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.
From stories Lorpas tells about his parents and a brief scene in the alien world, we learn that the aliens are xenophobic, bitterly nostalgic, distrustful, and class-obsessed. While we can recognize ourselves in their shortcomings, it’s Lorpas we wish we were most like. His descriptions of a sunrise or a pile of beans cooked in bacon fat reveal a nostalgia for simple things we take for granted, those which can be so easily disregarded. Looking at our world through the eyes of aliens— when seen in its totality—it’s utterly strange and remarkable. In the book’s most affecting section, Lorpas travels in the wilderness with one of his people who came to Earth to rescue him: “A magpie flies across our path and I hear the man gasp. I guess no magpies back on our home world. I’d rather not be where there aren’t any magpies.”
Emshwiller is also concerned with language, how common words can sound strange when taken out of context. The Secret City exposes the hazard of language, its capacity to drop meaning out from under itself like a trapdoor. When an alien who was born on Earth tries to communicate with another of her kind back on their planet, the conversation devolves into nonsense: “Again he waves his hands, brushing flies, and says, ‘I don’t. I just don’t. I just.’ ”
The Secret City is science fiction, but it’s not a story about life on another planet. Life here is weird enough. Don’t we trudge around on an orb circling a massive star in a solar system spinning inside a galaxy that is beyond comprehension? Pretty far out, isn’t it? There is brutality here, and death. But there is love and almost super- human kindheartedness. What at first seems like alien desperation is really human after all.