Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Housing Crisis from Outer Space

They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak (New York: Doubleday, 1962)

Clifford D. Simak’s They Walked Like Men wasn’t originally intended to be a horror novel, though some of the scenes were written to have a deliberately nightmarish quality. It was meant to be an alien invasion novel, though with a twist worthy of an original writer like Simak. But if, like me, you lost your home over the course of the housing crisis of the last five years, you’re going to find this novel damn spooky.

The novel opens with the narrator, Parker Graves, like Simak a newspaper reporter in a Midwestern city, avoiding an animal trap by the front door of his apartment – an animal trap that transforms itself into a black sphere and rolls away after he avoids it. The reporter, who has had a few drinks, but not enough for the trap to be a hallucination, goes into his apartment, lies down, and sleeps it off. The next day at work, he talks with Dow Crane, a colleague at the paper who asks him for a favor. Crane’s supposed to interview a man who sold his house three months earlier and can’t find a new one to buy.

The animal trap was the first sign that All Is Not Well, and the man with no home is the second. Crane tells Graves that the man’s problem is not an isolated one. The want ads are full of people looking for places to live, despite the fact that there is a housing boom going on. Graves encounters the third sign later than morning, when he attends a press conference by the manager of the city’s biggest department store. The manager announces that the store, an institution in the city for over a century, has been sold. An agent representing the new owners then gets up and announces that the department store is being permanently closed for business.

Over the course of the next few chapters, Graves learns that his own apartment house has been sold, and that he and all the other tenants will be evicted by the end of the year. By now, Graves is sensing a pattern. He goes to a nearby retail district and learns that most of the shops have lost their leases or were about to lose them, after the buildings they were in had been bought up. However, there are one or two exceptions. The owner of an old family establishment who turned down a series of increasingly generous offers for his business talks to Graves:

“There’s such a thing as pride,” he told me. “Pride in a way of doing business. No one else, I can assure you, would carry on this business in the same manner that I do. There are no manners in the world today, young man. There isn’t any kindness. And no consideration. There’s no such thing as thinking the best of one’s fellowmen. The business world has become a bookkeeping operation, performed by machines and by men who are very like machines in that they have no soul. There is no honor and no trust and the ethics have become the ethics of a wolf pack.”

He reached out a porcelain hand and laid it on my arm so lightly I couldn’t feel its touch.

“You say all my neighbors have lost their leases or sold out?”

“The most of them.”

Jake up the street – he hasn’t? The one in the furniture business. He’s a thieving old scoundrel, but he thinks the same as I.”

I told him he was right. Jake wasn’t selling out, one of the half dozen or so who hadn’t.

“He’s the same as me,” said the old man. “We look on business as a trust and a privilege. These others only see it as a way of making money. Jake has his sons he can leave the business to, and that may make a difference. Maybe that’s another reason he is hanging on. It is different with me. I have no family. There is just my sister. Just the two of us. When we are gone, the business will go with us. But so long as we live, we stay here, serving the public as honorably as we can. For I tell you, sir, that business is more than just a counting of the profits. It is a chance for service, a chance to make a contribution. It is the glue that keeps our civilization stuck together, and there can be no prouder profession for any man to follow.”
Did business owners ever really think that way? It’s hard to imagine here in the 21st century that a business owner would think of himself as obligated to do more than just make money, that he would believe that he had a responsibility to the larger society he operated in. Simak was in his late 50s when he wrote this novel, so he might have been looking back at the days of his youth through rose-colored glasses. But he was also an old-school newspaperman, and they were not known for their sentimentality, so maybe it really was true. It’s certainly not true now.

Graves tracks down the people who are buying up businesses and homes, and discovers that they are actually aliens. They want to take over the Earth, but instead of invading, they intend to buy the planet out from under us. Graves thinks to himself:

Wells had written, long ago, of aliens who had invaded Earth. And many, after him, had written other imaginary versions of alien invasions. But not a one of them, I thought, not a single one, had come even close to what had really happened. Not one had foreseen how it could be done, how the very system which we had constructed so painfully through the ages should now be turned against us – how freedom and the right of property had turned out to be a trap we’d set to catch ourselves.
Later in the novel, Graves and his co-worker/girlfriend Joy Kane are looking for a place to stay the night, since the aliens have staked out both their homes. All of the hotels are full up, full of people who can’t find any permanent place to live. Finally, Graves and Kane pull up at a motel that is dark and deserted, because the aliens have already bought it and closed it down. They find a car parked there, holding a respectable middle-class family who sold their house and can’t find another one. The husband is vice-president at an insurance company, but he and his family are reduced to living in their car. Graves advises the insurance executive to just break into one of the motel rooms and spend the night there.

“But breaking in!” he said.

And there it was, I thought. Even in the face of desperation, a man still held regard for the laws of property. You do not steal, you don’t break in, you don’t touch a thing that belongs to someone else. And it was this very thing which had brought us where we were. It was these very laws, so revered that we still obeyed them even when they had turned into a trap that would take our birthright from us.

“You need a place for your kids to sleep,” I said. “You need a place to shave.”

“But someone will come around and –“

“If someone comes around,” I said, “and tries to push you out, use a gun on them.”

“I haven’t got a gun,” he said.

“Get one, then,” I told him. “First thing in the morning.”

And I was surprised at how smoothly and how easily I had slipped from a law abiding citizen into another man, quite ready to write another law and stand or fall by it.
In the end, the insurance man does break into the motel room, while Graves and Kane break into another.

The aliens who are buying up the Earth care nothing about humanity. As far as they’re concerned, they’re investing in valuable real estate, and what happens to the former owners is none of their concern. Simak created a race of amoral aliens in order to have someone cold-hearted enough to think like this. Fifty years later, though, we don’t need aliens. We’ve been able to accomplish the same thing by employing too-big-to-fail banks for the purpose.

In the end, Parker Graves decided that his need to care for himself and Joy Kane outweighed the need to respect property laws that had been subverted by amoral, inhuman beings. I think that, in the end, people facing the same dilemma for real today will make the same choice.

Postscript: The illustration above is from the cover of the Avon paperback edition of They Walked Like Men, published in March 1979.  I think this cover art is positive proof that David Tennant has an actual time machine in his possession, because how else could he appear on the cover of a book published over thirty years ago?

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