I love Alien. Perhaps the only things I love nearly as much as Alien are the non-film spin-offs that have been slowly populating the property’s galaxy over the past decades and which are, in some cases, better than some of the films. The late 80s Dark Horse comic series, for example, is still perhaps some of the most terrifying Alien content ever released. And, more recently, the excellent Alien: Isolation made full use of the immersion that only video games can provide to construct a hugely atmospheric narrative.
Coiled through all of this world-building material, linking existing stories with original narratives, is the series of novels from Titan Books of which Alien: Prototype is the latest instalment.
Set shortly after the events of Isolation, Prototype centres around the character of Zula Hendricks. An ex-Marine – whose backstory is told in the Alien: Defiance series of comics – Zula is now in charge of training the Colony Protection Force of Jericho 3. An otherwise unremarkable planet, Jericho 3 is under the control of mega-corporation Venture and houses not only their colonist training facilities but also [ominous music intensifies] a biotech R&D lab under the supervision of less-than-responsible Dr Gagnon.
Yep, Prototype is that age-old story of unethical scientist meets Xenomorph, unethical scientist loses Xenomorph, and Xenomorph goes on a murderous rampage. And that’s not all. The human subject that Gagnon uses to gestate the Xenomorph has also, previously, been part of the doctor’s investigations into cellular necrosis and Xenomorphs take on some characteristics of their host. Gagnon accidentally creates not a Xenomorph but what he quickly dubs a Necromorph: a Xenomorph infected with, but immune to, a hyper-aggressive and contagious form of the bacteria that cause cellular necrosis in human tissue.
Which is where the book’s problems start.
Being hunted by a Xenomorph is scary. Contracting a fatal wasting disease is also scary. Waggoner has made the easy assumption that putting the two together would be twice as scary. Yet, as easy assumptions often turn out, this is not correct. The thing about Alien – the thing which makes it a horror film and Aliens an action film – is that everything focuses on the Xenomorph and the gravity well of terror that it generates. As soon as you add another threat into that mix, especially something equally horrifying, then it only serves as a reminder that there are other horrors in the world. An outbreak of disease in a confined space certainly helps narratively, as it adds a dash of chaos and unpredictability. But the Xenomorph’s immunity to that disease diminishes its prowess as a predator; it just needs to pick off panicked victims whenever it gets the chance. Adding to this lessening of the horror are a few awkward sections told from the Xenomorph’s point of view. Waggoner is quick to tell us that the creature has “no cognitive abilities” but does so while having it express thoughts of revenge and malice. Again, this diminishes the quite literally alien nature, the sheer otherness, of the Xenomorph. The best, the most terrifying Alien narratives, don’t dwell on whether the Xenomorphs are “just” animals or have some human-like cognitive abilities but imply their fundamental otherness to anything we would consider as emotion or reason.
Yet, that said, Alien stories don’t always have to be completely focused on horror. The Vietnam War allegory of Aliens is as valid as the vampire motifs of Alien and combat is as much a part of the canon as horror. Prototype does include a number action set-pieces, either with humans or the Necromorph on the offensive, but they’re too sparse and spread out (or simply too inevitable) to generate any real threat. This sparseness is compounded by the story being told from multiple viewpoints: that of Hendricks and Gagnon, the corporate spy Tamar Prather, Gagnon’s synthetic assistant Brigitte, the facility overseer Aleta Fuentes and several minor, soon-to-be-killed figures. This means that information we already know as readers is reiterated between characters, making their dialogue feel repetitive and slow.
In fact, the writing as a whole is workmanlike and unremarkable. One character has her hands melted to the bone by acidic blood and decides to flee – “that struck her as an extremely fine idea,” we are told and “she turned to do just that”. I think I would feel slightly more urgency in a similar situation. This lack of velocity is a problem throughout the book as characters pause to bicker amongst themselves, or our viewpoint is switched to a different character entirely, jarring the flow. Characterisation also feels clunky with many inhabitants of Jericho 3 having more time spent on describing their wardrobes than their personalities. Most noticeably, a curious amount of space is taken up by explaining how Brigitte used to be a pleasure synth before switching roles to a scientific assistant, apparently purely so we can occasionally dwell on her curvaceous body.
However, I can’t say I disliked the book. It does have the vague feeling of many sci-fi tie-ins that the story skeleton was written first and then a few elements were changed once the destination franchise was agreed – Prototype wouldn’t need much editing to be a Warhammer 40K story, for example – but the narrative has some tense moments, particularly the initial conflict between the Necromorph and Security, and Hendricks is an excellent character whose naive determination is very much a mainstay of Alien. It also tries, for better or worse, to do something new with Alien’s mythos. This, though, is the problem that devils most of Titan’s recent Alien franchise novels. They’re enjoyable enough but those that stay true to the core narrative – Out of the Shadows, for example – feel like rehashes of older work while those that try something new find themselves drifting away from what makes Alien what it is.
There are far better stories out in the darkness of the Alien cosmos – Yvonne Navarro’s adaptation of Chet Williamson’s admittedly bizarre Music of the Spears graphic novel comes immediately to mind as does Christopher Golden’s Aliens prequel River of Pain – with no real reason to recommend Prototype over any of them.