They Walked Like Men: Simak bowls a strike

They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. SimakThey Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak SFF book reviewsThey Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak

In the history of the science fiction novel, there have been any number of depictions of invaders from other worlds trying to conquer good ol’ Mother Earth, be it with brute force and death rays (as in H.G. Wells’ seminal novel of 1898, The War of the Worlds) or more insidiously (as in Jack Finney’s 1955 masterpiece of paranoia, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). But nowhere, I suspect, has the reader ever been presented with a takeover attempt akin to the one in Clifford D. Simak’s They Walked Like Men … or, for that matter, one featuring aliens that resemble the ones in that selfsame book. Simak’s eighth novel was initially released in 1962, when the author was already 58; his next would be the hugely beloved Hugo winner Way Station, the following year.

A lighthearted, borderline comical affair that yet mixes in some surprising jolts of violence and mayhem and a goodly dollop of cosmic paranoia, They Walked Like Men is written in Simak’s trademark style: simply, clearly, compellingly readable. With its rapid pace, compressed time frame (the novel transpires over a period of roughly 40 harrowing hours), brief chapters, and cliffhanger finales at the end of practically every one of those chapters, the book really does manage to sweep the reader along, despite the unlikeliness of many of its central conceits. Personally, I thought the whole thing was a hoot!

In it, the reader encounters Parker Graves, a hard-drinking science writer working for a newspaper in a small Midwestern city. (Actually, strike that; we never learn the name of the city where Parker lives, or how big it is, or where it is. Call it Anywhere, U.S.A. But knowing Simak, a Wisconsin-born author who set so many of his works in that area, one feels safe to make certain assumptions.) Returning home from a drunken spree one evening, Graves is startled to discover what appears to be a bear trap outside his apartment door; a trap that almost catches him off guard. Even more startling is the fact that this dangerous contraption soon morphs into what appears to be a bowling ball; a bowling ball that rolls off, on its own volition, into the night. The following day, Parker is given the assignment, by his editor, of finding out why so many of the city’s most revered businesses have suddenly lost their leases and are going belly-up, and why so many homeowners have been losing the roofs over their heads, as well.

They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. SimakA little digging leads Parker and his galpal/fellow reporter Joy Kane (Simak’s sixth novel, Time Is the Simplest Thing, had also featured a female reporter, Harriet Quimby, as a main character; Simak, a longtime editor for the Minneapolis Star, knew the newspaper business well, by the way, and his opening chapters here evince a very convincing atmosphere of that milieu) to the startling truth: Bowling ball-shaped aliens from another world, capable of assuming human shape with the aid of miniature dolls (!), have been buying up all the real estate on Earth with their seemingly limitless monetary hoard! These Realtors from the stars have their own agenda for our fair planet, which will soon be a world entirely comprised of homeless folks, it would seem. Fortunately for Parker and Joy, an alien from still another world — rivals of the balling ball folks — has arrived on Earth to lend some assistance. This alien, whose name we never learn but whom Parker calls Dog, because it resembles a very talkative pooch (!), does indeed come in handy, but can the three do anything to stop the menace of economic collapse when no one in authority, for some strange reason, will believe Parker’s story about alien bowling balls and a garrulous mutt…

As you might be able to tell, Simak’s book surely does demand a lot from the reader, as regards credence. They Walked Like Men surely is some kind of lark, but wow, is it ever an entertaining one! Simak seems to be in on the joke, and indeed, at one point, Parker tells us “there was nothing quite so outrageous as a shaggy dog that talked. And, perhaps, when you came to think of it, it was no whit more ridiculous than a bunch of bowling balls about to grab the Earth…” And yet, despite the self-mockery, Simak’s book is also an increasingly paranoid one, never more so than when Parker and Joy cling to one another in the nighttime drizzle, each too afraid to return home and at a loss as to how to proceed. It is also a surprisingly realistic tale, as regards the main characters’ reactions to what is going on around them. When Parker first meets one of the aliens in human form, and later sees “him” decompose into constituent bowling balls, what does he do? He runs outside and vomits against a tree, stunned and aghast at what he’s just witnessed. Parker is certainly no traditional action hero, and with the amount of drinking that he does, it’s remarkable that he’s able to do anything at all! The aliens that he is up against are an interesting lot, to be sure; sticklers about buying up the Earth in complete conformity with the legalities of Terran business, and yet making rationalizations and excuses for such little things as counterfeiting and murder!

Simak’s book contains any number of nail-biting sequences, among them: Parker exploring the city building where the aliens seem to have an office and discovering those weird dolls and an icy-cold portal leading to…; Parker exploring a creepy old deserted house in the countryside, another base for the aliens; and Parker being trapped inside a speeding car that really isn’t a car at all, but rather an agglomeration of the bowling ball creatures out to kill him on the road. Ultimately, Parker realizes that he just cannot trust anyone or anything; as in Finney’s book, any human (or any object, in the Simak novel) could be an alien in disguise. And the reader shares poor Parker’s discomfort.

Writing in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle tells us that Simak’s book is “an entertaining first-person tale of economic mayhem, with rather a cop-out ending,” but to be fair, it is an ending that had been set up earlier on, and one that is in conformity with much of the levity that had preceded it. (Hint: It involves skunks. That’s right … skunks.) Personally, this finale didn’t bother me as much as some other minor matters. For example, we never learn quite enough about the aliens, for this reader’s money; it would have been nice to read about how those dolls work, how those portals operate, if the alien race has a name, if the Dog character has a name, what exactly that man-shaped shadow thingy that attacks Parker in the office building is, and so on. Simak’s book could easily have spun on for another 100 pages or so, even after the aliens’ game is exposed to the world, instead of ending abruptly, as it does. Still, this reader was fairly satisfied with what Simak has given us here.

Take a 1950s tale of sci-fi paranoia, and in some decidedly noirish elements, sprinkle with some fantasy trimmings and a goodly dose of screwball comedy and you might come up with something very similar to They Walked Like Men. For pure entertainment, you could do a lot worse. Given the nature of the book’s aliens, you will perhaps forgive me when I say that here, Clifford D. Simak has bowled yet another strike!

Published in 1962. Money was worthless; it had no value! It couldn’t buy housing, clothing, or food. Someone with enormous quantities of cash was buying houses and tearing them down, buying stores and closing them. Perhaps a few people could have stopped the transactions before it was too late. They could have said that Earth was ebing taken over by alien beings in the shapes of bowling balls, talking dogs, and dolls that walked like men. In fact, they did say it. The trouble was, no one believed them.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. I don’t know if I’ll ever read the book, but I love your reviews, Sandy!

    • sandy ferber /

      Thanks much, Marion. But if a book about alien Realtors shaped like bowling balls being the adversaries of a talking dog doesn’t pull you in, I don’t know what will! :)

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