Not your typical alien invasion
A large black box, reminiscent of the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, descends upon the small town of Lone Pine, Minnesota. The mysterious object appears to defy the law of gravity, hovering just above the ground with no visible means of propulsion. The unexplainable nature of this strange thing leads to speculation that it may have come from another world. It is unclear, however, whether this alien visitor is a living being or a mechanical probe. The visitor displays no hostile attention towards humans or the Earth, other than to munch some trees for fuel. It’s attitude towards mankind seems to be one of total indifference, and no one can find a way of communicating with it, except perhaps for one bystander fly fisherman who momentarily feels a telepathic bond with the black box.
The Visitors is not your typical novel of alien invasion. The book is not so much about the visitors themselves as it is about mankind’s reaction to them. How would the government, the press, and the general public respond to such an event? Simak illustrates this through an ensemble cast of characters including the aforementioned fly fisherman, the townspeople of Lone Pine, a team of journalists from Minneapolis, and the presidential administration in Washington, DC. Reporters are frequently employed as protagonists by Simak, who was a newspaperman himself, and the Minnesota setting should come as no surprise to Simak fans. He was born in Southeastern Wisconsin and worked at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune for most of his life. He has been called the pastoralist of science fiction for his frequent use of the rural Midwest as a setting for his stories. His affinity for small-town life and the natural landscape has a way of grounding fantastical happenings within the realm of believable reality.
The Visitors is riveting from start to finish. Simak expertly builds suspense by tantalizingly doling out piecemeal clues of the nature and purpose of the visitors over the entire length of the novel. He generates excitement not through War of the Worlds-style action sequences but rather through more cerebral scenes of intellectual discovery. In Simak’s fiction, a meeting of two worlds is rarely a conflict of good-vs.-evil but rather a question of whether the species involved will come to an understanding or succumb to fear and destruction. Simak has an exceptional talent for bringing out the humanity in his characters, even when his characters aren’t human.
Simak wrote The Visitors in a very cinematic style. With its brisk pace, engaging cast, and quick jumps between scenes in multiple locations, it is easy to imagine this novel being adapted into a Hollywood movie. Towards the end of the book, however, the sci-fi concepts become a little too high-end for the general viewing public. The unconventionality of Simak’s story admirably challenges the reader’s intelligence. The only drawback to this excellent novel is that the ending doesn’t go quite far enough and falls just short of satisfying, as Simak decides to leave the conclusion somewhat to the reader’s imagination. Nevertheless, The Visitors is one of his best novels and one that every Simak fan should read.
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