“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.” – Ellen Ripley, Aliens (1986)
That quote has never hit harder than it does over the course of Alien: The Cold Forge, Alex White’s 2018 novel. Following the failed Hadley’s Hope mission that takes place in Aliens, Weyland-Yutani’s attempts to weaponise the Xenomorphs shifts to remote scientific station, RB-323 (aka the eponymous Cold Forge). There, things seem to be progressing reasonably well with their experiments involving unwilling ape test subjects – but the scientists are falling behind schedule, leading company troubleshooter Dorian Sudler to be sent to the station to evaluate the situation and do whatever is necessary to cut loose any dead weight, reduce costs and bring the situation back in line with Weyland-Yutani’s expectations. Trouble is bubbling up to the surface, however, with a hint of corporate espionage – and Sudler’s ruthless, sociopathic tendencies threaten to push everything (and everyone) on the station way past boiling point…
Though I’ve read plenty of Alien-related fiction, I’ve always taken it for what it is: generally just entertaining, if throwaway, stories that have kept me engaged just enough to stick around and finish them. The Cold Forge is very, very different – in that it’s the first Alien novel to truly impress me. Alex White’s more minimal writing style – in comparison to the usually overwrought, unnecessarily detailed prose I’m used to in Alien novels) is perfect, with some astonishing sequences throughout. It’s laden with great ideas throughout too, whether that be the deep dive into xenobiology (with the fact that Alien impregnation is more complex than an embryo being implanted – the host’s DNA is actually rewritten), the fact that one character is a severely disabled woman who uses a male android’s body to get around, as well as details like the chimp-like, long-limbed Xenomorphs or the absolute piece de resistance: Dorian Sudler himself.
Sudler is an impressively horrific creation and his sociopathic nature, complete lack of empathy and manipulative nature is horrible, but undeniably fascinating. The book goes to some very dark places with Sudler, his ego, his penchant for cruelty and his appetite for superiority taking the reader on a horribly compelling journey. White has created the finest monster in the franchise bar the Aliens themselves and it’s not even close.
Disabled scientist Blue Marsalis – with her preference for using male host bodies to carry out her duties – is another great addition to the story and she’s a great nemesis for Sudler throughout.
The corporate intrigue is well-handled too, with some startling revelations and twists. It’s an utterly compelling book that is absolutely leagues ahead of the usually fairly conservative, ‘safe’ Alien spin-off novels. After so many entertaining but fairly workmanlike books – they’re not bad, per se – to read a book that stands proudly as a work of art, as The Cold Forge does, is a bit of a revelation. Sure, it may be a difficult book for some fans due to much of its viewpoint coming from such unlikeable, selfish characters, but it’s a ridiculously compelling read nonetheless. There’s no heroes here, but at least – with Sudler – Ripley’s indecision about which species is worse can finally be answered.
Spoiler: it’s us. I can’t recommend The Cold Forge enough: it’s stuffed to the brim with fascinating ideas and concepts, masterfully written and, with the truly horrendous Dorian Sudler at its centre, the series has its best non-Alien antagonist yet. You think Carter Burke was bad for locking up a defenceless woman and child to be impregnated by a facehugger in James Cameron’s 1986 movie? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, Alien: The Cold Forge is an incredible descent into horror, in which the Aliens are one of the least scary threats in the universe.
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