Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index

THE ALIEN YEARS

A novel by Robert Silverberg (1998, HarperPrism)

Generations of humans succumb to the rule of alien Entities, while a resistance movement ponders means of forcing them off the planet.

 

 

1 star

Read November 12th to 22nd, 2001  
    Mildly interesting, but not interesting enough. I liked some of the characters, but towards most, I was indifferent. I figured out how the book would end about three quarters of the way through, and I was praying that I was wrong. Unfortunately...

Typically, books start off pretty slowly, unless we already know the characters. That is to be expected, especially from a new author, because we don't know the style, and we don't know the characters involved. This book, however, never got beyond that point. Is it because new characters were introduced and old ones died in almost every chapter? I don't know, but I doubt it. I think it was mostly because nothing really interesting happened.

I must admit that I had trouble with the premise right from the start. Not the premise that aliens could land on Earth and ignore us except as scientific experiments, or that they could rule us so thoroughly. But I had trouble with the premise that nobody was willing to strike back, except in those cases where the Entities visibly retaliated. The author tells us that all governments were completely destroyed when the power went out for a month worldwide. Huh? Just because we don't have electronics doesn't mean that society will disappear. One of the characters mentions how he just doesn't understand how it happened, as if to say that yes, it is inexplicable, but it happened, so don't think about it for too long -move on. 

The Entities take humans on as slaves, giving people a telepathic push to force them to cooperate, to create inexplicable structures and move about the planet randomly. We never get inside their heads, and I think that is a problem. The author presents these aliens as so far beyond us, so utterly alien, that we cannot even begin to comprehend them. But in that case, we never get the satisfaction of acknowledging what has been done. The walls around the major Earth cities make sense, in a way, but only as a means of control. Why did the Entities feel that they needed that extra control?

So the story focuses on humanity, and this is a humanity that I don't even recognize. After the aliens land, what happens? People get together to talk about the situation. There is no action. The aliens are surrounded by tanks and such, but nobody does anything. Top government officials sit around and talk. After one nation finally decides to bomb one of the alien ships, the power goes off all over the world, for days. And governments shrivel up and disappear. Huh? That doesn't make sense, and it isn't even really necessary for the plot to continue. 

Plan after plan is formulated, but nobody is willing to put them into action. All they do is talk about ways to get rid of the Entities. Years pass, generations, even, and nothing happens. After somebody finally manages to kill an Entity, why didn't a guerilla network start popping up, full of people capable of doing that job, like the Viet Cong, as the Colonel suggests? When a laser attack from space fails, the Entities unleash a plague on the population. Looks like they didn't take long to figure out our genetic structure. Half the population is destroyed. The other half turns into sheep. 

The only way they get back at the Entities is through the use of computer programmers who set up a black market "pardoning" service. The Entities randomly shift people from place to place, from job to job. The pardoners are so skilled that they are able to link undetected into the Entity network and change those orders. 

The one plan that does work, finally, near the end of the book, is the one to kill the Prime Entity. This is the Entity leader, who is telepathically connected to every single Entity worldwide. Sound incredible? Sure, but why not? But we humans have only single-minded skills that would defeat us in less than ten moves in a chess game, because we apparently don't think beyond a single move. We create backups of everything we do, whether it is in computers or in a hierarchy of people. Are the Entities so alien to us that we think they wouldn't do the same? We aren't even prepared for the possibility? 

Are we so infatuated with the idea that killing the Prime Entity would destroy all Entity civilization that we don't even think of doing anything while the Entities are in a state of uncontrolled shock? It would have made more sense to have people standing by to kill Entities in cold blood after the Prime was killed. Shotguns are apparently still easy to come by; instead of gawking at the Entities rolling around on the ground, it would have been more human to go on a rampage and kill every one that they came across, even if it was only the resistance members. We expect our theories to be so correct that we plan to kill the Entity and drive home, thinking the job is done? These are not the humans that I know, even after fifty years of occupation.

I think the book is supposed to be about characters, which is why we can go stretches at a time, jump decades between chapters, and watch people grow old and die, and new generations grow up. Unfortunately, all we really get are snapshots, tiny moments in their uninteresting lives. The book seems to want to be about how humans would cope with an alien occupation. In fact, that is mentioned explicitly in the final chapter, that occupations have happened before, and the indigenous cultures survived; changed, but survived, with a few exceptions. 

However, we don't get a sense of how humans survived. We are only told that humans survived. Somehow people still created things that we were used to, maintained the world wide web in some form, even though much of that knowledge supposedly disappeared when the power went off. Eventually even new fancy cars were produced! But we never get to see the details of how this happened. I would have liked to see exploits on the farm, how they became self-sufficient. Instead, we get detailed lessons on how the various generations of Carmichaels came of age sexually, and their sexual liaisons until one becomes pregnant and they marry. Most of the sexual exploration is done between cousins, even the very young. Did we need this? I guess the author had to choose what he wanted to detail in the way of "how we survived", but I don't think he had to choose the most provocative. However, the book would have been even more boring without the sexual nature, I suppose...

And the ending... ah, the ending. I was worried the book would end this way. I hoped I was wrong, but there was every indication that it would, and the author didn't have enough insight to give us a decent twist at the end. Just as the aliens came and pretty much ignored us, as long as we went about our business and didn't disturb them, fifty years or so later, they left. They just picked up and left.  The author tries to mislead us by having one character at the very beginning quote H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, and say that he hated the ending, because it wasn't man who destroyed the Martians, instead it was bacteria. This creates the supposition that humanity could and would defeat the Entities by the end of the book. Instead, we get something worse than bacteria -we get no victory at all! The Entities have finished with whatever inexplicable thing they were doing on Earth, pack up, and leave! 

Contrary to human nature, we get no celebrations in the middle of the streets. The characters argue that this is because people liked being ruled, that they were disappointed when their leaders left them. This reminds me of the fall of Communism, with people wandering around without anybody to tell them what to do. It took a long time for people to get used to having freedom. But there must have been people who loathed the Entities, even among those who worked for them. Where were they? People like Tessa, who tried to get away, but were captured and forced to work for the Entities anyway, would undoubtedly be overjoyed when their masters left. We didn't get any indication that these people existed at the end. 

So what about the characters? This book was supposedly about character, and not plot. Even though at the end, the author barely mentions Andy's child and the woman that he left when she got pregnant. All through the book, until the end, it was about character. After Andy returns, characters are ignored, and we get a little history lesson, and  technical details of the plot to kill the Prime Entity, which was carried out almost in point form. 

The oldest person is the Colonel, who played a part in Vietnam, and through whom I think we get the author's impression of that "ridiculous embarrassment". It is much to vehement to be just the character speaking. I think there was some of the author in that, too. He forms a resistance, gathering his family to the ranch in California, where they all live and inbreed for the next fifty years, bringing in others only to widen the gene pool occasionally. He had strong opinions, but didn't really do much. He was one of the talkers, and he talked about Freedom, the USA, and a bunch of other stuff, but he opposed implementing anything to try and save any of those concepts. The Colonel had a few kids, each of whom had vastly different personalities, and some of whom couldn't handle the stress. I think we are supposed to be surprised at who cleaned up nicely, and who ended up running and hiding from their problems. 

Generations pass, and we get computer experts in the family, who seem to be the only ones to be willing to actually do anything. Through Doug to Steve and then to Andy, who locates the Prime Entity at the end, but doesn't even think to do research into a backup Prime. The strong leaders of the Carmichael family usually go by the name Anson, as there were at least a handful of those in every generation. They hatched the big plans, and sometimes even launched those plans. 

On the other side of the world, we got Khalid, most interesting when he was young. His British father beat his Pakistani grandmother constantly (his mother died during childbirth), and even had her play prostitute to his friends. So he grew cool and controlled, and hid his anger and all his feelings towards his father. He essentially had no emotions whatsoever, and that is how he was able to kill an Entity. When he finally ends up at the Carmichael ranch, it takes eleven years before they discover what he did! Even though he mentioned it to Cindy on their car ride out there. Surely Cindy would have made even joking conversation to the resistance that he had made that boast? 

The rest of the characters are there in summary form only. We miss out on so many details that their lives seem like footnotes. This is not a novel. It is a story with a variable cast that we can't get to know properly. 

Throughout the book, we get knowledge of the authors tastes. He knows the Los Angeles area intimately. He gives us the names of expressways, little suburban towns, valleys, mountains, and such. Did we really need all this detail? Fantasy authors know how to do the geographical story; they don't use such detail. Get our characters where they need to go, and get on with the story. If it is about characters, then spare us the technical details. The author seems to think that humanity is passionate less. He seems to like women with small, firm breasts (not that I blame him...), describing them whenever we come across them. Every time we encounter a woman, she has the same physical build. Maybe there is only one mold in California...

On the subject of women, the author doesn't seem to respect them. There are no female heroes. The women are there only to create babies, raise kids, and be a sexual release for the men. Why do two women flock to the one pardoner in LA? And that guy agrees to share them with Andy for a few nights. Did the women get a say? It could have been worse, I know. We could have ended up with a society like the one we saw in Garden of Rama, in which case every woman had to have protection from a man. Yuck! At least Silverberg seems to think humanity is naturally decent and well-behaved, for the most part. Normal society returns incredibly fast after thugs and gangs take over early on. 

Still, after all this, I would be interested in reading a potential sequel, about how they put the world back together. We are left with Khalid, whose trust in Allah is absolute and unwavering, somebody who is perhaps destined to leave an impact on the world? Probably not him, but his children, raised to be decent, too. And Frank, who pledges to help the free world avoid anarchy. They seem like they could be interesting to read about, if they actually got around to doing anything. 

There were parts of the book that I did enjoy, but they were few and far between, very far between, and they lost a lot of impact because years would pass between one idea and the next. Something promising would come along, but then a decade would pass, and it wouldn't appear again, or be summarized in a couple of lines. I grew to like Ronnie, the prodigal child turned good son and leader. The other was Andy, and his exploits in LA after running away when his cousin got pregnant. There was also Khalid when he was young. As he got older, he became much less interesting. 

I could see how people would enjoy this book, especially with the twist that we had absolutely no effect on the Entities whatsoever. Unfortunately, I didn't find it interesting beyond a few isolated moments, and I found a lot of it frustrating. The book may be epic by spanning such a long period of time, but that is the only way that term would apply. The book was not an epic, was not even a good read. I'm sorry, but even with the interesting concept, I cannot recommend this book to anybody. It is certainly not bad, but definitely not good.
 
   

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