Monday, 19 July 2010
‘Fear the Alien’ – Edited by Christian Dunn (Black Library)
I’ve mentioned before, somewhere on the blog, that I’m a fan of cover art that doesn’t muck around and get too involved in itself. Instead, I prefer the kind of stuff that just gets out there and smacks the reader in the face with something straight and simple. Very much like this latest anthology from the Black Library. Check it out, we’re told to ‘Fear the Alien’ and then shown exactly why with what’s on the cover. If I spilt his drink, in a pub, I’d probably blame it on you before running away very quickly!
The Warhammer 40,000 universe is full of alien life, all itching to make a meal of humanity, and someone somewhere has decided that it’s only fair to focus on these races for a change. This is fine by me as anything that fleshes out the setting can only be a good thing.
However, the nature of certain of the aliens on show (coupled with the fact that there aren’t really that many alien races in the 40K universe, at least not many that are prominent) means that the focus shifts back onto humanity, almost by default. Genestealers and Tyranids feature in a number of the stories and although Aaron Dembski-Bowden makes a game attempt to get into their mindset (in ‘The Core’) the fact that they’re mindless eating machines means that the reader has to stay with the human combatants in order to get anything out of the story. Same deal with the Necrons (implacable killer robots). There’s nothing there to identify with, although they are very cool, so the reader shifts to what they can engage with instead.
As a collection ‘Fear the Alien’ more than does what it says on the front cover, showing us exactly why we should fear the creatures that lurk in the blackness between the stars. It’s not any more a book about these aliens than any other 40K books though, apart from perhaps C.L. Werner’s ‘Iron Inferno’ short story. This is to be expected really; the whole point is that these aliens are ‘alien’ and, by definition, you can’t write a story about something totally alien... can you? It’s worth bearing in mind though if you’re expecting this in the collection. The stories within (and what I thought) are as follows...
‘Gardens of Tycho’ – Dan Abnett
If you’re going to kick off an anthology, what better way to do it than with one of the Black Library’s big guns? It didn’t quite work for me though... Abnett paints a superb picture of a bombed out city recovering from war but the detective story taking place within it comes across as strangely subdued and a little contrived for my taste. I did like Abnett’s take on ‘humans as the aliens’ though, it really worked in this particular far future setting...
‘Fear Itself’ – Juliet E. McKenna
You don’t see an awful lot of women writing for the Black Library (if any?) so I was interested to see how Juliet McKenna fared in her tale of Imperial Guard facing off against a Tyranid incursion. McKenna nails the fear that the Guardsmen feel and this highlights just how alien the Tyranids are; she’s also not afraid to go into great depth as to what a Tyranid claw can do to human flesh. ‘Fear itself’ left me feeling cold though as the message in the title came across to me as more than a little heavy handed...
‘Prometheus Requiem’ – Nick Kyme
Salamander Space Marine board a Space Hulk (a wrecked craft spat out of the Warp) to finish a mission that began over a hundred years ago; what they’re after though is only the least of what they’ll find…
Kyme has obviously been around a few Space Hulks in his time as he sets the tone and atmosphere well nigh perfectly. He also divides equally between his Marines and what they find on board, striking a good balance between the human and alien. I’m beginning to really get into the tales of the Salamander Chapter and it’s all because of tales like this.
‘Mistress Baeda’s Gift’ – Braden Campbell
This was a story that shouldn’t have worked but ended up being superb. A tale of the most sadistic and cruel alien race in the galaxy... with humour added to the mix. I couldn’t see it working but the humour really added pathos to this tale of unrequited love and highlighted the alien qualities of the Dark Eldar. The surprise package in the anthology.
‘Iron Inferno’ – C.L. Werner
Billed as the ‘first ever Ork viewpoint story’, ‘Iron Inferno’ is also a tale of just how futile it can be trying to understand the alien mind. The consequences can be fatal and it’s this revelation that drives the story instead of the chance to look inside what goes on in an Ork’s head (which to be fair isn’t an awful lot, they just love to fight). An entertaining read with a real punch at the end.
‘Sanctified’ – Mark Clapham
A lowly tech-priest uncovers a plot by the Dark Eldar to steal an entire star cruiser and is the only person who can stop them. ‘Sanctified’ does a good job of showing how man can make himself ‘alien’ but less attention is paid to the true aliens themselves. The end result is entertaining enough but I was left feeling that I hadn’t really seen who I came for and that left me feeling disappointed.
‘Faces’ – Matthew Farrer
The most beautifully written story in the collection is sadly also the most confusing. There’s a real haunting, dreamlike quality to this piece about the Eldar Harlequins but the revelation is so long in coming that by the time it arrived I’d stopped caring because I’d spent so long trying to work out what was going on...
‘Unity’ – James Gilmer
A Raven Guard Marine and an Imperial Guard Sniper are trapped behind Tau lines as a planet burns... Gilmer’s tale does well to show us that gestures of alien friendship can hide something far more sinister but the two main characters didn’t really gel for me and, as a result, ‘Unity’ didn’t so much flow as… judder. I was also left feeling that ‘Unity’ was more of a chapter in a book than a short story in it’s own right and this vagueness didn’t help either…
‘The Core’ – Aaron Dembski-Bowden
Night Lords Traitor Space Marines board a Space Hulk to scavenge for ancient technology and anything else they can lay their hands on. What they’re after though is only half of what they’re going to go up against. Dembski-Bowden’s tale dovetails perfectly with Kymes and he builds on the Night Lords mythos while showing us just what it’s like to be at the wrong end of a rampaging Genestealer horde! Watch out though, I’m not sure if it’s a spoiler or not but Dembski-Bowden jumps ahead in the Night Lords series timeline and shows us where Talos will be in the future. This has lessened my anticipation for the next Night Lords book…
‘Ambition Knows No Bounds’ – Andy Hoare
This final story ends proceedings on a real high in terms of visual spectacle as a Rogue Trader’s entourage seeks to penetrate a Necron Tomb. The tension builds up nicely to a real crescendo but I was left feeling that I’d seen it all before. Explorers heading into an alien craft, ‘Alien’ anyone? This feeling was a little too strong to really let me get into what was otherwise a thrilling tale.
‘Fear the Alien’ pleads with us to heed it’s message (and with good reason judging by some of the things that take place inside the covers) but, at the same time, it’s also a book about humanity’s strength and courage in the face of such adversity. The end result is a collection of short stories that chill and stir the senses at the same time; while they vary in quality they all inspire that same feeling. If you’re after ‘bite sized chunks’ as a way to get into the 40K universe then you’re not going to go too far wrong here. ‘Fear the Alien’ is a good mixture of ‘scuttling alien menace’ having hot lead poured into it by ‘staunch, brave humanity’. Polarised? Of course it is but that’s the whole point of the setting. Fans will have a lot of fun with this one. Look out for it in September this year.
Eight and a Half out of Ten