Well, after reading S.D.Perry’s excellent “Aliens: The Labyrinth“, I was in the mood for another “Aliens” novel. And, after looking online, I found a couple of old second-hand omnibuses going cheap.
Once they arrived, I tried to work out which novel to read first and then I noticed that one of the novels – “Alien Harvest” from 1995 – was written by none other than Robert Sheckley.
I remembered his name because the very first book review ever posted on this blog (way back in 2013) was of one of his “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” novels that I read after being curious about all of the one-star reviews it had got online. Since I enjoyed that novel and since I wanted to read something by an author I hadn’t read in a while, I decided to read “Alien Harvest”.
So, let’s take a look at “Alien Harvest”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
This is the 1996 Orion (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the version of “Alien Harvest” I read.
“Alien Harvest” begins in a dystopian future where Earth is in the later stages of recovering from an attack by ferocious alien creatures. Famed roboticist Dr. Stan Myakovsky is having a bad day. Not only has his spaceship been reposessed by a court order, but a visit to the doctor reveals that he is suffering from a terminal case of melanoma. The doctor offers him some illegal narcotics, made from alien secretions, to ease the pain – but points out that the disease has progressed to an incurable level.
As Stan sits around at home and begins to feel sorry for himself, there is a knock on the door. The mysterious visitor turns out to be an expert thief called Julia Lish who needs Stan’s expertise with robotics to pull off the heist of the century. Since Stan has got nothing to lose and since the heist will be a way to get back at his hated rivals in the BioPharm corporation, Stan agrees. After all, how difficult can a daring raid on an illegal secretion-harvesting operation on an alien-infested planet be?
One of the first things that I will say about “Alien Harvest” is that it is absolutely excellent, but it is also a very different novel to what I had expected.
If you’re expecting a relentlessly gruesome sci-fi horror novel, then you’re going to be in for a shock. This novel is many things – a brilliant piece of old-school science fiction, a gripping thriller, a drama, a bit of a comedy and a gloriously mischievous heist story – but it isn’t really that much of a horror novel. Even so, it is absolutely awesome 🙂
One of the best ways to describe this novel is that it’s kind of like a quirky 1950s/60s-style sci-fi novel (think Harry Harrison, Philip K. Dick etc..) but with a few brilliant hints of cynical “1980s cyberpunk”-style dystopian grittiness too (eg: in addition to the dystopian Earth locations, the early meetings between Stan and Julia are vaguely reminiscent of both the first meeting of Case and Molly in William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and the friendship between Pris and J.F. Sebastian in “Blade Runner“).
This novel also has an absolutely brilliant three-act structure too. The first third or so of the novel is a gloriously slick 1960s-style caper story involving daring heists, criminal plotting, glamourous gambling dens and other such things. The second third of the story is a good slice of traditional space-based sci-fi drama. The final third is a little bit more of a horror/action thriller story, with some drama elements.
Although some readers may find this structure a little bit unusual or slightly slow-paced in parts, it works absolutely brilliantly and each segment of the novel segues into the next one perfectly.
In addition to this, this novel has personality 🙂 Although it is set in the universe of the “Alien” films, it is as fresh and different as a totally original novel would be. Not only does this novel have a gloriously quirky and nerdy sense of humour (eg: one of the characters is a surprisingly eloquent robotic alien called Norbert, there’s a Data-like android called Gill etc..), but the “world” of the story is also described in a brilliant way too. In addition to this, there is actual characterisation in this novel 🙂
Seriously, I cannot praise the characters in this novel highly enough 🙂 All of them come across as three-dimensional, albeit stylised, people who all have personalities, emotions, history, flaws and quirks. Yes, they all fit into the archetypes you’d expect (eg: genius scientist, master criminal, washed-up spaceship captain etc..) but they are all clearly shown to be interesting, unique people. Seriously, for a novel in this franchise, I was surprised at how much humanity it had.
Interestingly, most of what makes this novel so compelling is just good old-fashioned drama and storytelling. Yes, there are a few brief action-based scenes and a few brief moments of grisly horror but, for the most part, this novel is a cross between an old-school adventure yarn and a drama. There are perilous missions, mysterious locations, complex relationships, daring gambits, treacherous mutinies and other such things. All with lashings of gloriously nerdy old-school science fiction too 🙂
In terms of length, this novel is a little under 300 pages in length. Although the slightly slower pace in some scenes and the slightly more descriptive narration makes the story feel about 50-70 pages longer than this, the story never really feels particularly bloated. In other words, the story is well-suited to the length and never outstays it’s welcome.
As for of how this 24 year old novel has aged, it has aged in a really interesting way. Although the (mostly) third-person narration is still very readable these days, the fact that the novel almost seems more like a 1980s-influenced version of a classic 1950s-60s sci-fi novel gives it a wonderfully “retro” quality. It seems both very old and fairly modern at the same time. Not only that, the excellent characterisation means that the story’s human drama is pretty much timeless. Plus, although there are a couple of mildly “politically incorrect” moments, there’s nothing seriously eyebrow-raising here. So, on the whole, the novel has aged surprisingly well.
All in all, this novel is astonishingly good. It goes beyond being a mere sci-fi movie spin-off novel to being very much it’s own thing. If you like very slightly nerdy old-school sci-fi, if you like slick heist thrillers, if you like daring adventure or if you just like compelling human drama, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂 Yes, you might be a little disappointed if you’re expecting a splatterpunk-style horror story, but everything else about this novel more than makes up for the slight paucity of horror.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.