An original Alien book is something special in my reading calendar, and when Alex White’s The Cold Forge hit my radar late last year I was immediately interested. But that interest was tempered with a natural apprehension: in recent years, we’ve seen some serious letdowns to the Alien franchise. I’m still bitter from the experience of Alien: Covenant (I’ll get over it… one day!) and official Alien literature tends to be a very uneven affair: often mediocre, sometimes incredible. So, where does The Cold Forge fit on that spectrum? Spoilers ahead!
Weyland-Yutani is at it again: experimenting with the titular alien lifeform. This time, the setting is RB-323 – a weapons research lab, the Cold Forge of the book’s title: a distant, top secret facility, where the alien is just one experimental technology. But the Cold Forge is not making the gains for the company that had been expected, and progress on weaponisation of the xenomorph isn’t moving as quickly as the button men back on Earth had hoped. Enter Dorian Sudler: a company auditor sent to evaluate the financial viability of the Cold Forge. But when Sudler finds that a spy operates aboard RB-323, he finds that the aliens might not be the most dangerous force operating aboard the station…
The Cold Forge is a very strong entry to the Alien canon. It probably stands as one of the best Alien stories currently in print: reflecting the older traditions of writing in this universe, and harkening back to such classics as Labyrinth, Stronghold and Rogue. Many of the older Dark Horse stories were novelised in the 1990s, and reflected – at least for me – a freer and more interesting approach to the Alien mythos, that we haven’t really seen in comics or books in recent years. Cold Forge feels like a throwback to that time, and in a really good way.
What really strikes me about the book, and about Alien stories in general, is that the premise of the “alien running amok on a space station” works best when the focus is on the characters, and the alien itself is part of the wider threat. Here, Alex excels. The characters of The Cold Forge are universally unlikeable; the closest we have to a protagonist is “Blue” Marsalis. She’s often selfish, and only drawn into anything like an act of heroism in the latter stages of the book – very far from the ideal of the SF hero. But that’s fine, and that’s very alien: everyone is out for themselves, and that’s in many ways a reflection on the capitalist core of this new world order.
But “Blue” is a terrific character, and I wouldn’t have her any other way. She’s suffering from a terminal illness, and as such is confined to bed. She remotely operates the android Marcus, which allows her to research the alien via a synthetic body. Readers of my Lazarus War and Eternity War books will know that I’m very interested in this sort of technology. Here Alex does a great job of using it to full dramatic effect, creating some genuinely creepy situations later in the book which involve exploiting Blue’s vulnerable physical status, and juxtaposing this with Marcus’ heightened physical prowess. The incorporation of the Marcus-Blue relationship with the security commander Anne was also an interesting note, which creates an emotional hook for Blue.
On the subject of characters, I have to mention Dorian Sudler. He epitomises Weyland-Yutani in so many ways, and as characters go I hated him! But this was clearly White’s intention: Sudler is manipulative, scheming and capable of almost anything to achieve his goals. If Blue is the protagonist, then Sudler is our antagonist – and I think most readers with very much enjoy hating him. When he goes over the edge, he doesn’t look back: this is American Psycho in space. Sudler is a darker breed of the infamous Carter Burke, keen to achieve similar goals, but in a different way. Burke in fact gets a special mention here, and I could well imagine Sudler and Burke going to toe-to-toe in the board room. Sudler continues the fine tradition of corporate cut-throats in the Alien series.
White also clearly knows his stuff so far as the Alien mythology is concerned, and another point of note is how well The Cold Forge sits with existing source material. He doesn’t break the mould in this respect: we aren’t given any huge advances in the aliens’ abilities or any insights into their background or origin. But White incorporates many little nods and references to the original series, weaving them in amongst the narrative in a pleasing way. If you’re a casual reader of Alien fiction, you might not even notice many of these. To a hardcore xeno reader, you’ll pick up on them quickly. I particularly liked the little nod at the end of the book, to the black goo and Prometheus/Covenant.
Overall, Alien: The Cold Forge is a really enjoyable addition to the Alien universe. I think any Alien fan will feel the same. It’s rare that we see a successful, original Alien story, but Cold Forge is that book.