The first in an official trilogy of Alien novels from publishing company Titan Books (who was kind enough to give us this review copy), Tim Lebbon’s Out of the Shadows centers on Chris “Hoop” Hooper, a deep space engineer whose team encounters the iconic creatures when a shuttle full of them careens into his mining ship. Shortly thereafter, the miners run into none other than Ellen Ripley, the iconic character of the Alien franchise.
Out of the Shadows bridges the gap between the events of Alien and Aliens – which means it’s the untold story of Ellen Ripley’s big adventures during the time she’s supposed to be in hypersleep. (POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT: For the die-hard Alien fans, don’t worry, there’s a handy reset button that fits Lebbon’s novel well within the canon Alien universe.)
Overall, it’s not a bad read. I did enjoy some parts of it – mostly the battle sequences and chase scenes – but it took me an unnaturally long time to work my way through Out of the Shadows because I couldn’t keep myself invested. The plot structure is boring in its predictability – run, fight, explore, fight, run. After putting the book down, I had to scrounge up the energy to pick it back up again.
The thing is, Lebbon doesn’t have the greatest handle on his characters. Some of this likely has to do with the large amount of characters, even after the initial culling. There’s even less time to develop any of them once the action starts, so we’re just left with some names and a handful of shaky characteristics to differentiate them all.
Lachance: pilot, French accent, cynical. Baxter: communications officer and occasional bartender. Sneddon: scientist, inquisitive, “quietly attractive”. Kasaynov, doctor, panicky, “tall and fit”. Garcia: medic, small, attractive. (Here’s another thing I noticed about Lebbon – this is the second novel of his I’ve perused, and he has this tendency to introduce all of his female characters with a casually dropped line about their physical attractiveness, while somehow refraining from describing any of his male characters in this manner. The lines themselves aren’t terribly distracting; Lebbon doesn’t go on and on about it or anything, it just comes off as a… “Yes, she’s a highly capable scientist with a dangerous curiosity for the unknown, but get this: Dat Butt Hot” kind of thing. Make of that what you will.) Even Hoop, a main point-of-view character, comes off as just a stereotypical bland male hero type. I’ve been in his head for most of the book and I have nothing interesting to say about his character beyond “asshole absent father.”
Back to my original point in listing out all those bland characteristics: many of these characters bleed together, feeling and reacting similarly unless someone needs to make some ill-thought-out life choice in order to facilitate a change in the plot. Ripley’s the only one with any life to her – with dreams, struggles, and motivations beyond surviving, visceral fears about parenthood and saving humanity, and interesting decisions – but I can’t quite give Lebbon credit for that since he’s working off established source material.
It really feels like we’re meant to focus solely on Ripley as the VIP of the novel, with the supporting characters serving only to up the probability that Ripley survives by being fodder for the aliens. That’s not a great way of getting your readers to identify with or root for anyone.
Still, what Lebbon lacks in worthwhile character development, he makes up for in his frenetic, fast-paced action sequences. The fights feel realistically drawn out, the body horror exists in spades, and though I was never quite on the edge of my seat (recall: forgettable characters equals lack of investment in whether or not they survive) I was, at least, interested in the descriptions of aliens bursting out of human bodies.
Ripley’s hallucinations were by far my favorite bits of the novel – besides showcasing the previously mentioned “life” to Ripley’s character, they also contained some of the most terrifying and bloodiest sequences (save for a particular elevator scene). It’s like they say – imagination is often much worse than reality.
I would only recommend Out of the Shadows for the most casual of Alien fans – people unfamiliar with the franchise won’t get much out of it, and more hardcore fans will likely find it to be a pale imitation of their beloved films.