Alien: Out of the Shadows Book Review: That Old Familiar Feeling

Doesn't take many risks or push the boundaries of established canon, but for franchise fans, it's still worth picking up.
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Tim Lebbon's Alien: Out of the Shadows kicks off a trilogy of books set around the events of the Alien and Aliens films. This one kicks off 37 years after Ellen Ripley detonated the engines on the Nostromo in the hopes of frying a creature that wiped out her entire crew. Her nearly four-decade hypersleep is interrupted when her shuttle docks unexpectedly with the Marion, a mining vessel that's recently experienced its own set of xenomorph problems. Why is she here? What lies ahead for her and the crew of the Marion? Most importantly, how the heck will they get Ripley back into that shuttle and adrift as she's found in the beginning of Aliens some 20 years later, with no recollection of the events of this story?

The mining crew of the Marion happened upon a buried, dormant alien nest while digging miles below the surface on planet LV178 for a rare and precious mineral called trimonite. The remaining survivors from the surface make a desperate effort to escape back to the Marion in orbit miles above, but inadvertently bring some of their aggressors along for the ride. This leads to catastrophic damage to the Marion, losses among her on-board crew, and pits them all in a race against time to hatch a plan that is an incredibly long shot at best, and that's not even counting the complications the aliens will inevitably bring. Or Ash.

Yep, the rogue android with a corporate agenda from the original Alien film lives on, having uploaded his A.I. to the Nostromo's computers, and ultimately Ripley's shuttle. Ash is still following his mission to bring back a live alien embryo for the Weyland-Yutani corporation. While Ash adds an interesting and unpredictable element of danger to our protagonists' adventure, toward the end of the story, after having the first half feel a bit sluggish, I wished Ash's identity had been kept more of a secret. He could have been used as a sort of omnipotent narrator, hinting at danger and subplots, but not revealing his identity until later on. It worked generally well having him here to mess up everyone's plans; knowing it was him the whole time took away some of the suspense and mystery though.

Ripley saddles up with chief engineer Chris "Hoop" Hooper, communications officer Baxter, pilot Lachance, medical officer Kasyanov, and science officer Sneddon on a mission to retrieve vital equipment from the planet's surface. While they're there, they are chased around by aliens, then turn the tables and go all Rambo on the critters, particularly Ripley, in a display of bravado the likes of which we wouldn't see again until maybe the finale of Aliens.

Throughout the story, Ripley has repeated speculative visions of her daughter Amanda being torn apart by an alien birth. Amanda imparts to her mother messages of estrangement and guilt, since Ripley left when she was a child and (spoiler alert: if you never saw the director's cut of Aliens, and if you haven't and you're even remotely interested in this book, honestly, shame on you) ends up not making it back to Earth until after her daughter had died of old age. These troubling dreams and visions serve to make Ripley's sanity slowly unravel over the course of the story and drives her to make some risky pivotal decisions along the way, but I couldn't help but wish that at least some of these episodes were memories rather than glimpses of an imagined future, something about the mother-daughter interactions they had while Ripley was still on Earth with Amanda, something to develop the character rather than simply justify the easy-out employed near the end of the book.

Most of the characters are fairly one-dimensional or are wiped out as soon as we've established their backstory. It can be hard to tell people apart when not identified by name. I only remember one time that we're told that Kasyanov has a distinct Russian accent. It might have been better to see some of that in a dialect expressed on the page when she speaks. In other places, there seem to be attempts to link the characters here to counterparts from Aliens. One of them parrots Hudson's iconic "It's game over!" line, and Hoop demonstrating the spray gun seems quite a bit like Hicks showing off that marine pulse rifle to Ripley, including her "Show me everything, I can handle myself" response. I recall about five or six of these obvious homages.

Having read over a dozen other novels in the Alien and Predator universes, many others took more risks than Out of the Shadows did. One saw humans locating and invading the alien homeworld and fighting giant mature alien monstrosities that were hundreds of years old. Another talks of a drug distilled from alien blood that's created a corporate empire and a high demand for the alien raw materials. With some of the bolder storylines, yet another tale of blue-collar space cowboy miners reverse engineering tools to build weapons that may or may not be effective against a violent extraterrestrial felt a bit too well worn. Little to nothing is done to tie this story to Prometheus, and the ancient dog-like alien civilization found in the middle of this story serves only to muddle the decision of whether or not to nuke the hive before heading back up into orbit.

Despite minor quibbles, Out of the Shadows is an enjoyable enough read. Despite some slow sections in the first half, it becomes hard to put down by the third act. As officially sanctioned canon, it's not a clone or emulation of familiar story and characters. This offers at least one new character to build off of in upcoming novels due out later in 2014 from different authors. What they ultimately do with the survivors remains to be seen, but regardless, for better or worse, as proper canon, you know Ripley's still going to be standing when the dust settles and the acidic alien blood stops bubbling.

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