A review of
The Secret City
by Carol Emshwiller
Carol Emshwiller’s new novel, The Secret City, is about aliens, but it reveals something deceptively simple about what it means to be human. This is a theme that runs through much of Emshwiller’s fiction, most of which uses speculative frameworks to get to the deeper shortcomings—and triumphs—of human relationships. In her previous novel The Mount, Emshwiller imagined extraterrestrials that turn humans into equine slaves for sport. The image of jockeylike aliens riding on the backs of humans with bridle and spurs was absurdly powerful and served as an important metaphor for the relationship between class, slavery, and freedom. In The Secret City, there is little that is fantastic. Emshwiller’s power as a fabulist is much more subtle. Aside from the aliens’ Neanderthal-like appearance and otherworldly strength, they seem an awful lot like us.
The novel follows Lorpas, one of the last of a generation of aliens born on Earth. His people arrived as tourists but instead found themselves stranded on a planet they came to despise. They built a walled city in the mountains, hidden by vast trees and foliage, with false doors and steps that lead nowhere. Over time, many aliens were rescued by their own people. Many of the scenes involve Lorpas—who grew up outside the secret city—attempting to find the few remaining of his kind. But unlike most of his people, Lorpas doesn’t want to be rescued. He has come to love Earth. Over the course of this slight novel, Lorpas forms intimate bonds with humans, and with another of his kind who is torn between her own fondness for Earth and her desperate desire to see her own planet.
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