The Alien Years
(UK: HarperCollins Voyager, £16.99, 453 pages, hardback; published
16 February 1998. Paperback pulished 1 February 1999, £6.99 US: HarperPrism,
hardcover, 428 pages, August 1, 1998, $24.00.)
In 1898, H.G. Wells saw the publication of his novel The War of
the Worlds--a story whose
details, like that of many of his tales, would become icons of 20th-century
Western culture. One hundred years later, Robert Silverberg dedicates
his new novel The Alien Years to that most revered of science
fiction's founders and pulls off an audacious feat: an update of that
seminal novel informed by a century of science fiction. When I say "update"
that's precisely what I mean. Mr. Silverberg's novel is not a sequel
to Mr. Wells'. It does not borrow any of its characters or settings,
but ingeniously reworks its premise--an invasion of Earth by technologically
superior extraterrestrials--in a modern setting, with contemporary social
and literary preoccupations.
The Alien Years describes a fifty-year occupation of Earth by
near-omnipotent extraterrestrials of unknown origin. The title, premise
and temporal length of the tale evoke allegorical connections to the
author's relationship to science fiction. In a 1992 essay, "The Books
of Childhood," Mr. Silverberg, born in 1935, confided that "by the age
of 10 I had found H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and my destiny was set
in stone forever." However, in a 1996 interview conducted by Locus
magazine the author revealed that his tenure as a science-fiction writer
was at an end, that the novel he was working on (The Alien Years)
would be his last in that genre. After fifty years of "alien occupation"
Robert Silverberg revisits the author who conquered his budding imagination
and brings to an end his own "alien years."
Mysteriously, HarperPrism--publisher of The Alien Years--has
made no marketing fuss over the fact that this novel celebrates the
centenary of Wells' The War of the Worlds. It would have been
a strong hook to help focus more attention to this fine novel, which--unusually
for this remarkably prolific author of more than a hundred books and
countless short pieces--has been years in the making.
The Alien Years incorporates stories of Mr. Silverberg's that
go as far back as 1986's "Against Babylon." This isn't a fix-up novel
made up of badly connected short stories. The stories are carefully
and skilfully interwoven into a rich tapestry chronicling the saga of
the Carmichael family's resistance to the alien occupation. Spread throughout
the novel's opening sequences and followed by some four hundred pages,
"Against Babylon" loses much of its phenomenal power, but the aim of
this novel is not that of the short story. The curious reader should
seek out the original story for a different reading of its events. On
the other hand, another old Silverberg story, "The Pardoner's Tale,"
takes on added depth and scope in the larger context of the novel.
In The Alien Years everything is bigger. Silverberg's Entities
tower over even the awesome tripods of Wells' Martians. Their ineffable
technology reduces both Martian and Terran science to a risible scale.
Their global occupation lasts fifty years to the Martians' few weeks
of terror over Great Britain. The tale of the anonymous narrator of
The War of the Worlds is magnified to the saga of four generations
of Carmichael resistance. It's a sprawling piece of fiction, seen through
the eyes and lives of many protagonists. In this respect, it's unrepresentative
of the body of Mr. Silverberg's work.
The traditional Silverberg tale depicts one male central character
whose fictional travails reflect his inner journey of transformation.
Robert Silverberg is an author whose usual terrain is what J.G. Ballard
dubbed "inner space," a term used to describe the preoccupations of
several writers who rose to prominence in the 1960s. These writers,
then called "The New Wave," rejected the hardware of American pulp science
fiction in order to investigate the human psyche, exploring the insidious
menace of the alien within rather than the xenophobic threat of the
Cold-War alien without. This new novel is very different. Its implications
are social rather than psychological. Its use of multiple protagonists
shifts its emphasis from the inner to the outer world, and highlights
one of the author's weaknesses, better camouflaged in a single-protagonist
tale: Robert Silverberg does not write about women very well. Most of
the women found in this novel aren't much more than breeding animals
whose task it is to bring more Carmichaels into the world. The charismatic
and eccentric Cindy Carmichael is a notable exception, but she is a
small voice in this hefty testament to male ingenuity. The novel's ultimate
depiction of the futility of all these male endeavors in some way addresses
this problem, but not quite to this reader's satisfaction.
In all other respects, this is a well-written, engaging novel. I especially
loved the way it set up situations and cleverly tinkered with the expectations
they raised. As I said above, The Alien Years is bigger. As such,
its dark, humbling conclusion dwarfs the fear expressed at the end of
The War of the Worlds concerning a possible second Martian attack.
It shatters for its characters any possible illusion of an anthropocentric
Originally published, in slightly different form, in The Gazette,
Saturday 6 Feb 1999; reprinted in Montreal OnLine.
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