Memories of Nostromo: Jussi’s story


W-Y TRANSMITTAL PROTOCOL 1809246(09)/JM
>> BEGIN TRANSMISSION…


Jussi Myllyluoma (aka Vader) is an Alien fan I met on the Nostromo boards at Propsummit. He brings a very informed perspective to the discussion about the internal spaces of the Nostromo, and is able to illustrate his ideas quite graphically. He shares some intriguing theories about the Nostromo in his essay. Jussi lives in Sweden.

 

 

Spaceships and science fiction have been a major passion for me literally as far as I can remember, back to the age of three of four or thereabouts. So, when Space: 1999 broadcast on Swedish television back in the mid-70’s, I was of course utterly hooked. When Star Trek followed a couple of years after I was no less intrigued. And when Star Wars hit right after that, I was in Nirvana.

 

As for Alien, I first heard about the movie from a classmate back in fifth grade. His big brother had been to the US and seen this utterly fascinating movie… The version the kid brother narrated was of course in retrospect … well, barely recognisable, really … but when the movie found its way to Sweden, I soon recognised it from what I’d heard.

 

 

I was far too young myself at the time to be let into the movie theatres to see it, but fortunately, the Heavy Metal comic adaptation was released in Swedish at the same time. I read it about a million times. Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation … left me a bit wanting. It is, as a side note, interesting to note how the fact that the Big Chap’s design was unknown to Foster when he wrote it alters the flavour of the story quite significantly. Giger’s designs add so much more than mere visual flavour; they somehow become an integral part of the story itself.

 

 

Back in those days – when Betamax was the new big thing, VHS hadn’t quite entered the picture, and rental video hadn’t been invented yet (at least in Sweden) – the only ways to see film were either in movie theatres or on one of the two state-run TV channels we Swedes were permitted access to. Swedish public service did sometimes pick up films a few years after they’d been shown in theatres, but it was felt that Sci-Fi in general was (a) for children, (b) culturally subversive, and (c) politically incorrect – a minor miracle that they’d sent Space: 1999 and Star Trek – but broadcasting a Sci-Fi horror movie was simply not in the charts. So I had to wait.

 

 

By the early 80’s, home video rental agencies started cropping up all over the place, but for some incomprehensible reason, it was to be several years before Alien was released on video in Sweden. I did however find it on VHS during a trip to England – where, unlike Sweden, you could actually buy movies! – so I brought it home. It was pan-and scan (letterbox wide screen was for some reason unpopular in those days), and VHS quality was what it was, but at least I finally saw it!

Fortunately, in those days, during the summer months when there weren’t many new movies going up, the movie theatres ran re-runs of earlier releases. That way, when Alien came by a second time and I was old enough to be let in, I finally saw it the way it was meant to be seen – on the big screen, in its full Cinemascope glory … only some seven-or-so years after its first release.

 

 

In a parallel development, around 1981 I discovered role-playing games – the original, table-top pen-and-paper type. My parents gave me FGU’s Space Opera for Christmas one year, and in my gaming group we also played Traveller. One of the things that these games taught me about space ships was that deck plans are important. To really wrap your head around a spaceship – never mind to imagine yourself on board one, the very point of role-playing – you need to have a sense of what it looks like and how you move about it inside. Just the deck plan views weren’t sufficient; you need an elevation section as well, to understand how the decks stack up.

 

 

So, I amused myself by drawing deck plans for ships to these various games. I bought every single deck plan compilation I could get my hands on … you could say I collected space ship deck plans. And cut-through diagrams, and drawings, and…

I started reading genre literature, everything from Sci-Fi novels by authors like Heinlein, Anderson, Niven … later on CJ Cherryh and David Drake, even later David Weber, and so forth … to stuff like Cowley’s “Terran Trade Authority” art anthology/story books; I saw pretty much every single Sci-Fi movie and TV show that crossed the Swedish border …more, more, still I wasn’t satisfied…

 

 

And always, whenever spaceships entered the picture, somewhere at the back of my mind was the thought – what does this look like inside? How do the descriptions line up?

At a fairly early point, inevitably, it started bothering me how little thought people put into how their ship designs meshed with the sets, or the narrative. The earliest and in many ways most glaring example is of course the Eagle Transporter’s cockpit in Space: 1999. How do you get the windows, the door, and the pilot positions in the model to mesh with the set? You can’t. It’s impossible. Notwithstanding the fact that the Eagle is one of the most brilliant spacecraft designs throughout screen history … that just annoyed the hell out of me.

Still does.

 

Terran Trade Authority Avery ‘Hornet’

 

Likewise, how well do the ship illustrations in “Spacecraft 2000 to 2100 AD” fit the actual descriptions, really? (For those unfamiliar with the “Terran Trade Authority” books, they collected a bunch of starship paintings, mainly cover art from various novels, by artists like Jim Burns, Chris Foss, Angus McKie, Peter Ellison, and a bunch of others, and wove them together into a more-or-less cohesive science fiction narrative. A massive influence on a 12-year old me.) The “Avery Hornet”, for instance … it’s presented as an interceptor, but to me, the implied scale of the picture is more suggestive of a small ship like a frigate, or even a destroyer. And the ship’s “angled upper laserlances” … were they really intended to be interpreted as actually being angled as the artwork suggested, or was that merely and illusion created by the picture’s greatly exaggerated perspective? How does the geometry fit?

And speaking of miss-fit geometry – don’t even get me started on the Millennium Falcon…

 

 

Continuity – making ships and gadgets and vehicles add up both in terms of geometry and function, rationalising future technologies within the framework of my own understanding of physics and other sciences, postulating future scientific breakthroughs to explain what we see, using my knowledge of how anything from machinery, equipment, vehicles … to military operations, political systems, historical processes work today or have worked in the past to piece together a plausible story for the future … stuff like that has preoccupied my mind since forever.

That’s one of the things I’ve always loved with Star Trek. It actually seems that quite a lot of the time, they do put some thought into how deck plans fit into the models, and how the sets fit into the deck plans. Consequently, you’ve been able to get detailed deck plans of basically every incarnation of the Enterprise since the original one, and they mostly do not contradict what we see on-screen.

I’ve always felt that Michael Okuda got my perfect job…

 

Michael Okuda (c. 1987)

 

Not that I am exactly complaining as it is … I am a mechanical engineer and a historian (don’t ask … just … don’t) by training; so of course, with such an … eclectic background, I’ve obviously worked my whole professional life in electronics, where else. Most of it as a fairly high profile thermal management specialist. But having somehow acquired a knack for thinking outside the box has involved me in some rather interesting projects along the years, such as for instance the Adaptiv IR “Predator camouflage” system for tanks and AFV’s, to which the patents list me as one of the two co-inventors.

In other words, in a sense, I get to play around with creating the future already today…

So … the Nostromo.

 

Frame from Alien: The Illustrated Story (1979) by writer Archie Goodwin and artist Walter Simonson.

 

The Heavy Metal comic did give me a sense that we’re talking about a really fascinating design here, but didn’t provide much detail, so it wasn’t until I actually saw the movie that I started really reflecting on it. And needless to say, the way the relative scales of the ship miniatures and the close-up sets of Narcissus’s underwing garage, and the positions of the Kane burial airlock and the main airlock … just don’t add up … has had me climbing up walls ever since…

Back in those early days, somewhere about 1980, I came by the book “21st Century Foss” by Chris Foss. It featured a chapter with early concept art for Alien … and obviously, designs very different from what I knew from the comic. And also, the ship name “Leviathan”. This was my first exposure to the fact that there was a bit more of a backstory to the story than met the eye…

As I have delved further into the design, and over the years also encountered the concept work created by Ron Cobb, I have begun to understand the history of how “deep space commercial vessel ‘Snark’” became “modified Lockheed Bison transporter ‘Leviathan’”, became “commercial towing vehicle ‘the Nostromo’”, with all the various phases in between. One does have to wonder how many widely divergent concepts for the ship Foss actually turned in, in the end…?

 

21st Century Foss (1978). Chris Foss

 

It has become very clear to me is that all of these ships … are very different ships. It is a bit like the space trucker story concept started off with a Transit van, continued with a flatbed, and ended up with a tow rig.

One of the things I’ve seen happening in the fan base is that, with the utter dearth of solid information available on the Nostromo, people scrounge what they can find … and to be quite frank, with the history of the design being what it is, there’s actually a whole lot more to be found on Cobb’s Leviathan concept than on the final Nostromo. With the consequence that some, consciously or unconsciously, take Cobb’s captions from the Leviathan sketches as canonical sources for the Nostromo … which obviously they aren’t, nor were ever meant to be. It’d be a lot like taking the sliding cargo door from the aforementioned Transit van and shoehorning it into the tow rig, in my view.

None of which prevents assertions like “Nostromo’s cargo holds” (from the Leviathan being a transport ship) … “Nostromo being a retrofitted troop carrier” (the ‘modified transporter’ taking on a life of its own, I suspect) … “Nostromo’s thrust tunnels” (mentioned in one of Cobb’s Leviathan drawings) … what have you … from floating around in discussions as forgone conclusions, of course. For my own part though, I try to restrict myself strictly to what is seen or heard on-screen.

 

 

Same thing with features mentioned in earlier drafts of the script. In a desire to add character to a ship nobody really can know very much about, features such as the observation dome – frequently also depicted in concept art for the earlier ships – tend to find their way in.

But the way I see it, as none of the edits of the film contain an observation dome scene, no observation dome set was ever built, there is no obvious observation dome on any of the models – in fact, the observation dome scenes from the earlier script were all moved to the shuttle Narcissus in the later versions (the love scene however never made it further than Sigourney Weaver’s screen test) … well, to me, this means no observation dome.

It does bear underscoring though – I really do need spacecraft to add up. It is just part of my psychology, I suppose. Plus … perhaps more importantly, actually … I find it’s a lot more fun that way.

The kind of discrepancies production designers not seldom leave us with start to chafe at the back of my mind, and I will keep rubbing at them … scratching them … worrying at them … until I’ve smoothed them down, either by – as with the Narcissus garage scale – coming to grips with that the problem is fundamentally unsolvable and leaving it be with some minor compromise somewhere, or – much preferably – by finding a solution that actually satisfies the equation and allows the geometry to converge.

 

 

To me, what is on-screen is and must be the guiding principle. Not only what is seen, but what is not seen. A left turn is a left turn, to begin with – I can’t make it into a right turn just to suit my fancy. But also, if features that might be there or might not, that reasonably should be used or mentioned or at least glimpsed on-screen in some proper context if they were present … aren’t, I feel it must be assumed they do not exist.

I mean, the functional logic of the Nostromo dictates that she must, just for instance, have a power plant of some sort. It is never seen or mentioned, but it is absolutely necessary – without it the ship is unable to function – and so we must assume it is there, somewhere. Of what kind and where, we must use other means to determine.

By contrast, assuming that the Nostromo has e.g. an elevator somewhere would give us a convenient short cut to explain how Kane, while in spacesuit, gets to the infirmary. However, it is not necessary – the hoisting of items between decks can easily enough be solved by other means. Instead however, if there were an elevator, one would expect to see it used by crew to move around instead of bothering with those bloody ladders. Add to this the fact that ships of similar type – large commercial vessels – that today ply the world’s oceans only have gangways, not elevators, and the conclusion that elevators won’t be found on the Nostromo becomes to me very easy, and totally inevitable.

 

 

One of my worst and most persistent enemies in discussing the Nostromo with fellow fans has been the sets. Or rather, to be precise, the studio’s drawings for the sets.

I mean, as everybody knows, a movie set is built in order to be a convenient place to shoot the scenes you need to make the movie, and that’s all. In the case of the Alien sets, they built a cluster of corridors and junctions and rooms that they could use to represent different places, with a bit of re-dressing make to look like entirely different compartments or parts of the ship. And so, the bridge and the Narcissus are the same space in the set; the infirmary and the engineering control room likewise.

So far, so good.

But it turns out that in building the deck plans of the “actual” Nostromo – the movie’s in-world starship – disassociating one’s mindset from the set plans is not always quite as easy as one might think.

There is evidence in the movie e.g. that the bridge must be on a deck above the infirmary, even though on the set, these locations were only a couple of corridors apart. For instance, in the extended version of the movie, we see Ripley, just seen on the bridge, descend a ladder to arrive at the infirmary.

 

 

Unfortunately however, just looking at them, the set plans are awfully suggestive of deck plans … meaning that quite often, we sort of revert to the foregone conclusion that these two compartments are on the same deck. To the point where it is sometimes easier to create some unseen off-screen errand for Ripley that prompts her to take a roundabout route than to break the sets apart.

Just to be very clear about this: the ship that Sir Ridley and Mr. O’Bannon in the end left us with is a complete mess. Making sense of it is by necessity a process – a process of choices, eliminations, prioritisations, even preferences. In the end, we all make up our own Nostromos. So, if somebody feels that the best way to make the ship make sense is for it to try to incorporate every concept and draft that preceded the final version, or to treat all of the scarce information that the production has provided us with as canonical, with the possible inclusion of the set drawings, that’s fine!

That isn’t my Nostromo, though.

When I’ve drawn my deck plans of the ship, I’ve wanted to do what Barbara Strachey once did for the Lord of the Rings fandom in “Journeys of Frodo”: draw a map that allows you to draw a red line, scene by scene, tracking every shot and pan of every character throughout the entire story, without in the end leaving anything unaccounted for. Hopefully.

 

 

But a bit more than that: around this map, I also wanted to build a plausible hyperspace tug. This has meant adding stuff never seen or even hinted at, but that is necessary to make the ship work, and to connect different parts of the ship – for instance, how do you get from the Engineering control room to the galley? Without – importantly – adding something that, if there, inevitably would have been mentioned or seen at some point, such as an elevator, or a second shuttle.

So, if I now reject all the information that precedes the movie itself, whether it be concept art, script drafts, or whatever, as irrelevant for the movie’s ship – what do I see when I look at the Nostromo? What is “my” Nostromo?

Well, the very first irrefutable, canonical fact we learn about the setting Alien takes place in – at least, right after “hey, we’re in space” and “oh look, there’s a ship” – is the caption “commercial towing vehicle ‘the Nostromo’”. And that is where pretty much everything else springs from, in my mind. That, and one piece of off-screen information that film makers have provided us with: Sir Ridley describing his vision for the milieu as “truckers in space”.

So the Nostromo, then, is a deep space towing ship; very much like our current real-world deep-sea ocean tugs. However, it has never seemed likely to me that she should be able to actually, physically tow the payload – big as she is, next to the refinery, she’s still but a mosquito.

What this suggests to me is that the Nostromo must be a hyperspace tug – the unit to contain the hyperspace generator; vastly oversized to be able to envelop something as huge as the towed payload in its bubble. So, all thrusters and antigrav systems to move the payload in realspace are on board the payload, and the Nostromo’s contribution as a towing vehicle is one huge hyperspace generator.

So, to my mind, all the Nostromo is must basically be just a ridiculously oversize hyperdrive along with the necessary systems and subsystems to power it, support it, and to move it around in realspace – with only a bare minimum of accommodation for anything else, such as the crew – all crammed into the smallest shell practical.

And this starts defining the geometric constraints for us: the by far largest feature of the ship, occupying by far the largest volume of the ship’s hull, must be the hyper generator, because that is the one feature, the single function, that the entire ship is built around.

And fortunately, we are given these in the movie: we see the vast cathedral-like engineering space that the control room overlooks – clearly this, then, must be the hyper generator. And the Nostromo’s hull has a very distinctly bulging midsection that even extends upwards towards the docking socket and sideways towards the nacelles – clearly this, then, must be the hyper generator’s housing.

Everything else sort of … follows.

My driving philosophy in reverse engineering the Nostromo from the on-screen evidence only does get me into trouble sometimes, though. For instance, since the planetoid landing sequences – only, n.b. – show four huge floodlights at the aft of the ship, I have literally had no choice but to figure out a way for the ship to have four huge floodlights that can be conveniently stowed away.

Sometimes the trouble turns out to have much wider ramifications however. Since I place the “L3” airlock that is used for Kane’s burial on the side of the main hull, I somehow have to account for the body shooting out of the hull on a lateral vector, but in the next shot passing underneath the Narcissus on a longitudinal vector. Physically … not easy to explain.

Now, my sense of elegance does not allow me to go for something crude like saying that the body, off-screen, ricochets like a flipper ball between the nacelle and the main hull before the next shot when we see it again, now on its final vector.

Instead, I have needed to figure out something about how the Alien universe’s hyperspace technology works. I therefore postulate that hyperspace transition must entail a very long period, a couple of days most likely, of extreme acceleration at several dozen m/s2 before a hyperspace bubble can form. This is the only solution that I can think of that would solve the geometry.

Fortunately though, this explanation also accounts for another mystery: why Ripley, when escaping the Nostromo, uses the Narcissus’s tiny bow thrusters to back away from the ship the long way (having to also clear the enormous payload) instead of using the quad of much bigger main thruster to shoot away forwards – and why these insignificant thrusters seem to impart such enormous velocity in no time at all. But if the bow thrusters actually only break the contact between the Narcissus and the Nostromo’s inertial compensation field, it would in fact be the hyperdrive acceleration pushing the Nostromo away from the Narcissus at a fantastic rate, instead of the other way around.

Equation satisfied.

And so the work goes on.

 


TRANSMITTAL PROTOCOL 1809246(09)/JM
>> END TRANSMISSION…


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