The Alien Years, Robert Silverberg

EOS, 1998, 488 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105111-X

This book is designed to annoy you.

Not that this is a bad thing. Think of Robert Silverberg’s The Alien Years as part of the great big genre Science Fiction conversation about alien invasions, reaching all the way back to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The whole initial point of alien invasions, of course, is to show the dynamics of imperialism as applied to us first-world readers. A truly realistic alien invasion novel isn’t supposed to be jolly: we get conquered/killed, The End. Extra points for believability can be given to those stories when the aliens just blast the Earth to little bits without pausing to negotiate or even say hi.

But what’s the fun in that? It may not be a surprise if, since the pulp era of science-fiction all the way up to half of Baen’s SF lineup, most alien-invasion stories have been about winning against overwhelming odds. It’s one of SF’s core myths, and one which, post-Vietnam and almost post-Iraq, may not be as implausible as critics of the BEM-Killer sub-genre may think. Alas, most contemporary alien-invasion stories now fall into such common story-telling patterns: They are so far off the original intent of the story template that they’ve flipped over to comfort fantasy.

So when grandmaster Robert Silverberg sets out to write new alien-invasion novel, it’s not implausible to expect him to have something more on his mind than writing another shoot-em-up novel in which the plucky human send the BEMs packing home in a matter of days.

For one thing, you can depend on the invasion scenario, but you can’t depend on your protagonists: Within pages, Silverberg kills off the first viewpoint character to witness the alien’s initial invasion. Then it’s fast-forward in the future as the aliens don’t leave and there’s nothing the humans can do to change their mind. Everyone’s hopes for negotiations remain unfulfilled: the aliens aren’t talking and whenever they think humans are getting too uppity, they flick a magical switch and shut down all electricity around the planet. Billions die. Years pass. Another chapter begins.

Against such overwhelming odds, most humans give up. Some of them throw in their lot with the aliens. Others just try to ignore the problem. Not all of them, though: Around the world, pockets of resistance try and try again. A particularly hardy bunch cloisters around the Carmichael compound in Southern California, where various plans are discussed to bring down the invaders.

But it’s in the nature of The Alien Years that whenever someone gets too close, something happens, plans fail and the action skips forward a few years later. The novel gradually takes on the mantle of a family epic, as the original players die and are replaced by another generation, and then another. A dramatic heft settles upon the novel as Silverberg plays with the expectations of the alien-invasion sub-genre, gravely intoning that the little comforts of such stories are just there to make us feel better.

It’s not, however, a complete success: So all of its dour contrarian attitude, The Alien Years often resorts to its own share of clichés and dramatic shortcuts. Somehow, the impassive aliens manage to talk to humans Quislings without communicating with anyone else. Silverberg’s cyber-hackers and orphan assassins all seem awfully convenient. And, for all of his genre self-awareness, Silverberg wraps up his novel too conveniently, leaving little explanation and even less satisfaction besides the good old sub-genre template. In some ways, The Alien Years is a novel that runs out of convictions.

One the other hand, Silverberg may be too much of an old pro to go to the logical end of his intentions: If readers are bound to be annoyed by this novel as it exists right now; imagine how they would have felt had The Alien Years really tried to overturn alien-invasion novel clichés. It would have been a five-page short story with hundreds pages on which to note your frustrations.

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