Unpulped #9: They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak

A book about bowling.

A book about bowling.

This novel is about bowling balls and talking dogs and the eventual takeover of the Earth by underhanded Galactic realtors. It’s a mess. It’s glorious in its insanity. It is the best example I’ve come across illustrating the A. E. van Vogt/Philip K. Dick principle of constant surprise through introduction of new elements, which is why it reads like the transcription of someone’s lucid nightmare. And it is not, in the end, all that good.

Now, that not-that-goodness isn’t a result of the plot. As you might expect, the plot is based around surprise, with each chapter ending with something new and strange and crazy and unexpected. I believe this is the case because Simak wasn’t expecting what was coming, because he didn’t know.

(This is how I work. I don’t like setting a path for myself–more like there’s a will-o-the-wisp leading me on through a dark forest, and each thing stumbling me upon the way is new to me, and hopefully to you, the reader, as well. I’m always afraid this means I’ll fall into quicksand or walk off a cliff or enter a cave no one was meant to enter and no one ever leaves, and the story will be ever-unfinished or, worse, not worth the reading.)

See? Not scary at all. Unless you are made of bowling pins.

See? Not scary at all. Unless you are made of bowling pins.

THEY WALKED LIKE MEN doesn’t hold together. Why do the aliens have blow-up dolls they inhabit, that they then leave around for any snooping eye to find? Why are eyes snooping when they should be safely stowed in one’s head? What are the chances that an alien from another world, another solar system even, would look exactly like a large dog?

Nil. None. Zero. Bupkis.

But that’s okay, because reading the book is like living inside a story as it’s being created. Which is intoxicating. If you like that sort of thing. Which I do.

That said, the pleasure of this book (to me) is in seeing how the story propagates itself into a finished product, not so much in the writing (which is workman-like noir) or in the plot (which is interesting for its take on an alien invasion being economic, but otherwise unremarkable).

And I’m glad I read it because it reassures me that strangeness in SF&F has been here all along. I mean, that’s the whole purpose of the genre (to me), and to see such willful insanity in a pulp novel of the early 60s makes me think I can be successful creating such willful insanity again.

Without the bowling balls.

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