Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon is the first book in a trilogy of new original novels set in the Alien franchise. They are not a trilogy that tells a single, continuous narrative. Rather, each are designed to tie more directly into events from the existing films and explore some of the different eras in the franchise. These books also mark a slight change in branding, previous novels having been branded after the second film Aliens.
Set between the films Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986), the novel follows Chris “Hoop” Hooper and the crew of the Marion, an orbital mining vessel above the planet LV-178. Following a two-day communications blackout with the mining operation on the surface of the planet the shuttles Samson and Delilah return to the ship at full speed. While trying to contact the miners on board the crew witness horrible creatures bursting from the chests of some of the miners on the camera feed. Samson docks successfully on autopilot, but Delilah crashes into the station. With their orbit slowly degrading and their only working shuttle containing nightmares, all hope seems lost…until a long lost shuttle adrift in space picks up their distress call and comes for them.
Though not factoring hugely in the setup of this story, it’s not a surprise twist or anything that it is Ellen Ripley in the shuttle, last survivor of the Nostromo and hero of the film series. It is, however, something that hurt this book a lot more than it helped it. To give credit where it is due, Lebbon did do a fine job writing the character. She acted just as I’d expect Ripley to and it was easy to imagine Sigourney Weaver performing the role in this story. It was hard not to have immediate emotional attachment to her presence as well. My brothers and I watched the Alien films countless times growing up, so there was an immediate level of comfort and familiarity from the get-go.
The problem I have with her inclusion in this book is twofold. For one, it cheapens her journey as a character, especially her arc in the second film. She goes through a lot in this book that in many ways mirrors that film, though in less meaningful ways that make her future accomplishments seem less of a big deal. For two, it condemns this novel to towing a line. If the reader has any familiarity with the franchise (which is more than likely) they can immediately infer that regardless of what goes down Ripley has to a) get away alone and unscathed and b) have no memory of any of it happening. This cripples a lot of the tension throughout. Most of the book is a desperate, continual fight for survival. It was hard to find it compelling with the constant nagging knowledge of how things must turn out.
The crew of the Marion themselves were not bad, though they were sidelined as far as characterization goes, with the exception of Hoop. I liked his outlook, particularly on space travel and his childhood fixations on extraterrestrial life. He had a good moral compass and desire to do right by everyone around him, yet his life in space was a selfish choice, having all but left a wife and kids behind to pursue work out among the stars. This gave him some appreciable depth. Some of the others stood out a little too, such the science officer Sneddon, who is oddly fascinated with the aliens despite the horror they present. There were glimmers of personality in all of the core group who lasted throughout most of the book, but they were just that: glimmers. I wish I could have gotten to know them all better.
As far as the story goes, it did have its moments. Lebbon expanded upon the idea of finding an ancient alien craft and ruins in some intriguing ways without distracting too much from the threat at hand. I also appreciated how it didn’t go through the usual song and dance with discovering the eggs, investigating, getting impregnated, and so on and so forth. The pacing at the onset was actually pretty quick, getting into the nitty-gritty of the whole situation without a lot of filler. I really got the sense that it wasn’t just a matter of surviving the aliens, but the harshness of space when almost everything has gone wrong. It did tend to drag at times during the middle and end though, as once again the tension was constantly diffused by the knowledge of how things must turn out.
Within Out of the Shadows is a pretty decent Alien story. Lebbon thought a little more outside of the box with the setup, incorporated ancient alien civilizations without simply rehashing what we’ve seen before, and even expanded upon the creatures themselves with their behaviour and just how adaptable they really are. Hoop was a good character too and the others had potential. It’s a shame the presence of Ripley diffused most of the tension it was going for. This didn’t fit neatly into her existing story; she felt awkwardly shoehorned in. She’s a fantastic character, but she didn’t belong here. Her presence ensured she’d frequently get centre-stage too, which only exacerbated the problem. Maybe give the audio drama adaptation a try, but otherwise it’s quite skippable.
As a final aside, there were a couple of mistakes I caught that nagged me throughout. The Nostromo was at different points referred to as a salvage vessel despite being a tug ship, and a major plot point is that Ripley’s shuttle only has one hypersleep tube, despite the film clearly indicating it has two. It’s hard to abide by errors like that.
My rating: 2.5 out of 5