Interesting Alien Novel
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 7 June 2022
The Alien series has always done social commentary, whether it's looking at the corruption of large companies and the way they treat those who work for them as expendable resources, the over confident military system that thinks it can solve every problem with superior technology being beaten by 'primitive' foes, or incarceration and the way prisoners are treated. This is a series that has always had something to say, even if some folks miss those themes and focus on the killer aliens and the horror. Alien: Colony War is possibly one of the more overt books in this regard, and because it's taking a look at politics rather than corporations (though the two are so often linked) it seems to have thrown a few people and garnered some mixed reviews. However, thanks to some interesting political commentary, some good characters, and set-up for bigger things in the future, I think this is one of the more interesting entries in the series to date.
Alien: Colony War ties into several other novels, such as Alien: Isolation, and Alien: Prototype, as well as a few of the comic series that have explored characters such as Amanda Ripley, Zula Hendricks, and Davis. As such, if you're not completely up to date with everything there will be some sections of the book where you'll be having to play catch-up (I was in this category), but David Barnett does give the reader all of the important information that you need as the story unfolds; meaning that you're not going to come out of the book without understanding what happened.
The story begins on a private towing and salvage ship, the Clara, which is secretly transporting a cache of Xenomorph eggs they found on a salvage mission. They wake up in the Weyland Isles System, a part of space that has been colonised by the British. They learn that whilst they were asleep in cryo someone snuck onto the ship and stole the eggs. Unfortunately for them, they don't have long to ponder this issue as the ship was also sabotaged, and they crash onto the planet below, New Albion.
At the same time we're introduced to Merrilyn Hambelton and her daughter Therese on the French controlled world of LV-187, a small colony set up to mine the vast quantities of oil beneath the planet's surface. The colony came under attack by Xenomorphs a few weeks before, the creatures killing or capturing most of the colonists. Merrilyn and Therese have manged to survive by hiding and sneaking around, but their odds of survival are going down.
We're also introduced to Cher Hunt, a journalist who is looking into the death of her sister. After receiving cryptic messages about the incident she travels to New Albion hoping to find answers. It's here that she meets her contact, Chad McLaren, husband of Amanda Ripley, and the rogue AI Davis, who's inhabiting the body of a synthetic dog. Chad and Davis outline the details of Cher's sister's death and the existence of the Xenomorphs. The three of them decide to head to LV-187 to try and find proof of their existence, and evidence that can be used against those trying to weaponize the creatures. Little do they know, they've just entered a web of political double-dealing and plots that could plunge this part of the galaxy into war.
There are a lot of threads in Alien: Colony War, a lot of things going on in the background and characters to keep track of. If you're looking for a simple story of a group of characters fighting the Xenos to stay alive you do get that here, but of that's all you're after this book might be giving you more than you were expecting. In a lot of ways this feels like a middle part of a series, a stepping stone in a larger story; and that might put some casual readers off. We have the history of returning characters like Chad and Davis, and their history with the Xenos and other important figures to deal with. There's also the feeling like this book is setting up a lot of stuff that's going to be important going forward, with an ending that seems like it's going to reverberate into the rest of the Alien universe for a long while to go.
But how does it read if you're not abreast of everything? Well, it's still a good book, and you shouldn't be put off reading it just because you don't know everything. The stuff that happens on LV-187 is good, scary Xnomorph stuff, with a small group of survivors trying to stay alive long enough to escape the ever growing hive. There are some great tense moments as the characters are sneaking through the dark halls of the facility, trying to get to the next place they hope can provide shelter, and when the Xenos come they're fast, brutal, and frightening; which is everything you need from this kind of story.
Barnett also does a decent job of getting you invested in the characters quickly, thanks in part to Merrilyn and Therese. This mother daughter relationship gets you attached fairly fast, and it's a common type of relationship to the series. It hearkens back to Ripley and Newt in Aliens, and I like those kind of themes coming back from time to time, as motherhood and family are important parts of the franchise. There are some less savoury characters that make appearances on the colony too, and whilst at first you don't like them they do begin to grow on you over time and win you over because they're not outright evil, and you end up sighing with disappointment when they invariably meet an awful end because you actually find yourself wanting them to stick around more.
The characters and the sections of the book that I've seen receive the most discussion is the politicians on New Albion and the themes of British patriotism and imperialism. It's pretty obvious from the book that David Barnett is not a fan of 'Britain', and I say that in the sense of the kind of people who voted to leave the EU, who trash the streets when their teams lose at football, who vote Tory, and who we in the UK like to describe as 'flag-shaggers'. The book has a very negative view of this new upsurge in isolationism that Britain has, and transcribes it to the narrative here. Instead of breaking away from the EU, New Albion is declaring itself independent, trying to recapture the 'glory' of the British Empire. I guess they'll be doing some genocides then.
These sections of the book are very on the nose, and the leader of New Albion, Maurice Pepper, was instantly Boris Johnson in my head. In the few scenes he was in Barnett managed to inject him with the same kind of mannerisms and jumped up sense of self importance that Johnson has. It was surprisingly well done, and did make me instantly hate this man. So if that was the goal, it was achieved brilliantly. The political parts of the book aren't the main focus, and there's definitely much more of the book given over to Xenomorphs and the traditional elements of the series; but these sections are important and seem to be setting up larger changes to come.
There is something else in this book that I've seen people talk about, and it is a pretty big spoiler for the ever unfolding lore, so if you don't want spoilers jump ahead to the next paragraph. Some folks learnt in this book that the death of Amanda Ripley as we were told in Aliens is in fact a lie. I don't know how much of this was known before this point as I'm not fully up to date on all the comic releases, but we get told here that Amanda Ripley didn't die as an old woman a few years before Ripley came back, and is instead in cryo to stop cancer from killing her after spending years fighting Weyland-Yutani and the Xenomorphs. I've seen some people disliking this, and I can understand this reaction, but I kind of like it. I like it because this series is always expanding and changing, so having characters like Amanda out there that can be used is always a good thing. I also like it because it makes the second film so much more tragic. Ripley was suffering because she thought her daughter had died. She went to LV-426 in large part because of that loss. And all of that happened whilst her daughter was still alive, and walking a similar path to her. It makes it feel all the more tragic because she could have had that reunion she wanted so badly, but missed out on it. I also don't agree that is messes up continuity, as Amanda's death was faked for her protection, and we got told of her death bu Weyland-Yutani, who we know are not to be trusted. It changes things, yes, but I don't think it breaks things. And I think it adds some interesting developments to the series and the Ripley family.
I've seen some criticism of this book online, some folks who didn't like some of the new developments as mentioned in the above paragraph, and some people who weren't as fond of the political stuff. But these elements mixed in with the more traditional fight for survival story made this more interesting for me. I found that it tried some new things and did stuff differently, and because of that I think this is an enjoyable read that Alien fans will want to try out.
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