When an alien invasion takes root in New York City, Pen Simmons, Violet City‘s teenage lead, remarks that it’s “like a big budget space movie has come to life over our heads.” She uses this point of reference often, as the novel progresses and its plot unfolds. Dead bodies roll down the pavement like stunt doubles, the destroyed city looks like a post-apocalyptic film set, and when she first encounters one of the aliens, beginning a tenuous alliance that later turns into something more, the whoosh of air rushing from the airlock of a spacesuit first enters her ear as something she’d only heard before in sci-fi movies.
It seems a trivial detail, but in terms of what it reveals about Violet City‘s execution as a work of science fiction, it’s critical. Page Morgan, ultimately, relies on the reader’s knowledge of pop culture as a crutch in building both the landscape of post-invasion Manhattan and the internal logic of the world of the Volkranians, her species of coldly logical, ruthless invaders. Rather than a deliberate entry into the genre, it feels like a collection of details assimilated from like sources––the vague trope that people panic in disaster informs every glance we get of post-invasion New York City, while the Volkranians are aliens of the wholly expected Vulcan variety: formal-speaking, human-faced, and only a hair’s breadth away at all times from offering up an explanation eerily similar to “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
This isn’t to say that alien invasion concepts have to be wildly original in order to be valid––rather that in Violet City‘s quest for broad appeal and familiarity, it neglects the opportunity to introduce something new. Even the execution of the book’s central hook, the budding romance between Pen and one of the invaders, whom she nicknames Rowan, is expected, snagging on conflicts even a casual viewer of sci-fi could predict at a glance.
The book also suffers from a severe dearth of proper scaffolding with regards to character: though it’s perfectly readable and its pacing moves at a fast clip, there’s something off at the heart of its planning, and it doesn’t reveal itself until the final act, where Pen takes several almost existential risks, and they all ring hollow because there’s nothing the story equipped her with that she lacked in the beginning. Though character work like this takes the back seat to the action of most stories, its skillful implementation is essential: a protagonist must substantially change, and the obstacles they face must be the catalyst for their doing so.
In one of the most important early scenes, however, Violet City has Pen jump to defend the life of an alien she doesn’t even know––and succeed. From there, though it’s clear the author wants to write a character whose morals and worldview change after getting close to the enemy, the approach has nowhere to go. Because the book opens by showing the reader that Pen is willing to act to protect one of the aliens, and can work up courage in the face of mortal peril, it renders all of the objections Pen has to doing the same later on entirely obsolete. Nothing’s at stake in the event that Pen fails. And the threat that she will is virtually nonexistent.
From here, it doesn’t matter when either of the major characters’ lives are in danger. It doesn’t matter when Pen gets the chance to abandon her shaky alliance and doesn’t take it. It doesn’t matter when ships crash or shots are fired or action tears through the pages. The story, in its construction, wants for everything a narrative needs to breathe.
When movies destroy landmarks and level city blocks, they do it because it’s a shortcut: when cities that loom large in popular imaginations turn to rubble on-screen, it evokes at least an echo of what a story would otherwise have to do to awaken that feeling. In some regard, it must work––after all, screenplays keep using it. But a shortcut is no substitute for real groundwork. I may have seen plenty of what happens in Violet City in a movie before, but that doesn’t mean it cuts closer to me once it transpires here. In fact, that might be the very reason it doesn’t.
Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy.
Photos by Andre Benz and Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash.