AlienNation: Ellen Ripley and the Just-In-Time Workplace

Most of us think of the “Alien” tetralogy of films as being “about” the spectacularly ugly and vicious monster of the titles. Its otherness is crucial to the emotional logic of the story. It’s okay for us to hate this beast and want to kill it. We are not quite sure whether she (the beast is indisputably female, though certainly not feminine) is the same identical creature in all four films, or merely one among many matriarchs. But we know she is a killer, and deserves whatever happens to her.

But she is not the only constant element in the tetralogy; there are two others. First is the stalwart, stubborn, ingenious Ellen Ripley, who takes on the monster, time and again, and wins one temporary victory after another. Her relationship with the monster becomes, after a while, familiar and even intimate. She comes to know it better than anyone else can.

The most important recurring character in the tetralogy, however, is the Company. We know little about it. We may not even know its name. For sure we never see its annual report to shareholders, its prospectus, or a list of its board of directors. We are not quite sure what goods and services it deals in, though we are quite clear that space travel and colonization are essential to its business.

The first “Alien” is essentially a shipboard saga. Naming the space freighter “Nostromo” is a pointed link to that genre. And the main point of a shipboard story is that the ship is a world in itself. Usually, the Captain plays God. Here, the Captain lasts only partway through the story, and the role of the divinity is really assigned to the Company, which has created the ship, set it in motion, and planned its mission, including certain components known only to its on-board robotic representative.

In the first installment, the crew’s relationship with the Company is filled with the usual blue-collar griping and premature counting of shares and bonuses. We know that the crew spends most of their interstellar travel time in suspended animation. We know, as the series rolls on, that Ellen sleeps through her own daughter’s death (and presumably most of her life), and, at the beginning of the third installment, we learn that she has also slept though the death of the child she “adopts” in the second installment.

In the fourth installment, we find that Ripley has survived not only the deaths of her real and surrogate daughters, but also her own death. Like the monster, she has become for all practical purposes immortal. But, while the monster keeps dying and being reborn for its own beastly purposes, Ripley is cloned and resurrected by the Company, to make use of her unique familiarity with the monster. Hers is the ultimate case of “owing my soul to the Company store.”

We never see Ripley, or any of the other crew members, awake and off duty. On board or off, they are always either on Company business or in suspended animation. This is the ultimate example of the “just-in-time workforce.” When the company needs them–even if they have died in the meantime–they are available. When it doesn’t, they are dead, or as good as dead, and presumably cost the Company virtually nothing.

This is the scariest aspect of the series, when you think about it. We are unlikely to meet the Monster, or any of her progeny, in the course of our daily lives. But we spend most of our waking hours with the Company, or organizations that aspire to become the Company. And we spend most of our waking hours becoming the “just-in-time workforce,” available when needed and near-dead (isn’t that what unemployment means in this culture?) when not.

On the other hand, this is also the most optimistic aspect of the series. We can’t kill the Monster, but we can start seriously working on dismantling the Company, and it’s about time we did.

Red Emma

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