“He dreams of storms and flames, the heat of a thousand suns turning everything into molten nightmare. He screams, but the roar of the superheated beast drowns out his cries. His mother, his father, everything he ever knew consumed by something so hungry it cannot be stopped. Even as far away as he is, the heat blisters his face and burns away the hairs on his head. His tears prism his vision until his small universe is a kaleidoscope of fire.” Aliens: Infiltrator isn’t another bug hunt — that’s for sure.
With Aliens: Fireteam on the way later this summer, 20th Century Studios and Titan Books bring us a prequel penned by Weston Ochse, and it is a magnificent specimen. Rather than phone it in for being a tie-in prequel to a tie-in game, Ochse has crafted a “lab science gone wrong” tale that is equally brooding, chilling, and elegantly knit into the greater Aliens universe. You’ll find references to everything from Prometheus and the series’s many games to the Dark Horse comics, all weaved together so slickly that even a first-time reader of the Aliens expanded universe is right up to speed.
In a refreshing turn, we get to experience what life is like behind the scenes at one of Weyland-Yutani’s infamous labs where things go wrong. Rather than dashing straight into traditional action or scares, our time with protagonist Tim Hoenikker and the crew of Pala Station LV-895 instead plays out like a series of interconnected vignettes. Each new plot beat, such as unplanned murder or a scientist’s flashbacks while testing a mutated lab rat, feels like an engaging little short story. Each story thread works well both individually and in how it contributes to the whole.
What’s remarkable is just how restrained Aliens: Infiltrator is. While there is an inevitable bodycount, there’s a lot more Alien than Aliens in Infiltrator’s DNA. Ochse lets everything simmer, prose lingering like Ridley Scott’s camera on atmosphere, focused on the crucial, foreboding details. Whenever the horror gives way to action, it’s breathless, snapping into frame with an unnerving speed. It’s a marvelously maintained ebb and flow, delicately enticing you to dive pages upon pages in with every reading.
All of this alone makes for great prose, but it’s the characters that tie Aliens: Infiltrator together. Tim is far from the most likable character, but he’s impressively sympathetic as a xeno-archaeologist sent on an assignment wildly out of his depth. Opposite him is Cruz, a former Colonial Marine with a sadistic streak yet equally sympathetic backstory. While their fellow researchers and station crew members are all unique in their own right, Tim and Cruz lead the majority of the chapters, each offering a distinct perspective on events.
The pair effectively symbolize Alien and Aliens, respectively. Tim is fearful, disempowered, and desperate for the madness to end. Cruz meanwhile is angry, regretful, and haunted by a past mistake that spared his life but cost his squad theirs in a fight against a new type of Xenomorph. What’s fascinating is how Infiltrator uses the lab setting to really dig into the Xenomorph’s biology, presenting new possibilities without blatantly explaining away what makes them terrifying. It’s a rare feat that learning more about a monster makes it scarier than just not knowing, but Ochse wrings every ounce of acid blood that he can out of the bugs.
It’s reasonable to assume some of the elements introduced about them are to establish mechanics in the upcoming game, but even without that context, it makes sense. An idea that the book presents around pheromones in particular is genius. The insights into the Xenomorphs are complemented by a post-military examination of the life of Colonial Marine veterans, giving a sense of the greater culture when not out on bug hunts. With such a rich wealth of world-building for both the setting and the characters, when bodies start dropping, there’s real weight that feels both earned and gut-wrenching in equal measure.
This is what you want from an Aliens tie-in. Aliens: Infiltrator captures precisely the right sort of tempo and character, even if it’s sequestered on a lone station at the far end of humanity’s colonies. The evils of Weyland-Yutani have often been little more than background noise in audio logs or a lone backstabber screwing over allies, yet here “the company” is as oppressive as the acid-dripping Xenos. Again, Ochse takes something as mild as bureaucracy and makes it impactful.
With one exception, even the most despicable and strange characters have redeeming qualities. That exception is the book’s third point-of-view character, Rawlings. While initially interesting, his internal monologue ultimately feels redundant to Cruz’s similar Colonial Marine way of thinking, except for repeated reminders that Rawlings is an alcoholic. His chapters do help move events along that Tim and Cruz aren’t present for, but he’s just not as fleshed out as some of the side characters.
Aliens: Infiltrator also contains a weird subplot about one of the leads’ ex-girlfriend and how she factors into one of the dozen Xenomorphs that get experimented on. It rings of a last-minute addition, just sort of dancing in and out of the plot when you get the sense it was intended as a metaphor of some kind. It’s never in the way, though it does lead to a final act surprise that undercuts one character’s potential. Regardless, it’s a minor flub in the grand scheme of things.
The most appreciable surprise is de facto lead Tim Hoenikker, who undergoes the greatest evolution over the course of the story, while never losing sight of where he started. He’s not Ellen Ripley, but he’s a memorable addition to the annals of Aliens heroes. And though the story clearly teases at revelations only to be unveiled in Aliens: Fireteam, the book ultimately does more than enough to stand on its own two feet as a memorable journey.
Aliens: Infiltrator is as much a homage as it is a fresh twist on those same conventions. From its emphasis on unifying years of lore to its richly drawn human characters, Aliens: Infiltrator is a perfect read, whether you’re planning to play the game or just want a new horrific journey in the Aliens universe.