Secret City, The by Emshwiller, Carol, 2007

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As I mentioned only in the last two or so weeks, Carol Emshwiller is a pretty new author for me. I have heard of her before, and I believe that I have read her short fiction in various anthologies in the past. However not only am I new to her novel length work, but based on the results of my informal and quick research, novel length works are a pretty new thing for her too. She seems to have a pretty introspective website, and once I get time to go through it with a comb, I hope to answer some of the questions I have about her past. The Secret City is one of her newest works, having been published as a trade paperback original in early 2007. This one is, in my opinion, more mature in tone, with a less severe emotional impact than the last work by her I reviewed, The Mount, but is better overall. Four out of five stars.

The Secret City is a first contact novel of sorts, told from the point of view of the aliens. Sometime early in the last generation a group of slightly Neanderthal-appearing humanoid tourists from another a planet called Betasha crash landed on Earth and were stranded. They stayed together for a time, but eventually wandered away from one another, confident that they would be rescued shortly because each one had an armpit implant that acted as a beacon. The tourists were naive about the way that things worked on Earth, but they adapted pretty quickly. Most of them wandered around North America pretending to be tourists, wearing flowery shirts no matter what time of year it was and almost always carrying a camera in some ill-advised attempt at disguise. It turned out that Betasha was not too interested in rescuing them quickly, and eventually a new generation of "tourists" was born and the first died off. Most of these children were raised in pretty solitary conditions, and were told how much better than Earth Betasha was. One group of Betasha found a very secluded valley somewhere in Northern California and build a secret city there out of stone, not so much as a home, but really to pass the time waiting for rescue. By the time of this story many of the city's inhabitants have either died or wandered off to make a new life on Earth.

This story really is about the plight of immigrants, and the mental gymnastics that the children of immigrants go through, particularly illegal ones, and even more to the point the plight of children of immigrants who cannot wrap their heads around becoming American. The book is about five or so different Betasha who have different ideas about where "home" is, and what they need to do to get there. Since they are the children of castaways they mostly have idealized views of what Betasha is. Conflict is created when Betasha search parties start appearing out of thin air and either teleporting back to home those lost ones who immediately ask to be taken, or killing those who fail to ask quickly. This is essentially what happens to our main characters, Allush was taken back to Betasha only to find out that she is the scion of parents from a caste of untouchables, and Lorpas, a more pragmatic male who has already decided that Betasha cannot be as good as his parents made it out to be, and kills to stop the search party from repatriating him.

Needless to say there is also some hobo/Traveler-type (Travelers being a Scot-Irish kind of North American nomadic people) elements to the story, some pretty interesting archaeological angles, particularly with the city and its dying culture, and a love story to boot. There is also a slight touch of farcical satire to the whole story, but I cannot really put my finger firmly on any one element and say that was why it was included. Rather, the whole idea of shipwrecked aliens who wander around in Hawaiian shirts with cameras telling cops who stop them that they are tourists and not vagrants is a little odd and far-fetched. In the end Lorpas was wounded by a jealous and feral Betasha named Youpas, and they were finally discovered by humans who instead of investigating their alienness, just assumed that they were a lost band of Neanderthals that wound up surviving to present day. Taken on its own like that, it really does not add up well, but in the capable hands of Emshwiller, it all comes off well in the end.

Overall this book is a success. Emshwiller's ideas are somewhat unique, although I think strongly influenced by Zenna Henderson's People stories (reviewed elsewhere on these pages). Her characters are average, mundane and believable, but they all evolve from a poverty of ignorance and a slavish outlook to a place of intellectual wealth and idealistic freedom. Her plots are random and unexpected and well thought out, and her prose is metered, lyrical and beautiful. One other quite interesting thing I noticed was that this book had a decidedly western US feel to it. For example, the only real mature human character in it was drawn with a deeply set western pragmatic outlook that was believable and natural. This was not the case with the last Emshwiller book I read, which had an Eastern US feeling to it, and seems to display an added level of wisdom to Emshwiller's own outlook. Henderson's books of The People were also set in the American West, and many of the characters in those stories had a pretty pragmatic outlook too. I wonder how much in the end Emshwiller borrowed from Henderson? Emshwiller's book certainly has its own voice, but the similarities are, I think, too numerous to ignore.

So far in my forays into her works Ive not been struck by any of the settings she imagines, but who cares? Everything else is so impressive and captivating that one hardly notices. And the settings certainly are not below average. But she does engage in the occasional game of hide-the-ball, and she uses a slight stream-of-consciousness narration occasionally, and at other times gives nothing but the raw and unencumbered experiences of her characters. I was reminded of someone who came from the hippie generation, but now writes for a modern audience. There is really nothing negative that I can think to say about this book, other than Emshwiller seemed rather quick to wrap things up in the end. After these two books (and some short stories in the dim past) I have to say that she is as trustworthy a purchase as Octavia Butler is. I will probably be giving her the gift of a portion of my income every time she asks. Lets hope (and God I don't want to come off morbid here) that even at 82 years old, that she will be asking again and again for years to come.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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