Kat Clay on a new novel by T.R. Napper
It must be intimidating to write an Alien tie-in novel, not only for the devoted fandom of the beloved quadrilogy , but also for the pedrigree of the authors who have contributed to the world, including novelisation guru Alan Dean Foster, established horror writers Brian Evenson, Tim Lebbon, and Christopher Golden (to name just three!), rising star V. Castro, and the award-winning queen of cyberpunk, Pat Cadigan, who novelised William Gibson’s immortal, unproduced screenplay for Alien 3.
Cyberpunk author T.R. Napper has joined this list with Aliens: Bishop (Titan, 2023), an entertainingly cinematic entry into the series that sheds light on one of Aliens’ most intriguing characters. Napper has already proven his cyberpunk chops with 36 Streets and short story collection Neon Leviathan. But it got me wondering: why would a cyberpunk author want to write military science fiction?
For fans of the series, the answer might seem obvious. Because the world of Alien isn’t the military science fiction born out of wartime patriotism – it’s always been about workers suffering under extreme capitalism, whether that’s a bunch of intergalactic tug drivers picking up an emergency signal, a group of Vietnamese smugglers manipulated into a terrifying experiment, or the grunts of the Colonial Marines following orders into a suicide mission. Even the synthetics are viewed as objects; creator Michael Bishop riffs to his creation, ‘Everything they [the company] do is about reducing you to an asset.’
It’s not an Alien story without the interference of the hyper-capitalist Weyland-Yutani corporation, which first unleashed the brutal xenomorphs on the galaxy. The alien, without its need for systems, represents the end point of this capitalism: a being wholly dedicated to consumption, without consideration for the people it harms along the way. In that, the series’ political values have more in common with cyberpunk than military science fiction, and the success of the novel stems from Napper’s understanding of this conflict.
Plus, Napper makes fighting xenomorphs look damn cool.
The novel takes place after Aliens and Alien 3, and follows several point-of-view characters as they track down the synthetic Bishop. The android has been revived by his creator Michael Bishop to distil his knowledge on the Xenomorphs, in a laboratory in deep space. The United Americas, Three World Empire, communist Union of Progressive Peoples, and Weyland-Yutani corporation are in an interstellar arms race to utilise the alien as a biological weapon, and Bishop’s information is a material advantage in this war. With greed comes hubris; as we know, attempts to restrain the alien only result in death.
It’s this inevitable outcome which is the challenge for anyone writing an Alien novel, because there’s only so much you can do with an implacable enemy. We know the story will follow the four stages of the alien: ovomorph, face-hugger, chest-burster, xenomorph. But Napper makes some clever choices within this classic formula: the sinister turn as the Vietnamese smuggler ship is boarded by the Chinese, the ongoing threat of acid blood in a pressurised environment, the strangely likeable Weyland-Yutani rep Schwartz, and the final outcome of Michael Bishop’s megalomania.
The Colonial Marines are at the heart of this novel, bringing their gritty motivations and big personalities to the fight against the xenomorphs and intergalactic communism. In focussing on the marines, Napper does an excellent job of capturing the fog of war. Rookie Karri Lee fails the first time she hits the field. Marines and communist soldiers, terrified by the xenomorphs, break ranks and flee. It’s hard not to imagine the wobbly steadicam following these characters through smoke filled corridors, with red emergency lights blinking in the darkness, terror pulsing through their veins. No one is safe in an Alien story, but their success is hard won through these failures, leaving readers with a satisfying, albeit appropriately ironic ending.
Common too with cyberpunk is Napper’s focus on the synthetic Bishop and his complex relationship with his identity. Bishop knows acutely that he’s not human, but he longs to find a place of acceptance among humanity, reflecting positively on his time with Ellen Ripley and the marines. Napper expands the depth of Bishop’s character by writing him with a great deal of empathy.
Throughout the novel, Bishop seeks to understand how he relates to his creator and father, Michael Bishop. Bishop has an ecclesiastical reverence for his creator, yet he is confused by his own creator’s allegiance, questioning who Michael worships: ‘The god of science. The god of the machine. Or the god Michael Bishop’.
Their relationship recalls one of science fiction’s most complex father-son, creator-synth relationships, that of Star Trek’s Noonian Soong and Data. But the synths of this novel are far more prone to violence and manipulation. Bishop is no naïve victim here, and his decisions within the novel chart a path between his programming, a desire to please his father, and the need for self-autonomy.
However, the novel misses an opportunity to push this conceptual struggle into the structure of the novel itself. When Michael discusses the quantum computer of Bishop’s mind, he says that the key to uploaded consciousness is to ‘simulate memory through time.’ This plays out at a literal level, but a novel is also representative of this simulation. This scene almost promised that the book would play with memory in some way. After all, there’s a reason that one of the best documentaries about the series is called Memory: The Origins of Alien.
But Napper is working within the limitations of a tie-in novel, which requires appealing to the broadest possible audience within the fandom. Deep philosophical meanderings and experimental narratives might take away the urgency offered by pulse cannons and rogue xenomorphs. There’s enough philosophy here to add extra depth to the story, but not enough to be truly radical. And in saying that, the pacing never flags as Napper expertly treads the line between action and quietude.
Within its limitations, the book also relies on several archetypes – Apone, the leave-no-man behind military leader quoting Sun Tzu, the big dick energy of Cortazar, Karri Lee’s history as a refugee leading her to join the military – but Napper does mostly enough to justify these expectations with character backstory. For me, the least necessary scene is a flashback to Karri Lee’s confrontation with a major who threatens her enlistment unless she provides a sexual favour, but thankfully, it doesn’t play out in the expected way.
Aliens: Bishop is an entertaining novel that balances the series’ more philosophical elements with military action, political conflict, and satisfying story arcs. As with the very best Alien stories, Aliens: Bishop humanises what politics seeks to dehumanise. For Napper, Bishop’s humanity is found in a loyalty to family that transcends genetics. Or in the words of the marines, semper fidelis. Always faithful. ∎
Kat Clay’s short stories have been published in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Aurealis, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and several anthologies. Her non-fiction and criticism has been published in The Guardian, The Victorian Writer, and Weird Fiction Review, and she was a contributor to the Locus winning and Hugo nominated Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985. You can read ‘The Black Box Killer’, Kat’s experimental futuristic thriller inspired by 60s new wave science fiction, in Interzone #294.
IZ Digital is Interzone’s online sister zine. Become a member of the IZD Ko-fi for a euro a month to get EPUB editions of stories. Or just buy IZ a digital coffee/tea/raktajino – it is hugely appreciated and helps a lot.
You can also start a 6-issue EPUB subscription to Interzone and get even more amazing writing delivered electronically, bimonthly.
Reader memberships and subscriptions are the lifeblood of zines like IZ Digital and Interzone – thanks for reading, and supporting!