Visions of Paradise

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Alien Years

A master writer faces a problem when he releases a novel which is not the equal of his finest works. A novel which might have gotten generally strong reviews at the hands of an unknown writer instead is faced with the inevitable comparison to the author’s finer works. This is unfair to a reader looking for good reading rather than an instant masterpiece. And since no matter how superb a writer might be, not every work is going to be equally brilliant, so a reader might be cheated if reviewers only direct you to the “cream of the crop.”

Take, for example, Robert Silverberg. Not only is he one of the finest science fiction writers ever, but he might be the field’s greatest novelist. Consider that he had 6 novels nominated for the Hugo Award in a span of 4 years in the early 1970s, including some of his finest works: Up the Line, A Time of Changes, The Book of Skulls, and Dying Inside. In the half-dozen years on either side of those nominations came such works as Thorns, The Masks of Time, Nightwings, The Stochastic Man and Shadrach in the Furnace.

After Shadrach came a sudden retirement, a well-deserved one considering how many books he published in the 20 years prior. It lasted about four years, after which came a considerably slower stream of novels which, while only slightly below the master level of those prior novels, were in some instances not given their deserved acclaim because of comparisons to the pre-retirement novels: Lord Valentine’s Castle, Tom O’Bedlam, Kingdom of the Walls, The Face of the Water.

In the 1990s, Silverberg’s production slowed even more, and his novels became different in several ways. Hot Sky at Midnight was a near-future thriller. The Long Way Home was a juvenile. And The Alien Years was a contemporary saga.

In The Alien Years, a strange group of “entities” settle on Earth and immediately impose their control on the planet. There is no grand invasion, no warfare, merely vastly superior beings with the ability to coerce humans into doing whatever they wish. And what they wish to do is remove humans’ autonomy while basically ignoring most of their daily activities.

But the entities’ hands-off policies has its limits. When the American government retaliates by attacking an entity stronghold with orbital laser weapons, the entities release airborne germs and kill half the population of Earth. When a young Englishmen of Pakistani descent manages to kill one of the entities, they round up the inhabitants of all the surrounding villages, kill half of them and send the others to labor camps.

Much of the novel concerns Colonel Carmichael, a Vietnam War veteran, who in the aftermath of the alien takeover gathers all his family members on his huge estate in the San Bernardino Valley, and begins plotting the overthrow of the entities. This rebellion is the basic plot of the entire 500 page book, except the entities are so powerful that the rebellion consists primarily of waiting and watching, marked by two futile attempts at killing the “prime” entity. Because the rebellion is so static, much of the novel is also. Briefly we follow Khalid, the only successful murderer of an entity before he makes his way to the Carmichael estate, and we also follow Andy, a computer hacker who spends several years helping people escape from the clutches of the entities by foiling the entities’ computer assignments for those people. But ultimately these sub-plots do not really lead anywhere except back to the Carmichael estate and more waiting.

The novel’s climax is the second rebellion attempt, but it fails miserably with the result that the entities punish the Carmichaels by killing half their family and destroying much of their estate. Five years later, the entities abruptly pack up and leave Earth, a climax obviously influenced by H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

While I enjoyed reading The Alien Years and would recommend it moderately, I would have been happier if it had more forward momentum and less of a static nature. And the abrupt purposeless of its ending tended to drain all purpose from all the prior activities of the Carmichael family. So while I do not wish to be one of those critics who steer readers away from good novels because they do not reach the level of an author’s master works, the amount of time needed to read The Alien Years would be much more fulfilling if instead you read Nightwings or Dying Inside or A Time of Changes or....well, you get the idea.


  • There are some other factors to consider too. Not only are you comparing Silverberg with his past work, the same novel must also be compared to all those other SF novels that deal with the same idea.

    Alien invasions are a tired topic. It's damn hard to write anything new on the subject. Even if it's a metaphor for current events, like the war in Iraq, that's been done to death too.

    The only novel thing that can be approached is the nature of the aliens, and even here it's hard to come up with new ideas of what aliens might be like.

    The genre produced the most original ideas when it was new, and most writers do their best work when they are young. It must be very hard for an old writer to mine an old genre and squeeze anything new out of a very old idea.


    By Blogger Jim Harris, At 6:56 AM  

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