Clifford Simak might have been a square. He once wrote, “My favorite recreation is fishing (the lazy way, lying in a boat and letting them come to me). Hobbies: Chess, stamp collecting, growing roses,” and every picture of him looks like the standard American Male from the 50s on his way to have his shoes shined and fight communism. But Simak gave us thought-provoking stories that still make me ponder and think.
He began publishing science fiction in the 30s, working regularly for editors like Hugo Gersnback and John w. Campbell. According to his friend, Isaac Asimov, Simak had a respectable “real” job, where he didn’t let on that he was a writer. (I hear there are still people who do that.)
He’s a foundational writer, to be sure, and what makes his work unique is his focus on ordinary, mid-western people. My favorite Simak story, The Big Front Yard, is about a country repairman who finds adorable aliens quietly fixing things in his basement. Rather than writing a Buck Rogers-esque hero, Simak tells us how an incredibly normal guy reacts to an amazing situation.
The Visitors is one of Simak’s last works, written in the 80s, and it gives an unusual take on alien invasion stories. After the opening chapters, the scenes start to become bare with little or (often) no scenery or setting described. Just a a page or two of exchanged dialog and then we’re off to the next chapter. You can almost picture it like a minimalist play, where characters step out onto a barely illuminated stage and say their lines in front of sparse props.
At the start of the story, a fisherman encounters an alien craft when he reaches back to cast and his rod snaps in half against a big, black box hovering over the river. The box sucks him up, stares at him, and spits him back out. Then the visitor, which appears to be a life form rather than a ship, begins eating trees and leaving behind strange “cellulose” blocks. The people of earth stand dumbstruck as more silent Visitors descend, eat more trees, and eventually to leave behind offspring in the form of small black boxes.
The visitors never directly communicate in any way, but they do start to create gifts for the people of earth. Strange cars that fly are left behind, seemingly as gifts in exchange for all the trees the Visitors devour. Sadly, the crowds that rush to get the free flying cars become too dangerous and the gifts must be guarded by the military for the public’s safety. Next the Visitors create houses, all identical and a little too perfect. The sight of a shadow moving inside of one of these houses tells us that the Visitors have even replicated humans, and our protagonists have no idea what to make of this development.
As the story nears its end, it becomes clear to the reader that no end is in sight. One of the characters even admits as much, lamenting that their story won’t have a neat Hollywood ending to tie up the loose ends. At the final page, the story ends with some abruptness while our characters watch the situation grow beyond their comprehension and control.
The purpose of this story remained elusive for me until, near the end, one of the characters mentioned a piece of plot from the beginning of the book, something I had forgotten: before the visitors landed, one of our protagonists, a reporter, was on her way to investigate a situation on a Native American reserve. The puzzle began to take shape.
Flipping back, I remembered that the story began with a conversation at the barber’s about Native Americans trying to preserve forest land that companies wanted to use for lumber. Our protagonist thinks the trees should be left alone, at least for the pleasure of looking at them, while his barber thinks it’s unfair for the Native Americans to keep industry from growing. (It’s a brave man who disagrees with his barber.)
As we watch the DAPL fight unfold once again, I find Simak’s book useful. The Visitors may not have a simple, explicit point, but it does give the reader some small insight into the point of view of modern Native Americans. No matter what Simak’s aliens do to smooth things over, they can’t undo the damage done, even if they never meant any harm. Though we think of them as visitors, and even while they come bearing gifts, it becomes clear that these strange beings from the sky can’t help but be invaders.