While I've enjoyed my share of Alien tie-in works across comics and prose novels, The Cold Forge by Alex White might be the first to truly impress me beyond being a few days worth of solid entertainment.
Most Alien stories seem to involve beleaguered colonists or Colonial Space Marines getting more than they bargained for, with the authors content for their stories to exist as little more than a redux of one of the first two films. While this approach has certainly worked well and given this franchise's reading audience exactly what it expects, Alex White's approach is to raise the bar, and for that I'm grateful.
There are no colonists in (un)surprising peril, no marines battling for their lives. There are in fact no good guys or good gals at all. The Cold Forge is a secret research base for Weyland-Yutani, the megalithic corporation seeking to exploit and weaponize the infamous alien Xenomorphs. While there are various other research projects in progress aboard the space station, the aliens are the big money maker and the reason Cold Forge exists at all. Unfortunately, the researchers aren't delivering on their contracts and auditor Dorian Sudler is tasked with cutting the fat. He pinpoints as the primary loss leader Dr. Blue Marsalis, a bed-ridden geneticists cursed with a rare, incurable disease. Blue's mind is cutting-edge, but her frail body means she has to operate via a cybernetic interface with the station's android, Marcus. How these three personalities interact and cope, particularly once the inevitable excrement hits the proverbial fans, is the crux of Alien: The Cold Forge.
Although White delivers a bevy of Xenomorphic action, it's the human characters that really sold me on this particular novel. There's not a single likable individual in this whole book's cast, and I good and truly dug that. Dorian Sudler is a freaking psychopath, and I was absolutely delighted by the depths of his at-times shocking depravity. Once he learns about Blue's research into the alien lifeforms, his fetishization of the creatures is marvelous to behold. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Blue, whose discovery of a protein injected into victims during the face-hugger stage of impregnation leads her to exploit the Xenomorphs for medical advancement - primarily her own. Ostensibly, Blue is the closest character we have to a heroine in The Cold Forge, and it's mostly by default simply because of how evil and manipulative Sudler is. While she is certainly one tough cookie when push comes to shove, her utter lack of altruism makes her a pretty far cry from Ellen Ripley.
If you're looking brave souls doing heroic and adventurous derring-do in the name of all that's good and holy, you might want to look elsewhere. For me, it's flat-out intriguing to see two monstrous humans stuck in the middle of an alien outbreak and fighting for survival, working to one-up the other in their cat-and-mouse games to not only escape the doomed station but to seek out and destroy one another. Sudler and Blue are both Alphas in their respective fields, and putting them together is like throwing water on super hot oil. Their instant dislike of one another is palpable, and White does a great job keeping us on our toes as to who will eventually make it out on top, and how, given that Blue is so heavily dependent on cybernetic aid. While the Alien property has never been high in humor and upbeat chipperness, there's moments to The Cold Forge that are wonderfully nihilistic, carving out a new level of darkness for such a long-lived property.
In The Cold Forge, Alex White embraces the crossroads of sci-fi horror genres that the Alien property has lived in for so long. There's plenty of medical science, some of which even ties into how the Xenomorphs take on characteristics of the face-hugged hosts they're birthed from (in this case, chimps are the victim du jour), some sci-fi wizardry between Blue and Marcus (as well as a past romances between Blue and Anne, a security officer, whose dalliances with each other were furthered through the use of Marcus's android body, which raises all kinds of other intriguing questions), and a whole lot of horror and gore once things click into high gear. White gives this particular Alien story a score of various and compelling layers that help set it apart from the more traditional franchise fare, and it's all the stronger because of it. He stays true to the spirit of the franchise, but isn't afraid to cut loose and get daring where it truly counts, giving us characters defined by their determination at the expense of everyone else. Bravo, sir!
[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from Titan Books.]
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