Well, I was still in the mood for horror fiction and, since it’s been quite a while since I last read an “Aliens” novel, I thought that I’d check out a second-hand novel I found online a few weeks earlier called “Aliens: Cauldron” (2007) by Diane Carey.
Although this novel tells a self-contained “Aliens” story and can probably be enjoyed without having seen any of the films, it’s probably worth watching at least one or two of the first four “Alien” films before reading this just so that you have a better idea of what the alien monsters look like. Even so, they are described in this novel.
So, let’s take a look at “Aliens: Cauldron”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in space, on the cargo ship Virginia which is caught in a moon’s gravity and close to spiralling out of control. Directed by their charismatic captain, Nick Alley, the crew barely manage to keep the ship under control and, after a small crash with the ship they are meeting to exchange cargo with, both crews breathe a sigh of relief.
Later, in the cargo hold of the Virginia, a couple of crew members carefully doctor the ship’s records to disguise a rogue cargo container containing several dead alien specimens that they’ve been paid a lot to smuggle. However, due to a bizarre series of coincidences, the container gets opened and it turns out that the alien specimens aren’t quite as dead as they had been led to believe.
Meanwhile, on the cargo vessel Umiak, several space cadets are getting ready for a tour of duty before being dropped off at university on the terraformed planet Zone Emerald. The ship’s harsh captain, Pangborn, hates the cadets – not to mention that the cadets don’t exactly get along well with each other either. Still, the tour of duty promises to be a boring one – with the highlight being an upcoming automated cargo transfer with a ship carrying stasis-frozen livestock to Zone Emerald. That ship is, of course, the Virginia….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I both loved and hated it. In short, this novel was one that slowly grew on me when I was reading it. Even so, when it is good it is good and when it isn’t, then it really isn’t.
I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements and these are really good, if somewhat different to what I’d expected. Although there are a few well-written moments of gory horror, cruel horror, tragic horror and/or monster horror, the bulk of this novel’s horror comes from suspense, tension, claustrophobia and the characters. And this is handled expertly – whether it is several creepily unsympathetic characters who are trapped in space together, the inexperienced cadets facing danger, the constant feeling of fractious tension between the Umiak‘s crew or the many moments of claustrophobic suspense. Although this novel probably won’t frighten you, it’ll certainly make you feel nervous or uneasy at times.
The novel’s sci-fi elements are also fairly complex too, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, all of the futuristic technology etc… in the story feels well thought-out and very “real”. On the downside, this is achieved through lots of slow-paced descriptive segments (especially in the earlier parts of the novel) that almost seem more at home in a more sedate “Star Trek” novel than a thrilling “Aliens” novel. In other words, all of the cool sci-fi stuff actually tends to weigh the story down a bit too much at times. Even so, all of this meticulous description does pave the way for some brilliant set-pieces during a few later parts of the story.
Talking of “Star Trek”, one of the interesting things about this novel is how it is a bit like a more cynical version of “Star Trek”. The novel does this by focusing a lot on nautical traditions and by making several of the characters a bit more morally-ambiguous than the upstanding spacefarers you’d expect to see in “Star Trek”. On the one hand, this adds a satirical edge, a slight dose of realism and a bleak, tense atmosphere to the story. On the other hand, this also results in a few yawn-inducing nautical lectures, too many characters (2-3 crews, plus some space pirates) and a few cartoonish characters (eg: the harsh captain, the arrogant cadet etc..). So, this element of the story is kind of a mixed bag.
As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re reasonably good most of the time. There’s a good mixture between fast-paced action scenes and slower moments of suspense. However, although this novel includes thriller novel-like moments throughout, it only really seems to become the kind of grippingly streamlined thriller novel that you’d expect during the later parts. Even so, the novel’s story remains intriguingly unpredictable throughout and it contains many moments that might catch you off-guard or make you curious about what will happen next. Even the story’s ending is, for an “Aliens” novel, something that might catch you by surprise.
In terms of the characters, they aren’t really one of this novel’s strengths. One of the problems is that there are almost too many of them to keep track of, or become invested in, during some parts of the novel (the slightly confusing opening scene is especially annoying in this respect). Whilst there is a core group of characters that you’ll get to know and will probably end up caring about, they can sometimes be a little on the corny and/or stylised side of things. On the plus side, this novel includes some suspenseful “villain vs villain” scenes between Captain Pangborn and one of the cadets, which are almost cartoonish enough to be amusing but just about understated enough to be creepily menacing.
In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is also a bit of a mixed bag. In the later parts of the novel, where the narration becomes a bit more streamlined and “matter of fact”, it really helps to carry the story and bring it to life. However, the earlier and middle parts of the novel often tend to use a slightly more formal, slow-paced and description/exposition-heavy style which, whilst it does add some depth and atmosphere to the story, isn’t really a good fit with the kind of thrillingly fast-paced story you’d expect to see in an “Aliens” novel and it can make these parts of the story a bit of a chore to read at times. Still, once you get used to the writing style, then this becomes less of an issue.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is also a mixed bag. At 284 pages, this novel may seem reasonably short but the small print and passages of formal narration can make it feel slightly more like 400. As for the pacing, the novel’s early-middle parts can be a bit slow-paced (which works well during some suspenseful moments, but can make other moments a bit boring), although the middle-late parts of the novel are the kind of confident, streamlined and grippingly fast-paced thriller that you’d expect from an “Aliens” novel.
All in all, this novel is a mixed bag. Although it isn’t perfect, there is a good story in here. This is one of those books that will grow on you if you keep reading it and, although it can be a bit too slow-paced and/or corny at times, it is also a fairly unpredictable, suspenseful and creepy sci-fi/horror thriller novel.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.