Timothy Zahn is the author of the bestselling Star Wars novel of all time, which to a certain kind of critic sounds like winning a contest to be the stupidest person on the block. The book in question, Heir to the Empire, was published in 1992 and attracted so much attention that it revived what was then a near-dead Star Wars franchise. Make of that what you will, but Heir to the Empire and its two sequels proved that you can do intriguing/memorable things with pulp-based material (or at the very least, that George Lucas and his crummy prequels have lost touch with the roots of this kind of stuff).
Zahn also writes his own books, and some of them are quite good.
For example, the Conqueror Trilogy (published in the mid-90s as Conqueror’s Pride, Conqueror’s Heritage, and Conqueror’s Legacy) starts off as a basic military science fiction story, with lots of whizz-bang spaceships, desperate last stands, and an alien enemy that attacks for no reason. It’s exciting enough and fast-paced, but at the same time incredibly boring and routine — when I was finishing the first book I thought that there was no way that such a commonly-used story could be stretched out over three books without becoming even less worthwhile.
I’m glad I picked up the second book because it’s from the alien point of view, and they are desperately defending themselves against this humanoid aggressor. It’s smartly written, a canny angle on the whole galactic war cliche, like the sequel that Starship Troopers always needed. The final Conqueror book is even more intriguing; without too many spoilers, I’ll only say that under desperate circumstances a few humans and aliens have to get together to end the war.
This brings me neatly to Zahn’s new book, The Green and the Gray. Two races of aliens, the two groups of the title, are secretly living in New York City. Once they find out about each other, their ancient enmity leads to escalating conflict and what could be a very dangerous state of affairs for ordinary New Yorkers. But is there any basis for this fight? Will it take some normal humans to figure out a peaceful solution?
The answer to the last question is definitely yes, and it’s a key part of what makes the book work so well. Like the Conqueror Trilogy, The Green and the Gray gets its tense moments from peacemaking. In both cases, the main characters try to resolve the situation while under attack by (insanely) aggressive/militaristic camps on two sides. It’s a great narrative trick because Zahn can still use all of the apparatus that makes a genre story like this exciting, like space battles in the Conqueror books or car chases and mind powers at war in the new book, but his protagonists don’t come across as nut cases.
Because let’s face it: the typical action hero is a mix of sociopath and psychopath, and morally indefensible except that we don’t notice what’s really going on anymore. I should add that I have no inherent complaint against violent stories, only against their lack of affect. They lose that component due to sheer repetition… sometimes it seems like no one knows any other way to tell an exciting story. This pet peeve of mine makes The Green and the Gray very appealing to me. Few pulpy works of science fiction break narrative ground but this is one of them.
The Green and the Gray has another element that charmed me: it’s set in New York and it uses the city extensively in the story. Parks are a key aspect of the plot, because of the Green aliens’ affinity for trees, and Zahn takes us to many of NYC’s green spots. NYPD is represented here by detective Thomas Fierenzo, who also knows the city well and uses his knowledge through various car chases and the climactic showdown on the waterfront. New York City is one of the most commonly used locales in fiction (see a reference at the end of this article) but Zahn uses local colour with enthusiam. The book is a love letter to the city.
Not everything is perfect about The Green and the Gray. The characterization is a bit iffy, especially for the two main human characters, Roger and Caroline Whittier. Their marriage has some problems before they get stuck in the alien crossfire, and these marital struggles fade away without much resolution. Similarly, the two jump into some daring adventures with scarcely a pause – the plot requires that they get involved but I wasn’t quite convinced by how fully they committed to meddling, in light of all the peril and risk. Finally, I was disappointed in the explanation for the origins of the green and gray aliens; not only did they slot neatly into nature vs. technology, but their origin story was a bit amateurish. These few flaws aside, the book is a satisfying read.
I wrote up The Green and the Gray for my book reference site, BiblioTravel, that keeps track of where books are set. On the site, New York and London are currently in contention for the top number of books.