Carol Emshwiller’s The Secret City

Emshwiller-Secret CityCarol Emshwiller is one of those writers who seems to have been a closely guarded secret until recently. With the emergence of slipstream fiction, she is becoming more and more of a household word (in some households, at least) and, if The Secret City is any indication, for good reason.

What if the earth — our earth, that humdrum, everyday place — were a destination for alien tour groups? What if the aliens looked a great deal like the Neanderthals from our own prehistory? And what if something happened and several groups of tourists were stranded for a generation or two?

Enshwiller starts with these questions and proceeds along an absorbing and quietly told story of Lorpas, also known as Norman, and his search for the Secret City that his people have set up as a refuge until they can be found and taken back home. He finds the city, and also finds Allush, who has lived most of her life there. She’s a tomboy, an iconoclast who makes pets of wild ravens and foxes. He also meets Youpas, a strange, violent young man who thinks that Allush is his, for some reason. There is, as it happens, an attempt at rescue and one of the surviving Betashans, Mollish, is killed, along with one of the rescuers. Allush is returned “home” and one of the rescuers is stranded with Lorpas, who is now being hunted by Youpas as they make their way back down to human habitations.

It almost goes without saying that “home” is not quite what Allush expected, and given that she wasn’t at all sure she wanted to leave earth to begin with. . . . Well, I think you can figure it out.

Within Emshwiller’s framework one can find some pointed commentary on social distinctions, “us” and “them,” our own attitudes toward so-called “primitives,” and any number of other questions about the dynamics among and between groups. There is also what can be taken as a central question: what is “home,” exactly? It’s a seductively told story, almost artless in its transparency, and a good reason to find and read more of Carol Emshwiller’s writing.

(Tachyon Publications, 2007)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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