Review – “Alien: River of Pain” by Christopher Golden

The final book in Titan’s new “Alien” series concludes the trilogy with a bang. Combining new story with established threads, it gives our old friend Ellen Ripley another brief outing and tells the story of Hadley’s Hope: the doomed colony of LV-426 that features in the “Aliens” film. This is a great idea for a novel and Christopher Golden delivers it in style.

Alien River of PainIf you’re reading this, I’m sure you’re familiar with James Cameron’s 1986 classic in which Ellen Ripley – fresh from her nightmare aboard the Nostromo – accompanies a squad of wisecracking marines to a remote colony after communication has been lost. As this was shortly after the investigation of a downed alien ship, it’s pretty obvious what’s happened to everyone, but in the original theatrical cut, we never actually laid eyes on the colony until the military arrive with Ripley in tow.

The “Director’s Cut” added almost 20 minutes to the film, some of which provided a glimpse of life in Hadley’s Hope before it was infested by xenomorphs. The opinion of fans and critics is mixed on this. Some people prefer the faster pace and increased mystery of the original, but I loved these added segments. “River of Pain” takes the next step, and tells the whole brutal story of the colony’s demise from start to finish.

The book begins with plot-lines and scenes of dialogue lifted from the first two films: Ripley on the Nostromo, being rescued from hypersleep, and meeting the slimy “Company” mouthpiece Carter Burke. These are perfectly realised on to the page, and act as both a plot refresher and a bit of ominous, nostalgic fun.

The action soon focuses on LV-426 and Rebecca “Newt” Jorden, one of the few survivors of “Aliens”. She lives with her brother, Tim, and parents Russell and Anne who work as wildcatters: colonists who scavenge the planet’s surface with certain rights of salvage. They’re a typical and perfectly credible family, troubled by domestic issues yet bonded by the circumstance of their tough colonial existance on this storm-lashed slab of rock.

As well as the colonists, there are marines stationed at Hadley’s Hope, and these are led by new arrival Captain Demian Brackett. He’s a fair and likeable bloke, but despite being a hardened and experienced soldier, he struggles to assert himself with some of his new squad. His gruff marines are made up of some honourable, professional types, but also those who spell nothing but trouble and don’t like this new boy turning up and telling them what to do. Some of them are just there to be future alien fodder, naturally, but the marines we get to know stand out by their strong voices and the true colour of their hearts.

Demian also has an old love interest in Anne Jorden, with whom he had a relationship many years ago, and also develops a friendship with young Newt. Despite the deep-space setting of this book, the issues these people face – family and relationship troubles, hassles at work – are so normal that it’s very easy to invest and empathise.

The Company (Weyland-Yutani) are represented in the form of a science team who – and stop me if you’ve heard this before – are determined to secure their alien research and specimens at any cost. And we wouldn’t want it any other way. The scientists frequently lock horns with Captain Brackett, who regards them with the suspicion they deserve, yet one of them – Dr Hidalgo – lacks the usual ruthlessness of most company employees. She possesses a conscience that cannot dismiss people as expendable which adds a nice element of ambivalence to the Company’s presence this time around.

I really enjoyed “River of Pain”. The pace is gentle with anticipation at first but the tension soon builds, and once Newt and her family take a heavy crawler to the remote coordinates of the crashed alien vessel (as featured in the Director’s Cut) things really start to crank up. There’s a numbing inevitability as it spirals out of control and it makes for a tense read as the marines and colonists attempt to protect themselves from the horde. We’re treated to some very tight action in the vein of the film and at times, the chaos of plasma gunfire, panic and shrieking xenomorphs becomes quite breathless.

One of the best things about Titan’s new trilogy is that they’re all very well written. Whether creating tension, mood or horror, Christopher Fowler is a craftsman and his dialogue rolls off the page. The short scenes lifted directly from the film nail character dynamics and mannerisms, allowing us to truly enjoy revisiting, and there are also superb turns of phrase that conjure a cinematic feel. This seems entirely appropriate given that this novel is essentially one big DVD extra of the film. As an example, this simple line painted such a stark picture it made me smile and gave a chill at the same time.

“The alien stalked towards him, bouncing with every step, its motion vaguely birdlike in a way that sickened her.”

One thing that could have been a problem with this book is that by telling the tale of Hadley’s Hope, the story is snared with an already-prescribed downbeat conclusion. We all know that Newt survives the infestation, but surely everybody else dies. After all, in the film, Ripley and the marines’ visit to LV-426 is an aftermath in which everyone seems to have been killed, or impregnated and cocooned in the “goddamn town meeting” of the aliens’ nest. But as I turned the pages, I started to wonder if other people in addition to Newt might somehow escape or manage to hole up. Of course I won’t spoil how “River of Pain” pans out with regard to this, but the conclusion is a neat bookend, and the final paragraph itself is a very deft and pleasing bridge into where “Aliens” takes over and picks up the action. The author weaves brand new material into the old story with aplomb, and although it sees this trilogy complete, I sincerely hope there will be more somewhere down the line.

The previous two books in this series (“Out of the Shadows” by Tim Lebbon and “Sea of Sorrows” by James A Moore) are also very much worth the time to any alien fan, but are not required pre-reading. This is a stand-alone novel in a very “loose” trilogy and is more geared towards the films, especially “Aliens”. The references, cameos and subtle nods flow like acid blood, and if you love both the mythos and the quote-packed rollercoaster of Cameron’s 80s classic, then this book is very much for you.

Enjoy.

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