Carol Emshwiller's The Secret City

©2007 L.Timmel Duchamp

I've loved Carol Emshwiller's fiction since I first encountered "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" in the late 1970s in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology[1], and she's never disappointed me. Emshwiller plays and gambols with sf conventions as no author I can think of-not to mock them, but as conceits for helping us to think about and understand our world. This combination of playfulness with dead seriousness suffuses her narrative imagination, extending even to her narrative voice, which in The Secret City (Tachyon Publications, 2007), her latest novel, is slyly ironic without being cynical.

The Secret City features extraterrestrial aliens from a planet called Betasha who live in the western United States as homeless, undocumented migrants (literally "illegal aliens") who when they are discovered are classified as surviving "Neanderthals" rather than recognized as extraterrestrials. Clute and Nicholls' Encyclopedia of Science Fiction classifies the "first contact" trope as falling within the scope of its entry titled "Communication." "First contact" may entail state diplomacy, or a consciousness encounter between two species meeting for the first time, or a scientific study by one species of another. The Secret City offers none of these.

Although the Betashans apparently have strong reasons for visiting Earth, they also want to conceal the existence of their planet from humans, and so they callously kill humans whenever they believe they're at risk of discovery. Interestingly, though, because they are successful in preventing their discovery (which is to say, they are not in a true "first contact" situation with humans), individual Betashans who are in effect second-generation immigrants lack identity and therefore are as socially invisible as most homeless persons in our society must be. Emshwiller's novel gently, ironically, and yet soberly explores the social marginality and lack of identity that follows on homelessness. In doing so, she refuses the delights of the sense of wonder that usually characterizes encounters between alien species in sf novels even as she offers us the dry, ironic insight of fresh perspective. The Betashans may be extraterrestrials, but the difficulties of communication in this novel result from homelessness and social displacement, not neurological disparity.

The novel's protagonists, Lorpas and Allush, are the children of extraterrestrial tourists inadvertently stranded on Earth. By the novel's opening, most of the original visitors have died, waiting for rescue. A servant remains, as well as the now adult (and even aging) children of the "tourists." While they were waiting for rescue, the tourists' efforts to indoctrinate their children against human society and culture effectively made it impossible for the second generation to assimilate. None of them owns property or has the education and skills to take any but the most menial jobs. Lorpas, who is the most assimilated of them, sleeps outdoors and takes the occasional odd job---and, lacking a permanent address, is frequently busted by the police for vagrancy. Allush, by contrast, grew up in the "secret city" in the mountains, whereBetashans hid themselves as they waited together for rescue.

The "Secret City," though secret, is not a city. Bored and determined to impress their children with the beauties of "home," the tourists constructed false doors and arches leading nowhere, carved with Betashan symbols. It is a terrible life, and as the secret city's population ages and the original generation dies off, the grown children are left with a peculiar notion of "home," a set of rules they blindly obey, a harsh, tenuous day-to-day existence, and a longing to escape "Down."

In the first chapter, which I'd read previously as a standalone short story, Lorpas is busted by the police for sleeping in an old lady's yard; when he escapes, he returns to the old lady's house (in search of his few possessions, which he concealed under a bush) and for a while lives with and takes care of her. I read the standalone story as ambiguous until the ending resolves it, and constantly wondered: is Lorpas an alien, or is he (or his parents) delusional? (The copy on the book's back cover makes the answer obvious to the reader.) The signs of his non-humanness are his extraordinary strength-"Here on this world with less gravity, we're stronger"-and his belief that he possesses the power of "the Freeze." We get a glimpse of his strength on the first page. Because the police grab him while he was sleeping, before he knows what he's doing, he's inflicted physical damage on the officers (because he's exceptionally strong). He's locked up with the likelihood of being charged not just with vagrancy, but with assaulting a police officer. When he's planning his escape from custody, he says

The three Fs: Flight, Fight, or Freeze. I hold one of the mice in my stare. He doesn't move. I count to twenty, then I let him go. Or maybe he held me and let me go. Or maybe we just stared at each other, one creature to another, and then decided that was enough.(12)
And then he notes, "I won't need to test the freeze. My strength is why I've never needed to try it." In the standalone story, of course, this passage usefully preserves the ambiguity that is absent in the novel. Later, in an incident parallel to the arrest that opens the novel, he resists being "rescued" when Betashans with weapons confront him. His opponents may be Betashans and therefore stronger, but they "look flabby and pale and ridiculous." Lorpas, it soon emerges, has been shaped by his social marginality into as autonomous and independent a person as it's possible for an individual to be.

Regardless of his social marginality and his mother's efforts to prevent his assimilation into human society, however, Lorpas is well enough socialized into human society to enjoy friendly relations with his jailers (despite his assault on their colleagues). He also manages to make a place for himself in the old lady's household, and is useful to her even as he makes use of her resources. Later, he wins the trust of a temporary employer even in the face of the trouble Lorpas's presence brings into his and his daughter's life. Interestingly, although the individuals Lorpas comes to care most for-Allush and the old servant, Mollish-are Betashans who've been living in the secret city for years (whom he loves as a potential mate and a sort of foster mother respectively), he is on the whole more comfortable with humans than with Betashans who have not lived among humans. And when it comes right down to it, he instinctively resists being returned to Betasha. If Earth is not "home," neither is Betasha.

Perhaps one of the most effective-and also charming-aspects of this novel is the shift in thinking that Emswhiller's choice of viewpoint characters not only permits but demands of the reader. At the outset Lorpas appears to be a homeless man who believes he's an extraterrestrial being rousted by the police. I found the voice of his first-person narrative so genial and decent that I was immediately invested in his escape from custody; and by the time he takes up uninvited residence with Ruth, a fragile old lady, my sympathies were full engaged (which would ordinarily not have been the case given similar circumstances and a less engaging character). And at the end of the chapter, when his presence in the old lady's house ends badly for her, I didn't hold him at all responsible. Rather, I saw him as allied with humans against Betashans he can't understand because "they haven't bothered to learn our language." Our language, he says: though up until now Lorpas's "we" has referred to Betashans, and "home" has referred to Betasha.

But on the run from both humans (the police) and "rescuing" Betashans (who behave like police or soldiers), Lorpas stumbles on the Secret City and bonds with another "we": Allush and Mollish. The Secret City, though, is not a hospitable home, not least because a sociopath named Youpas, another second-generation Betashan stranded on Earth, hates him on sight and is determined to kill him. Lorpas notes several times that Allush is the first woman of the right age who looks like him that he's ever met, and that her physical appearance appeals to him more than any human woman ever has. Fleeing Youpas, Lorpas again goes on the run, this time with Allush and Mollish, only to be intercepted on a narrow mountain ledge by a second team of Betashan "rescuers," a situation that results in a couple of deaths and Allush's instant arrival on Betasha. When Lorpas resumes his flight, it is with a Betashan companion he calls "Jack," whom tells people is his "retarded brother" (to explain the Betashan's cultural and linguistic ignorance); and although "Jack's" learning curve is sharp enough to call the designation of "retarded" into question, as Lorpas says, to humans, all Betashans look alike. Repeatedly, Lorpas passes into new situations that he takes in stride. Repeatedly, Lorpas must evaluate the ethics of each new situation. In Lorpas, Emshwiller gives us a character of integrity, able to adapt to and find an ethical basis for acting in each new circumstance he encounters, despite his social marginality. How can we not cheer him on, seeing our world through his eyes?

Allush, on the other hand, lacks Lorpas's adaptability and "Jack's" self-confidence, likely because she knows only the world of the Secret City, which she has been taught is inferior to Betasha; Jack, on the other hand, knows himself to be from a superior world, and so can confront the novelty he encounters as an adventure. The pain of Allush's marginality is, for that reason, considerably acute. The narrative presents us with a parallel situation: while Lorpas mentors "Jack" in adapting to human culture, Olowpas mentors Allush in adapting to Betashan culture. Jack is fascinated by everything he sees and has a sexual attraction to a teenaged girl, which speeds his acculturation. Allush, who is as ignorant of Betashan language and customs as "Jack" is of English and human customs, by contrast, gets little help and is acutely aware of being a figure of derision on the homeworld; repeatedly her sense of wonder is drowned by the misery of social marginality and her disgust with Betashan food and drink. All her life she has been taught that Betashans are far superior to humans; but from the moment of her arrival on Betasha, she realizes that the apparent glories of Betasha may not be for her. It comes as a great relief to her when she is sent back to Earth on a mission to retrieve "Jack" and the other Betashan rescuer.

If the narrative had been told from "Jack's" point of view, perhaps it would have been infused with the sense of wonder typical of first contact narratives, for it's all an adventure to him. But Allush's narrative, though affording us the perspective of someone repeatedly encountering new and strange technologies and mores, focused as it is on her need to cope with a lack of a place, her lack of status, and her painful losses, is entirely devoid of glamour. Similarly, Lorpas's narrative is in no way glamorous simply because it is told from the perspective of someone who has been homeless and temporary migrant labor for years. He spends the novel trudging through the mountains on foot, securing food and shelter and clothing while trying to remain invisible to as many as three different parties at a time who may be hunting him.

Similarly, the usual toys of extraterrestrial sf are mere props in this tale, props that not only don't inspire a sense of wonder, but also demand that the reader take them as givens that won't bear much scrutiny. The weapons that are also transporters are conveniences of the narrative. But it doesn't matter, because they simply aren't the point. Emshwiller's story is a fable about social marginality and immigrants and homelessness. Her characters' experiences, emotions, and actions work brilliantly and bring us insight into our world. When I read a story like The Secret City, I have to wonder what Geoff Ryman is talking about when he complains that writing about "magic interstellar travel" (which we find in this novel), extraterrestrials ("there is no evidence whatsoever of intelligences elsewhere in the universe") is "harmless fun" and wish-fulfillment, "a dream of escaping being human."[2] But then he seems to be saying that science fiction is supposed to be about creating and living in the future. I myself, however, have always agreed with Samuel R. Delany and so many others who insist that sf is about the world we live in now; to the extent that it helps us understand who we are, it will help us figure out where we want to go and how to do that. For those interested in that kind of window into the future, I highly recommend The Secret City, which is Carol Emshwiller at her brilliant best.

July, 2007


[1] I've written about this in "Carol Emshwiller: An Apreciation."

[2] See Geoff Ryman, "Take the Third Star on the Left and on til Morning!" in The New York Review of Science Fiction, June 2007.

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