Watching Aliens, the one question that comes to mind more than any other is what happened to the colonists on LV-426. Most of them ended up as face-hugger fodder, but how did things go from life as normal to unimaginable horror? The new book from Titan Books Alien: River of Pain tells readers exactly what happened, in all of its terrifying detail.
Alien: River of Pain bridges the gap between Alien and Aliens, though it leans more heavily on the Aliens side of the timeline. The book starts off by taking some quick hops through time, hitting on semi-important events in the timeline such as Ripley in the Narcissus and Newt’s birth, finally stopping with the discovery of the Narcissus, which starts off Aliens. From there the book moves pretty consistently, interweaving the new material with scenes from Aliens as they fit chronologically.
At first this comingling of stories annoyed me. Already being so familiar with the movie, I didn’t want to read a book that rehashed the same scenes I already knew and loved. If I wanted to see them, I’d just pop in the DVD and enjoy them in their original form. However, as the book went on, I found my opinion changing. The scenes that were lifted from the movie were done so with such precision and fidelity that I couldn’t help but appreciate the level of reverence the author showed for the source material. With only one (maybe two) very minor exceptions, the dialogue was presented word for word as it was in the movie. Aside from revealing my unhealthy level of knowledge with regards to the film, this attention to detail makes it obvious that author Christopher Golden cared about getting things right. In addition, the fact that only those specific scenes which were truly relevant to the events in the book were used demonstrates that considerable thought was put into the inclusion of these scenes.
Most of the story takes place on Acheron (LV-426) and deals with the colonists of Hadley’s Hope (the official name of the colony proper) as well as a small contingent of Colonial Marines. From this pool, we get our three protagonists: Captain Demian Brackett, the new commanding officer of the marines, Anne Jorden, a wildcatter and mother to the third lead, Rebecca “Newt” Jorden who most people will recognize as the little girl from Aliens. Capt. Brackett and Anne Jorden are former lovers who just happen to be reconnected when Brackett is stationed to Acheron.
The plot itself is fairly obvious, since anyone who is familiar with Aliens knows that things don’t go well for the colonists. What makes the book enjoyable is the journey toward that inevitable end. The book’s pacing mirrors that of the movies, which tend towards slow opening halves and then run with break neck speed towards the end. I read the last 130 pages of the book in one night. While, at times predictable, the book never-the-less transforms nicely into a serious page turner as things go from bad to worse for the colonists. The tension continues to build as the book progresses through well described action that is both nerve-racking and somewhat graphic. More than a few characters meet their end in a dreadful manner at the hands of an alien or at the mercy of their acid blood.
Of course, no Alien story would be complete without the Xenomorphs themselves. Golden uses a wide variety of characters to provide readers with a sense of just how intelligent the aliens are. Several times the aliens make use of a situation better than a person would, turning everything available to their advantage. This characteristic is a stark reminder that the species has been breed to be the most efficient killing machine possible and that it makes use of everything around it to achieve this biological imperative. Some characters even develop a grudging respect for the creatures and their purity of purpose.
My biggest complaint about the book is the ham-fisted relationship between Anne and Brackett. While at times the backstory of the characters having been lovers is used to drive the actions of both parties, it never feels like a strong or well defined enough reason for what they do. At no point did I find myself agreeing that either person’s actions were reasonable for an ex, especially after so much time had passed. The relationship could have just as easily been that of close friends; the story would have arrived at the same place, and been far more believable. I’m inclined to think the author was trying mirror the unaddressed sexual tension between Ripley and Hicks in Aliens, but the backstory provided doesn’t allow that mechanic to work the way it was intended to.
Another, lesser concern of mine has to do with the portrayal of the Weyland-Yutani science team. For those who are not as familiar with the franchise, Weyland-Yutani is “The Company” that is referred to in Alien and Aliens. They are Ripley’s former employer as well as the co-sponsor and co-financers of the colony on Acheron. They are generally portrayed as an evil corporation that cares only about its bottom line, and not about its people. Of course, this evil nature is personified on Acheron by the science team, specifically the three lead scientists. Without giving away too much, it is clear, almost from their introduction, that the science team has ulterior motives and that they couldn’t care less about the colony, should it interfere with their agenda. While stories usually require some form of villain I was disappointed in the obvious and unskillful manner in which these characters were set up to take that role. I do appreciate the fact that an effort was made to give the reader something besides the aliens to hate, but it could have been done with more finesse.
Alien: River of Pain is a book that is fully self-aware and doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It is an enjoyable, light read based on licensed material. While it may not provoke any deep philosophical conversations between readers, it will provide a few hours of entertainment for most anyone with at least a passing enjoyment of the Alien franchise. 4/5 Death Stars