The Alien Years:
It's Not Independence Day

by Jon Davis

The Alien Years cover The Alien Years is an aliens-invade-the-Earth story, which you might say has been done before. In fact it has been one of the staples of science fiction since its beginnings (HG Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, the prototype for all alien-invasion stories, in 1898). Silverberg has done his share of them ("Passengers", Nightwings, "The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James", others). The subgenre has seen little action in print SF since the 1950s, though movies have continued without abate. So why write another one? Why now? I'm only guessing, but I believe the recent success of Independence Day had something to do with it, and the centennial of The War of the Worlds, and maybe even the tenth anniversary of Robert A Heinlein's death. In many ways Silverberg uses the opportunity to throw the clichés of the genre on their heads, if I can be permitted a really awkward metaphor.

First, the Independence Dayconnection. This movie, which was abysmal in science fictional terms, was hugely successful, and Silverberg can hardly be unaware that alien-invasion stories are likely to sell in today's market (especially if they feature cover art reminiscent of ID4). Furthermore, it's a natural desire on the part of anyone who loves and understands real science fiction to set the record straight and point out all the ridiculous flaws in the movie. In other words, to do it right. For example: 1) Why would aliens systematically destroy landmarks which, although they possess sentimental value for humans (and a high recognition level among movie-goers), have no strategic value? 2) Would human military technology really stand a chance against a race capable of interstellar travel in ships the size of cities? 3) Would human institutions really survive the disruption caused by an alien invasion? 4) How could human computer programmers, no matter how brilliant, really hope to intrude into or damage alien systems? 5) Why would aliens want to conquer Earth anyway—what's in it for them? (Of course, these are only a few of the movie's problems.)

Silverberg answers or negates all of these questions. 1) There is no reason for aliens to pick on famous buildings, so Silverberg's Entities don't do it. They land in seemingly random locations and destroy only (apparently) by accident. They do have an obsession with Stonehenge, but destruction is not their goal there. 2) Human weapons are not effective against the Entities' advanced technology (though the Entities' ships are nowhere near as large as those in ID4). 3) Human institutions would not survive the disruption (more on this later). 4)And while Silverberg's hackers do eventually manage to break into the Entities' computer system, it takes decades of effort and slow discovery, not a few minutes of fiddling with a Powerbook. (Of course decades of effort and slow discovery wouldn't be very exciting in a movie.) 5) And why are the Entities interested in Earth? This question is never answered, and by this omission perhaps Silverberg is saying something about the pointlessness of the question. After all, virtually all the reasons given in alien invasion stories are silly. In Vthe aliens needed water, which is the single most common compound in our universe. Other alien invasion scenarios are equally nonsensical. The Entities came for their own incomprehensible alien reasons, subjugated humans for their own incomprehensible alien reasons, and left for their own incomprehensible alien reasons. Probably better this than some rationalization which couldn't stand close scrutiny.

Maybe the Heinlein connection is my invention, but I think the clues are real. First is the recurring name Anson, which was Robert Heinlein's middle name, and which Silverberg gives to at least one Carmichael in every generation covered in the book. Secondly, Silverberg has expressed an admiration for Heinlein on numerous occasions. (Personally I find this admiration somewhat misplaced since Silverberg is a much better writer than Heinlein ever was. On the other hand, Heinlein did much to shape science fiction as we know it, so perhaps I'm too hard on him for his literary shortcomings.) Thirdly, the first Anson in the book, the old Colonel, is very reminiscent of any number of Heinlein's characters, from Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land to Lazarus Long in Time Enough for Love, as well as many others. Fourth, as John Clute and David Pringle put it in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: "Farnham's Freehold (1964) begins to fully articulate a theme that obsessed the late RAH: the notion of the family as utterly central. From this time onward, [we see] hugely extended father-dominated families, sustained by incest and enlarged by [complex] mating patterns..." If this isn't a description of the Carmichaels in their mountain stronghold, I don't know what is.

One thing that struck me strongly throughout the book is Silverberg's quick dismissal of human social and political institutions in the face of crisis. During the long (and almost wholly unnecessary) expository lump at the beginning of the second part, he writes: "The whole law-enforcement structure fairly swiftly dissolved as though it had been dipped in acid, and vanished. Only by common consent, one could see now, had any of it been sustained in the first place." This presents a fairly grim portrait of human nature. Certainly the world is full of evidence for this view. But it also seems to be human nature to pull together, at least in situations of natural disaster. In any case, Silverberg makes the point that our current society depends heavily on technology to sustain itself. Our huge centralized bureaucracy would not be possible without computers, telephones, and quick long-distance travel. Without these devices, many of the institutions we take for granted would function very poorly. But would they die entirely? I don't know. I tend to think they would fare better than in The Alien Years, but maybe I'm being optimistic. It does strike me that never once does a character express any surprise that things fell apart so quickly.

Some other thoughts:

  • In the first chapter, the Colonel remarks that he had read Wells's The War of the Worlds and been unsatisfied by the ending because the humans won through no effort of their own. Silverberg treats us to a nearly identical ending: the humans gain their freedom not through their efforts or ingenuity, but from (apparently) random outside events.
  • The aliens are really alien. The human characters in the book never learn much of anything about their culture, technology, or motivation, and the reader learns precious little as well. I think part of Silverberg's purpose with this approach is to de-emphasize the "war with the aliens" aspect. Furthermore, the downplaying of the physical conflict allows Silverberg to focus on what seems to be his main point: how humans react to situations out of their control.
  • Early in the first section, Mike Carmichael is called "as near to being a rebel as the family ever produced." Later, it turns out that every generation of the family produced at least one "rebel": Mike in the Colonel's generation, Ronnie (and to a lesser extent Rosalie) among the Colonel's children, Andy the renegade hacker in a later generation.
  • In spite of the participation of a number of hackers in the book, and the fact that they use a kind of neural-computer interface implant, The Alien Years has no cyberpunk feel to it. The descriptions of events taking place within computers are handled metaphorically, as in most recent science fiction. Silverberg uses these metaphors (walls, gates, paths, and so on) cursorily, much like he uses the alien invasion ideas, which were in some ways equivalent in previous generations of SF. The story does not focus on them; they are merely props described in a way the audience will easily grasp.
  • Silverberg starts the book with a quote from the Koran, then "1: Seven Years from Now." The other sections of the book are labeled in a similar manner. "2: Nine Years from Now," "3: Nineteen Years from Now," and so on up to "9: Fifty-five Years from Now." In the early sections, Silverberg avoids mentioning any specific years, but later on (especially when Khalid reads the headstones in the graveyard) we get many dates spelled out. In particular, there is "Colonel Anson Carmichael III, 1943-2027." Given that he died in the section labeled "5: Twenty-nine Years from Now," we can calculate that "Now" is 1998. Which means that anyone reading the book after 1998 will get wrong dates. It might have been better to bite the bullet and just put dates on the sections. Like all near-future stories, it will start looking inaccurate in a few years, but hopefully can still maintain its appeal.
  • I mentioned a long expository lump at the beginning of section 2. It is the only part of the book where I was conscious of the writer writing, rather than just the story, and the more I think about it, the more it bugs me. There is not a single bit of information contained in those seven pages which was not either redundant or unnecessary. Any of it Silverberg wanted to convey could easily have been shown through a character's experiences rather than authorial intrusion. A scene where one or more of the Carmichaels had to travel through the chaos surrounding the collapse of society would have been much more effective. I hate to harp on it, since it's such a minor thing (only seven pages out of more than 400), but it bugged me.
  • On the whole, I liked the characterization immensely, and really felt for the people in the story. Khalid's scene at the graveyard in particular, where we see the empty graves he made for his mother and grandmother, was quite touching. How often in an SF novel do you actually get misty-eyed? I've heard this book criticized as being an alien-invasion soap opera, but I suppose some people will say that of any SF book where the characters have lives, loves, and emotions.

There you go. Some of my thoughts about this book. Sorry to ramble on so — I wouldn't do it if I didn't feel it a worthy addition to Silverberg's work.