Well, since I was in the mood for another sci-fi novel, I thought that I’d take a look at a second-hand copy of Yvonne Navarro’s 1996 sci-fi horror/thriller novel “Aliens: Music Of The Spears” that I’d originally planned to read a year or two ago. Although I couldn’t really get into this novel when I first tried to read it back then, it suddenly became more readable when I tried again a couple of days before writing this review – which was really awesome 🙂
Although this novel tells a very self-contained “Aliens” story (apart from one brief reference to the movies), it is probably worth watching the films first in order to get an understanding of the series’ famous alien creatures. Even so, this isn’t really strictly necessary and this novel probably works well as a stand-alone sci-fi horror novel.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Aliens: Music Of The Spears”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
Set in Manhattan in the 2120s, the novel begins with a mysterious scene showing a man called Jarlath Keene meeting a woman called Mina in a gloomy apartment. He has paid a lot of money for this meeting and wants her help with some kind of revenge plot. Although she eventually agrees, he somehow still feels like he’s got the worst end of the deal.
We then see Jarlath at work. He’s one of about forty mid-ranking VPs at monopolistic record company called Synsound, who are bitter rivals with the nearby MedTech corporation after one of their sterilization fields accidentally damaged Synsound’s precious collection of master discs. Jarlath isn’t happy with his life and is taking it out in various passive agressive ways on his long-suffering secretary when he learns that Damon Eddington wants to meet with him.
Damon is an experimental musician who is treated as more of an annoyance by Synsound, since they only hired him to show that they support “the arts”. Friendless and bitter, he has recently announced that his next album will be called “The Symphony Of Hate” – an expression of protest and fury at his employers. Naturally, they saw his earnest anger as a good publicity stunt and let him make the album. He has decided to visit Jarlath because his album is missing a certain something. The screaming of an alien, to be precise. A sound that Damon feels perfectly fits the undiluted hatred he wants to express for Synsound.
Keene suggests just using a recording, but Damon points out that the few military recordings in existence lack the sound quality he needs. He also refuses to even think about using computer simulations. Although Keene is about to refuse, he suddenly has a sneaky idea. After all, MedTech is rumoured to have several aliens in their facility and Keene’s boss – Yoriko – has several covert agents who could probably get hold of an egg. It would be a blow for MedTech and might also help to further some of Keene’s other plans too. So, eventually, Keene agrees to Damon’s request. What could possibly go wrong?…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was better than I’d initially expected. If you want a genuinely creepy and suspenseful slower-paced sci-fi horror thriller that is also filled with lots of 1990s nostalgia and cyberpunk atmosphere, then this one is well worth reading. Likewise, if you enjoy “Aliens” novels – like Robert Sheckley’s “Alien Harvest” – that differ from the usual formula, then you’ll enjoy this one too.
In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re a lot creepier than I’d initially expected. Although the novel includes a few gruesome moments, most of the horror here is slightly more on the subtle side of things and it works absolutely perfectly. Not only does this novel make excellent use of suspense, but it also relies very heavily on the idea of moral horror – of watching helplessly as the main characters gradually become more and more evil in pursuit of their goals. Add to this some wonderfully dystopian locations, some cruel moments, some moments of drug-based horror, a large dose of cynical 1990s nihilism and lots of creepy characters and this novel becomes significantly more creepy than you might expect from an “Aliens” novel 🙂
As for the novel’s sci-fi elements, they’re really cool. If you love cyberpunk, then you’ll be on familiar ground here. This novel is set in a classic-style cyberpunk dystopia, with powerful mega-corporations and lots of atmospheric urban locations filled with rain, snow, flying cars and glowing lights. Yes, there isn’t really any cyberspace or hacking here, but this novel is good supporting evidence for the theory that “Alien” and “Blade Runner” take place in the same universe 🙂 Seriously, many of the city locations really wouldn’t be out of place in “Blade Runner” 🙂
Another cool thing is that the novel features an updated version of 1990s technology and culture too – everyone still listens to music on physical media, popular musicians from the 1990s are re-created as robots and, instead of smartphones, people use “VidPhones”. Seriously, if you love the 1990s and the cyberpunk genre, then this novel is an absolute joy to read 🙂
One other interesting thing about this novel is how it reflects the social changes that have happened as a result of human contact with aliens. Not only are aliens kept in research labs on Earth and occasionally used as bloodhound-like sniffer dogs by corporate security, but someone has also managed to synthesise a highly addictive drug called “Jelly” from the aliens too. Although this allows the novel to comment about the dangers of hard drugs, it also allows for some cynical satire of unethical corporations when it is revealed that a powerful medical company are using “Jelly” distribution as a secret way to experiment on humans.
The novel’s thriller elements are really well-handled too. In short, this is slightly more of a traditional slower-paced suspense thriller than the “action movie” style stories that are more common in “Aliens” novels. Yes, there are some fast-paced scenes, but most of the novel focuses more on building gradual suspense in a variety of ways. There are small cliffhangers, an ominous feeling that things won’t end well, obsessed characters, secret corporate plots and even some mild detective genre elements that all help this novel to become more and more gripping until the dramatic climax.
Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. In essence, it is a novel about obsession, loneliness and/or meaning. Almost every character lives a slightly “empty” life in one way or another – not only lending the novel a rather nihilistic and creepy atmosphere, but also allowing for the exploration of emotions like alienation and bitterness too. Likewise, Damon’s obsession with his symphony quite literally ends up destroying him psychologically, morally and physically.
As you’d expect from a cyberpunk novel, this novel is also a brilliantly scathing satire of capitalism too. In addition to featuring the usual evil mega-corporations, this novel also shows that one of the reasons why Damon is so bitter is because Synsound has a virtual monopoly on all music sales and recording (buying up smaller studios whenever they appear). He is only employed by them as a token “arts” musician, with their main focus being on more “commercial” music. And in this age of superhero movies and micro-transactions in videogames, this criticism of how large media corporations inhibit actual creativity – for the sake of profit -has never felt more relevant or refreshing than ever.
In terms of the characters, they’re really good too. As mentioned earlier, almost all of them are lonely, bitter or obsessive in some way or another, which really helps to lend the novel a rather creepy and nihilistic atmosphere. Not only that, this novel also includes a reasonably good amount of characterisation that helps to make the story’s many unsympathetic characters feel realistic and compelling too. Like in the best horror fiction, you’ll probably find yourself both absolutely hating Damon and yet somehow wishing for him to succeed at the same time. Like in Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger“, this novel gets the tension between sympathy and revulsion absolutely right 🙂
As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is better than I’d expected 🙂 Yes, Navarro’s narration is often slightly on the formal side of things (eg: ‘Mina didn’t have to laugh for Keene to sense that she was more than slightly amused at his clumsy verbiage’) but it still often feels “matter of fact” enough for the novel’s thriller plot. Whilst the writing style may take you a little while to get used to, the added formality is often used to great effect when building atmosphere and – although it can slow down the pacing a little – this actually works here, thanks to the novel’s horror elements and old-school suspense thriller plot.
As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. At a fairly efficient 279 pages, the novel doesn’t feel too long. And, although you shouldn’t expect the kind of fast-paced “Aliens” story that you might expect from other series authors like S.D.Perry, this novel’s pacing is really well-handled. Not only are there a few faster moments to keep the reader on their toes, but the slightly more moderate pacing of the rest of the story allows for a lot of extra suspense and horror than you’d find in a faster-paced “Aliens” novel. As long as you expect a traditional-style thriller, rather than an action movie in book format, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel’s pacing.
In terms of how well this twenty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged better than you might think. Yes, this novel is very 1990s in a lot of ways, but this often feels wonderfully “retro” rather than dated. About the only moments that might startle a modern reader are probably a couple of references to the World Trade Center. Still, for the most part, the “1990s sci-fi” atmosphere of this book just feels reassuringly retro in a really fun and cosy kind of way. Plus, not only do the plot and characters still remain compelling to this day, but some of the novel’s themes are also fairly timeless too.
All in all, this was a better book than I’d expected 🙂 In addition to being a wonderful slice of 1990s cyberpunk nostalgia, it’s also a surprisingly creepy sci-fi horror novel and a reasonably gripping moderately-paced suspense thriller novel too 🙂 If you want an “Aliens” novel that is different to the usual formula, then this novel – and possibly Robert Sheckley’s “Alien Harvest” too – is well worth reading.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.