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WesternSFA


The Visitors
by Clifford Simak
Copyright 1980, 282 pages hardcover

This is one of Simak’s last novels, published just eight years before his death. Other than the length of the book – the last half dozen were significantly longer than his earlier works, with the exception of Special Deliverance – Simak’s style never changed.  His two favorite tropes were a quest and first contact.  This is a first contact-type story.  In this story, Simak wanted to examine what mankind’s reactions would be to visitation by aliens.  But he posed it a bit differently than others might have.  The aliens are characterized as non-threatening, even gentle, but incomprehensible. 

Jerry Conklin is a college student trying to get in a quick fly-fishing trip when the first alien monolith flattened his car. The next thing that happened was more frightening when he was unceremoniously snatched up and deposited inside the thing to be examined – along with a fish, raccoon, rabbit and muskrat.  And then, just as unceremoniously, thrown out again. Frank Norton is a newspaperman who left the big city to come to this little town and run his own weekly newspaper.  He was the first reporter on the scene.  He called a friend running a big-city newspaper who sent out Kathy, Jerry’s girlfriend, to report on the thing.  Dave Porter is the President’s press secretary and privy to the concerns and fears of the government officials trying to decide both their role in this momentous event and their response to it.

With this mélange of characters, Simak set out to examine human reactions to an incomprehensible event.  The only time a human got hurt was when an over-anxious resident of the little town took up his shotgun and shot at the thing.  He was instantly obliterated.  But Simak assures us all a bit later that the lethal response was autonomic in nature thereby instilling a certain amount of restraint and caution without inciting undue fear.  He instills in both us and the characters a sympathetic response when it becomes apparent that the monoliths needed a world like Earth with our enormous forests to consume in order to make their offspring.  He flatly says that their very racial existence may have been in jeopardy if they hadn’t found a planet like Earth.  He even goes so far as to characterize the subsequent landings by hundreds more of the monoliths as thoughtful and considerate.  They seemed to take care not to land on people and the ones who started eating cars and houses seemed to stop once they realized we didn’t much care for it.

Jerry and Kathy are the public – they judge the Visitors based on their own perceptions.  Jerry likens them to sentient trees, trees being his passion.  Kathy wants to understand them and their motives and is willing to believe the best of them.  Dave speaks for the people in authority.  These are the people who always seem to believe that they are the only ones who can decide what is best for all of us.  While it is true that our votes put them in that position, they do tend to protect their own interests and the governmental structure before considering what is really in the people’s best interest.  While Jerry and Kathy are doing their own independent investigations into the Visitors’ intentions, the President and his advisors have a different set of priorities.  When it is discovered that the Visitors are preparing gifts for us – in payment for the trees, it is assumed – the common people are thrilled but the government is terrified.  The largesse is sure to decimate our economy, taking down our government in the process – they assume.  But Kathy argues that such a …. revolution… might be just what our stagnant society needs to advance beyond the need for resources that keep us in conflict all the time.

Simak enjoys discussing this from all sides and does not presume to tell us what the correct path should be.  He does something different at the end of this book that I can’t recall seeing in any of his other stories.  He puts in a shocking event and does not give us either an explanation or a resolution; leaving us to continue considering what else might happen.

I enjoyed it as much as most of his other stories although it does not particularly stand out for me.  As a career journalist, he liked to put reporters in his stories and, as with many of his stories, he placed them in the Midwest; so, many of the elements of this story were quite familiar.  The aliens were so little characterized as to be nothing more than a plot device.  The plot was, quite simply, an examination of human nature and response to an incomprehensible event.   ~~ Catherine Book

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