They Walked Like Men
Reviewed date: 2007 Jan 11
Has it really been three years since I've read Simak? That's far too long. Of course, I haven't read an Asimov novel in even longer, but my excuse is that I've already read most of Asimov's work, which I can't say about Simak. And egads!--it's been two years since I've read Arthur Clarke or Poul Anderson.
Simak is rightfully remembered for his masterful City, but I find it curious that They Walked Like Men is rarely mentioned among his best works. It may be overlooked because it is less sf than it is horror. It's like a cross between The Puppet Masters and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, told in an eerie Twilight Zone tone. The sf is present, but it takes a back seat to the horror.
The first signs of alien invasion show up in the economic numbers: housing is booming. Builders are working double-time, and still the demand outstrips supply. Apartments for rent are unavailable, anywhere. Without adequate housing, there is a growing class of working homeless, and it is nearing the crisis point.
All this is seen by Parker Graves, a newspaperman, but the economy is not his thing, so he gives it no thought. The next sign of invasion is the sale of Franklin's, the local department store. The new owner paid twice the store's worth, and immediately announced that Franklin's would be closed, permanently. No reason was given.
Graves does some research, and discovers that it's not just Franklin's and housing; somebody is buying up the entire town. And not just the town--the whole world. And that's when he meets the aliens: shapeshifting bowling balls from outer space that are conquering the Earth in a neat, legal way: buying it up. Graves can't get anyone except his girlfriend Joy to believe him, so he tries to find a way to stop the invasion himself--or at least a way to force the bowling balls out into the open so that their secret plan is revealed.
They Walked Like Men is a top-notch book, but falls short of exceptional because of a disappointing ending. Graves finds a magic bullet that thwarts the bowling balls' plans. Simak weaves it into the plot so it's not a deus ex machina, but it's still a cop-out. It's the same level of stupidity as building a moon-sized battle station with a fatal weakness that can be exploited by a brave X-wing pilot, or (as in the movies Signs and Day of the Triffids) aliens that are allergic to water. Aliens that can stage a complete buyout of the entire Earth should not have a fatal weakness that can be exploited by one lousy newspaperman and his posse of wacky friends.
Still, I absolutely love the book. I rate it a solid four.