Earth Hive (Aliens, Book 1)
by Steve Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Aliens Novels: Book 1, Earth Hive / 0-553-56120-0
I'm a die-hard fan of the Aliens movies, so it seemed natural to branch out a bit and check out the novel series that was written based off of the film and comic franchise. "Earth Hive" being the first book, I dived in with relish, fully expecting, however, that the end results would be pretty poor. I was pleasantly surprised to find that was not the case.
Wilks and Billie are the sole survivors of an alien infestation on a remote colonized world, years ago, when Billie was just a child and Wilks was the marine who rescued her. If this sounds familiar, there's a good reason: Wilks and Billie are basically Hicks and Newt from "Aliens". Without getting too deep in the back story, it seems that the original comic writers hadn't initially foreseen that the two would be killed off in "Alien 3", so when the novel series came out afterward, they just changed the names of our heroes, added a few tantalizing throw-away references to "the others" who survived a similar outbreak and are missing in action (a marine and two civilians - Hicks, Ripley, and Newt), and then moved forward without changing anything else in the story. In a way, I think this is actually a fortuitous change - Hicks and Newt have a lot of emotional baggage attached to them at this point, and it's probably better to start fresh with this new Wilks and Billie, with comfortably similar back stories.
To continue, it's ten years after the infestation that scarred Wilks face and haunts Billie's nightmares. Wilks is still a marine, but a washed-up one, addicted to anything that can channel his feelings of rage and despair. Billie has been locked in a mental asylum - and not a particularly nice one - on account of the fact that her dreams and memories don't match the official government version of what happened on the colony and the rest of the world thinks she's a loony.
When the alien home world is discovered (how they discovered it isn't exactly fleshed out), "the government" (this is a bit tricky - we have a "Terran Intelligence Agency", which implies a world government, but there are also "borders" to be closed later, when things go FUBAR, and it's generally unclear who controls what) sends out the marines to collect a few samples. (The theme of alien-as-weapon has been omnipresent in the series and is a huge factor here, but the book does charitably note that there are also medical benefits from learning how the aliens survive in the vacuum of space.) Wilks 'volunteers' for the mission under duress, but finds a certain spring in his step at the idea of facing his old enemy and settling a few scores. He also breaks Billie out of the mental hospital and smuggles her along as an 'alien expert'. Neither really expect to come back alive, and both are pretty much at peace with that. Meanwhile, after they break contact with Earth, the Terran authorities realize with glee and trepidation that there's an alien *here*, on Earth, hatching in the bowels of the science lab of a private corporation, which should give you some idea where the subtitle of the book ("Earth Hive") came from.
As a fan of the movie series, this book is like chicken soup for the soul and provides all the little 'fanboy' details that I was desperately longing for. We discover a little more about the mysterious dead alien we saw in the derelict spacecraft in "Alien" - a space faring race, curious to take samples from the hostile alien home world and falling victim, not unlike our own Earthlings, to their little specimens. We learn more about the aliens' social structure, physiology, and intelligence levels - like the African reed frogs and the "Jurassic Park" raptors, the aliens are capable of changing gender if the situation calls for it, thus each baby alien is capable of growing to a queen in order to propagate the species. The alien drones have no higher intelligence than an Earth dog; the alien queens, on the other hand, are more intelligent than most humans. And, like everything else, they are capable of evolving.
I expected (or at least hoped) this book would be heavy on the fan details, but I also feared that the actual writing would be pretty poor, if only because adaptation series books have a reputation of coasting on their laurels. Perry does a fine job, however, in weaving a tale that is fairly well-written, and kept at a quick clip and heavy on the suspense. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of details missing here: the government situation on Earth is murky, and it is left to imagination why a derelict freighter orbiting Earth has an alien lurking among the dead crew. It's not clear where the "host" picked up by the corporations came from, nor how he became infected. Worst of all, alien babies born alone only grow into queens when the plot calls for it - aliens babies born on, for example, the ship carrying Wilks and Billie (ok, I'm edging into Book 2 of the series, but it's the same author) grow into drones, for no apparent reason other than that the plot calls for it.
Having said that, the crisp writing, fast pace, and overall plot are good enough to easily gloss over these little details. I do wish that Perry had employed the technique of labeling each location shift with a time/location stamp - a practice I usually dislike, but the shifts in perspective here are harder to follow than usual. After a few paragraphs, the reader can place their new location, but the shifts can be slightly jarring at times. One more thing I want to praise about the book - Perry avoids the lazy "evil corporation" and "evil government" tropes that must have been a temptation while writing. The corporations here *are* greedy, no doubt, but they are equally sane and are willing to destroy their project rather than unleash it accidentally on the Earth. Equally sane is the Terran government who recognizes that the total destruction of their study samples is preferable to their escape into the general population. True, they aren't motivated out of pity but rather self-interest, but it is at least a *sane* self-interest, and not the "I'll risk everything for more power!" insanity that often gets laid on thick in these sorts of novels. The fact that Perry avoided this shows a great deal of skill on his part, I think.
Bottom line, if you're a long-time alien fan and you're desperate for more details on the alien race, this book will definitely whet your appetite. And you might even be surprised to learn that the actual writing isn't half-bad, either.
~ Ana Mardoll
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