Sunday, May 02, 2021

26. The Visitors by Clifford D. Simak

When I found this book, I had to take it.  Years ago, somebody posted the cover art on Twitter and I snagged it for my cellphone background (insider tip: cover art without the type is perfect for cellphones because the top quarter is always left open).  I had this great image on my phone for quite a while so I thought I at least owed it to the artist and writer to the read the book upon which it was based.

I am quite glad I did. This is an interesting and smoothly-paced story that answers a classic speculative question in a serious and thoughtful (and subtly critical) way: what would happen if aliens arrived on earth?  In this case, they come as a giant rectangular slab that suddenly appears on a small river in rural Minnesota, smashing a bridge and the car of Jerry Conklin who was fishing under the bridge.  There are many characters and perspective shifts from the White House to a newsroom to the man in the street, though Conklin and his girlfriend (a reporter on said newsroom) also provide a more direct narrative through line.  The "visitor" doesn't do anything for a while.  And then it starts consuming trees.  Then more come and land all over America.  The rest of the book is us trying to figure out what the hell they are doing and how we can respond to them.  It is is not disimilar to Rendezvous with Rama, except the speculation takes place on earth and these things are still active.

I won't spoil anything specific, as much of the fun in this book is learning about what these things are doing.  Simak does a really good job of keeping the narrative going and giving us enough to speculate in a satisfying way.  There is no conclusive ending, but enough to make your own judgements about what will happen.  A clue is that at the very beginning, a racist barber is complaining about how the Native Americans are getting the rights back to a forest.  His ugly diatribe (and the fact that he is the only person killed by the visitors after he shoots one and receives a reactive jolt of energy that basically cooks him) and the town newspaper guys response does foreshadow a parallel with the arriving visitors.  Though they are much less aggressive than "the white man", they do seem to need to consume resources and are potentially offering very shiny gifts in return.  

I really enjoyed this book.  There is a lot of thinking about society and what alien visitors would mean to us, but it is woven more elegantly into the story than Simak's earlier works.  It's very readable and the speculation itself is quite well done. It leaves enough for you to think about after it is done and kind of wanting more but knowing that spelling it out in nerdy detail would ultimately be less satisfying.

I realized after I finished reading this that I had somehow conflated Simak with Richard Bester (whom I didn't love).  Now I realize that City is the only other Simak book I have read.  I was critical of that one, but it was very thought-provoking.  I am going to have to upgrade him in my head and maybe read other works of his.

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