Friday, September 19, 2014

Teen idol

When I was a member of the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club as a teenager, Clifford D. Simak (1904-1988) ranked among my favorite authors. His sci-fi stories displayed wit and imagination, yet his fanciful plots were generally anchored in the real world, making them easier to grasp and identify with than the works of certain other writers in that genre.

It has been decades since I've read any of Simak's books, but recently I picked up They Walked Like Men (1962) and was reminded of why I liked his stories so much as a kid.

The novel might also have been called They Rolled Like Bowling Balls, for the aliens who have invaded Earth seem to be able to take whatever form suits their purpose. They can turn into men (or money) when they want to buy real estate or into something the size and shape of bowling balls when they want to make a quick getaway. Buying real estate is how these creatures aim to conquer Earth, one plot of ground at a time. They want it all to be perfectly legal (even if they are using phony money) and totally undetectable by mankind until it is too late.

Small-town newspaperman Parker Graves discovers the plot, but getting anyone to believe his story is another matter. Who's going to believe aliens from outer space are trying to buy their house? Many journalists have, in the real world, been enticed into public relations. Simak tells what happens when the aliens who walk like men and roll like bowling balls make Parker an enticing offer to become their public relations man.

This tale manages to be both exciting and humorous at the same time. It also contains better prose than some might usually associate with science fiction. Here are some descriptive lines Simak wrote that I particularly like:

"The rustling of the drying leaves, heard in the silence of the night, sounded like the furtive pattering of many little feet."

"... where empty bookshelves gaped back at me like an old man with a toothless grin."

"Then the brake lights burned red holes in the night ..."

I don't think I was wrong to have admired Clifford D. Simak so much as a teen.

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