Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Gemsigns - Stephanie Saulter

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Gemsigns by Jamaican born author Stephanie Saulter in a recent giveaway over at Worlds Without End. I'd never hear of the author before, which in hindsight is not that surprising as Gemsigns is a debut novel. It is the first novel in the ®Evolution series, the second book in the series, Binary, is expected sometime in 2014. I understand Saulter has a book deal for three volumes but I'm not sure if she intends to take it beyond that.  Since I'm still a few books short for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge I decided to read this novel right after I got it. I found it to be a book with a lot of potential but I'm not sure Saulter has made the most of that.

Humanity has survived a crisis that nearly lead to the extinction of the species. The Syndrome, as it is being referred to by the survivors, wiped out a whole generation of young people, drastically reducing the world's population. In order to survive, extensive research has been done in genetic engineering. Several companies have created a host of genetically modified humans with a vast range of capabilities beyond what was possible before the crisis. These Gems have been the property of the companies that created them until recently. After a series of scandals that exposed the atrocious conditions the Gems were being kept in, the world has come to realize it must come to terms with its creation. A conference has been organized to decide on what the future relationship between Gems and Norms will be and Eli Walker is the man unfortunate enough to provide a scientific underpinning for the decision to be reached.

Saulter describes the events in the week leading up to the conference, when several parties try to influence the outcome. They don't shy away from any means to prevent an outcome that would give Gems more rights that they already have in the legal limbo they find themselves in. The short time span in which the characters chase their goals make it a very fast paced novel. The characters rarely have time to reflect on things as reality often turns out to be a step ahead of even the most well laid plan. Unfortunately the speed with which the plot moves goes at the expense of the depth of the story in some places.

There is a lot of potential for conflict in this novel. I guess you could say Saulter focuses on two main sources. The first has to do with corporate greed. The Gems are created to do dangerous and specialized work. They are designed with a specific task in mind and what their modification does to their health or well-being is considered completely irrelevant as long as the remain functional. This attitude has lead to a great number of abuses, failed experiments and tragically crippled creatures the companies would rather have the world forget. There is an obvious parallel her to slavery here, a legacy someone form Jamaica must be very aware of. A less obvious connection with current affairs in the world the the recent ruling of the US supreme court in the matter of patenting genetic material. An idea so scary in its implications that it is beyond me how any reasonably educated human being could support it.

Although the corporations would like to see control of Gems handed back to them, such a to slavery seems out of the question. There is a political current active that tries to minimize the damage to corporations and advocates a kind of special status for the Gems. They would be allowed to live their lives and find employment where they wish as long as they are registered and can be closely monitored. Fear of their unique abilities makes this solution attractive to some. To the reader it is probably akin to to sewing a yellow badge on your coat. In fact, the corporations have already gone so far as to build a gemsign into their models. Once again a historical parallel is clear. Even the reproductive rights of Gems are a matter of debate, it is quite obvious where this path would lead.

The second focal point for conflict is religious. It's not entirely clear to me how the church developed during the years of the crisis and beyond but it appears to be an organization that still adheres to some of the core values of Christianity. There certainly are plenty of Christian symbols present in the novel. Most of the church rally to the cause of the Gems, providing assistance to many of them. A minority seems them as abominations, creations of wicked men rather than God. They are a disgrace that must be wiped of the planet in the name of the Lord, of at the very least locked away. This kind of fanaticism predictability leads to violent confrontations, which in turn are encouraged by those who would see the Gems locked away. The Gems are walking on eggshells. On the one hand vulnerable, yet aching to strike out. The mood in the part of London where many of them have found a home is tense. It is one of the better aspects of the novel.

Public relations are a very important part of the struggle. All factions involved they to appear reasonable, while on the other hand trying to make their opponents look bad. The fighting in the media is almost as fierce as what goes on on the streets of London. The way the media are used in this battle by all parties involved is fascinating to read. The standard of reporting doesn't seem to have improved much in the years since the crisis. Reporting is rarely nuanced and often extremely biased. It nevertheless remains a great tool to direct public opinion.

What I think this novel lacks is a measure of subtlety. Once the history of the Syndrome and the events that followed are laid out to the reader in the rather infodumpish fifth chapter, the eventual conclusion Walker arrives at is inescapable. There are so many obvious paths to disaster, illustrated by some of the blackest pages in human history that the only way out is forward.  Those who oppose equal rights for Gems are trying to put the genie back into the bottle. They may be able to do a lot of damage on the way out but their fight is doomed from the start. Just from an ethical point of view, Eli's conclusions are clear from early on in the novel. Despite Saulter's attempt to build suspense.

What doesn't help is that the lack of subtlety isn't limited the core concepts of the novel. Most of the main characters suffer from it too. The corporate evil genius Zavcka Klist for instance, as seen through the eyes of Eli, is manipulative, considers lying and illegally withholding information perfectly acceptable and doesn't give a damn about the lives of Gems or her opponents. She gives you the creeps from the very moment we meet her. At that point it isn't clear what she is up to, but she clearly is the the bad guy in the novel. Her main enemy is Gem community leader Aryel Morningstar, whom Eli is clearly enamored with. She is bright, willing to do whatever it takes to keep her community from harm and displays a kind of openness that borders on the unbelievable for someone who is essentially a politician. Not that she doesn't have a few secrets but I assume that is material for the next books. Caught between these two opposites, which way do you think our honest to his science Eli would move?

Gemsings is a novel of few surprises. I would have liked to seem some more grey in the characters and find out what they would do if the right choice was not quite so obvious. There are plenty of opportunities to do just that in the second novel, which will no doubt deal with the fall out of the conference and the events leading up to it. That being said, the novel is a entertaining. It has that kind of readability that keeps you up later than you should to read one more chapter. It's a book you can immerse yourself in completely. In short, I have mixed feelings about it. I see room for improvement but that is not the worst thing you can say of a debut novel. I also see potential. I'm considering reading the second book.

Book Details
Title: Gemsigns
Author: Stephanie Saulter
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Pages: 389
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-78087-865-2
First published: 2013

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Broken Land - Ian McDonald

I've approached Ian McDonald's work completely out of the order of publication, staring with his short story collection Cyberabad Days in 2009. I've read all of his novels from River of Gods (2004) onwards by now but of his earlier work I've only read his debut Desolation Road (1988). Open Road Media is releasing four of McDonald's earlier works as e-books and were kind enough to supply me with a copy of The Broken Land (1992). This novel is one of several books where the American publisher picked a different title than the British one. In the UK the book was released as Hearts, Hands and Voices. I have no idea which title the author prefers. Either works well for me, although the more cryptic UK title might suit the style of the novel better.

In a far future humanity has discovered how to directly manipulate genetic material. This has lead to a revolution in society. Through genetics one can create just about every life form imaginable, catering to every need. It could be a paradise but a deep religious divide runs through the crumbling empire Mathembe Fileli calls home. The tension between Proclaimers and Confessors is rising and when the idyllic village of Chepsenyt is razed through the ground by the empire's forces a civil war erupts. Mathembe looses everything she ever knew and is separated from her family. A nightmarish trek though a war torn country ensues.

McDonald does not go easy on the reader in this book. It is one of the more challenging novels I've read this year. His style has changed a bit over the years from the equal parts magical realism and science fiction in Desolation Road to the more accessible plot and prose of The Dervish House. This novel is definitely closer in style to his debut. It is very poetic, at times surreal and includes lots and lots of strange imagery. All of which is made even more interesting by the fact that Mathembe doesn't speak. There are still dialogues in the novel of course, she does communicate, but they are not normal conversations. They include lots of non-verbal communication and people only partly understanding what she is trying to communicate.

The setting has an African flavour to it but the story is essentially an analogy of the political situation in Northern Ireland. McDonald has lived most of his life in Belfast, including the most intense years of the Troubles and this has shaped his writing. He sees the conflict in Northern Ireland as a post-colonial one and there is definitely something to be said for that. The story contains a religious conflict of course, and a once great empire trying to hold on to its last possessions,  but also the suppression of a language and the messy situation where militias from both sides enter into the fray. Ethnic cleansing, large numbers of displaced people, executions, destruction of property and every other form of terror imaginable show up in the novel. Both sides even go so far as to claim there is a genetic basis for the religious differences that separate them.

To add to the magical atmosphere of the book, McDonald has created a vision of future technology that is as strange as one may hope to encounter in science fiction. Almost all of it is based on living organic tissue. Construction, transportation, and communication are all aided by this new technology, resulting in some creatures and tools that are quite hard to wrap your head around. Even the afterlife The idea of being taken up in a vast organic matrix is an appealing one. Mathembe is very good at manipulating organic matter, something that comes in handy more than once.

Where most science fiction novels assume that technological progress will result in a more rational world where religion becomes less important or will completely disappear, McDonald's future shows a fusion of the messy organic science and religion. There is no sense that science will one day be able to explain everything or that the divine necessarily conflicts with science. They are seamlessly fused in the minds of some people, although the horrors of war do make some characters question their view of the world.

This story has a great many tragic elements in it, Mathembe deals with loss after loss and yet there is always hope an determination to drive her on. Hope of being reunited with her family, hope that she can keep her brother save, that she can drag her mother out of depression, that she can find her father. There is always the sense that no matter their religion, people are basically decent human beings and that differences can be overcome, that maybe the next refugee camp will hold what Mathembe is looking for. Silent, stubborn and resourceful, Mathembe is a protagonist you can feel for. She is one of the more fascinating characters I;ve come across in McDonald's books.

I've been thinking about how good a read this novel really is and I can't seem to make up my mind about it. The story is gripping and Mathembe a great character. I also liked the prose and McDonald's vision of what genetic research but I do think that for some readers the prose in particular is too much of a good thing. Some passages needed several rereads to be able to figure out what the author was trying to communicate, making the The Broken Land a slow read. Readers of main stream fiction might enjoy the prose but it is probably too much of a science fiction novel to have a great appeal for that market. It probably isn't a novel for a large audience. It probably takes a very specific kind of reader to fully enjoy what McDonald was trying to do here. I think I may lake a bit of patience with his prose. The poetic quality of his writing is still present in his later novels but reigned in a bit more. It is a matter of preference but for me, that later style works better.  Nevertheless, if you are looking for a science fiction novel that is challenging and offers both interesting concepts and a mastery of language, this novel would be a good choice. Just take your time reading it.

Book Details
Title: The Broken Land
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Open Road Media
Pages: 336
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 1992

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Hunter's Run - George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham

A book with three authors, I can't think of many of those. The only one that comes to mind is Black Trilium by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Julian May and Andre Norton, which is less that successful to put it mildly. That book was more or less commissioned. Hunter's Run has a completely different history. That alone makes is a much more interesting book. I read it the first time in Januari 2008, not long after it had been published. Back then I thought it was pretty seamlessly written for a book with three authors. Of course I hadn't read anything by Dozois and Daniel back then. That has since been remedied and I still think it is a very well edited book. Whether you will like it depends on your expectations I guess.

Mankind has made it to the stars only to find out they were beaten to it by more advanced species. None of them managed to overcome the limitations imposed by the speed of light however. That hasn't stopped these species from colonizing other planets. Humans, whit their capacity to bend ecosystems to their needs (or destroy them, depending on where you are standing) are very useful to these species indeed. They get sent out to newly discovered worlds to settle them. One such place is São Paulo, a planet in the early stages of settlement. The kind of frontier mentality that rules the planet suits our violent and anti social main character Ramon Espejo just fine. After he kills someone in a bar brawl, he decides to make himself scarce for a bit and go out prospecting. During that trip, he finds out the planet is not quite as empty has the settlers believe.

Hunter's Run has one of the most unlikely histories I've ever come across in a novel. Gardner Dozois started writing it in 1976 with the intention of writing a short story. He got stuck at one point and put it away for a bit before handing it over to George R.R. Martin to have a go at it. Martin did, but like Dozois, got stuck somewhere along to the way. He handed it back to Dozois in 1982 with the intention of alternating it between them until it was done. This never happened and in the end the two of them decided to bring in a third author, a young writer by the name of Daniel Abraham. Finishing it under the editorship of both Dozois and Martin, who by that time had big reputations in the field, must have been quite an experience for Abraham. He finished the story eventually and it was published as a novella called Shadow Twin in 2004. The three of them saw the potential for a novel in the story however and again it was substantially rewritten and expanded, resulting in the release of Hunter's Run in 2007.

Did all of that work result in a good book? Well that depends on how you look at it. It was published during the long wait for A Dance with Dragons (which wasn't even halfway by then) looking for something else by Martin to read. His influence in the novel can be felt of course, but it reaches back to the period in his career when a lot of his output consisted of short science fiction stories. Martin didn't publish his first novel, The Dying of the Light, until 1979 after all. Hunter's Run is many things but it is nothing like A Game of Thrones. People going into this novel with the expectation of getting something like that will be very disappointed. This should be obvious just from the cover text but there are an amazing number of reviews out on the web complaining about it.

There is something very unusual about the setting of this novel. Back in 1976, science fiction was the domain of white men. Dozois decided to take the rather bold step of coming up with a story with mostly characters Latin American descent. John W. Campbell would have been turning in his grave. It might have been pretty revolutionary if it had actually been published back then. These days, science fiction is thankfully a bit more varied. I understand that the novel fits into the same universe Dozois uses in his 1978 novel Strangers. I own an e-book version of that novel but I haven't read it yet. I might have to do something about that. Dozois' universe is only superficially explored in this novel I would say there is more to tell about it.

It is hard to tell who is responsible for what in this novel but if I had to have a guess, I think the character of Ramon is mostly shaped by Abraham. He is from another generation of writers approaching science fiction concepts in a different way. Ramon is something of an anit-hero. He is violent, anti-social, prone to drinking too much and involved in a very dysfunctional relationship with a woman called Elana. Sex, booze and violence are the crutches he uses to get by in a society he despises. The only time when Ramon is somewhat at ease is when he is alone prospecting. The authors use a science fiction plot device to force Ramon to look at himself and ask himself what is means to be human and how he can become a better man. The answers Ramon comes up with are surprising. It's the psychological struggle Ramon is facing that is the core of the novel. I think Martin and Dozois could have done a lot worse that bring Abraham on board for this.

If you go into this novel leaving Martin's success in the last fifteen years behind, I think Hunter's Run is a very enjoyable novel. Despite being a smooth read in terms of prose, personally I still can't see the cracks in the writing after this second read, there is something of a split in the novel. The early stages and the final section of the novel, set in the major city of the colony, read like a more traditional story, whereas the section set in the unexplored wilderness of the planet are more of a psychological drama. Not all readers will appreciates both parts of the story. Personally I don't think it is brilliant but I do think it is a very interesting work. The history, the impact each writer had on the novel and the phase of their careers they were in at the time make the story that about the novel just as interesting as the one in it. I don't think I've read a lot of books for which that is true. Still, Hunter's Run will not be what each of these three authors will be remembered for. They all have written better stuff. As such, I do consider it a minor work in the bibliographies of Martin, Dozois and Abraham.

Book Details
Title: Hunter's Run
Author: George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Pages: 394
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-726021-8
First published: 2007

Sunday, July 14, 2013

River of Stars - Guy Gavriel Kay

After the publication of Under Heaven (2010), a novel set in a fantastical analogue of the 8th century Chinese Tang dynasty, Kay's enthusiasms for Chines history didn't wane. His latest novel River of Stars is set a few centuries later in the same time line. There are a few references to the earlier book, as well as a few others Kay has written,  but it's not a sequel in the traditional sense of the world. Both novels can read independently, something I very much appreciate in much of Kay's work. As always with Kay, it is a beautifully written book. I would not be surprised if it ended up on many a best of 2013 list.

Several centuries after the events that led up to the Al Li rebellion described in Under Heaven, the Kitan empire is but a shadow of its former self. Fear of a strong army, loyal to its generals have severely crippled the strength of the Kitan empire. It has lost control over important trade routes and is forced to pay tribute to the tribes of the northern steppes to keep that from taking more than the fourteen prefectures they currently occupy. But the tribes are always restless and a rebellion on the steppes offers opportunities if the Kitan empire can overcome its military weakness, inspire an emperor who would rather devote his time to art than governing the realm and survive the continuous maneuvering for position to going at court.

Kay approaches this novel in more or less the same way as the previous one. There are a number of main characters but we often get to see them though the eyes of lesser characters or the narrator. Being a point of view character in this novel is decidedly unhealthy. Quite a few of them kick the bucket after a few pages. The technique to use the past tense for the male and the present for female points of view also returns, as does the tendency to tell the reader the outcome of a scene before letting it unfold. For readers who pay more attention to the structural side of a novel there is a familiar feel to it.

In a way, the plot devices are familiar too. The historical setting is clearly recognizable, with a number of characters clearly inspired by historical figures. I must admit I'm not that well versed in the history of the Song dynasty so, as usual when I read one of Kay's novels, the text promoted more than one Wikipedia reading session. Kay is not a slave to historical accuracy. He doesn't let it get in the way of telling the story he wants to tell but there is still a lot that is clearly recognizable. In broad strokes, it tells the story of the collapse of the Song dynasty under pressure from the Jurchen (a few centuries later known as the Manchu) and its eventual rebirth as the southern Song that follows. It's a fittingly dramatic event in Chinese history and Kay uses it to full effect.

What I found most interesting about the way Kay treats history is aware of the fact that history is often disputed, muddled by storytelling, myth and legend and coloured by the view of the historian. In several places there are remarks to the effect that the way this event ended up in history not quite like the way it unfolded in reality. I wonder if Kay has chosen to do this at points where there are different accounts of events or where historians disagree on the interpretation of certain sources. I do not know the history of the Song dynasty well enough to make that kind of detail out, but someone who does might find it an interesting layer in the narrative.

Where the book differs significantly form Under Heaven is in the atmosphere Kay creates. In his previous novel he portrays an empire at the height of its power. The pinnacle of civilization and culture in the known world as well as an economic and military power to be reckoned with. The radiate the kind of arrogance that comes with such power. In River of Stars the empire still sees itself as the pinnacle of civilization but is forced to employ all kinds of tricks with words to avoid the appearance of being subjugated to the northern tribes. It's a kind of desperation, a futile attempt to hold on to its former glory that saturates the book.

Another emotion that permeates the narrative is fear. The wounds suffered during the An Li rebellion clearly haven't completely healed. The empire is more afraid of its own incompetent generals than of the outside enemies that mass on its border. It's this fear that shapes the story and the live of the main characters. An empire with superior numbers and technology and a strategy that can defeat the horsemen that invade their country brought to its knees by evens centuries in the past. It's even more tragic when you realize that court intrigue contributed to the defeat of the southern Song a century and a half later.

For readers who loved Under Heaven, River of Stars is a must read. Kay once again shows what he is capable of with his trademark quarter turn to the fantastic. Maybe Kay takes a little more time than strictly necessary in some places but the sheer beauty of the prose more than makes up for that. I loved the way in which history shapes the lives of the characters and the decisions of individuals in turn shape history. It's a book that requires a bit of patience but in the end it is a very rewarding read. I'm very impressed with Kay's oeuvre as a whole and this book certainly lives up to the reputation he has built. I think I'm going to have to reserve a place for this book on my own best of 2013 list.

Book Details
Title: River of Stars
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Roc
Pages: 639
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-451-46497-2
First published: 2013

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Best of Connie Willis - Connie Willis

Connie Willis has received a staggering eleven Hugo and seven Nebula awards in her career, an achievement nobody has equaled. Her induction in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009 and receiving the SFWA Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement in 2011 can hardly be called surprising. Of her novels, thee or four, depending on whether or not you count the two volumes Blackout and All Clear as a single work, have won awards, the rest Willis received for her short fiction. My reading of Willis' work is limited to three novels and one novella, all of which I have enjoyed, so when Del Rey offered this collection for review on NetGalley I snapped it up.

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-winning Stories contains ten pieces of fiction, ranging from short stories to novellas. As the title suggests each has won at least one award. The author has written an introduction, brief afterwords with all of the stories and at the back three of her acceptance speeches have been added. The stories span some three and a half s of her career, starting with the 1982 story and A Messages from the Clearys to All Seated on the Ground, which first appeared in 2007. It is in other words, as good an introduction to Willis' work as you could hope to find.

Willis may have won an impressive number of awards, her work is not without its critics and this collection gives us a clue as to why that might be. Her work contains a number of themes that can be found in both her short fiction and her novels and she writes about them with a passion that is rarely seen in science fiction. One of the clearest examples is probably her fascination with London during the Blitz. Her story Fire Watch (1982) is an early expression of that. It is also the first story that introduces the Oxford time-traveling historian that are the subject of several of her novels. Fire Watch is set during the height of the Blitz in late 1940 and describes the efforts to save St. Paul's Cathedral from burning down. It's a gripping story, with lots of historical detail and a dramatic climax.

Willis uses the Blitz again in her story The Winds of Marble Arch (1999), also part of this collection, and eventually her interest in this topic culminates in the two volume novel Blackout and All Clear. A work that for some is her Magnum Opus and for others a bloated, mired down in detail and practically unreadable novel. Personally I enjoyed both Fire Watch and The Winds of Marble Arch, although I do not share Willis' amazement at the London Underground system displayed in the latter story. Of course that might be different if I had been from a country where all investment in public transport appears to have ceased after Ford introduced his Model T.

If you do not particularly care for descriptions of dozens of underground stations, including notes on which have been hit during the Blitz or how many firebombs were smothered on which particular night on the roof of St. Paul's, then yes, you are in for some difficult reading. This happened for me with the story All Seated on the Ground in which the lyrics of a large number of Christmas carols are essential to the plot. On the surface it is a first contact story, where a race against the clock to understand a recently arrived group of aliens is the backbone of the plot. I've read and enjoyed more than a few stories with similar plots and enjoyed many of them. This one was turned nearly unreadable by all the references to Christmas carols, most of which I fortunately never have had to listen to. They are described with the same passion and attention to detail as London during the Blitz, but however much the author might like them, that much detail on Christmas carols is simply unreadable to me.

Humor is another element that comes back in many stories. In that respect, At the Rialto (1990) was probably the highlight of the collection to me. In this story Willis professes her love to Hollywood, of which I am moderately more tolerant than Christmas carols. What attracted me to the story was the use of a scientific convention as an analogue for quantum mechanics. The chaotic and counter intuitive world of subatomic particles is reflected in the behavior of the people around the main character, turning the whole story into one of this nightmares where you absolutely have to get something done bu the world keeps putting obstacles in your way. Only this time we get to watch and smile at the main character's fruitless attempts to create order. It is a very clever, multilayer story. If I had to pick a favorite of the collection this one might well be it. Although it much be said that Even the Queen(1993) is a hilarious piece as well. How many writers would dare writing a humorous story about a woman's cycle?

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-winning Stories contains stories that tackle a variety of themes and approaches to story-telling and as such there are bound to be a few stories the reader will enjoy. In my mind Willis remains an author who'll get a story right and hit it out of the ballpark or delivers something completely unreadable though. I guess I am one of the lucky ones. For me, most of the stories are very good to excellent and I enjoyed the opportunity to discover some of the themes that carry over in her long fiction in this collection. It is easy to see why Willis has such a large number of fans. Her stories are well-crafted, often humorous, always well researched. Willis is an author you have to have read something of at the very least and this collection would not be a bad place to start.

Book Details
Title: The Best of Connie Willis
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 496
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-345-54065-2
First published: 2013

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Secret City - Carol Emshwiller

Looking for interesting novels to read for the WWend Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge I came across Carol Emshwiller's wprk. She is well into her nineties now and still writing. A lot of her output is short fiction but over a career that spans more than six decades she produced a number of novels as well. The Secret City (2007) is her most recent novel. It grew out of a short story called World of No Return, first published in Asimov's in the December 2005 issue. Emshwiller is not an author that receives a lot of attention but certainly a steady voice in science fiction. She strikes me as an author you have to at read at least something of and thus a good choice for the reading challenge. It turned out to be one of my better picks in the reading challenge.

A group of alien tourists is stranded on Earth. They are equipped with homing beacons so they expect to be rescued soon enough. Trying not to attract attention to themselves, keep away from human society as best they can but as the years go by, rescuers fail to appear and their money runs out, closer contact with humans is inevitable. A new generation grows up not knowing their home planet. The aliens prepare their children as best they can for a return, but having been born on Earth, not all of them are sure they want to go back.

The Secret City is short novel, written in a very to the point style. The prose is sparse, supplying just the bare bones of what is going on in the world around the main characters. Emshwiller lays out her story in just over 200 pages. I finished it in a single day, which is something I haven't done in quite a while. Another interesting feature of the story is that it is written is the first person and the present tense, which always takes me a few pages to get into. I thought it was a highly readable style but some readers might prefer a bit more detail.

Emshwiller follows the story of two main characters. Lorpas, the male protagonist, is the more worldly of the two. He has had extensive contact with the outside world and has integrated to the point of loosing most of his native language. He is basically a good man but not above a little stealing to make his way. Very few other ways to make a living are open to him. One of the most interesting things about him is how he is at the same time not quite human and yet able to fit in almost seamlessly. His point of view clearly shows how ignorant the aliens are of Earth and if you read between the lines, he doesn't think much of his parents' attitude.

The female protagonist Allush has a different view on the world. She grows up in the hidden city somewhere in the mountains of the western United States, much more focused on what her parents' generation has been able to salvage of their alien civilization. They have tried to minimize contact with the outside world but because of a steady drain of people leaving the city and the death of the older generation, the city is slowly emptying. While desperately trying to hold on to their idea of civilization they have regressed to a barely self sustaining hunting and gathering community. The city as their last refuge, symbol of their ignorance pride and foolishness.

Lorpas sees the city as a goal, a place where he might find others of his kind. Something he longs for after years of wandering the world alone. Allush on the other hand realizes she will have to leave it, either for the home world or human society. There is something intensely tragic about both these stories. It might have been a tragedy but somehow, as soon as Emshwiller brings the two together, the story takes another direction. For me, that was one of the most appealing aspects of the story.

The Secret City is a wonderfully understated meditation of being different, of not fitting in. The otherness of the mail characters is constantly present in the narrative and, usually between the lines, they are permanently struggling with it. It is perhaps not the most ambitious science fiction novel ever but the minimalist style and clear language appealed to me. I may have to dig up some of her short fiction. I suspect Emshwiller's writing is even more effective in the short form. This book is definitely the most pleasant surprise in the reading challenge thus far.

Book Details
Title: The Secret City
Author: Carol Emschwiller
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 209
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1-892391-44-9
First published: 2007