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.
The 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 The science of the films can seem outdated in our digital world, and the author has done a solid job of gently updating the technology so that it seems real to our 21st century sensibilities, but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.