Publisher: Titan Books
Author: Alex White
Page count: 408
Given that the Alien franchise is arguably one of the most renowned and beloved in cinema history, it comes as something as a surprise to learn there have only ever been nine tie-in novels, outside of the official movie adaptations and one anthology collection of short stories. The Cold Forge, now the tenth Alien tie-in novel, proves if anything how much of a goldmine publishers have previously missed in telling stories within the universe Ridley Scott created. Alex White’s story would make a damn fine movie in itself.
Taking a cue from the previous, successful trilogy of novels over the last few years including Out of the Shadows & River of Pain, The Cold Forge manages to cultivate its own corner of Alien’s dark, corporate, late-capitalist future by creating a uniquely Alien set-up: a research and development facility in deep space, in orbit of a burning star, with a collection of characters all with unique personalities, distinguishing traits, and several with plot-specific secrets.
White’s tale is confident from the get-go that Alien is a universe big enough to support stories that don’t involve iconic heroine Ellen Ripley in her ongoing, torturous battle with the primal Xenomorphs (a moniker White swiftly disposes of with almost mocking dispatch); his ensemble are fleshed out very well across the course of the story, particularly his two primary antagonists: Dorian and Blue.
We need to talk about Dorian first as he is easily the breakout character in White’s novel. Ostensibly an auditing director in the cold-hearted Weyland-Yutani Foundation behind a great deal of Alien’s underpinning mythology, Dorian Sudler also happens to be a narcissistic sociopath who White takes on a gripping, disturbing journey into the heart of darkness and psychopathic madness.
Dorian is precisely the kind of amoral villainous character you could make into a main player in a series like Alien, set as it is in a near-dystopian future in which the individual has no wealth outside of what they can bring to the corporate monopoly of the system. Dorian’s rationale as the book begins is to cut costs, save money, destroy lives and have a damn good time doing so; White then enjoys turning his brush with the murderous, savage power of the aliens (known here as ‘snatchers’, appropriately) into a full blown psychotic transformation of the man into a Hannibal Lecter variant. White gets deep into the mind of this fascinating man and it ain’t pretty.
In truth, The Cold Forge probably doesn’t have a hero in any true sense of the word. Anyone who is fairly virtuous or a straight-arrow is either disposed of fairly quickly or ends up almost being punished for their kindness. White’s characterisation has a nihilism appropriate for this dark future, hence why Dr. Blue Marsalis is already set up to fail by virtue of her situation; crippled by a haunting disease, desperate to save her own life (though she couches it in trying to exploit the snatchers biology to create a cure for human diseases), she makes a great deal of mistakes as the situation on the facility grows increasingly desperate. Blue isn’t inherently a bad person but she operates largely in her own self-interest, and while she isn’t as intriguing a shaded character as Dorian, she manages to carry a great deal of the story from her perspective well.
White cheats a little bit in this regard by having ‘interludes’ between chapters from Dorian or Blue’s perspectives which allow him to spend some time in the heads of his other characters; the battle-worn Anne, sleazy ship captain Ken, or the mercurial Lucy. It allows some variation, at times to help forward the narrative, while not removing our focus from the desperation of Blue or the psychological breakdown of Dorian. It’s a testimony to how well White constructs these two main characters, however, in that you sometimes want to stay in their heads for longer. On balance, White gets the mixture right.
He also manages to weave in plenty of the established lore from the Alien series while not sacrificing the purity of the story being told. You can tell White is a huge fan of this series, as he states in the acknowledgments, because the style, tone and concepts are very much in line with everything from 1979’s Alien through to the Prometheus prequel which established new thematic tentpoles for the franchise (there’s even a very oblique mention to the events of that film).
The aliens themselves feel as terrifying and primal as we’ve seen on screen – you can practically hear every torso they rip apart being eviscerated. The setting perhaps owes more of a debt to David Fincher, oddly enough, than Scott or James Cameron; the Cold Forge has no phalanx of colonial marines taking on the beasts, and at one point the central SCIF control room filled with hi-tech intelligent AI viruses is even compared to a prison environment. For White to honour even Alien3 proves how much of a fan he is!
White even manages to throw in a new innovation, with Blue being able to remotely control the on-board synthetic android, Marcus, who seems to fit more of the Michael Fassbender than Lance Henriksen model type. Unless this reviewer has missed something, Blue’s control of the synthetic, and how White manages to utilise that for narrative purposes, and indeed to comment on the morality of what machines consider to be a murderous act, is something new to the Alien universe and surely ripe for deeper exploration.
Given how much White successfully nails the creeping, existential dread of the franchise, mixed with the neo-Gothic horror of its surroundings, it would leave a sour taste in the mouth if he didn’t get to have another run at this universe, particularly given there are definite threads he could pick up on from The Cold Forge in future novels.
A lot will almost certainly depend on how well Alien: The Cold Forge does in terms of sales but if you’re a fan of this long-running franchise, this book will hook you in, terrify and thrill you. It crafts its own space inside the Alien world, one it would be great to see grow and grow.
Alien: The Cold Forge is now available from Titan Books.