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

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