I want to talk about Alien: Out of the Shadows

Hello! This is the first post in what will hopefully be an ongoing series called “I want to talk about…” It’s effectively a replacement for last year’s 50 Books, 365 Days only with less restrictions on content, quantity, and time frame. I hope you enjoy it, and I would welcome any suggestions for what you would like to see me talk about in future posts.

It takes a lot for me to not finish a book. Admittedly, that’s probably a failing of mine. I’ve suffered through books that bored me almost literally to tears, doggedly refusing to put them down. Which is why it pains me to say that I ended my dalliance with Alien: Out of the Shadows after 100 pages, just a third of its page count.

I initially picked it up partly because of the name and partly because of the author. I’ve long been a fan of the Alien series of films, and enjoyed a trilogy of novels previously by Steve and Stephanie Perry (Earth Hive, Nightmare Asylum, and The Female War). Tim Lebbon came recommended by a friend, and I understand he has written some good tie-in novels to Steve Niles’ 30 Days of Night comic series. Finally, I thought the focus on Alien over Aliens in terms of branding could be interesting. Most of the tie-ins focused on this particular franchise have emphasised the action of James Cameron’s sequel over the slow burn horror and low-fi aesthetic of Ridley Scott’s original film.

When I bought the book from Amazon, this was the synopsis as I read it:

The official new novel set between the events of Alien and Aliens.

As a child, Chris Hooper dreamed of monsters. But in deep space, he found only darkness and isolation. Then on planet LV178, he and his fellow miners discovered a storm-scoured, sand-blasted hell—and trimonite, the hardest material known to man.

When a shuttle crashes into the mining ship Marion, the miners learn that there was more than trimonite deep in the caverns. There was evil, hibernating—and waiting for suitable prey. Hoop and his associates uncover a nest of Xenomorphs, and hell takes on new meaning. Quickly they discover that their only hope lies with the unlikeliest of saviours…

The identity of the ‘unlikely saviour’ intrigued me. I assumed it would be an android of some kind, perhaps another in the Ash line. But when I got the book and read the blurb on the back, there was an extra line that caused me to worry a little.

Ellen Ripley, the last human survivor of the salvage ship Nostromo.

I’ll note here that the final line is now included in the Amazon description too. It’s possible it always was and I just missed it. Either way, it filled me with dread.

As anyone who is a fan of the franchise will know, there are 57 years between Alien and Aliens. Ripley spent them in hypersleep, and was pretty shocked when she found out how much time had actually passed. For her to now appear in a story between the two is a pretty huge retcon, and would of course have to end with her suffering some form of amnesia and being sent on her merry way without any of the new characters the book introduced.

It’s a symptom of a larger problem that seems to infect a lot of tie-in fiction; it’s written by fans. And fans, following that natural fan instinct, want to play with all the toys in the toybox. It’s a problem that infests the Star Wars expanded universe. Everyone wants so badly to write stories featuring the main three characters, they’re still having galaxy wide adventures, well into their 70s. It’s gotten to the point where it feels like nothing can happen in the Star Wars universe without Luke, Han, or Leia present and involved in some way. And now, with Fox gleefully calling Out of the Shadows a canon entry in the franchise, it seems the same goes for Alien and Ripley.

Ultimately, it doesn’t serve to expand the universe; it makes the universe feel smaller. Does Weyland Yutani really have nothing else going on? I get they want to weaponise the aliens, but why do they specifically need Ripley for that? When I watched Alien, I figured the Nostromo diversion was one of several things the Company tried, but apparently Ripley is totally central to their plans. It’s a bizarre decision, and one that robs the book of any tension, because the outcome is telegraphed from the moment Ripley gets involved.

There are other problems in those first 100 pages. From small issues in continuity like Ripley referencing having seen Lambert’s arm dangling from a ceiling (it was actually her leg), and making it a plot point that Ripley’s shuttle the Narcissus has only one sleeping pod (in the film it clearly has two). These are admittedly minor, but how many people must have seen this book before it went to print? Have none of them seen the film?

The other big problem I ran into was the characterisation of Ripley herself. I’m just going to quote this bit word for word from page 58, where the character Hoop suggests he bring a small plasma torch to fight the aliens with:

Ripley laughed. It burst from her in a rush, like she was vomiting disbelief, and she couldn’t stop. Her eyes burned. Tears ran down her face. She thought of Hoop trying to scorch an alien with his box-gun, and the laughter turned hysterical.

Remember that part in any of the Alien films when Ripley laughs out loud? If you don’t, it’s probably because she never manages more than a sardonic chuckle throughout all four. If anything, she’s too self serious, even before encountering the aliens, when she’s just dealing with stuff like Parker and Brett jerking around instead of getting on with their work. The idea of her laughing hysterically about anything, especially about the thing that wiped out her entire crew, is just totally out of character.

Looking back, that was the moment where I checked out on the book. True to my ways, I tried to carry on and finish it, but I just couldn’t. It never got any better, and at the end of the day I would rather just go back and watch one of the original films again.

On a happier note, putting down Out of the Shadows led to me picking up The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s a really good survival story about an astronaut left stranded on Mars when the rest of his crew thinks he died on a mission there. It’s got a really strong narrative voice, and is surprisingly funny, given the subject matter. Think along the lines of George Clooney’s character from Gravity crossed with MacGyver. The Martian is a genuinely fun book that I just didn’t want to put down. I highly recommend it.

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