Review by C.J. Bunce
The Alien universe makes a major shift in storytelling in its latest novel, Alien: Colony War, realizing the long-standing promise of Weyland-Yutani, the most hated corporation in sci-fi, finally weaponizing Xenomorphs for an all-out interplanetary war. In the running for the most action-packed story in the series, it also covers a lot of territory, merging political intrigue with personal trials and one of the best examinations of its cybernetic Synthetic characters yet. Writer David Barnett taps into surprising tropes as he weaves into the bigger Alien narrative stories from the comics and video games. It has the suspense of Into Thin Air, the pacing of Jurassic Park, the layered plight of cyborgs from the Humans TV series, and dips back into science fiction’s past with a dose of Forbidden Planet. That’s a pretty good mix for an Alien adventure.
Each of the heroes of this tale is wanted by Weyland-Yutani. It all started with Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda, who moviegoers first learned of in the movie Aliens (don’t confuse her with the girl named Newt). Fleshed out in the Alien: Isolation video game from 2019, her backstory includes a marriage to Chad McLaren, a former biomedical scientist at Weyland-Yutani, now whistleblower. McLaren is one of the leads of Alien: Colony War, years after his wife was put into cryofreeze in the hopes he can one day save her from cancer. Readers catch up with him after he acquires the disembodied artificial intelligence program of a former security drone named Davis, who is later put into a synthetic dog. Chad and Davis the Dog are straight out of Charlie Fletcher’s A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World (later made into the 1975 film A Boy and His Dog). Davis is comfortable as a dog, but speaks and acts human, striving like many a cyborg to transform one day from Pinocchio status to that of a real boy (or here, a man). Together their banter gives this new Alien world a gravitas similar to that of Blade Runner and its Replicants, something beyond the Synthetics of the Alien movies.
The duo wants to bring Weyland-Yutani’s immoral, unethical, and dangerous experiments with Xenomorphs to the public’s attention, and so they tap a journalist on Earth named Cherokee aka Cher Hunt to take her to see the monsters firsthand. Hunt’s sister Cheyenne aka Shy was killed on a planet that becomes the centerpiece of this story, LV-187, and so she’s the best candidate to try to learn why, and she does dig up surprising schemes. The author uses Cher as the audience representative, getting educated on Weyland-Yutani and the Xenomorph development stages, so the book also might be the easiest jumping-on point for any of the novels.
A United Kingdom colony in space called New Albion breaks from the Three World Empire, igniting the current crisis of colonial politics. And of course when you think of imperialism this is absolutely the most British Alien story yet (a few places include some phrases that may puzzle American readers, but they don’t get in the way of the story). At the same time author Barnett doesn’t forget about barely tapped nuances of the other side of the Alien coin: the Xenomorphs, those villainous monsters of the franchise. Giving the reader equally weighted doses of Xenomorphs and Synthetics, the two key aspects of what makes Alien… Alien, is what makes this one of the better Alien novels. It also has a lighter touch when it comes to the grotesque horror potential found in previous franchise creations. But don’t take that to mean it’s devoid of horror–it contains some of the franchise’s most psychological of horrors, particularly in a sequence that may conjure the “Brain Bugs” of Starship Troopers.
I do wish the author had maximized the cyber-dog experience with Davis. The story has some clever dry British wit in its A.I. dog, of the Howard the Duck variety. Davis is a little bit like Chevy Chase as Benji in Oh Heavenly Dog! or Blood the dog in A Boy and His Dog, or even Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy–but more would have been better here. The author addresses some commonality of dilemmas readers may recall in the WE3 comic series. Davis the Dog tends to fall in love with human women. He’s an AI character, and not truly borg, so it’s slightly easier to stomach the idea that he’s in a robot dog body, never a real dog. And any jeopardy he gets into in the story is balanced with the jeopardy of a six-year-old girl who McLaren & Co. encounter on the new New Albion colony planet–tapping into some poignancy straight out of one of the best relationships in the Humans TV series, that of its character DI Karen Voss and her son.
This is the biggest incorporation of elements from the comic books and video game stories yet. You can learn more about Davis, Amanda Ripley, and the target of Davis’s affection, Pvt. Zula Hendricks, in the brilliant Tim Waggoner novel Alien: Prototype (reviewed here) and the comics/graphic novels Aliens: Resistance, Aliens: Rescue, and Aliens: Defiance, as well as the Alien: Isolation video game. And speaking of games, the Titan Books series of novels this year include an adventure tie-in for use with Alien: The Roleplaying Game, which I reviewed earlier this summer here at borg.
This novel is the glue that connects several past stories, leading into Alien: Inferno’s Fall, featuring Davis’s last love, Zula. Look for a review of that August release coming soon to borg. Until then, get caught up on the Alien universe with Alien: Colony War, now available here at Amazon.