To fans of inventive science fantasy tales, Alex White is best known as the writer of the Salvagers trilogy: A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe, A Bad Deal For The Whole Galaxy, and The Worst Of All Possible Worlds. But to fans of the Alien and Aliens movie, White is known for their extended universe novel Alien: The Cold Forge. Well, for the moment, anyway. Going forward, Smith will also be known for their second foray into xenomorphic fiction, Alien: Into Charybdis (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Smith explains what inspired this new bug hunt, how it connects to their previous one, and how writing them influenced their original novels, and vice versa.
To start, what is Alien: Into Charybdis about?
I will never do as good of a job here as the backmatter. Can we just use that?
“‘Shy’ Hunt and the tech team from McAllen Integrations thought it was an easy job: set up environmental systems for the brand new Hasanova Data Solutions colony, built on the abandoned ruins of a complex known as ‘Charybdis.’ There are just two problems: the colony belongs to the Iranian state, so diplomacy is strained at best, and the complex is located above a series of hidden caves. Charybdis has a darker history than any could imagine, and its depths harbor deadly secrets. Until their ship can be refueled, the McAllen team is trapped there. The deeper they dig, the more Shy is convinced there’s no one they can believe. When a bizarre ship lands on a nearby island, one of the workers is attacked by a taloned creature, and trust evaporates between the Iranians and Americans. The McAllen Integrations crew are imprisoned, accused as spies, but manage to send out a distress signal…to the Colonial Marines.”
And when in relation to both the movies and the novels — including your previous Alien novel, The Cold Forge — does it take place?
Alien: Into Charybdis takes place in 2184, 5 years after the events of Aliens, Alien 3, and The Cold Forge. 2179 as it turned out, was a big year in the Aliens universe.
Where did you get the initial idea for Alien: Into Charybdis?
Like The Cold Forge, Alien: Into Charybdis is designed to be in conversation with the movies. One of my mainstay principles is to assume that anyone reading my books is going to be a superfan of the movies — which means they’ll know all the tricks. So when I wrote The Cold Forge, I often tried to deliver the Alien film experience. It seemed to me that Ridley Scott had an auteur’s vision, and I hoped to mimic it. I wanted the book to be tight and tense, claustrophobic and terrifying.
Alien: Into Charybdis was designed to talk to the second film, Aliens. I know you’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it, and most of us thoroughly love it. The film has rightfully scored top marks in so many action categories, it’s ridiculous. Like Alien, I can’t beat it at its own game, but I can use the tropes it contains to throw curve balls. I wanted to capture the feeling of watching Aliens for the first time, but bring some new concepts. The first film was so cynical about corporate life, yet the second film painted military life as almost fun (until they all died, of course). It introduced Burke — the sleazy-yet-ineffective suit that spawned the concept for Dorian [the main character in Alien: Cold Forge] — but its critical eye stopped at the corporate level. How could I involve the Colonial Marines in a new way? What human influences do they have to contend with?
And what the heck is a “charybdis”? Or did your cat just jump on your keyboard and you thought it looked cool?
So I was on Google, and the cat jumped on the keyboard, just as you said. When I Googled what came out, however, it happened to be an ancient Greek sea monster.
One of my favorite horror movies of all time is The Ring. I like the American version a lot, and the image that stuck with me was the well. I liked what it represented, thematically. I learned about these various whirlpool drains in nature where the water is constantly flushing away, like Devil’s Kettle Falls. Lastly, I have a fear of sinkholes, having lived many years in Limestone County, Alabama.
Anyway, the idea of a body, falling to the bottom of a rushing whirlpool, only to be beaten to death by the grinding rocks of an underground river — well that’s scary as hell. Now put some aliens in it.
Yikes. Now, everything Alien is a science fiction story, but this series encompasses other genres as well, including horror and military sci-fi. Aside from being sci-fi, what other genres does Alien: Into Charybdis include?
If I had to label it, I’d say horror and military sci-fi, but those don’t quite capture the feel. It’s written from the perspective of a group of people living and working in a spectacular industrial site. So it’s a lot of blue collar/ white collar / military crossover. It’s a dark space opera with Caterpillar bulldozer in it. These people aren’t space pirates. They’re roughnecks and engineers, scientists and managers, officers and enlisted.
Alien: Into Charybdis is your second Alien novel after The Cold Forge. Aside from the xenomorphs, are there any narrative connections between them?
Alien: Into Charybdis was written to be stand-alone. If you’ve read The Cold Forge, however, you will get an entirely different layer of the story. I like to make references, so they’re related, but not required. I want people to feel like they can jump into my books easily, so I didn’t want to make a sequel.
Alien: Into Charybdis is your seventh novel overall. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Alien: Into Charybdis but not on The Cold Forge or any of your other novels?
Not really? I mean, I’m always influenced by what I’m reading at the time, but I’m not sure I could put my finger on it.
And how about non-literary influences; was Alien: Into Charybdis influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Aside from the Alien ones, of course.
Yeah! I used to shoot video as an industrial photographer back in the day, for corporate documentaries and (occasionally) Modern Marvels. The things that I saw in the course of that job made me feel forever small. I love capturing the scale of a huge crane or a tension leg platform — it was like being on the set of The Abyss.
One of the interesting things about Alien: Into Charybdis is that, in writing it, you consulted a geologist, a biologist, a physicist, a Persian consultant, and someone who’s been the deck officer on a container ship. Did any of these people have a particularly big influence on this story?
All of them. I workshopped story elements with every single expert in ways that altered the flow and feel of the book. There are quite a few geological factoids in there, along with a decent understanding of intermodal docking procedures. The Iranian / Persian consultants were absolutely critical to nailing authenticity, not to mention the numerous military veterans who consulted.
Along with Alien: Into Charybdis, you also have a Star Trek novel coming out in December called Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Revenant. But you don’t just write novels set in other peoples’ fictional universes. Last year you released The Worst Of All Possible Worlds, the third and final novel of your Salvagers trilogy [which you can read more about here and here]. How does writing licensed novels like Alien: Into Charybdis influence your original stories?
There’s a strong brandmark on the world of Alien, and the aesthetic is undeniable. That alters the way I have to write in the same way that choosing a different instrument to compose with changes the resultant composition. You get a different set of objectives and priorities, different colors, different music to put into people’s heads. It’s a whole different mental palette, playing with licensed IP.
Working in that mode teaches you the strengths of other people’s styles, and you can take them back home with you. My third Salvagers novel, The Worst Of All Possible Worlds, contains a space horror sequence, and it’s nice and disturbing because I’d already written The Cold Forge.
And then, on the flipside, how do you think writing original novels like The Worst Of All Possible Worlds influenced Alien: Into Charybdis?
It makes me want to experiment more. Having the freedom to do anything on some books means that I always want to put my mark on them. When I start writing licensed novels, I can’t forget that feeling, and I start getting pretty experimental. I can’t stand the idea of writing a book that’s not identifiably mine, though I don’t know if I’ll always be able to uphold that standard.
Basically, I want to write an Alex White Alien book, or an Alex White Star Trek book. I need to put a unique spin.
So after Revenant, are you going to be writing something original or something licensed?
Original. I’ve already turned in the first book in my new fabulous space opera, but the publisher hasn’t agreed on a title yet, so I can’t say the name. It’s for Orbit, however, and I’m working again with Brit Hvide, one of the greatest editors in the business today.
Sweet. We’ve talked a lot about Alien: Into Charybdis and its connection to the movies. But do you think Alien: Into Charybdis could work as an Alien movie? Or would it work better as a TV show or game?
It’d be amazing as all of those, but I think it would work best as a TV show or board game. There are a few POV characters, and they all have lots of motivations and maneuvers of their own. I’d like to see them well developed and each given lots of screen time.
And if someone wanted to make Alien: Into Charybdis into a TV show — y’know, if they weren’t already making an Alien TV show — who would you want them to cast as Shy and Kamran and why them?
For Shy, Ashley Benson, because Spring Breakers was a genuinely disturbing movie, so she can pull off a horror lead no problem. For Kamran, Dominic Rains [Chicago Med], because he’s gorgeous, and I think he could handle the sensitive, do-good science type.
Finally, if someone enjoys Alien: Into Charybdis, they’ll probably go back and read The Cold Forge. But once they’ve done that, which of the Alien novels that someone else wrote would you suggest they read next?
Awww, don’t make me play that game! I suppose I’d recommend Scott Sigler’s Alien: Phalanx, because it’s a major twist on the Alien formula, and I dig risky stories.
Truthfully, all of the Alien authors at Titan are working hard to bring new dimensions to the series. It’s a good time to be an Alien fan.