Book Review: Simak, Visitors
Clifford D. Simak 1980
Original magazine appearance in Analog 1979 in somewhat different form.
Availability: not currently in print, but Amazon has a number of pbs and hbs for sale as low as $.01 -- of course, shipping and handling adds another $3. Alibris has no copy under $2.95 plus s&h.
Reviewed by Jim Benton
Clifford D. Simak wrote science fiction for over fifty years, from 1931 up until his death in 1988, turning out about 30 novels and many short stories. Despite his two Hugos and one International Fantasy Award, I consider most of his work rather minor -- City, a novelization of several short stories, might be an exception, but it has been many years since I have read it. (I have to say that the readers who have voted in Locus polls would differ with me, since Simak finished in the top 30 for best SF author of all time in several of their polls.)
Whatever, certainly The Visitors is one of Simak's weakest works, perhaps his worst and most disappointing. "Disappointing" mostly because it has one major strength. The "visitors" of the title are that rarity, a new idea in aliens, and one worthy of Stanley G. Weinbaum for true alienness. They are building-sized black boxes, most likely creatures rather than ships, that suddenly appear first in orbit around Earth, and then start floating down to land in the rural parts of the US and Canada. They don't speak or communicate with people, but they do respond to them.
A beautiful idea. Unfortunately it is like a giant chocolate shell you are served at a dinner party that you eagerly start to cut, expecting that it is hiding some rich desert; only when you cut into it, you find there is nothing beneath it but air. Yes, the visitors are interesting, especially as they begin to eat trees, and excrete cellulose -- which is contradictory since they are later said to need cellulose for their survival. The people in the book aren't interesting though, neither the minor love interest of the "tree-loving" Jerry and his reporter girlfriend, Kathy, nor the President of the United States and various other politicians. None of them have a third dimension that makes them more than stock characters -- and they're dull stock characters too because there is no conflict, no drama in the entire book.
As hard as it is to imagine, the arrival of the visitors and their exclusively landing in the US causes no "International Incident", no political dispute. The entire world seems to basically be yawning as they wait to see what happens. Well, it is different, if not believable in the slightest, not now, at the time of writing, or any time in the last century.
The point of the book seems to be the way the visitors repay earth for the trees they consume -- oh, I said there was no conflict, but there is a Senator who occasionally wakes up long enough to protest a little, but never with anything more than a speech in a gathering of political figures. There's the obligatory general to say "but they might be dangerous", but he also is turned on, by Simak, for a speech or two, and then put back into the toybox where they all seem to reside.
There is an attempt to compare Earth to the Native Americans, losing their civilization by accepting the white man's gifts, and at one point there is a hint of a really scary potential gift, but Simak doesn't do much with either idea, or much of anything else. If he'd stripped the book of ninety percent of its words, and written a short story using the one idea I mentioned, it might have been a major work. If his mention of it on page 220 and then suggesting it again on the last page had been surrounded by anything believable, it might have rescued the book. But by the time you get it, you've stopped thinking, out of self-preservation. Stopped thinking, or caring.
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