, Starman, and Alien Nation, but the four I mentioned above rank pretty high on my list of favorites. Years later he would contribute to both the Terminator and Transformers franchises (which I confess I never read), and outside of science fiction or fantasy films, Foster also penned an adaptation to Pale Rider, the 1985 Clint Eastwood Western. So far as I can tell, it’s the only non-SF/fantasy movie novelization he’s ever written, which I find interesting. I’m not the biggest fan of Western films, but there are several I enjoy and have watched more than once and this is one of them. While I don’t (currently?) have a copy of this book, I remember reading it back in the day because I consider the movie something of an underrated gem from Eastwood’s Western efforts. It’s one of those films I can easily rewatch when I happen across it.
Foster provided the story for 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but he didn’t return to the realm of Star Trek publication until 2009 when he penned the novelization of the J.J. Abrams film which “rebooted” Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the crew of the original U.S.S. Enterprise. According to several accounts, he was the #1 draft pick for this job by the film’s writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, based on their having enjoyed several of his earlier novelizations. Nice work if you can find it, amirite? Foster would also write the prose adaptation for the film’s sequel, 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness.
In between those two efforts, Foster was one of four writers tapped in late 2009/early 2010 to write original novels based on this new Star Trek interpretation. Those books were cancelled while still in production, even though Foster and the other writers had largely completed their respective manuscripts. However, Foster’s novel, The Unsettling Stars, was finally published in April 2020. A second of those four books, David Mack’s More Beautiful Than Death, is due out in August, while the other two were repurposed (aka, “cannibalized”) by their authors, Christopher L. Bennett and Greg Cox, for other projects.
I don’t know if Mr. Foster will contribute any more to the various franchises for which he’s written novels, or if he’ll be called upon to write any additional film novelizations. They are something of a dying art these days; a throwback to a more “innocent” time before on-demand video entertainment, but back when they were the norm? Alan Dean Foster was one of the foremost authors of such books. His numerous and enduring contributions to the tie-in field were formally recognized in 2008 with the Grandmaster Award from the International Association of Tie-In Writers.
It’s neither a lie nor even a stretch for me to tell you this man is one of the reasons I became a writer. He made working in other people’s sandboxes look cool and fun, and it’s certainly why I do it.