Michael Kandel, Strange Invasion
reviewed by Don Webb
Publisher: Bantam, Spectra
Special Editions, 1989
Length: 152 pp.
It’s a pity we haven’t heard more from Michael Kandel. He was twice nominated for a National Book Award for his superb translations of the science fiction stories of Stanislaw Lem. The jacket blurb cites Strange Invasion as “a novel of rare humor in the spirit of Philip K. Dick.” So much is true; only, imagine Philip K. Dick with a much sparer, more transparent style and the wry humor of Lem.
Wally Griffith is an innocent and very likable first-person narrator. He suffers from a congenital neurological disorder that causes him to have hallucinations, which he has learned to master with a kind of cheerful aplomb. Lucky he: his disorder uniquely qualifies him to receive a bizarre series of communications from the Conservationists, a clandestine interstellar, interdimensional organization devoted to thwarting the invasions of the dread Öht. The Conservationists have chosen Wally as the “guardian” of Earth.
The Öht are several species of “tourists.” For them, tourism is both religion and sport; they show no respect for the cultures and planets they visit. Their very presence corrupts the inhabitants and eventually drives them into extinction. Only one “guardian” in ten manages to repel them.
The first invasion can serve as an example of the rest. It occurs in Colombia, where the Chivri — green, gourd-like bipeds — emerge, grimly intent on riotous bacchanals in a spirit of nihilistic hedonism. The local population joins in the revelry, with catastrophic consequences. Desperate, Wally enlists the aid of a flock of talking toucans. Equipped with little megaphones, they fly about broadcasting Marxist doctrine to the Chivri:
Here you had duty, a sense high purpose wedded to sober realism, and the sacrifice of self for the common good; there — nothing but eat, drink and be merry, the gratification of the flesh.
They succeed. The Chivri flee what has to be the ultimate party-poop.
The Öht’s next invasion comes in Omsk. Curiously, it is the opposite of the Chivri’s: aliens looking like macramé exude a fatally contagious, jaded world-weariness. The third Öht invade Akron. They look like file cabinets and fixate on the most trivial objects with profound esthetic admiration. The city’s population is soon in a daze, as though tripped out on pot... And there are more. Wally rushes to mount a defense on each front, often with the indispensable aid of animals.
You get the picture. In the end, the reader realizes that the Öht are a very colorful allegory of human political, philosophical and psychological aberrations. Strange as they seem, the invasions are all too familiar.
The novel is economically written and fast-paced. Wally’s hallucinations are a continuous source of comedy. Wally and his psychiatrist, Lucille, have more than a professional relationship; they seem quite fond of each other. The minor characters are very skillfully drawn, and even the alien invaders — “bug-eyed monsters” all, in their own ways — have personalities of their own.
Recommendation: Strange Invasion is a minor science-fiction classic for those who enjoy dark philosophical action novels in a comic vein. It does not have the scope of Candide; what could? But it is a worthy successor. In that light, I have to issue a caveat lector : The novel’s outlook is satirical and ultimately pessimistic; not in the existential terms of such writers as Stanislaw Lem but in terms of humanity’s ability to withstand the follies to which it is prone.
Copyright © 2004 by Don Webb