The Secret City: A Novel

Carol Emshwiller

2019 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award

Hidden high in a mountain range, the Secret City is a worn citadel protecting a lost culture. It harbors a handful of aliens stranded on Earth, waiting for rescue and running out of time. The sudden arrival of ill-prepared rescuers touches off divided loyalties, violent displacement, and star-crossed love.


The Secret City: A Novel

by Carol Emshwiller

ISBN: 9781892391445

Published: 2007

Available Format(s): Trade Paperback and eBooks

The Secret City is a proud enclave carved in stone. Hidden high in a mountain range, it is a worn citadel protecting a lost culture. It harbors a handful of aliens stranded on Earth, waiting for rescue and running out of time. Over years of increasing poverty, an exodus to the human world has become their only chance for survival. The aliens are gradually assimilating not as a discrete culture but as a source of cheap labor.

But the sudden arrival of ill-prepared rescuers will touch off divided loyalties, violent displacement, and star-crossed love. As unlikely human allies are pitted against xenophobic aliens, the stage is set for a final standoff at the Secret City.

“…a sweet and involving story. Its attitude toward 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.”
SF Site, featured review

“But all these past instances aside, no one has yet approached the trope with the finesse and grace of Emshwiller. She’s a writer of such slantwise sensibilities and such deep perceptions that she conveys the exotic weirdness of such a setup—and the almost unfathomable otherness of the Betashan mentality—with uncommon vividness and startling jolts of creepiness.”
Sci Fi Weekly (Grade: A)

“Highly recommended.”
Midwest Book Review

 “Emshwiller’s latest displays her incredible talent for writing naturalistic prose about unnatural situations as well as her ability to create a compact level of intensity.”
The Agony Column

“This carefully crafted, ambivalent story depicts alien and human alike struggling just to get by.”
Publishers Weekly

“During an award-filled, 30-year career, Emshwiller has delighted readers and fellow writers with her unique brand of exquisitely rendered magic realism. The city of the title of her latest haunting book is a mountainous retreat, concealed by vines and tree roots, where alien tourists now stranded on Earth may assuage nostalgia for their home world, Betasha. It is to this now largely abandoned hideout that one particular alien, Lorpas, goes to seek fellowship after being arrested for vagrancy and escaping to the hills. There he meets and falls for Allush, a female Betashan who, like Lorpas, was born on Earth and has blended in so well that rescue is no longer appealing. Emshwiller alternates between Lorpas’s account of his growing friendship with a bumbling rescuer whom he overpowers and Allush’s tale of return to Betasha as the two meet, separate, and finally reunite to establish Earth as their new home world. A simple yet vivid parable on the value of cherishing the home one knows best.”

Carol Emshwiller is a key figure in science fiction’s new-wave movement and the author of Carmen Dog, The Mount, Mr. Boots, and The Secret City. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Pushcart Prize as well as the Philip K. Dick and Gallun awards. In 2005, she received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement and the Nebula Award for “I Live With You,” the title story of her short-story collection.

Praise for Carol Emshwiller

“Ms. Emshwiller is so gifted.”
New York Times Book Review

“First and foremost, Emshwiller is a poet—with a poet’s sensibility, precision, and magic. She revels in the sheer taste and sound of words, she infuses them with an extraordinary vitality and sense of life.”

“Emshwiller’s readers know her to be a major fabulist, a marvelous magical realist, one of the strongest, most complex, most consistently feminist voices in fiction.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin

“The most inventive mind in science fiction.”
—Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club

“Carol’s stories turn the corner into another dimension.”
—Harlan Ellison, author of Shatterday

“The woman is a genius, period.”
—Gwenda Bond, Shaken & Stirred

“Emshwiller consistently pokes holes through the fabrications of our lives and reminds me of the power literature has to change the way we think.”
—Pam Harcourt, Books to Watch Out For

“Lord what a thankless thing it must be to produce such exquisiteness.”
—James Tiptree, Jr., author of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

“Emshwiller’s sentences are transparent and elegant at the same time. Her vocabulary, though rich and flexible, is never arcane.”
The Women’s Review of Books

“Carol Emshwiller…has a dedicated cult following and has been an influence on a number of today’s top writers…. It is very easy to fall into the rhythm of Emshwiller’s poetic and smooth sentences.”
Review of Contemporary Fiction

“…damn near perfect…touchingly and complexingly so.”
Asimov’s Science Fiction

Praise for I Live With You

“A collection that manages to remind us of great writers like George Saunders, Grace Paley, and Harlan Ellison all at once, though Emshwiller is a unique and wonderful writer in her own right.”
Time Out Chicago, a Top Ten Book of 2005

“Compassion and a sly sense of humor shape the insight-filled fiction…. Lyrical and resonant….”
Publishers Weekly

“Her eye for detail and ear for poetry allow her to create compact fables that resonate beyond their immediate settings.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Emshwiller’s strange, often sad, and beautiful stories linger, unfolding long after reading them.”

Visit the Carol Emshwiller website.



LOST. IT ’S WHAT I WANT AND WISH I WAS AGAIN. Home is . . . used to be . . . wherever I was. Wherever I put down my folding cup, wrung out my cap, turned it inside out and used it for a pillow. But that was yesterday.

When I was discovered, I panicked. They woke me out of a sound sleep. I fought. First without thinking at all, and then because they could be muggers, and after that, when I saw they were policemen, I knew I might be kept in one place and have to stay with the natives for longer than I could stand. Someplace with nothing but a little square of sky. And that’s exactly how it is.

They gagged me with a dirty rag. I suppose I was yelling. They tied my hands behind my back. I couldn’t get a handkerchief for my bloody nose. They let me bleed all over my shirt.

I did do damage. I don’t know how much but they had bloody noses, too. Maybe a few black eyes.

They washed me, shaved me including my head. I suppose they were worried about lice. I had a mustache. That’s gone. I hardly know myself. They did all this with my hands tied behind my back. I calmed myself with breathing. I tried to imagine a sky instead of a ceiling.

I should be glad for the chance to rest, I haven’t stopped traveling—not even for a day, but still I long to be moving. They took, not just the laces, but my shoes. I had added two extra heels on one for my bad foot. Even though they’re worn out, I’m lost without those particular shoes. That’s not the kind of lost I like to be.



I THINK I’M THE LAST, THOUGH I KEEP HOPING there’s others of us hiding out somewhere. Mountains would be the most logical place. I was headed there. Mother and Dad implanted their own beacons under our arms, but did all the parents do that and was it the same lumpy red spot for all? And how could I ask somebody, “Lift your arms and let me peer into your armpits?” Even at the beach, I    seldom see under anybody’s arm. I suppose that’s why they put it there in the first place.

I blend in. I never do anything that they wouldn’t do. I presume we all do that.

We hoped for rescue. We waited. At least Mother did. She never belonged. She was never comfortable here. Most of those of her generation waited and kept on acting as tourists until the money ran out. They thought that would be the best way to survive here until rescue. Unfortunately there was no central location. Now the old ones are all dead and most of the younger ones I knew are spread out, who knows where?

I no longer hope. Actually I never really did. I played Mother’s game in front of her . . . the game of wanting more than what we had here—Mother said we were rich back there—but I knew no other life. Actually no other life than poverty. I was used to it. As long as we had enough to eat, I was happy. Besides, I was born here. This is my land. I never look out at it without a thrill. Even as a child I secretly relished this world. I wondered if I’d have to leave if we ever were rescued. Would Mother insist that I go back with her?

Mother said, “We may look more or less like them, but we’re not them and don’t you ever forget it.” She said, “Keep wandering, wear tourist’s clothes and carry tourist things.” She said, “Just keep waiting. Don’t use the freeze, but don’t let it die. Don’t marry one of them. If you don’t marry one of us, it surely will.”

I waited. I didn’t marry. Now I fear there are no more of us left to marry, though one can’t be sure, we were spread all over. And who knows, maybe in some mountain range, some of us might have lasted disguised as campers. There’s the rumor of a secret city. I was on my way to try and find it.

They called themselves tourists. Our parents just wanted to see this place for a little while. It was a class in understanding aliens. Mother was one of the guides but empathy was hard for her. She tried but she always hated the natives. “Homo sapiens sapiens,” she’d say with a sneer. “Sapiens. That’s what they think. They took two sapiens for themselves, for heaven’s sake.”

I could never see that much difference, us or them.

Had I known we’d never be rescued, I’d have mated with one of them in spite of Mother’s warnings. She was sure I’d reveal myself in a fit of anger, but I don’t think so. (Though considering what I just did, maybe I would have if woken up suddenly.) I could have had a normal native life. But could I have asked one of them to follow me, a limping bum in a baseball cap and a flowery Hawaiian shirt, with camera, field glasses? Never lost but always lost? (Though I’d have settled down if I’d married. There must be some way to get an identity and then a decent job.)

After my parents knew we were abandoned here, they went from job to job. Nobody ever got to know us nor we them. Mother didn’t want us to know the natives. She didn’t want us contaminated. She said we were born for better things than houses with pictures on the walls and malls and coffee shops and grocery stores—better things than little plots of land with flowers in them. . . . Trouble was, that’s all we younger ones knew.

At first my family lived in a camper but then had to sell it. Our father got a broken-down pickup truck and a tent and we went from place to place. My parents looked at everything with the same interest they’d had in the beginning, and often laughed at the native’s ways, but they always felt set apart. They didn’t want to join this world. They homeschooled us so that we knew more about a distant world and its wars and landmasses than we knew of this one.

Other books by this author…