Book Review: Alien: The Cold Forge by Alex White

A compelling alien tale that fits the established mold while keeping you guessing to the very end.
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How much you come away from a story loving or loathing a character is a testament to how well they are written or portrayed. In just about any Alien story that involves Weyland-Yutani corporate sleaze, the disdain felt for those people is usually stronger than we feel toward the aliens themselves. The horrific violence and dehumanization by the banana-headed, sci-fi monsters manages to consistently pale in comparison to what human beings do to one another in the interest of personal greed or glory.

Such is the case in Alex White's Alien: The Cold Forge, a story set shortly after the events at Hadley's Hope that were chronicled in the James Cameron franchise sequel Aliens. Dorian Sudler is a corporate bean-counter sent to distant installations among the stars to optimize and streamline the company's return on investment, usually at the expense of considerable personnel employment, or going so far as to shut down entire projects, teams, or facilities if it doesn't seem like they're meeting their goals, or even not meeting their goals as well as someone 20 light-years away had hoped, whether those goals were realistic or not. His detail at The Cold Forge -- a space station orbiting a very nearby star and housing projects ranging from computer-virus development, tangled communications arrays, and, of course, weaponizing the aliens themselves -- is much the same, and he approaches it with the same unfeeling and unmerciful antipathy toward pleasantries and people as he usually does, but upon discovering the aliens, he finds something to admire.

Enter Blue Marsalis, the woman running research on the aliens, largely bedridden due to a degenerative genetic disorder, and carrying out her duties by remotely piloting a synthetic android named Marcus. She has other less malevolent projects going on unbeknownst to anyone else, and Dorian considers her formidable not only for her cunning and ulterior motives, but also for the duality of her existence as both a sickly invalid and a powerful robot.

As you might imagine, something goes awry that lets the aliens loose on the station, but this is never really their story -- they are there to do their usually horrible alien things of killing and maiming and capturing people to act as hosts so that more aliens may be born into the world, and in a particularly pissed off way since they've been living in captivity and enduring experiments for some time now. The fail-safes implode, the few military-trained personnel on board don't stand a chance against the newfound aggressors, and other machinations are set into motion that stand to undermine everyone along the way. Figuring out who is behind all these mishaps and why is as important as avoiding the chitinous nightmares stalking the entire facility, which, it should be pointed out, also finds itself in a decaying orbit and in a matter of hours will plunge into the star it has been orbiting. Solve the mystery, survive the aliens, and get to the escape pods -- sounds easy enough, right? Ha.

As mentioned earlier, some characters are particularly morally reprehensible and have deep-seated personality problems that put them firmly in the "Does not play well with others" category. Dorian was always a passive-aggressive backstabber, but several of the things he gets up to on board The Cold Forge are downright despicable, and are not just for his own survival -- he marvels at what he perceives as the incompetence of all other humans, as well as the calculated efficiency of the aliens. In a short span of time, he finds himself rooting for the creatures and doing a number of completely awful things to facilitate his dominance over of the rest of the crew.

There was at least one rather large question that I don't think was satisfactorily answered by the end, and that's simply the question of who really opened the kennels. I don't consider this a spoiler since it's pretty much expected that the aliens in an Alien story get loose and feast on anything nearby. We understand the motivations of at least one character for doing so, and the possibility of another character having done it, but whenever they are confronted about it, I didn't find a completely clear confirmation of who was to blame. The other colossal screw-ups, yeah, we got those, and it's entirely possible it was the same person, but I don't remember them actually 'fessing up to that particular detail, not to mention how they would have gotten out alive after opening said kennels which were not under the influence or control of any computers or other systems on the station. Who would be brave/stupid enough to open an alien cage by hand? With that in mind, now that I think about it, I'm inclined to change my mind yet again about who actually did it -- might have been someone operating under company directives whom the aliens would have had no interest in to begin with. Hmm.

As far as how everything plays out and who -- if anyone -- makes it out alive, you're going to have to read The Cold Forge to find out. There were some fun twists and surprises, and a number of anti-karma moments where something could have drastically altered the course of events, but the better person lost out due to some tiny oversight or unexpected behavior or mechanical flaw. It was a good read and I enjoyed it; I've read probably a dozen or so other Alien novels, and while this wasn't the most original -- people and aliens trapped in a tin can shredding each other after Murphy's Law comes crashing down around a female heroine is hardly novel within this franchise's universe -- it held my interest until the very end, and left me feeling sympathetic for many of the victims and completely hating the antagonists. It doesn't delve too much into the history or expanded hierarchy of the aliens and assumes a certain amount of franchise familiarity on the part of the reader, so it's a worthwhile pickup for Alien fans, but might not be the best entry point for people who have never seen any of the movies or read any of the previous books.

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