Alien: River of Pain by Christopher Golden is the third novel in the trilogy of canon Alien books that were published from 2013–2014. This novel tells the never-before-told story of Hadley’s Hope, the doomed colony and setting of the film Aliens. This colony was tasked with terraforming LV-426 (renamed Acheron), the planetoid where Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo had their nightmarish encounter with the Alien. The story follows Anne and Russell Jorden, two “wildcatters” who seek their fortune by surveying the planet, their children Rebecca (aka Newt) and Tim, and Captain Demian Brackett, the new CO of the colonial marines posted to the colony.
Ellen Ripley, long thought lost after the disappearance of the Nostromo 57-years previously, has been discovered adrift by a salvage crew. After her story is unraveled, the Weyland-Yutani Company sends survey coordinates to the science team at Hadley’s Hope, eager to rediscover the derelict ship on Acheron and secure a xenomorph specimen. Anne and Russ are ecstatic when they find the decaying vessel, but what they encounter within spells doom for their fledgling community.
This book was oddly divergent from the rest of the trilogy, especially considering how they were all published within a small window. The first two books, while differing in terms of characters and place in the franchise’s timeline, were connected by their shared setting. The second book, Sea of Sorrows, left things in suspense as well, ripe for a sequel. Instead of that, this finale treats us to fairly standard tie-in media fare, telling a story that is intrinsically tied to the film Aliens. On the one hand, this made this novel the most immediately appealing to me. I grew up loving Aliens, so getting to learn just how the colony succumbed to the xenomorphs was pretty tantalizing. On the other hand, it promised a foregone conclusion, which makes it difficult for the story to do much in the way of surprises.
Getting a closer look at how the colony ran was a bit of a mixed bag. The Company’s more insidious reasons for bankrolling a colony in such an inhospitable place was more front and centre, including a science team that protects and pursues their interests above all else, which I liked. This contrasted well with the more blue-collar colonists like Anne and Russ, just trying to make a living on a harsh frontier, unaware of how much they are deemed expendable. Early on in the novel we bear witness to some friends of theirs mentally broken down by the harshness of Archeron’s environment, giving an effective look at the toll colonizing a violently lifeless world could take. It didn’t add much to the story in the long run, but it wasn’t a bad touch either.
A questionable addition was the presence of colonial marines stationed at the colony, a detail not at all mentioned in the film. Their presence wasn’t outlandish, since the purpose of colonial marines is presumably to provide security and/or support for colonies, but they hurt the plot more than they helped it. I had always assumed that the colonists, with perhaps a token security force and some civilian firearms, were just average people forced to contend with the aliens. This would’ve tied in well with the branding of the novel too, as it is markedly an Alien book, not Aliens, the latter having a greater emphasis on action and combat than the feelings of helpless dread that the film Alien inspires.
The presence of Captain Brackett and a barracks of marines also created a discrepancy between this book and the film it is so closely tied to. When the xenomorphs first start infesting the colony, you would assume a well trained and equipped fighting force might be able to dispatch them, there being only a few. Problem is, the creatures are good at hiding and people keep going missing, leading to their numbers increasing. If only the marines could find these people, they could oust the “nest” before their numbers become too much to handle. A fair dilemma so far.
Thing is, if you’re familiar with the film (and why would you read the book if you’re not?), you’ll know that it establishes that colonists are fairly easy to track thanks to implanted Personal Data Transmitters. At first I thought the novel forget about them entirely, but as it turns out, the reason they aren’t used to locate the missing people and therefore the nest is…nobody thought of doing that until it was too late. I can be pretty forgiving, but this was just dumb that nobody in charge thought of doing this. I could understand a slapdash militia made up of technicians, surveyors, and administrators that know to use these PDTs failing to mount a daring rescue against a fledgling hive, if they even have the nerve to try. But the way the marines are contrived to fail just made them feel shoehorned into the story.
All of that being said, it still made for a pretty entertaining read. The characters, while two-dimensional at best, were still engaging enough that I cared about what happened to them, especially Captain Brackett. Acheron being a new post for him, I liked the way that he had to contend with both administration of the colony, which answers to corporate overlords that run the show more than expected, as well as the more unsavory types among his new marines, who would rather exploit the freedom that comes with living somewhere so remote than listen to their new CO.
Brackett also creates some tension with Anne and Russ, as Anne is a former lover of his that he’s not seen for some time. This quasi-romantic angle didn’t really go anywhere, but I enjoyed how their history led to Brackett having an amicable relationship with Newt, who offered a unique, childlike perspective on the horror unfolding around her. She also served as a bright spot in the story: with Acheron being the only home she’s known, she has a more cheerful outlook that contrasts well with the dreary adults around her, keeping the tone from being too dismal from the get-go.
The drama between Newt’s parents was decent as well, giving us a further glimpse at how colonial life out in the universe could be rougher than the more idealistic representations we get in other media. As necessitated by the plot and its connection to Aliens, however, the friction between them is ultimately short-lived and I wish other relationships had been developed a little more substantially.
Another enjoyable aspect of this book was that it actually adapts some scenes from Alien and Aliens, typically involving Ripley, to better weave the novel as a whole into that latter movie. Golden does a really good job of transferring them to the page, capturing Ripley’s voice especially well. These sections definitely helped raise my esteem for the book, though I can only give them so much credit because I loved those scenes already, separate from the book itself. The eventual mayhem caused by the xenomorphs themselves unfolded in typical franchise fashion, with them lurking in the shadows, showing up unexpectedly, and picking off colonists and marines one by one. If you find that fun, as I did, there’s plenty of entertainment value there too.
It’s hard to recommend River of Pain to anyone who doesn’t have at least a decent remembrance of the first two Alien films, as it is so closely tied to the plotlines of those movies. If you’re a fan, however, it does a decent job of fleshing out an unseen event, though again, believe it would have been better off without the addition of more marines. It did actually have some nice, expected twists though, which did a good job of changing things up a little while still preserving canon. It’s not my favourite of this trilogy, but I think it may be the best written, held back creatively by the fact that it is beholden to so much existing content.
My Rating: 3 out of 5