Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon
Back in 1979, I remember going to see Alien. It’s a memory I treasure although the edge was slightly taken off the enjoyment by my wife’s hostility to it. There are always some things a couple can’t share. Anyway, this original novel by Tim Lebbon called Alien: Out of the Shadows (Titan Books, 2014) fits into the time gap of fifty-seven years between the first film and Aliens (1986) where Ellen Ripley and Jones find themselves somewhat off course after escaping the Nostromo. The question for any reader coming to a book intended to add to a franchise is, “Why bother?” Both films are terrific entertainment and the novelisations by Alan Dean Foster were good of their type. The question is whether the world is a better place for converting the Alien franchise into a shared universe. I’m a sucker for all things Lovecraftian so the idea of people being free to explore strange new worlds with monsters in them is acceptable to me. I concede some of the Star Wars original books and the most recent animated series are good. The three books by K W Jeter building on Blade Runner were interesting. But I’ve found other expansions like the Man-Kzin Wars less successful. This is not to run down the quality of the source material — the gaming universes, Trek and other science fiction series are good in their original state — but I feel there’s an air of exploitative redundancy about adding novels.
So Tim Lebbon has picked up the challenge of writing a novel featuring Ellen Ripley. Given the performance by Sigourney Weaver, you can’t get a more iconic character than this. This plot exploits the delay in her reaching Earth after the loss of the Nostromo and has her pitched into a new fight to prevent the Aliens from getting off a planet and on their way to Earth. Ah so here’s the rub. We’ve got a big ship in orbit around the planet. It’s full of places for monsters to hide in. On the planet, there are miners who have found more than they were bargaining for underground. Some of those escaping the surface come with aliens already inside, and they burst out of chests as the shuttle approaches the mother ship. Now is this a scenario likely to produce anything new? The answer is the predictable negative. No matter how ingenious, the surviving humans have to fight the Aliens on the spaceship and, for reasons the plot will provide, later go down to the surface where they will fight more Aliens. I’m not saying this is anything but a highly professional job. In fact, it’s a beautifully written, claustrophobic novel of spaceship corridors and mine shafts full of predictable dangers lurking in the shadows. But it’s recycling exactly the same plot elements we know from the films without doing anything new. The fact our author du jour been allowed to use Ellen Ripley doesn’t save the venture. In fact, if anything, it weakens the credibility of the plot’s development because although she understands why she’s arrives on this mother ship and so can alert the crew to that danger, she says very little about the exact nature of the threat they face from the Aliens. She should be brimming with details about finding alien spacecraft on atmospherically-challenged planet surfaces, the eggs and face-huggers, and the little chest-bursters that come a few days later, but she’s remarkably unforthcoming. Admittedly there’s a big time constraint in operation which might be a distraction and her memory may have been slightly affected by the years of cold sleep. But I was not wholly convinced.
This leaves me with something of a dilemma. By any objective criteria, Lebbon has done a remarkable job in shoehorning a novel into the timeline. It’s very inventive. But for all the jacket proclaims this as an “original”, that’s the one thing it’s not. Everything that happens in this book has been seen before. No matter what you might think of Prometheus, it did at least try to take us somewhere new. So if you want to read a book that places Ripley in a slightly different setting and then has her play the same game of survival, this is the book for you. But remember one thing. It’s not a spoiler to tell you Ripley survives to fight another day in two more films. That means there’s a certain lack of dramatic tension particularly because we also know none of the Aliens make it off this planet and spread across the human universe. The only uncertainty lies in the order in which the crew members will die. If that’s enough for you, this is a terrific book. But if you prefer a better use of writing talent than recycling franchise tropes, read Lebbon’s “original” work. That’s where you see the quality of the man’s talent shining through.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.