Having loved the movies, but never read an Aliens book before, I was so excited when Australian author T.R. Napper announced the impending release of Aliens: Bishop. From his previous books, 36 Streets and Neon Leviathan I knew that Napper’s history in working in diplomacy and aid across the South East Asian region meant that his lived understanding of poverty and the politics of the Asia Pacific region surpassed almost any other cyberpunk and milSF author I know, and the idea of him applying that to the broader universe of Aliens was something I was absolutely itching to read. When that glorious hardcover arrived at my apartment, well, it was a “TBR pile be damned” moment. And I was not disappointed (mate).
In Aliens: Bishop, a direct sequel to Aliens 3, Karri has joined the marines to escape the starving poverty of Australia. She sends her pay to her family, she gets a clean bed and three meals a day, but now it’s time to do the job and go into combat. Apone is Karri’s leader, and he’s just lost marines in battle. He reviews the decisions that led to this point, but a discussion with a mercenary leads him to wonder about the honour of his role–is he an honourable leader of marines, or another pawn doing bloody deeds for Weyland-Yutani, or a grieving brother chasing vengeance no matter the cost? Bishop the synthetic is rebuilt after his death into a new, stronger, better body with a new mind. He reviews the data from his time with Ripley and the troopers on Acheron (the setting for Aliens) and starts to experience odd thoughts, thoughts that sit outside his experience as a synthetic and create more questions than answers as his creator Michael engages him and gives him something he’s not had before: choice. Vietnamese smuggler Xuan is on the first six months of a five year rotation on a smuggler’s ship packed with people from her home in Hanoi when they are stopped by a Chinese warship (an ally) for an inspection. Commander Su Wong of the Chinese warship Xinjiang is on a horrible mission, one that makes her question the loyalty of her leaders to the greater mission of the Chinese people.
Themes of memory and its importance and manipulation, of AI and it’s roles and dangers, of poverty and greed, should all be familiar to fans of Napper. He’s worked them into this story in spades. On one hand, Aliens: Bishop is an awesome, action-packed ride stacked with combat, aliens (naturally), duplicitous corporations, and espionage. If that’s all you pick up from the book, you’re going to have an awesome time smashing through this 500 page read like it’s a novella. On the other hand it’s a deep dive into themes of division, of what it would take for us all to put our learned political grievances and prejudices aside, megacorporations and governments, poverty and suffering, of AI and choice and the progression of their intelligence beyond programming, of found family, and of the darkness of the human mind overcome by the need for survival. If you’re interested in both angles of Napper’s story, then clear your fucking schedule.
Aliens: Bishop, I feel, is also an excellent “in” for fans of the movies who have yet to enjoy one of the franchise books. It’s incredibly accessible, with easy-to-find nods to the movies for you to pick up on and enjoy. I’m also certain there are nods and nuances that well-read, die hard, Aliens fans are also going to pick up on and enjoy that have sailed right over my head. If you’re only just finding out that there are a stack of books to go with the Aliens movies, then I highly suggest you grab this book and get stuck in.
One of the things that Napper does so well, be it in his cyberpunk works, or in Aliens: Bishop is work in the regional nuances of the most complex region on the planet: the Asia Pacific (APAC). The APAC region has 23 countries, housing 60% of the entire planet’s population, who speak 3,000 languages, is the birthplace of 11 of the planet’s key religions, and has human history in all its glory and sheer fucking horror dating back for bloody ever. You so rarely see the people of this region–be it Australians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indians, Cambodians, New Zealanders (to name a few)–front and centre in this level of mainstream sci-fi, but Napper is flying our flag, and I am here for it. From Vietnamese pho, to Australian Vegemite, to the vernacular and social structures of both countries (where he has lived and worked), and those of the Chinese (I especially love how he paints the Vietnamese and Chinese as human beings, and not as cardboard villains as they tend to be in fiction and in media since the Vietnam War), Napper has worked in a completely new flavour to an old school franchise, without bloody ruining it.
Aliens: Bishop is a magnificent reading experience. It’s fast, fun, new (while paying incredible respect to the old), has plenty of depth if you care to look for it, and provides an excellent first franchise book for a new Aliens reader, and what I imagine is an excellent new lens for the Aliens books veteran.