If there’s one constant about the Alien saga it’s that it is resilient. Although audiences have had to endure Alien 3, Alien Resurrection and two Aliens vs. Predator films (as well as the polarizing Prometheus) there is still a desire for more acid-blooded, chest-bursting action. Enter Tim Lebbon’s Alien: Out of the Shadows. The first in a new trilogy of novels from Titan Books that will be released throughout 2014, this effort aims to throw readers back into the Alien universe by presenting an adventure that dubiously takes place between the first two films.
The story concerns the Marion, a deep space mining ship whose crew is headed by Chris Hooper. The ship’s engineer, Hoop, as he is called, is forced to take command after an accident kills the captain and damages the vessel beyond repair. Making matters worse, the miners on the planet have been killed by aliens. Now, Hoop and the remaining members of his crew must figure out how to survive the bloodthirsty beasties that are now aboard the Marion via the returned dropship. They are assisted in their mission by Ellen Ripley, the sole survivor of the Nostromo whose shuttle the Nautilus has mysteriously docked aboard the Marion. Awakening after 37 years of hypersleep, Ripley is traumatized by the events of Alien, as well as recurring visions of her young daughter being murdered by the monsters.
After discovering that Ash (the scheming android from Alien whose dopey presence here is unnecessary, if not downright irritating) has been able to transfer his consciousness aboard the Marion via her shuttle, Ripley realizes that he will not rest until he captures a xenomorph for the Weyland-Yutani company to study. Determined to prevent this from happening, she and Hoop conceive of a risky plan to return to the planet below to retrieve some fuel cells needed for the Nautilus to make the long journey back to Earth. Unsurprisingly, things go horribly wrong and members of the crew meet violent ends before a final endgame with Ash and an escaped alien aboard the Marion.
To quote Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes.
It’s impossible to discuss this book without addressing the chest-bursting elephant in the room: We know that Ripley was in hypersleep from the end of the first film until the beginning of Aliens. So to have her up and about fighting legions of creatures and enduring some life-altering injuries requires some serious suspension of disbelief. In fact, Ripley’s inclusion here is the book’s biggest misstep. Unlike her film counterpart, this Ripley is a shell of her former self, plagued by paralyzing fears and insecurities that she can only overcome when story contrivances allow her to do so. The rest of the Marion’s crew doesn’t fare much better. Most characters are one-dimensional (the logical science officer, the lovable pilot, etc.), and even though he is essentially the hero of the piece, Hoop’s primary characteristics seem to be an obsession with coffee and an inability to deal with regret about abandoning his family on Earth. At times, it’s as if Lebbon himself realizes that Hoop is a low-rent Dallas or Hicks – resulting in a character that is the literary equivalent of an economy brand. Hoop’s passable, but often you’ll find yourself wishing that you had the real thing instead.
This is not to say that the book is terrible. Alien: Out of the Shadows succeeds brilliantly is in its action sequences. Lebbon is careful to avoid rehashing the films, instead crafting intense scenes rich with peril that conjure up plenty of nightmare fuel. This is most evident during an extended chase sequence on the mining planet involving a spaceship whose original inhabitants were dog-like creatures. Here he superbly doles out tension and still manages to find the time to help expand the Alien mythos in a way that succeeds far more organically than anything attempted in Prometheus (this is especially interesting giving how the author slyly references that film during this portion of the novel).
The fact that these passages are so skillfully written is frustrating because they further illuminate how creative Leddon could get if only he wasn’t tethered to Ripley and her well-established character. There’s no drama in constantly battering her as is done throughout the novel. We know that she must survive and the status quo will be restored by the time the story ends, so constantly placing her in peril is a waste of time that could be better spent developing supporting characters who serve no purpose other than being alien fodder. Even worse is the way Lebbon chooses to resolve her character arc (Spoiler alert: With a literal deus ex machina that places Ripley back aboard the Nautilus at the book’s conclusion that is so laughable you’ll find yourself re-reading it in astonishment).
Ultimately, those seeking another encounter with aliens will likely find this an inoffensive read that features a fair amount of effective scares and another visit with a character who is perhaps sci-fi’s greatest heroine. So if you are willing and able to embrace the flawed premise that Ripley had a forgotten batch of adventures, you’ll find a few hours of satisfactory reading here. As for everyone else? At least in space no one can hear you groan.
Alien: Out of the Shadows is released on January 28th by Titan Books.