Clifford D. Simak’s They Walked Like Men is one of my favorite SF novels. Originally published in 1962, it has been out of print since 1979. This radical little satiric novel questions the wisdom of urban sprawl, the cynical practices of real estate czars, and suburban flight to…well, nowhere. Everybody should have a copy of They Walked Like Men.
I wrote an enthusiastic book journal entry in 2009:
Aliens are taking over the world – but not by hackneyed means – they’re buying all the real estate on Earth. They look like bowling balls – and somehow combine with dolls to simulate human beings. The narrator, Parker Graves (love the last name!), is a newspaper science writer who investigates the aliens after he foils a trap they’ve set outside his apartment. He also discovers that all the real estate has been bought up by a mystery man – and that even wealthy people are homeless because once they sell their homes, there’s nowhere to go.
It’s typical that such a smart little satire would disappear. Hardly the stuff of McCarthy blacklists, but perhaps thought better supressed? (Yes! Bowling balls are taking over the world! Oooohhhh!). Perhaps I’m the only reader who thought the bowling balls were funny!
Simak (1904-1988) not only had great ideas, he was a pretty good writer. He won three Hugo awards, a Nebula, and was named the third Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He is known for “pastoral” science fiction, with an emphasis on humanity, rural areas, and the ecosystem rather than technology.
The novel begins like a noir pulp classic. The journalist narrator, Peter Graves, has the tough voice of a guy who knows how to find a story, and stop crime. (Simak, too, was a journalist.)
It was Thursday night and I’d had too much to drink and the hall was dark and that was the only thing that saved me. If i hadn’t stopped beneath the hall light just outside my door to sort the keys, I would have stepped into the trap sure as hell.
Its being Thursday night had nothing to do with it, actually, but that’s the way I write. I’m a newspaperman, and newspapermen put the day of the week and the time of day and all the other pertinent information into everything they write.
The plot takes many bizarre twists and turns. Eventually, Peter meets a talking Dog. It’s the dog who tells Peter that the aliens don’t just buy cities. They buy solar systems.
“I see you do not realize,” said the Dog, “exactly what you have. There are, I must inform you, few planets such as this one you call Earth. It is, you see, a regular dirt-type planet, and planets such as it are few and far between. It is a place where the weary may rest their aching bones and solace their aching eyes with a gentle beauty such as one seldom comes across. There have been built, in certain solar systems, orbiting constructions which seek to simulate such conditions as occur here naturally. But the artificial can never quite approach the actual, and that is why this planet is so valuable as a playground and resort.”
Simak knew all about the building of highways and the flight to the suburbs after World War II. Today downtowns are deserted, the farmland is developed, and people buy poorly-built houses on lots with no trees. Earth has been devastated by human beings. It has become a dystopian nightmare.
I have enjoyed many of Simak’s other books, especially the canine classic, City, in which talklking dogs inhabit the cities abandoned by human beings. Eventually, humans are just a legend to the dogs.
Much as I like Simak, I must admit that I have abandoned a newly-published collection of Simak’s stories, I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories. I was quite excited about it, but the writing is ghastly. According to the preface, Simak was dissatisfied with the first story in the collection, “Installment Plan,” and it was a bad idea to open a collection with a bad story.