Fifty-seven years passed between the events of Ridley Scott's Alien and James Cameron's Aliens, and during that entire time, Ellen Ripley slept in stasis. At least, that's what we were told. Now along comes author Tim Lebbon to tell us that wasn't actually the case.
Alien: Out of the Shadows, the first in a barrage of Alien books coming this year from Titan Books (more on those in a minute), begins an all-new tale about what happened during those "lost" five decades and change. The book picks up some 37 years after the destruction of the Nostromo. The Marion is a mining ship much like the Nostromo, crewed by a rough-edged bunch of space jockeys in charge of a mining operation on planet LV178. It's a boring, repetitive job right up until the day the miners discover something other than trimonite below the planet's surface. When several of those somethings find their way onto a couple of drop ships headed back to the Marion, the routine operation rapidly goes south.
Those somethings are, of course, aliens, and their presence on the drop ships proves disastrous. Both ships crash into the Marion, setting off a chain of death and destruction that whittles the ship's population down to a handful of people...and a few very unwelcome monsters. In a tense sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the book, the crew manages to isolate the damage – and the creatures – long enough to send out a distress signal and assess just how bad their situation has become. (Spoiler: VERY bad.) When a shuttle responds to the signal several weeks later, the crew hopes for a rescue - but instead they find a sleeping Ellen Ripley, a woman about to wake up to the fact that the nightmare she's been living has only just begun.
In many ways, Out of the Shadows echoes Cameron's film, and while it's always a thrill for hardcore fans to see callbacks to their favorite franchises, it makes Lebbon's job here difficult. We've already seen Ripley awaken from a long sleep; seen her come to grips with how long she's been gone, and how that absence impacted her daughter; and we've seen her face the realization that she hasn't escaped the aliens that terrorized her after all. Those parts of the story, and others which otherwise might have brought a chill to Alien fans, have already been mined for their emotional resonance.
But Tim Lebbon is a pro, and a damn good writer. He's proven through volumes of original horror and fantasy work, not to mention several previous forays into established franchises (Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi - Into the Void, the Cabin in the Woods novelization, and many others) that he knows how to build fascinating worlds and good solid characters, and that's just what he does here. Part of what makes those first two Alien films work so well is the attachment fans formed with the characters. Both of those films featured crews of men and women that felt real and alive; you got the sense with both the Nostromo's crew and the Colonial Marines that these were people who had been through the fire together. Lebbon establishes that same feeling with the Marion's crew, and the fact that so many of them are lost early on makes you root harder for the ones who are left. We all know Ripley's going to make it to the end of this particular tale, so it's critical that we're invested in the other characters to make the book work. Lebbon makes it work.
Other strong points include the book's pacing, which starts fast and keeps cranking, and its atmosphere. We know what the aliens are capable of, which makes it even more suspenseful as we watch the Marion's crew try to come to grips with what they're up against. Lebbon crafts several tense scenes, both onboard the crippled Marion and down in the mines on LV178, that keep the book moving forward.
Of course, when you inject something new into established continuity, there will be some things to question, such as why Ripley never addresses any of these events when she's awakened in Aliens. Lebbon doesn't answer all those questions here, but there's a good reason why: Out of the Shadows is the first book in a trilogy. James A. Moore will pick up the threads with Sea of Sorrows (July 2014) and Christopher Golden will wrap the story up with River of Pain (November 2014). Hopefully everything will dovetail nicely into Cameron's film by the end of book three.
Alien: Out of the Shadows is a fun read, and while it may be too much for hardcore continuity-bound fans to accept, I think those looking for a fun read with plenty of familiar elements will enjoy it. Lebbon isn't looking to reinvent the franchise here – he's just trying to tell a kick-ass tale within the established boundaries. In that, I think he's succeeded.
Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon from Titan Books (Available now)
Alien: Sea of Sorrows by James A. Moore from Titan Books (due out in July 2014)
Alien: River of Pain by Christopher Golden from Titan Books (due out in November 2014, but not available for pre-order yet)
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.