Rating: 7.9 (out of 10)
On the surface, the mythology surrounding alien abduction is no different from any other conspiracy theory: the complete lack of physical or circumstantial evidence, wild speculation in place of verifiable fact, sophisticated (but easily debunked) pseudo-scientific hypotheses, and, most importantly, a deep emotional attachment by conspiracy theorists to their “truth” – a belief so entrenched in the core of their being that even the most practical, empirical evidence capable of knocking down the whole house of cards is automatically (and angrily) dismissed as propaganda.
What separates the alien abduction phenomenon from your typical conspiracy theory is the experience of the abductees themselves. Your typical JFK conspiracy theorist or 911 truther might seize on a statement or phrase from one or more eyewitness – i.e. “smoke rising from the grassy knoll” – to assert their counter-narrative to the established facts, but nothing in the statements themselves are contradictory to the official story. There are, in fact, any number of reasons why a person or persons might have seen, or thought they saw, or claimed to have seen smoke rising from the grassy knoll, none of which have anything to do with “the real assassin.” But alien experiencers give direct testimony that bolsters the theories that develop around them. They are participants, not bystanders, in the hypotheses that believers propagate. And while psychologists and psychotherapists have all manner of plausible explanations as to why experiencers make their claims, most agree that the experiencers themselves are not mentally ill or prone to delusions, and that they genuinely believe their experience was real and are traumatized by it. This fact, despite the complete absence of physical evidence and scientific plausibility to back up their claims, give alien conspiracy theorists a boost that other conspiracy theorists don’t have – first hand witnesses whose testimony is, in a manner of speaking, genuine.
In Eleanor Lerman’s novel The Stargazer’s Embassy, stories of alien abductions are accepted as genuine, but that isn’t quite the problem protagonist Julia Glazer is having. To her, the aliens have been more of a nuisance than anything else. They hang around the periphery of her life, dressed in weird costumes and never quite making contact. They seem both wary of her and weirdly protective. She tries to shoo them away like stray cats but they keep popping up, loitering around her house, her job, her social sphere.
Things get complicated when Julia becomes enmeshed in alien experiencer culture. She meets, and is romanced by, a psychologist and academic named John Benton who is trying to examine the culture respectfully and seriously. On the flipside is Jim Barrett, a friendly rival of John’s whose theories about what the aliens are and why they are abducting people makes him this novel’s version of infamous UFO researchers like Budd Hopkins. John introduces Julia to Jim and his group of disciples as a way of connecting her with people who share common experiences, but most of the experiencers – particularly the abduction victims – view her with distrust. Since Julia’s encounters are so unlike theirs, they assume she must be lying, or hiding something.
The dramatic core of the novel is Julia’s relationship with her late mother, Laura – who was connected to the alien visitors, and whose unsuccessful attempt to ingratiate them to Julia as a child seems to have been the impetus for their stalking of her as an adult. Julia has spent most of her adult life trying to avoid coming to terms with her difficult relationship with Laura. Laura died when Julia was only 13, but her legacy as a collaborator with the alien visitors literally follows Julia around from that point on. Early in the novel she confesses to John what it was like to grow up with Laura as her mother:
“Besides the alien stuff, some of them thought she was off at night practicing witchcraft or group sex or cooking meth or who knows what. And what the parents thought, their children thought, so you can imagine all this didn’t exactly make me the most popular kid in school. In fact, it made me something of a freak—I was the kid with the crazy mother who lived above the Stargazer’s Embassy…”
Julia constructs narratives, sprinkled with a mixture of truths and fabrications, about Laura to explain why she doesn’t want to talk about Laura. Julia remembers the exact moment – when she was seven – that she realized she didn’t love her mother. Her memories of Laura are mystifying, infuriating, but she can’t escape them, or her feelings. Somehow Laura is always still there, interfering with her life, her work, her relationships, and ultimately with the answers Julia seeks about the legacy Laura left behind.
Ostensibly a work of science fiction, the thematic schema of The Stargazer’s Embassy hews closer to contemporary literary fiction than genre work. Julia is the sort of wistful, melancholy archetype that has become something of a cliché in literary novels, the kind of hero whose journey is more about taking stock of her life and working through her own failings and anxieties than, say, uncovering and thwarting the invaders’ plans. In traditional science fiction those priorities would be reversed, with the inner struggle supplementing a heroic problem-solving narrative rather than dominating it.
Regardless of where the novel’s priorities lie, it is the SFnal element of The Stargazer’s Embassy that distinguishes it from the literary pack, more so than its literariness distinguishes it from SF. More than simply a projection of her internal conflicts, the presence of the uncanny in Julia’s life – and the casual acceptance of its existence in the novel’s framework – is what gives her experience, and her journey, a deeper meaning. Aliens and alien-ness do not function as a fanciful allegory or a quirky satirical angle; they are the reality of this novel, and Julia’s story cannot be told without them.
The cast of characters ring true to me, particularly in the conflicting prerogatives of the different experiencers and how they relate to Julia. The Stargazer’s Embassy itself (a bar owned by Julia’s stepfather) is a memorable setting, and so much more than the kitschy tourist trap it pretends to be. Like the novel that bears its name it is both ordinary and transcendent, and carves its own little niche in the world.