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Aliens: Phalanx by Scott Sigler review – too Alien or not quite Alien enough?

The problem with Alien: Resurrection, contrary to popular opinion, is not that it’s a bad film. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s fourth instalment in the Alien series has a lot of good elements; Ripley-8’s gleeful progression into inhumanity contrasts impeccably with the pathos of Call’s self-hatred, for example, and Jeunet seems to genuinely want to do something new with the sci-fi palette. No, the problem with Alien: Resurrection is that it’s not quite Alien enough. Or maybe the problem is that it’s a bit too Alien. Either way, it tries to be both the darkly comic, baroque sci-fi epic that Jeunet obviously wanted it to be and the more conceptual piece that screenwriter Joss Whedon seemed to originally intend, whilst leaving the actual Alien elements feeling tacked on.

Aliens: Phalanx by Scott Sigler book cover
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Aliens: Phalanx has similar, if less pronounced, problems. The story is one of a pre-medieval society, who hide in scattered Holds around the island of Ataegina. The only people who regularly venture forth from these underground Holds are teams of runners who act as the island’s infrastructure; anything that needs to move between Holds – food, medicine, information – does so via the runners. In a twist, runners are not long-experienced adults but young children, many barely teenagers, who are the only ones fit and stealthy enough to avoid the demons that have driven the human population into their Holds.

Demons, we soon learn, with black carapaces and concentrated acid for blood.

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Which, as a synopsis, doesn’t actually sound that bad. And it isn’t that bad. The idea of encountering xenomorphs in a genre different to pure sci-fi is something that I find very interesting and, as the 1998 Vikings-vs-Aliens one-shot comic Aliens: Stalker shows, it’s something that can be done very well.

Yet Aliens: Phalanx is not quite Alien enough. Or maybe it’s a bit too Alien.

The book is, at root, a solid YA fantasy adventure with some sci-fi seasoning. The young runner Ahiliyah wants more from her life in Lemeth Hold. She can’t become a warrior, unlike like her team-mate Brandun, due to the Hold’s patriarchal regime. Motherhood, the only real future for a woman on Ataegina, holds no allure for her. Creen, the final part of this trio, has visions of devices and technology that few in the Hold can even comprehend. Much of Aliens: Phalanx deals with the conflicts between this group, and between the group and the wider Hold, far more than it does with the “demons”. Rightfully so, as it turns out, as it’s here where the book shines. Ahiliyah is a vibrant character, full of as much self-doubt as ambition, and Creen’s venomous personality sharply reflects his genuine frustration with the world. We see their personalities develop, friendships fracture and lives become more important to the fragile web of political distrust that binds the holds together in a way that I found quite engrossing.

Engrossing, and I find this hard to say, if it weren’t for the xenomorphs. Every time Sigler labours the description of his demons – their drooling “tooth-tongues” and lunging tail-spikes – something of the book’s magic fades away. Rather than a story that stands on its own merits Aliens: Phalanx becomes something of a pastiche; Sigler obviously cares about the history of Alien as a narrative world but doesn’t quite have the skill to lift his use of it beyond the derivative. Whether the Alien mythos was shoe-horned into the story to attract a pre-existing audience or it was done simply to justify the not-actually-that-surprising revelation near the book’s finale is beyond me and it doesn’t really matter. Having the xenomorphs as antagonists starts to feel jarringly uninspired and only serves to highlight the other awkwardly uninspired elements of the writing. The names of characters and places seem to have been plucked from an online randomiser; Tolio and Debbany talk about Lake Mip, for example. The word “buttspike” is used far more often than any sane person should need to. Persistent references to “hidey suits”, ghillie camouflage used by runners, and “pokey plants” become frustratingly gauche. All of these quickly move from minor niggles to oh-god-just-use-real-words annoyances as they appear again and again. It ultimately all feels a bit unedited, a feeling that isn’t helped by more than a handful of typos.

Without the Alien connection Aliens: Phalanx would’ve been a harder book to market, undoubtedly, but it would’ve been a far better book. Which makes me feel like I’m sounding overly harsh. I genuinely enjoyed reading the story and whistled through it in a couple of days. There are a number of sections which are genuinely evocative of the genuine terror that must come from being hunted by a creature born only to kill but they are linked, and diluted, by passages that fumble the tension.

Ultimately, and despite the goodwill I have to pretty much any Alien-related media, Aliens: Phalanx comes across as a late draft rather than a finished product. Which is a shame because there is a lot of promise here that is sadly unfulfilled.

Aliens: Phalanx by Scott Sigler is published by Titan Books. Buy the book


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