Friday 10 July 2009

The Alien Years by Robert Silverberg

This book was first published in 1998 but I started to read it only recently, because it was chosen for the Modern Science Fiction discussion group. Silverberg is one of a number of authors whose works I absorbed in quantity in the 1960s and 70s, but I was not a particular fan and haven't kept any of them for re-reading.

The first impression I had on reading The Alien Years was a strong sense of déjà vu, since it starts in more or less the present day with the sudden arrival of aliens in major cities across the world. I don't know how many alien invasion stories I've read over the decades, but it must be dozens at least, so yet another one has to be really special to grab my attention. At first, the aliens seem to be mainly curious and take no offensive action, but this changes once they are attacked; their initial response is to black out all electrical apparatus (including battery powered) across the globe for a fortnight, with longer blackouts following later. They then use their telepathic powers to begin to exploit humanity as their work force.

Silverberg's story gives us no insight into the alien' motivations (at least for the first 200 pages) but focuses primarily on an extended Californian family and their responses to the invasion, with a secondary plot thread concerning some residents of Salisbury in England. Tension develops between those who wish to use force in resisting the aliens, those who regard this as futile and want to bide their time until there seems to be some chance of success, and those who accept that the aliens are here to stay and collaborate with them.

I mentioned the first 200 pages because, after I had got that far, I stopped and asked myself three key questions: was I enjoying the story; did I want to see how it ended; and did I care what happened to the characters? My answers were "no", "not particularly" and "no" respectively. So I stopped reading, at not quite half-way through; I have too many other books in my to-read pile to spend more time on this one.

What didn't I like about it? First, I found the writing style rather turgid with long info-dumps often dressed up as the internal thoughts of the characters. Secondly, the story was very slow-moving and failed to engage me; it wasn't sufficiently original or exciting. Third, the plot was rather depressing – I don't like dystopian settings, and I've read too many with this kind of plot already. But most of all, my problem was with the characters; not due to lack of characterisation, but because I found it difficult to relate to any of them and simply didn't like them. The only one who seemed quite promising featured initially as the main character but was killed off early in the story.

One other observation: the disruption causing by shutting down all electrical equipment is considerably understated in the book; the most serious problem described was a breakdown in law and order. In reality, it would be a colossal catastrophe throughout the developed world (the third world would be much less affected). Piped water would quickly dry up (no pumps). All powered transport would shut down, apart from steam engines (and primitive diesels with manual starting handles – until immediately available fuel ran out). Our just-in-time society absolutely depends on a constant flow of transport, especially for food supply; cities typically hold stocks of food for only about three days, and frozen and chilled food would rapidly spoil. In reality, there would be a huge exodus of people from urban areas, searching for water and food in the countryside. Almost all forms of employment would collapse, and all except the most basic medical facilities would break down. I'll be dealing with these issues in more detail in a future post concerning the Carrington Event.


Peter said...

Hi, I'm Pizza, love your blog.

Fred said...

Shut down all electrical activity globally? A nod in the direction of _The Day the Earth Stood Still_?

It does sound like a rather overworked plot, though.

One of my favorite neglected alien invasion novels is Gordy Dickson's _Way of the Pilgrim_. I think it's one of his best works that takes place outside of his Dorsai universe.

Of course, it's been two decades since I last read it, so I may think differently today. Back then, though, I thought it was a good one.

Perhaps I should dust it off and see what I think today.

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for your message, Pizza, I'm glad you enjoy it.

Fred, I don't think I've read 'Way of the Pilgrim'. I'm sure I must have read 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' but I can't remember a thing about it!

Fred said...

Sorry about not being more precise.

I was referring to the movie--"The Day the Earth Stood Still." It came out in the '50s, I think.

The short story that the movie was loosely adapted from is titled "Farewell to the Master" and was written by Harry Bates.

Anthony G Williams said...

Of course...still, the same applies: I'm sure I've seen it, a long time ago!

Fred said...

This is off-topic, but considering the title of the novel, it may not be that far off.

Below is a link to an article in which the network execs discuss the reasons for changing the name of the Sci-Fi channel to SyFy.

Listing to them talk clearly suggests aliens somewhere--perhaps I'm the alien.

My question is--do they really understand what they are saying?

Perhaps I should have emailed this directly to you, but I don't have your address. Forgive me if doing this is inappropriate.