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Author Alex White’s previous Alien novel, Alien: The Cold Forge, was a remarkable book – though it took place in a Weyland-Yutani lab in which experiments to weaponise Xenomorphs were underway (and about to go very, very wrong), the main characters – disabled African-American scientist Blue Marsalis and Weyland-Yutani auditor Dorian Sudler – gave the book a depth that’s often missing from most of the Alien tie-in novel series. Marsalis – with her preference for wirelessly occupying the body of a white, blonde-haired male synthetic to carry out her work, provided a unique look at a future in which notions of gender, race and even physical ability can be much more fluid with the assistance of technology. Sudler, on the other hand – in many ways the nemesis of Marsalis – gave us a look at a horrifically cold, calculating and manipulative bastard, all too willing to see lives destroyed or wiped out to justify his salary and protect Weyland-Yutani’s bottom line. It felt almost as if Sudler was Weyland-Yutani personified; a ruthless corporate entity viewing human life as there to be used, manipulated and cast aside – as well as entirely expendable if it meant making more profit.

White’s follow-up novel in the same universe is Alien: Into Charybdis, which does follow on from The Cold Forge – albeit in ways that can’t be anticipated.

A team of American tech specialists are hired to set up communications equipment for the Hasanova Data Solutions colony, which is owned and populated by Iranian citizens. The team’s work gets off to a reasonably straightforward start despite diplomatic tensions between the US technicians and the Iranians – but when the colony is attacked by a deadly creature and the Colonial Marines are called in for assistance, all hell breaks loose. The political situation, already on a knife edge, reaches breaking point, adding more than just Xenomorphs into the list of threats facing the colony…

As with The Cold Forge, White writes with an impressive level of detail; here, Iranian cultural references are deeply ingrained in both the people and surroundings of the colony, with the buildings being far from the usual industrial, metal design of the Weyland-Yutani facilities we’re used to seeing our Xenomorph action based in. There’s a much bigger cast of characters in Into Charybdis too, with no obvious protagonist – at least at first. At least one character returns from The Cold Forge to continue their journey, but even this takes an entirely unexpected, very leftfield turn too. There’s a remarkable, admirable willingness on White’s part to throw curveballs into the narrative, with seemingly important characters at the forefront of the action meeting sudden, unanticipated ends.

It’s a hugely satisfying read that keeps readers on their toes throughout; it’s hugely unpredictable and throws in elements from all eras of the Alien saga, including the much-maligned duo of prequels, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. It’s to White’s credit that even this is handled well, despite my own lack of interest in that part of the saga (mostly due to the clumsy and uninteresting narratives of both films). Alien: Into Charybdis may not feature as iconic and downright evil a monster as Dorian Sudler (and in fact, the antagonist here is a bit of a pantomime villain by comparison – being one of the book’s few weak points), but it’s biggest achievement is a hugely compelling look at a unique setting with excellent world-building; and also an explosive political situation that – like all the best science fiction – is a window through which we can see our own world. Our reality is one of often frighteningly unstable diplomatic tensions, for the most part kept from our attention by those in power – though the book may not be subtle in this regard, there’s a unique feeling of seeing the America/Iran tensions mostly from the viewpoint of the side we’re not used to seeing it from. It’s also a generally overlooked part of the Alien future; the socio-political situation of which is something we’ve only really seen referred to in passing before.

Much bigger in scope and scale than The Cold Forge, Alien: Into Charybdis is a hugely ambitious work that takes us on an often surprising journey, with twists and turns that cannot possibly be anticipated. It’s another strong addition to the saga by Alex White – and hopefully, isn’t the last contribution to the series from them.

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