Review: “Aliens: Bug Hunt” edited by Jonathan Maberry


“Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?”

If you recognise this quote – spoken by Private Hudson in James Cameron’s 1986 blockbuster Aliens – then Bug Hunt might be a book for you. If like me, you heard it in Bill Paxton’s disdainful voice, pictured the scene below and smiled fondly, then it definitely is.Set in the military and corporate milieu of the films, this collection from Titan Books peeks into the lives of colonial marines and other space-folk sent to remote corners of the universe where all manner of toothsome threats lurk. Some tie directly into the films – mainly Aliens – while others choose to run with an original take on the concept.

It’s not a spotless collection, suffering editorial oversights and the odd plot point that doesn’t add up, but I very much enjoyed it overall. And even if you’re not a disciple of the franchise, there’s enough imagination and chills to entertain anyone who likes their protagonists in a pickle and their looming jaws dripping with slime.First up is “Chance Encounter” by Paul Kupperberg in which a compulsive gambler gets more than he bargained for on a discovery expedition to a low-gravity planet. The local alien wildlife has adapted – making them both enormous and good in the air – and there are some excellent gob-smacked perspectives from those new to such a species. Apart from one bizarre reference to an alien egg as being “oblong” (I know queens are nails, but even she isn’t popping something out with corners on it) this is a satisfying start, thick with scares and evocation.

In “Reaper” by Dan Abnett (of Alien: Isolation fame) we join a squad of marines visiting a stormy planet used for bulk crop production. They’re investigating a colossal harvesting unit – an interesting creation itself – after contact has been lost, but upon arrival, they discover that the crew have sealed themselves inside. While many of the stories in this collection feature the oil-black, chitinous aliens we love from the films and comics, or something in a similar vein, this is one of the few that has a different menace lying in wait. A well written piece, it succeeds with a taut hill-climb and an urgent finale.

One of my favourites follows with “Broken” by Rachel Caine, the title referring to Bishop: the benevolent artificial person from Aliens. It’s a captivating story, commencing with his “birth” and his feelings of being different to the other synthetics from the moment he’s booted up.The main thread presents a terrorist hostage situation – a nice change from alien action – and injects some breathless excitement into an escapade already glowing with its android point of view. Bishop’s thoughts and morals are flawlessly portrayed, and a couple of other brief cameos bring fond nostalgia in addition to tying it neatly into the canon. “Broken” engaged me completely, and I didn’t want it to finish.

A darker tone is presented in “Reclamation” by Yvonne Navarro (author of the splendid Aliens: Music of the Spears). This features a pre-Aliens Dwayne Hicks and his wife, a fellow hard-ass colonial marine, in a tale of anger, grief and loss. The characterisation is solid – essential in such reflective storytelling – but my problem is that Hicks’ behaviour in Aliens would’ve been very different had these events preceded it. Michael Biehn’s character clearly had no history with the aliens – certainly not such a personally traumatic one – so it doesn’t quite fit. However, if you are willing to ignore that, there’s a powerful emotional resonance that the other efforts in this collection don’t manage. Hicks is a bit of a mythos legend, and the author does his character justice. The violence is truly tense, and when you hear an alien’s shriek perfectly described as “a monstrous combination of a hyena’s scream and an elephant’s roar” you know this is going to be quite the evocative ride.

Next are two more stories with a direct link to Cameron’s film. This time it’s through Cynthia “We got a live one!” Dietrich, the stalwart medic, and it’s nice to see a minor character getting some development. You could possibly argue that the marines of Aliens were not quite as familiar with extra-terrestrial bugs as these two Dietrich stories would have us believe, but as it’s not integral, I’m going to let it go.“Blowback” by Christopher Golden (author of Alien: River of Pain) sees her – along with Hudson, Apone, Vazquez et al. – on another Company-sponsored bug hunt. As this takes place on a planet with a propane atmosphere and airborne, inflammable wildlife, readers should prepare for some crazy pyrotechnics and noise. Naturally, the Company – lovingly referred to as “Weyland-fucking-Yutani” – have royally shafted everybody, and it’s great seeing the gang back together again in combat. The irreverent dialogue to which we became accustomed in Aliens is back with a flourish – “I hear your voice in my sleep, Sarge” – and although I felt it ended rather abruptly, this is an entertaining read.

The second Dietrich adventure is “Exterminators” by Matt Forbeck. This time she’s with Private Ricco “Arcturian poontang” Frost, getting drunk in a backstreet dive at a remote refuelling station that is attacked by parasites. It concludes on a jokey punchline that seemed somewhat forced, but apart from that, this is a pretty tight siege thriller. I enjoyed the seedy vibe of shadowy figures necking tequila in a ramshackle bar, and it also scores points for subtly referencing the scene in Aliens when Frost complains that he’s got a bad feeling about this and Crowe responds “You always say that.” Well, apparently he does, because he says it here too. Nice touch.

There’s a dark comic book feel to “No Good Deed” by Ray Garton. We’re back on LV-426 and Hadley’s Hope (the colony in Aliens) following a bounty hunter on the trail of two escaped convicts: a crime lord and his lab-enhanced sidekick.Upon arriving at the storm-lashed colony, they discover that the lights are still on but all is quiet. Of course we know what eventually became of the colonists, but here, the infestation isn’t quite complete. This is a slick all-rounder for place, characters and chills, weaves itself seamlessly into the background of the film, and saves a wild surprise for the showdown.

“Zero to Hero” by Weston Ochse introduces a corporal in charge of a small marine contingent on the remote moon of LV-666. He’s not a gentleman who thrives on action – quite content playing video games and enjoying the peace – so is most disgruntled when an SOS signal comes from the moon’s network of mines. This story wriggles free of tropes by having its menace in the form of a very creepy infection, presents some unsettling moments of horror, and boasts a strong character journey for its protagonist.

Any fan of Aliens will recall the scene when clammy, corporate snake Carter Burke betrays Ripley, scarpers alone, and is last seen whimpering as an alien strikes. “Dark Mother” by David Farland sees him being taken away and cocooned: a fate that was originally filmed but dropped as it didn’t gel with the xenomorph life cycle. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting gap to fill, and we watch Burke trapped in the nest and trying to escape while Ripley charges about with her flamethrower, adding another layer to the film. I also like the way Burke – true to form – immediately tries to negotiate with the alien that takes him. A Company man through and through, it made me chuckle that he’d even take a punt at bribing such a creature. The author also trickles in backstory of Burke’s privileged but dysfunctional upbringing, helping to explain the man he is and also the kind of people who work for Weyland-Yutani.The main problem with “Dark Mother” is editorial, summed up by a slab of editor’s notes that somehow made it into the text. Also, the issue with the alien life cycle still very much remains, and the accidentally-included notes only draw more attention to this. There are other confusing errors such as a pursuing alien on Ripley’s tail being described as being on “Ridley’s tale” which wrenched me out of the moment as I paused to work it out.  The final page also has the air of being unfinished, but the earlier mistakes make it difficult to be sure. Yet despite all this, David Farland presents some brittle and stark scenes, and does very well with presenting a protagonist that everybody hates. Or loves to hate.

“Episode 22” by Larry Correia is certainly the most quirky read of the collection. Rather than standard prose, this is a journalistic article about the history of the M-41A pulse rifle. While that might sound bland, it’s a neat piece of writing. There are quotes from marines, discussions regarding weapon development, and the timeless problem of corporations making budget shortcuts while the frontline are simply trying not to die. The humour is well gauged, and this line from a lance corporal regarding the nickname of “pulse rifle” is among many that made me grin.

“The problem with calling the M41 that is always some dumb boot hears we get issued pulse rifles and gets all excited thinking it’s going to be shooting laser beams or something. What do they think this is? Sci-fi?”

In “Deep Background” by Keith R.A. DeCandido, the corporate ruthlessness hinted at in “Episode 22” is taken to expert levels. We find a journalist conducting an investigation of Weyland-Yutani by tagging along with a unit of marines called into action. It’s punchy, tackles cover-ups from an interesting perspective, and delivers a sting in the tail.

Mood piece meets psychological drama with Brian Keene’s “Empty Nest” as we join a lance corporal who discovers a surviving woman in a xenomorph nest.But something’s not quite right, neither with her nor the nightmarish surroundings. The author skilfully plants a sense of unease in the reader, and this plays out in an off-kilter, intriguing story that lets you guess some of it along the way, but still saves an emotional and visceral sucker punch or two. This is quality writing with a haunting tone.

We’re treated to a comic-book style yarn with “Darkness Falls” by Heather Graham, concerning an ex-marine captain retired to a pleasant terraformed planet. But after people are attacked in a local mine, she’s lured back into action by a solemn but wise police officer. The whole thing has a pleasing monster-movie feel, helped by the particular species with which the xenomorphs have birthed (Aliens “DNA-fix” and take on some of their host’s physical characteristics) and I won’t spoil that outrageous surprise. There’s a couple of editing hiccups, but it’s a cinematic ride with memorable characters that manages to be a blast without losing the darkness integral to the films.

Nothing is more hellish than a scuttling facehugger intent on ramming its ovipositor down the nearest throat, and “Hugs To Die For” by Mike Resnick and Marina J. Lostetter certainly nails the horror.Set in a time when alien organics are used in construction and engineering, it involves an unfinished egg vault facility containing hundreds of facehuggers that inevitably escape. And hurrah for that! Unfortunately, the manner of the breakout was too easy for me. Surely the tanks would be appropriately designed given the extreme danger, but the beasts manage to melt and bash their way out. I suppose human idiocy and complacency are all part of the point, as is the nature of the alien as one of chaos that refuses to be contained, but it could’ve been more convincing. That niggle aside however, a hugger swarm is quite the blood-curdling spectacle, and I love it that they are capable of strategizing en masse. Combining biological and behavioural science with violence, this is a thrilling short.

Jonathan Maberry’s “Deep Black” revisits Fiorina “Fury” 161 – the bleak ex-industrial penal colony – with a refreshing change in film. Despite it being long abandoned after the events of Alien 3, somebody has suddenly turned on the power. Nicely utilising a first-person perspective, we join Harper and his small but tough squad of soldiers on a mission to make sure that none of Weyland-Yutani’s competitors are sniffing around for alien leftovers.Described as a “pimple on the devil’s taint” by one of the squad, this story deftly evokes the grim atmosphere of that isolated and malignant place. It has frightening scenes, an authentic military feel through Harper’s voice, and there’s plenty of reference to Ellen Ripley and her legacy. It also begs the question “When will Weyland-Yutani ever learn?” Hopefully never!

“Perkins was looking right at Callaghan when her head exploded inside the hard shelter of her environment helmet.”

Thus begins “Distressed” by James A. Moore (author of Alien: Sea of Sorrows) dropping the reader into battle with no regard for ceremony. We meet Callaghan, part of a marine squad investigating a supply ship which has fallen to a bizarre mech-alien attack that is consuming everything, including the ship itself. This is sumptuously written, a good example being the description of blood, body parts and debris floating around in zero-gravity as “It was like being inside a madman’s snow-globe.” There’s a palpable mythos feel even though it doesn’t feature traditional aliens, and another wry nod to the Company’s methods of employee “incentive”.

When beginning this collection, I really hoped someone would write from a xenomorph’s point of view, despite how difficult it could be to make this work. I was delighted to discover that Scott Sigler has succeeded mightily with “Dangerous Prey”.Told in the present tense and immaculate in tone, it follows an injured alien – the protector – during an attack on a human installation. The sheer otherness of thought – its intelligence and the machinations of the hive mind – are superbly conveyed. The text brims with detail, such as the protector viewing marine armour as their “mottled green carapace” and the human installation as an “alien hive”. Naturally, xenomorphs don’t really understand technology and guns, so I loved the distinction our protagonist makes between its unarmed enemies and those with the “loud stingers” which ties into the title.

“The protector launches itself high into the air just as more flashes from the loud-sting tear into the others behind it. The dangerous prey angles the loud-stinger up, but it is too late…”

Yep, armed human beings are the dangerous prey to which it refers. We’re the aliens here, and not only did I find myself gripped by the chaos of war from such an exquisitely foreign perspective, but also cheering the protector on. You know how when you’re watching a nature documentary, you’ll empathise with whichever survival story is being told, regardless of whether that’s the lion or the wildebeest? Rather wonderfully, I found that the same happened here, despite my own kind being the “enemy”. Nudging me into species-based treason – in a matter of seconds – is quite an authorial achievement.“Dangerous Prey” triumphs because we learn about the insectile society and chilling physiology of aliens without ever feeling lectured. The instinctive awakening of eggs is beautifully done, as is the reign of the queen, the author using imaginative science without ever dulling the excitement. Quite the contrary, it only serves to deepen our understanding of these most fascinating of monsters and improve the reading experience. From the protector’s frustrations to its use of sound and pheromone communication, I absolutely loved these few precious minutes inside an alien’s terrible, elongated head. My favourite piece of the collection, and one to read again.

That just leaves “Spite” by Tim Lebbon (fresh from Alien: Out of the Shadows and the superlative Alien vs. Predator Rage War trilogy). It made sense to save a writer with such niche experience for the finale, and in “Spite”, he brings back old favourite Major Akoko Halley from the Rage War. Along with her elite squad of Devil Dogs, she lands on an artificial habitat to discover that things are burned and melted, and while this might seem familiar at first, the damage is the work of a much more explosive species. Abundant firestorms await, and some world-beating treachery that would make Carter Burke raise an eyebrow. While I might’ve preferred old-school aliens for the collection’s incendiary showdown, this is robust storytelling and concludes the book on a high.Although Bug Hunt is reasonably strong overall, there are a few glitches. Having completed it, some of the numerous firefights we’ve enjoyed blur into one, and a couple of the tales – while decent enough – don’t really feel like Aliens stories. As dedicated fans, we bristle at anything that doesn’t seem to share our passion and we want the mythos to be at the very heart of the fiction, not just a garnish. Some of them also don’t slot into the timeline well enough to be regarded as canon. While this is mentioned in the introduction, and the lack of authorial constraint has resulted in some interesting off-piste wanderings, that doesn’t always stop it from jarring.

The main problem is editorial issues, which is something I’ve never experienced with Titan Books before. Perhaps it was rushed for the release of Alien: Covenant, but typos and text errors pop up throughout, and it’s occasionally clear a line has been cut without smoothing over the rough edges. There is also the absolute whopper of the printed editorial notes I mentioned earlier. Although it wasn’t enough to spoil my reading, it’s unacceptable in a mass-market release, and sadly loses marks for that.

But gripes aside, this is a compulsive tome with something for casual sf horror readers and alien aficionados alike. Even the flawed stories bring something to this most gruesome of parties, and the true winners – such as “Broken” and “Dangerous Prey” – are genuine 10 out of 10s. It’s value for money at 400 pages, and the vision of the talented contributors keeps it sufficiently varied. It might also please those who have wearied of Ridley Scott’s philosophical creationism in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant by concentrating on the gunfights and horde attacks of yore. There’s action, mood, pathos, horror and corruption aplenty, and while die-hards might get annoyed by the lack of purist effort made here and there, they’ll also find plenty to devour.Over the last couple of years, Titan Books have done a grand job of keeping us infused with acid blood and death by face-jawing. Aliens: Bug Hunt shows a reassuring dedication to the cause. Long may they continue, and all involved in this mission should get extra cornbread with their rations and be allowed to play on the power loader.

Enjoy, and stay frosty.

(Screencaps taken from Aliens (1986) and Alien 3 (1992) – 20th Century Fox)

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.


Review: “Alien: Sea of Sorrows” by James A. Moore


This is the second in a new trilogy of Alien novels from Titan Books, and manages to meet the bar set pleasingly high by the first instalment of “Out Of The Shadows” (My full review of Tim Lebbon’s story here).sea of sorrowsThis time, we travel to New Galveston – LV-178 – an outer rim planet already terraformed and boasting three cities. But plans for a fourth have been slowed by the “Sea of Sorrows”. This is a vast area of noxious and unstable black sand, threaded with strange silicon nodes, in which nothing will grow. Working on the site we find Alan Decker, a toughened safety commissioner with strong empathic abilities who also happens to be a descendent of our favourite alien-slaying icon, Ellen Ripley.

Of course, Weyland-Yutani (aka The Company) aren’t far away. When an old mining excavation and alien ship is discovered, talk of xenomorphs abound. After Decker is injured on the Sea of Sorrows and seems to have forged some kind of nightmarish link with the alien consciousness, The Company blackmail him. He has to join a crew of heavily-armed, hired mercenaries on an expedition into the mine and bring back a live specimen.

I had a great time reading this book. As you would hope, Weyland-Yutani present the epitome of corporate ruthlessness. Their knack for being one step ahead of the game and playing everyone as pawns is perfectly realised in the form of Andrea Rollins, their ice-cold and sociopathic spokesperson. The Ripley link is a nice idea, and it’s Rollins who uses this family tie to force Decker into compliance. This is with a bit of good old-fashioned extortion, naturally, making him pay for Ripley’s trademark historical talent for blowing up expensive Company installations.

Decker himself is a solid lead, made real by his flaws, and the seasoned roughneck mercs do their job. Some of the characters are a bit stock, and several of them don’t get enough airtime to become distinguishable from the others, but they serve a purpose even if it all feels a little familiar.

That’s one of two problems I have with this book. It’s initially rather samey with regard to setting and devices: The Company wanting to capture live specimens, a consultant thrown in at the deep end with a squad of protective hard-cases, a crashed alien vessel, being stalked in old mine shafts. We’ve seen all of these in the films and previous novels, several tropes of which feature in this book’s direct predecessor “Out of the Shadows”. I suppose I was hoping for some fresh ideas, the kind of which featured in some of the Dark Horse tales of the 90s. There, we had the infestation of earth in “Earth Hive”, a dangerous musician wanting to record an alien’s scream in “Music of the Spears” and the intrigue and mystery of an xeno-detective’s life in “No Exit”. As a result, “Sea of Sorrows” was never going to stand out too far above the crowd. But I was pleased to discover that the author makes the most of the claustrophobic atmosphere for some superb tension and excitement.

My main problem however, lies with the concept of the aliens being out for revenge. They somehow know that Decker is a descendent of Ripley, whom they regard as “The Destroyer”. While I’m all for introducing new developments to the species, I think portraying them as vengeful thinkers makes them somehow less frightening than the instinct-driven killing machines that care for nothing but queen and nest.

That said, the rage and consuming hatred felt by the aliens is used to good effect, especially in a visually stunning encounter with a queen. There are also plenty of dream-like snippets in which Decker’s subconscious connects with the xenomorphs, and we see and feel their point of view. Conveying something so… well, alien, is no easy task but the author gives us a ghastly peek into what it might be like to actually be one.

Overall, there’s plenty to please fans of the mythos and also the casual horror/sf reader. The vicious attacks are cinematic and very easy to follow, despite the subterranean chaos, and the breakneck action is straight out of “Aliens”. One fight in a steep, narrow tunnel lingers in the memory as a horrible bottleneck of screaming, gunfire, corpses and acid blood.

I also like it that the story utilises the fact that readers are familiar with the xenomorphs, but the protagonists are not. For example, the mercenaries find a corpse they assume died by stray gunfire, though it’s clear to us that she was the victim of a chestburster. This fosters a wry but uncomfortable feeling. I also loved their gob-smacked reactions to seeing the aliens for the first time, and the author does well not to unnecessarily overdescribe.

There’s also pure horror moments for those who like their spines thoroughly chilled. A couple of attacks out on the malevolent sands of the Sea of Sorrows produce shivers and a good old-fashioned jump in the seat. While much of this book is in the vein of “Aliens”, these silent stalk-and-kill scenes evoke the anticipatory dread of Ridley Scott’s film.

Of course no story can survive without pathos, and there’s tragedy and humanity here too. One memorable scene sees two close friends cocooned beside each other in the alien’s nest. After realising they’re impregnated and awaiting a horrible death, the ensuing dialogue is refreshingly moving.

Despite my reservations of familiarity, the second half of the book is a blast with a couple of tricks up its sleeve, and of course not everybody is what they seem. I read the last 150 pages in one sitting, and after all that adrenaline, the conclusion is appropriately dark.

“Sea of Sorrows” is very well written. Some of the older Dark Horse mythos books were poorly scribed, to the point where I even bailed on one, but at least with this trilogy Titan have given the job to those who are up to the job. James A. Moore has delivered a robust novel of atmospheric action, treachery and dripping teeth. They can definitely keep them coming for me.

Review – “Alien: Out of the Shadows” by Tim Lebbon


Being a huge fan of the whole mythos, and knowing Tim Lebbon is a safe bet, my expectations were high for this release from Titan Books. But what really snagged my curiosity was discovering that Out of the Shadows is set between the events of the Alien and Aliens movies and features a certain 80s science fiction heroine who should’ve surely been in hypersleep that whole time. So with the plot already intriguingly thick, I settled down into what turned out to be a very slick adventure of mood and menace.out-of-the-shadowsThe main protagonist is Chris “Hoop” Hooper, engineering officer aboard the Marion: a deep-space mining ship orbiting the remote, storm-blasted planet of LV178. His daily routine is suddenly upset when two dropships full of shrieking miners come careering up from the planet’s surface, overrun with something that’s been found hibernating deep beneath the planet’s surface. Hoop is left dealing with a damaged ship stuck in decaying orbit, a depleted crew, and of course our favourite oil-black, chitinous killers. But some surprise help might be at hand when an escape shuttle automatically docks with the Marion. It contains none other than the last survivor of the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley, and Hoop soon realises that she’s just the kind of personality that he needs to get through this hell.

I fell straight into this book. It opens with the camaraderie and grind of regular space life, perfectly capturing the tone of deep space industry that we are accustomed to from the films. It’s not long before the grisly action kicks off, and Ripley and the crew are forced into planning a dangerous expedition down into the labyrinth of the nest-infested mine.

It wouldn’t be Alien without characters we care about, and I was pleased to discover that the crew are a solid mix of jaded and driven space veterans. Sharp dialogue brings them to life and so the inevitable violent deaths pack quite a punch. I also liked that because this is a mining operation and not military, the crew are not trained for battle and forced into using practical equipment – bolts, acid sprays, plasma torches – to fight off the horde. The presentation of the technology is also a strong point. The science of the films can seem outdated in our digital world, and the author has done a solid job of gently updating the technology so that it seems real to our 21st century sensibilities, but doesn’t lose any of its clunky industrial charm.

And of course we want a degree of nostalgia and familiarity when visiting an old favourite mileu. There’s plenty of references in theme and setting, but I quite like the subtle touches too. For example, a moment when Ripley thinks that an impregnated crew member about to give birth “seemed fine” put me in mind of her exact words in Aliens.

Speaking of whom, Ripley’s character is realised to a tee. I heard and saw Sigourney Weaver with every word and mannerism, and cheered her every step of the way. Tim Lebbon’s Ripley is the woman at the outset of Aliens – fresh out of hypersleep and troubled by nightmares and memories of her daughter – and we see her resolve, feelings and fragilities evolve in a pleasingly similar way here. And naturally, she get to kick some serious ass.

We’re treated to some startling action sequences, both down in the mines and aboard the Marion. They’re delivered with such aplomb by the author that we feel every blast of heat, crunching bone and razor snap of an alien’s jaws, and the attacks are as vicious as they should be. There are also sections of intense suspense when the crew are being stalked. One haunting scene describes four static aliens waiting with insectile focus for some airlock doors to open, watched by the fearful crew on CCTV. It gave me a genuine chill and I was right there with the crew and their unease, not reassured by the multiple sealed doors between them.

The book also ties in thoughtfully with the “space jockey” aliens from the derelict ship in original story, and of course it just wouldn’t be right without “the company”. As the story unfolds, we discover that the most nefarious employer in the galaxy – Weyland-Yutani – have a familiar role to play. This is delivered through ice-cold mission protocols and another insidious and cleverly realised presence that I won’t spoil here.

But anyway, on to the question everybody asks. What happened to Ripley’s memory of these events in the “Aliens” film? Of course it’s a tough job for a writer to account for this, and while the trope that explains it does feel somewhat convenient, I was satisfied enough. Given the circumstances, I don’t think it could have been handled better, and there’s plenty of other things to engage us at the conclusion. There’s a good old race against time, a chilling “murder” that really goes against all we believe, and still plenty of room for some very poignant and elegiac scenes.

Overall, Out of the Shadows is a superbly paced blend of all the good elements of the first two films. Fans will have a blast meeting Ripley again, not to mention immersing themselves once again in the bleak, claustrophobic atmosphere of this unique mythos.

Happily, this is the first instalment in a new trilogy. Sea of Sorrows by James A. Moore and River of Pain by Christopher Golden are due later this year, and I’m eager to see where they take it from here.