Like many lifelong readers today, my love of reading began when my mother read to me as a child. My mother was different, however. As a librarian who loved science fiction, she moved quickly past younger reads onto her own collection of books, introducing me to writers like John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Douglas Adams.
Years later, going through university studying for an urban planning job that the government cut as I graduated, trying to make a go of it in the soul-crushing IT industry, and finding solace in writing Doctor Who fan fiction, I had a couple of lucky breaks. One, I met my wife Erin through our writing. And two, as we started our life together, she set up a new tradition: every night, before going to sleep, I would read to her. I still do. I started with some of the books my mother read to me.
Returning to a book after two decades away can be startling. Cultural mores change. Some books reveal misogyny and racism you didn't realize was there because it was so prevalent around you when you first read it. Others surprise you by how well they speak to the conditions of the world in the author's future, but your present.
One such book is Clifford D. Simak's They Walked Like Men. Published in 1962 when the writer was 58, it's been largely out-of-print since 1979 and lies forgotten amongst his more notable works, such as All Flesh is Grass (1965), or the Hugo Award-winning Way Station (1963).
They Walked Like Men is set in what was then contemporary urban America - a place of downtown department stores and lunch counters that may be hauntingly familiar to older Gen-X readers remembering their childhood. Our protagonist is a journalist named Parker Graves, who literally stumbles into the story when something sets a trap for him outside his apartment door.
In the meantime, strange things are happening in urban America. The owner of a locally-renown department store sells his building, and to everyone's consternation, the new owners announce their intension to close the store and not replace it. Other businesses start getting offers for their establishments - way more money than their businesses are worth, and in cash - and many decide to close up shop to move out to... they're not clear on where, yet. And as the buyouts continue and more buildings shutter, Graves and many across America realize that there is nowhere to go. Even the wealthy are homeless. People may have as much money as they've ever had in their lives, but nobody is selling. Only some mysterious force is buying.
Simak's They Walked Like Men has a pulp noir feel. It is of its period and has a nuclear family outlook on relationships and gender politics. There are other flaws as well: the mysterious force (aliens, of course, who can shape-shift into anything) eventually single out Graves as a possible go-between between them and humanity, but why did they lay the trap for him at the beginning of the story, save as a means to suck the reader in?
But Simak's novel is remarkable because the shape-shifting aliens plan to take over the Earth in a unique way. They're not all-consuming locusts, or ruthless colonizers, but something just as devastating: real estate developers.
From the novel: "I see you do not realize," said the Dog, "exactly what you have. There are, I must inform you, few planets such as this one you call Earth. It is, you see, a regular dirt-type planet, and planets such as it are few and far between. It is a place where the weary may rest their aching bones and solace their aching eyes with a gentle beauty such as one seldom comes across. There have been built, in certain solar systems, orbiting constructions which seek to simulate such conditions as occur here naturally. But the artificial can never quite approach the actual, and that is why this planet is so valuable as a playground and resort."
And that, right there, is an indictment of corporate America.
The aliens don't want violence. However, they have discovered humanity's (really, America's and its allies) true weakness: the desire to accumulate brightly coloured pieces of paper, a.k.a. money. And being extremely capable shape-shifting aliens, they can provide that paper, in perfect replicas. It seems a strange thing to them as something humans could want but, hey, they like the smell of skunk oil, so who are they to quibble? Besides, they provided it, humans took it, and so the Earth is theirs, now.
Simak's book came out as America was taking its leap into suburban development and urban sprawl. It captures the feel of the start of white flight and the decline of urban downtowns across the country. Millennials may not appreciate the book from the Gen-X viewpoint that remembers Woolworth's now gone and lunch counters given way to fast food chains and trendy coffee shops, but Simak ably invokes the shift of wealth away from what little financial equality was achieved in the 1950s to the huge amounts of wealth now held by the richest one-tenth of one percent today. And Simak goes further, questioning the nature of money itself.
When I hear that it would cost just $30 Billion to end world hunger, and Jeff Besos could pay for that from what he finds in the folds of his couch, I ask myself: is that money in the one-percents' hands even real? When did we hand it over?
We did hand a lot of it over, as tax rates for the richest among us fell, while everybody else's wages remained stagnant compared to inflation. In the early 1980s, my family was able to support themselves in a downtown Toronto home on a single civil servant's income. That's unthinkable today (like father, not like son. No government planning job for me). But does all that we've handed over really amount to the tens of trillions of dollars now in unnamed bank accounts, or have those numbers been inflated in other ways?
I think Simak said it best, when Graves confronts the aliens and reveals what he sees as a key flaw in their plan: "You broke one rule. The most important rule of all. Money is a measure of what one has done - of the road he had built or the picture he had painted or the hours he has worked."
But the aliens don't get it. "It's money. That is all that's needed."
Really, money isn't work. Work is work. Money is faith - faith that by receiving this token, or this sheet of paper, or this electronic payment, your bills will be paid tomorrow. It's a promise. And humans over the centuries have tried hard to twist, finagle, and renege on that promise.
Even the fringe who pine to go back to the gold standard where all economic activity is weighed against the metals in our vaults ignore the fact that all the gold that we've ever mined in our history could be melted down into a cube that can fit inside an Olympic-sized swimming pool. If a golden meteor that same size crashed into the Earth, it would not cause worldwide disruption, until we mined it.
Some have suggested placing a hold on the bank accounts of every billionaire, removing every cent above each billionaire's first billion. Mikel Jollett on Twitter suggested we replace that money with a trophy that says, "you won capitalism". But if we confiscated the tens of trillions that we believe to be there, do we really solve every problem? Or do we enter a period of tremendous inflation that helps debtors, but hurts everyone else?
The aliens' plan still delivers a devastating, and unique, blow to humanity. It's like the plan the Nazis had to undermine the British economy with high-quality counterfeit pound notes writ large. Brilliantly, the aliens don't fully appreciate what they've done.
Simak's They Walked Like Men ends on an ambiguous note. The protagonist's victory, as a journalist, is that the information about the aliens gets out to the public. The people are left to decide what to do with that information. We aren't shown what happens next.
Maybe Clifford Simak didn't know or felt that it was a question that deserved its own novel that he wasn't willing to write, yet. Either way, it's a question that resonates today given the gobs of money that exist solely as electrons within the one percenters' digital accounts: what do we do when we realize money is an illusion? How do we measure our worth if money - and increasingly work - doesn't matter anymore?
Clifford D. Simak's They Walked Like Men is still out of print, but eBook copies are available through Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks.