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The Alien Years

by Robert Silverberg

(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.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

In 1898, H.G. Wells saw the publication of his novel The War of the Worlds--a story cover scanwhose 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 universe.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in The Gazette, Saturday 6 Feb 1999; reprinted in Montreal OnLine.

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