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

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“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 hard, 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 I’m happy to let that 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 quite 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 love 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. The issue with the alien life cycle still 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 truly 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 local 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 everything’s 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: Sea of Sorrows” by James A. Moore

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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.