Books


Clifford D. Simak was one of the favorite science fiction authors of my youth. Though he never quite achieved the fame of an Asimov or a Clarke or a Heinlein, I always felt he was one of the best practitioners of the craft. His work had a humanity that was absent from most of the other SF being published in his time.

Simak is undoubtedly best known for his Hugo Award-winning novel Way Station and his International Fantasy Award-winning City, but he wrote many superlative books. One of which is They Walked Like Men.

The Walked Like Men is in the long tradition of aliens-invading-the Earth story. I think every writer in the genre used the plot at least a time or two. Simak's story is unique in that the conquerors did not come bearing weapons, but instead came buying. Buying our property right out from under our noses.

The novel starts out rather like a Fredric Brown mystery. A seasoned, hard-drinking reporter is on to a strange series of events. People are finding themselves homeless. Revered businesses are shutting down. This is not necessarily abnormal, but it is reaching epidemic proportions. The odd thing about it is, the new owners appear to wish to do nothing with their acquired properties. Odder still, not only is the reporter interested in the weird events, the events seem to be interested in him.

I read They Walked Like Men when I was a teen and I remember telling people that it was about bowling balls taking over the planet. I had a reputation for being weird and I didn't mind cultivating it. The aliens in They Walk Like Men really do walk like men, but in their real form they resemble nothing so much as bowling balls. That sounds silly, but it's really quit effective.

As the novel proceeds it gradually segues from a suspense yarn to a full-fledged action novel in the manner of Heinlein's The Puppet Masters or Finney's The Bodysnatchers.

Clifford D. Simak was a down-to-Earth storyteller and he wasn't one for too many stylistic tricks or metaphoric elements in his fiction. Yet They Walked Like Men seems like more than just a rollicking SF action adventure when it is considered from a vantage point of nearly 50 years later. The invasion in the book seems eerily similar to today's climate, when soulless beings that look like us are taking over everything with no regard to the human beings that are affected by it. Homes are taken and families are displaced with heartless greed. Once treasured stores are assimilated by faceless corporations as if by The Blob. Beloved family restaurants can't compete with The Golden Arches, The Border and other hideous replacements for human dining.

I know that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, but I think Simak was on to something long before most others were. That his beloved America was going to be transformed into a plastic dystopia that mocks the very idea of individuality. This kind of satire became commonplace decades later, such as with Bentley Little's The Store.

Find a copy of They Walked Like Men and read it for the fun adventure that it is. Or read it as a cautionary tale. Better yet, get it for both reasons.

It's important that we keep up with the new genre books being published and to support the hard-working writers that are trying to earn a living. But it's equally important that we pan the rivers of the past for the nuggets of gold that lie there waiting to be rediscovered. You won't find much better imaginative fiction than what Clifford D. Simak gave the world.