Labyrinth (Aliens, Book 6)
by Jim Woodring
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Aliens Novels: Book 6, Labyrinth / 0-553-57491-4
After suffering through the poorly written and almost-identical-to-one-another "Genocide" and "Alien Harvest", I have to praise "Labyrinth" for returning to the basics of the first three books of the series and for understanding what really drives the suspense and terror in the alien universe. "Labyrinth" has the closed spaces and the inability to escape that is so crucial for suspense. When a space inhabited by aliens isn't closed, but rather entered into voluntarily (see "Genocide" and "Alien Harvest"), the reader doesn't feel pity for the victims so much as open contempt, doubly so if the reasons for deliberately exposing themselves to such danger are stupid, greedy, and ill-conceived. Perry seems to recognize this, and returns us back to the basics of "Nightmare Asylum" and "Alien Resurrection" by giving us a mad scientist intent on betraying his own race by feeding his fellow humans to the aliens for 'breeding' purposes.
This sense of betrayal and horror is crucial to the series; a fact that all the aliens movies explored thoroughly. As horrific as the aliens are, there reaches a point of saturation, where the prospect of being eaten or used as a breeder is no longer as frightening as it once was, at least in part because the shock aspect has dissipated. A mad scientist who mutilates his subjects in horrific ways provides much-needed shock value, plus the added horror of being used as an experiment against your will, unable to die (even breeders have the certainty that eventually their suffering will end), and that even if you somehow find a way to die, your body would still be horribly desecrated. Add to that the potent sense of outrage, that a human would so deeply betray his race, whilst other humans would meekly facilitate his madness, and you have the nice makings of a thriller. Stick all that on a remote space station, add a thick layer of mystery to the whole proceedings, and your book practically writes itself.
Unfortunately, Perry's writing style in this novel seems extremely mediocre. The style is jumpy and self-conscious, often trying to manufacture suspense by simply not telling the reader what is going on. Scenes of discovery read like something akin to (paraphrase): "She walked into the room and her heart suddenly leapt into her chest. All her worst nightmares had come true. He really was insane, a madman, and this proved it. She just couldn't believe what she saw. No, really, this is huge - very, very big - and you are just going to die when you read what she saw. Are you ready? Ok, here it is..." and so on. Perry doesn't trust the reader enough to reveal terrors openly and without a fake "suspenseful" buildup, a technique that becomes tiresome quickly.
Perry has also tackled the classic "Why isn't the main character catching on when the reader already has" hurdle that writers so often face by falling back on the standby of making the main character too stupid to tie his own shoes. Really, you can't have your main villain doing the literary equivalent of cackling frequently, twirling his mustache, and insisting that people call him *DOCTOR EVIL*, and then have your main character just totally fail to catch on without him looking like a complete moron. I understand the intent, the desire to set up a dichotomy where we are forced to confront the advantages of immoral research versus the importance of doing the right thing, but it just doesn't work and the writing comes off as blunt and ham-fisted.
This is probably as good a time as any to note that Perry also seems strangely interested in sexual violence and violence against women. She is very fond of using the concept of rape in hyperbole, as in "his nose was raped by the stench". That's.....one way to put it, I guess. She's also very intent on having the (often hysterical and screaming, despite being a trained marine) heroine being physically choked and lifted by more powerful men, particularly if they have a sexual interest in her. As a reader, I could have done without this recurring aspect of the novel.
My final criticism of Perry's writing style is that she seems not to understand the concept of Chekhov's gun: that if an object or concept is introduced in a story, it must be utilized by the end of the story, or else it ought not have been there in the first place. Perry provides the good guys at the very beginning with a perfect trump card: they have complete and total backing by the military hierarchy to investigate the mad scientist and do whatever they deem necessary to stop him, which is a big change from the usual 'little guy bucks the evil establishment' theme. However, the fact that the good guys never use their trump card and indeed never even *consider* using their trump card, is incredibly frustrating and pointless. The fact is, the trump card is never again mentioned outside the opening chapter, so it should have been removed entirely. If a trump card is introduced it MUST be used, and if it is not, then there at least has to be a very good reason why not. This never-again-mentioned trump card also completely undermines the "bad" ending that this book ends on, because if the mad scientist was already under suspicion and investigation, he wouldn't escape detection indefinitely, nor would he be able to frame the good guys in any way that would 'stick' after a full investigation. So, basically, we get an unused trump card which makes the good guys look stupid (because they have forgotten its existence) and makes the ending completely implausible. Why?
Having said all that, here are the things I did like about this book: First, it was creepy and scary, like a good aliens book should be. There's a lot of good suspense, and the evil scientist surprises are pleasantly horrifying (even if the main characters do stubbornly refuse to recognize obvious evil for what it is). Second, the entire book moves at a good clip. There are a whole lot of flashbacks, but they are nicely done and with a plethora of skin-crawling details, so that's a plus. Third, the term "royal jelly" does not, to my knowledge appear anywhere in this book at all. I am so very glad to see that we've decided to drop that fruitless side-plot and get back to the basics: which is that being kept in suspended state, unrelieved by death, for all eternity in order to suffer horrible mutilations, gruesome experiments, and painful alien invasions on your body is extremely and satisfyingly creepy.
~ Ana Mardoll
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