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Professional Geek & Horror Nerd: An Interview with S.D. Perry

Professional Geek & Horror Nerd: An Interview with S.D. Perry

When One Giant Read reviewed The Complete Aliens Omnibus Volume 3 recently, one story really haunted us.

Like a scuttling facehugger on a drifting shuttle S.D. Perry's dark and dangerous take on xenomporph lore The Labryinth lurks around the imagination for days.

We caught up with the author recently to ask about her work and all other Alien things ...

OGR: Why do you think the Alien has had such a lasting cultural impact, and do think that there is a specific kind of 70s influence at work in their creation – a paranoia maybe?

SDP: Well, the first movie was brilliant. It was a jump-scare set in space with a great script and great acting and superior directing. Even if the movie had sucked, Giger’s alien was remarkable, but the movie was ground-breaking. It was one of the first “space” movies I remember where the equipment looked used, and the players weren’t shining examples of astronautic training—they were real people with jobs, basically truckers, competent but no better qualified to handle violent alien contact than any other group of truckers. They were believable—the dialogue, their quirks—well-written and awesomely cast. The Company was introduced as a corporate villain more interested in profits than personnel (hey, that seems familiar for some reason!), and one of the crew turned out not to be human, an android planted to protect Company property… Cool elements that added to the tension of the alien interaction, which to me was the meat of the story.

I wouldn’t say that the paranoia was specifically from the 70s, although I’m sure a case could be made; popular horror often reflects collective fear. Certainly Giger’s hulking phallic monster art has a kind of disco sensibility (and I mean that in a sincerely respectful way; his designs were beautiful). I think the fear that some faceless top executive/bureaucrat might not care about your life has been a dystopian trope for quite some time, although it has certainly picked up steam in the last 50 years, for obvious reasons. Ash turning out to be an android, that was a “modern” element… but it was also a very old idea thematically, a man who turns out not to be what he seems. All archetypical stuff but presented in a newer framework. Add to that a really unusual, frightening monster with a horrifying life cycle, and a powerful female lead? A female who didn’t crumble in the crunch? Whose maternal instincts—throughout the franchise—were actually a source of strength? I think that casting Ripley as a woman was a solid choice, appreciated by both sexes. Everyone agrees that she kicks ass.

I suppose I could go on about all of the movies (there was so much to appreciate about the sequel, don’t get me started), but I think the elements that hold it all together were present from the first. A terrifying monster. Real characters, suddenly out of their depth. A Company that doesn’t care if people die so long as they make money, artificial people with occasionally questionable programming, and strong female leads. Not all of the films have been entirely awesome in my opinion, but the core stuff has always been there, and remains of interest to a lot of people.

OGR: You wrote The Weyland-Yutani Report – which must have been great fun? Can you tell us a bit about that project?

It was the most research intensive project I’ve ever done, and my editor pushed me to come up with new ways to keep a reader interested, so I was constantly pitching random ideas—a report card for Newt, Hudson’s discharge papers, haiku written by one of the mad scientists in Resurrection. The timeline was a bit of a canon nightmare, but Fox wisely hired some excellent freelance geeks to fact-check me. I had to make the science sound good so I spent hours looking stuff up, and it was supposed to be canon, so I spent more hours looking stuff up, and watching the movies, and consulting fan sites. It was fun writing in the Company’s voice, I remember enjoying that. And writing journal entries or memos as the characters.

The final product was amazing to look at. Have you seen it? Damn. I wrote the words, but the imagery sells that book. I have a single copy of the collector’s edition of The Weyland-Yutani Report, and am afraid to touch it; I don’t want to leave a smudge.

OGR: You’ve also written about our other favourite fictional universe – Star Trek. Can you say a bit about your feelings for Star Trek, and any differences in your approach from the Alien world? Are there commonalities or are these two deeply different views of the future?

I don’t know how it is for other tie-in/novelization writers, but me, I’m a professional geek. I get paid to fall in love with whatever universe I’m writing in, to try to find the heart of what the fans love about it and then relay that in an entertaining way. I tend to focus on the characters. I love Aliens, I love Star Trek, so it wasn’t too difficult to embrace either; once I got over the awe part (OMG! I’m writing for SPOCK!!), the work became about how well I could relay my love of the characters, or my empathy for them as they faced adversity, or whatever, but also portray them in the manner that they are meant to be portrayed, with a plot that honours the source material.

I guess I’d say that the only constant for me, in any universe, is to respect the characters and to try to maintain their integrity, while operating within the unique confines of that character’s environment. That connects every universe for me as a professional, but specifically, I don’t think of them as connected. The trappings are too different, the stories have a very different flavour… But the characters are always consistent, because they’re people to me. Like, everyone who knows Star Trek (TOS) is going to know that Spock struggles to maintain his cool façade. Fans of DS9 know that Kira Nerys is haunted by her childhood. Fans of Alien/s know that Ellen Ripley is a practical goddamned woman, to say the least, and that she knows what’s up: trusting the Company is a BAD idea, and once the xenomorphs come out to play, the fail-safes will fail. All of these characters feel pain and fear and surprise, and they are real for the fans who care about them. So my approach to work is kind of the same across the board. I’m working with someone else’s material, so I try to do it justice and also be entertaining. When I write my own characters, I try to make people who belong to the story.

OGR: What projects are you working on just now, and what can we expect to read from you soon?

SDP: I’m currently in the middle of an original creature-feature book set in the Old West, for Cohesion Press, a very cool Australian company that does military horror and monster books. Basically it’s pioneers versus dinosaurs. Well, kind of. I should be finishing that in the next couple of months, and I think it will be out late this year or early next. Lots of action and guts in that one. Beyond that, I’ll probably have to go get another day job.

OGR: Can you tell us something about the process of writing a novelisation of a comic – the fun and the challenges – we imagine it must be similar to the process for television and film, but perhaps also different?

A very nuts and bolts question! I’ve worked from several media—TV, scripts, graphic novels, video games—and some are definitely easier than others. Adapting a comic had its ups and downs. Structurally, easy-peasy: a hundred pages of visual material that you have to turn into 300 written pages. I would break the original into thirds, and plug the action in appropriately—like, in the first third, the characters are established, the set-up, the first big event; the middle has the backstory, development of subplot(s), second big event, mayhem ensues. Final third, continued mayhem, death, destruction, survival stories and the wrap. My father, Steve Perry, taught me how to write for these shared universe novelizations: fast, clean descriptions, keep it moving, know your characters and write what they think about while they’re doing something. Valuable advice, that continues to dig me out of holes on a regular basis.

The downside to adapting visual art is that the writer has to explain things. So, while it might look great in a panel to blow something up or have some physically impossible creature appear, I had to give it a reality that made sense. Readers read because they like the extra insight, they like having the story told, and hearing what the characters have to say… I mean, I assume. There were times I had to scramble for a reasonable explanation as to how something could be, and that wasn’t always obvious or easy.

OGR: Just finally, are you looking forward to Covenant and if possible, do you have a favourite Alien movie, and why?

SDP: You know, I am looking forward to Covenant. I watched the trailers and it looks very promising.

I’m a horror nerd, like really bad—I read it and watch it constantly—so I have to go with Alien as my favourite. The sequels and prequel all tended more towards action. Aliens is an amazing picture, but the original made my dark heart go pitter-pat.

OGR: Thank you!!

SDP: You’re welcome! Thanks for asking!

The Complete Aliens Omnibus Volume Three is out now from Titan Books