Alien: Sea of Sorrows by James A. Moore is the second novel in a new trilogy of canon Alien books that came out in 2013-2014. Set centuries after Ellen Ripley’s encounters with the deadly xenomorphs, this story follows her descendant Alan Decker, an engineer working for the Interstellar Commerce Commission. He suffers a workplace injury on the colonized planet of New Galveston while investigating the toxic sands of a region dubbed the “Sea of Sorrows”, which severely aggravates the low-level empathic abilities he’s had since birth. This attracts the attention of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, who forcibly recruit him to accompany a band of mercenaries beneath the Sea of Sorrows to a try and capture a live xenomorph specimen.
My expectations for this book were somewhat skewed by the fact that I wasn’t especially fond of this first book in this new trilogy, Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon. As it turns out, the way Sea of Sorrows connects with this book created a glaring problem with its story. Namely, it takes place in the same mine/buried alien (non-xenomorph) ruin that the creatures from the first book emerged from. The problem is, at the end of that book the entire site was destroyed by an explosion visible from orbit. That site is somehow largely intact in this book. Maybe the ruin was deep enough to be less effected by the explosion than the characters expected, but no obvious explanation was given. I personally can hand-wave it away, but it was still a glaring oversight.
With that continuity error notwithstanding, I was pleased to find this book to be one of the better Alien stories I’ve read in quite a while. This was thanks in large part to the cast that Moore took an appreciable amount of time building, especially Alan Decker. While decently well-traveled throughout space as an ICC engineer, Decker worked well as an everyman severely put upon by those with power over him. Though he does an exemplary job surviving when things got dicey, he always felt absolutely stretched thin and compromised by the havoc he’s forced to deal with, especially as his empathic abilities are overloaded by the hate radiating from the xenomorphs. Moore did a good job of making me care about him as well, meaningfully establishing his ex-wife and how much he loves his kids, who grow up so fast thanks to all the space travel he undergoes.
A decent cast of supporting characters fill the ranks as well, most of them comprised of different mercenaries who accompany Decker down into the mine on New Galvestons. Most were not deeply fleshed out, but had enough personality to them that they could keep the story going where Decker was absent. I had a particular fondness for Manning, the team’s leader, whose domineering presence was harsh yet oddly fair. His distaste for Decker was also amusing, especially when contrasted with Decker’s usefulness, as his abilities were great for detecting when the creatures were about to attack and from what direction. The grudging respect yet dislike they clearly had for each other kept me invested a lot of the time.
The early portions of the novel were the strongest to me, because once the action got going it didn’t really let up for the rest of the book. We got plenty of moments of quiet with the characters early on, with some especially great scenes of corporate villainy from the company and their employee heading the whole operation, Andrea Rollins (definitely an android). As the true villainous masterminds of the book, I really liked how they were presented as more upfront this time around. They aren’t trying to use guile or subterfuge to sneak a xenomorph into their possession, but instead force Decker into a position where he cannot help but be coerced into cooperation. They way the are so coldly ready to send so many men and women to their deaths in securing specimens was quite effective too.
Like I said, once the action got going it didn’t really let up, and while it managed to stay interesting enough the majority of the time, it also became rather played out. Within the mine, the command centre tried to maintain tenuous control over civilians and communication with the away team, while the away team led by Manning with Decker in tow tried to navigate the alien passageways, fighting off attacks along the way.
It became a predictable ebb and flow between the group being attacked and escaping/exploring. Because the group had such a clear objective there as well, without any serious plan in place, it felt like a lot of action with ultimately little substance to it. Despite heavy causalities, the goal never changed for Manning either, yet most of their activity amounted to firing their guns and groping through the dark, until an opportune moment happened to arise. I understand that the xenomorphs are exceptional at laying waste to even the best laid plans, but I wish the whole thing had just felt more coordinated on the part of the humans.
A unique touch to this story that I really enjoyed were the moments we get to see from the perspective of the xenomorphs themselves. Maintaining the concept of the xenomorphs having genetically inherited memories established in Alien Resurrection (which is referenced in passing), the creatures despise Decker as a descendant of Ripley, whom they dub “the destroyer” and direct much of their aggression toward him. It was fun to see them as more feeling creatures, rather than simple coldblooded killers (which they still very much were). Getting insight into the way they view hive structure, prey, and the steps they must take to ensure survival was surprisingly well done too, offering a glimpse into their minds without completely spoiling their mystique.
I’m not sure what more I can say about Alien: Sea of Sorrows. While I think it was well told, it was still a fairly standard Alien story, which comes with its fairly predictable elements if you’re familiar with the franchise. One thing I will say most pleasantly surprised me was the ending, though, which was much more bold than I expected and has me excited for a narrative sequel to this book. It has its flaws, but it’s a commendable expansion upon the Alien franchise worth checking out.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5