by Jon Davis
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:
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.