Marketed as the first book in a brand-new trilogy set between 1979’s Alien and 1986’s Aliens, Out of the Shadows follows deep-space engineer Chris Hooper and his crew on the ship Marion as they are plagued with the same xenomorph infestation as the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s horror epic. Other reviews have been less than kind to Out of the Shadows, however I believe it is an ambitious and interesting novel.
The plot is told in three parts, similar to the three acts of a film, each of which vary considerably in quality. The first act, set mainly on the Marion, is used to introduce us to the variety of characters on the ship. There’s plenty of detail and each character is given enough time for the reader to be invested in them. That said, there are definitely some characters that were clearly only put in the book to be brutally killed by the alien, and although that’s unsurprising, it’s definitely disappointing that you can spot the red-jackets a mile off. However, author Tim Lebbon was often very clever in his introduction of characters, sometimes focusing on characters that die almost immediately during the book, something that not only caught me off guard but pleasantly surprised me.
The second act focuses on the remainder of the Marion’s crew as they descend onto planet LV178 in search for a fuel cell. They enter a massive industrial mine, and quite like a mine, this is the most repetitive and monotonous part of the novel. The pace drops considerably and there is too much time devoted to action rather than character building, with each encounter with the xenomorphs feeling almost the same, just with some characters swapped around. Lebbon’s descriptions here aren’t the best either, at times a bit too vague to the point that I couldn’t really visualise the landscapes he was describing, and his word choice – particularly in this second part – is quite poor, sometimes confusingly using general terms such as ‘him’ or ‘her’ without stating which character is in question, also throwing me off. His repetitive use of certain words, most noticeably ‘detritus’ only adds to the repetitive feel of this section, but there are a few really interesting elements that are introduced here – it’s not all bad.
The third act picks up the pace after quite a slow, monotonous second act and vastly improves on the story, in my opinion the best of all three acts. It perfectly balances character moments – there were times my pulse was racing due to the urgency of some of the situations and the implications of some decision – and action, with some fantastic set pieces and unexpected deaths throwing me off completely. It was a massive improvements on the second act, and was arguably the novel’s best section.
The variety of characters introduced in this book are also really interesting, some feeling like worthy inclusions to the Alien franchise. Lead man Chris Hooper does feel quite generic and was very much played as a typical action hero, but other more interesting characters such as scientist Karen Sneddon and Lucy Jordan having really interesting arcs. Of course, the biggest hook of the book is that Sigourney Weaver’s legendary Ellen Ripley is back, and I’ll admit that although sceptic to begin with – I felt it tacked on and lazy to include such a renowned character – I really liked Lebbon’s portrayal of her. He hit the nail on the head with Ripley, combining the perfect amount of confidence and weakness, especially when considering her recent encounter with the alien on the Nostromo. Unfortunately, since this is a prequel-style book, Ripley inevitably has no real arc and her character is effectively reset, which felt like a waste considering the time that was spent building up relationships between her and other characters, particularly with Hoop. More surprisingly, though, was the inclusion of the malevolent AI Ash from the first Alien film, this time infecting the computer systems instead of being a physical presence. At first I felt like he had no effect on the story and was also tacked-on, but when Lebbon cleverly reveals Ash’s entire plan and the impact he has had, I was gobsmacked.
It’s by no stretch of the imagination perfect, but Alien – Out of the Shadows is a decent prequel novel that combines the claustrophobic horror elements of Alien with the rip-roaring, intense action of Aliens, all while introducing fleshed-out, believable characters to tell an interesting, if unbalanced, story. How the next two books in this new trilogy will pan out, I’m not sure, because Lebbon gave this book a great ending, but I’m certainly looking forward to finding out after this promising trilogy-opener.
I give Alien – Out of the Shadows 3/5.