The first book in a series that is considered to be canonical alongside the now somewhat tarnished continuity of the movie series (following the laborious, often nonsensical events of Prometheus and an ill-advised attempt to bring the series closer to its beginnings with Alien: Covenant), Alien: Out of the Shadows is a strongly-written, often tense and involving read that nonetheless has some serious issues at its core – chiefly, the unnecessary inclusion of Ellen Ripley as a main character.
Mining ship Marion loses contact with the facility on the planet it’s orbiting – LV-178 – and when two shuttles abruptly head back to the ship, the cause of the loss of contact is revealed: the Xenomorphs, which are killing the crew of the shuttles. Though one of the shuttles crashes into and seriously damages the Marion, the other successfully docks – with Xenomorphs alive and well on board. With the Marion’s communication array damaged in the shuttle impact, the crew – led by Chris ‘Hoop’ Hooper – send out a distressed call, which attracts the attention of escape vessel the Narcissus, which left the Nostromo behind thirty seven years beforehand, with Ellen Ripley, Jones the Cat and a less tangible threat on-board…
What follows is a nicely written thriller, but as mentioned the presence of Ellen Ripley is completely unnecessary. Being set between Alien and Aliens (20 years prior to the events of the second film) and with no mention of Ripley waking up in the years prior to being discovered at the beginning of the film sequel, it’s clear that a) Ripley will survive and b) something needs to happen in order to return Ripley to the ‘undiscovered’ state she’s eventually found in. To get everything set up to appear untouched by the beginning of Aliens, the story jumps through a number of very convenient hoops and takes us through a number of eye-rolling deus ex machina moments. The fact that Ash, the Nostromo‘s clandestine, scheming android, is the major antagonist pulling the strings throughout (which is revealed very early on – this isn’t a final act spoiler) never really rings true either. The problem that Tim Lebbon sets for himself by including the movie characters and tying the book so closely to the events of Alien is that Out of the Shadows ends up feeling like terrible fan fiction when it isn’t focusing on the original characters it introduces. It doesn’t help that Ripley isn’t always convincingly written as we know her, with the revelation that she occasionally slept with Nostromo‘s captain, Dallas, adding to the dodgy fan fiction vibe that permeates the story (the fact that she gets the hots for Hoop so quickly really suggests that Lebbon is trying too hard to add a romantic angle for Ripley).
It’s a real shame, because the plot as it is doesn’t even need Ripley to be there. Hoop is a well fleshed-out character and so are many of his shipmates on the Marion; the events of the story unfolding with Ripley’s involvement being minimal. There’s a few moments engineered by rogue android-turned-AI Ash which may have had to be explained or justified in a different way without the Narcissus turning up, but I genuinely think the book would have been much stronger without the movie characters included at all. It’s certainly not a badly-written book, but the writer – and perhaps the publishers – should have had the confidence to let the concept of kickstarting a new Alien book series in movie continuity stand on its own, without involving characters whose fate we’re already aware of.
There’s some great moments of horror and some excellent, tense sequences that are strengthened by Lebbon’s descriptive writing style that, thankfully, isn’t too overwrought. It’s nicely visual without being so detailed as to bog down the proceedings unnecessarily.
There are more books set in the same timeline and continuity; hopefully after this one they are able to flex their wings and not bring Ripley (and her repetitive visions of her daughter, which is a constant reminder that yes, Alien: Isolation’s Amanda Ripley is out there) back from hypersleep.
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