Monday, March 26, 2018

All Flesh is Grass by Clifford D. Simak

Falls short of the author’s usual greatness
All Flesh is Grass, a novel by award-winning science fiction author Clifford D. Simak, was first published in 1965. As is often the case with Simak’s fiction, the narrative is set in Millville, the small town in rural southwestern Wisconsin where Simak was born. Unlike Simak, who moved on to become a newspaper editor in nearby Minneapolis, the novel’s narrator, Bradshaw Carter, decides to remain in Millville despite its poor career prospects. Early in the novel, Brad is on his way out of town to meet a friend for a fishing trip when his car strikes an invisible, impenetrable barrier. Further investigation reveals that this mysterious barrier completely encircles Millville, closing the town off from the rest of the world. What’s even stranger is that it appears that inanimate objects can still pass through the barrier, while living beings cannot.

This plot may sound remarkably similar to Stephen King’s 2009 novel Under the Dome, but Simak beat him to the idea by over 40 years. All Flesh is Grass does resemble a King novel in its small town setting, ensemble cast, and rapid-fire barrage of unexplained happenings. Given the number of twists and surprises in the story, I hesitate to reveal much about the story at all for fear of spoiling the plot. Though Simak keeps the reader guessing throughout the novel, habitual readers of his work will find each new revelation oddly familiar. Here Simak covers a number of pet themes that frequently show up in his fiction, and the novel feels like a mash-up of ideas recycled from other writings. I am currently about halfway through Open Road Media’s 14-volume series The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, and at numerous times while reading this book I found cases where either the novel borrows ideas and imagery from previous stories or later stories lifted ideas from this novel.

Since this is a Simak novel, it is probably not giving too much away to reveal that the barrier is a product of extraterrestrial origin. Simak often wrote tales of alien visitors who come to Earth with good intentions, looking to collaborate with mankind through cultural exchange and offering to benevolently solve our problems. The visitors in All Flesh is Grass purport to do the same, but Brad has his doubts. As the one chosen to be their human liaison, Brad is the first to discover the nature of these other-worldly intruders, but he can’t figure out whether their intentions are honorable or suspect. Meanwhile, his inside knowledge makes him the object of suspicion among his fellow townspeople, who are understandably freaking out over their unexplained captivity.

For the most part, Simak does a good job of building suspense throughout the book, but I wasn’t riveted to the page the way I have been with Simak masterpieces like City or Way Station. All Flesh is Grass would have made a great novella, but as a novel it feels drawn out with far too many overly protracted conversations. What’s worse, after all the buildup, the novel disappoints with an ending that’s too abrupt, too vague, and delivers a rather easy, unsatisfactory resolution to the problem at hand. If ever a novel needed an epilogue, it’s this one, but Simak leaves you hanging.

If you’ve never read Simak before, you might be blown away by all the imaginative and bizarre ideas crammed into this novel. On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of Simak’s work, and a lot of what I found here just felt too familiar. Simak is always worth reading, however, and I will continue to gladly chip away at his complete works, but this is not one of his best books.
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