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The Secret City
Carol Emshwiller
Tachyon, 224 pages

The Secret City
Carol Emshwiller
Carol Emshwiller was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She grew up in both Ann Arbor and in France, moving back and forth almost annually. She attended the University of Michigan which was where she met her husband, Ed Emshwiller, the famed SF illustrator. She alternates living in New York City (winter) where she teaches at New York University Adult Education and in California in the summer.

Carol Emshwiller Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:Mister Boots
SF Site Review: "Boys"
SF Site Review: Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories and The Mount
SF Site Review: The Mount

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Carol Emshwiller is now in her mid 80s, but she continues to produce some of the best fiction in our field. While her first stories appeared in the mid-1950s, her first novel did not appear until 1990, when she was already past the traditional retirement age. And of late we have seen a rush of lovely new fiction from her. She has won two recent Nebula Awards for Best Short Story. And she has published three new novels in this century.

Her latest is The Secret City. This expands a short story ("World of No Return") from Asimov's in 2006. Lorpas is an alien who was raised by alien tourists marooned on Earth. His whole life has been one of wandering, and of keeping the secret of his true nature. He is befriended by an old woman, but she dies, and he is unfairly (but understandably) suspected of foul play. He escapes, and continues a search for the rumored "Secret City" that some of his fellow aliens may have built somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas.

Allush is another alien child of tourists. She lives in the Secret City. But their population is much diminished -- perhaps only three remain, herself, her surrogate mother Mollish, and an aggressive male, Youpas. Youpas has already killed three human archaeologists who nearly stumbled on the City -- and, when Lorpas finds his way there, he tries to kill him. But Lorpas and Allush fall in love, and they and Mollish begin to return to human civilization. It seems, despite their parents' constant reminders of "home," and constant denigration of Earth and humans, that in their ways they have learned to love the Earth. But then a rescue party arrives -- and Allush is spirited back to the home planet, while Lorpas remains, with a newly marooned member of the rescuers.

The novel continues to describe Allush's disturbing experiences on her home planet, and Lorpas's potential troubles with human law enforcement, his adventures with the new alien, and also problems with the still violent Youpas. The three of them end up working for a human rancher and his young teenaged daughter, and their position is further compromised by the daughter's fascination with one of the aliens. And Allush, of course, will be back herself...

This is a sweet and involving story. Its attitude towards humans and aliens is refreshing -- humans are neither markedly inferior nor markedly superior to the aliens. Both species have problems, particularly severe class differences. What is ultimately important is personal connections -- people who learn to love each other. The story is told through the points of view of Lorpas and Allush, and both are good but naïve sorts, giving the novel a pellucid sort of voice. (The viewpoint characters of Emshwiller's other recent novels, Mister Boots and The Mount, are similarly naïve, as are the narrators of many of her stories. Her strategy often seems to be to show disturbing situations, and nasty characters, through the eyes of innocents -- an effective approach.) The Secret City is yet another strong late work from one of our treasures.

Copyright © 2007 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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