In the 1966 3-D movie "The Bubble," later rereleased as "Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth," an impenetrable and transparent dome of unknown origin encases a small American town, trapping its residents inside. Forty-three years later, in Stephen King's doorstop best seller of 2009, "Under the Dome," another American town, Chester's Mill, is similarly and mysteriously ensnared. Beating both these projects to the punch, however, and a possible inspiration for both of them, was Clifford D. Simak's 10th novel, "All Flesh Is Grass." The book was initially released as a Doubleday hardcover in 1965, immediately following the author's Hugo-winning "Way Station" one year earlier.
"All Flesh Is Grass" was nominated for the very first Nebula Award in what was undoubtedly the toughest competition for that coveted prize ever. No fewer than 11 novels were nominated for that first Nebula, including Philip K. Dick's "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" (this reader's favorite Dick novel) AND "Dr. Bloodmoney," as well as Keith Laumer's "A Plague of Demons" and William S. Burroughs' "Nova Express"; Frank Herbert's "Dune" deservedly copped the prize. Released when Simak was already 61 years old and in his 27th year on the "Minneapolis Star," "All Flesh Is Grass" touches on one of the author's favorite themes--the manner in which its common-man characters rise to the challenge of encountering alien life--in a unique way, while retaining the rural setting that Simak seemed to favor most.
In the book, the reader encounters a young man, Brad Carter, who, we gather, is in his mid-20s. Brad is a resident of the small town of Millville (in Wisconsin, we must infer; Simak had been born in Millville, Wisconsin), and when we first meet him, his small real estate/insurance business is about to go kaput. But Brad is soon shaken out of his doldrums by a series of startling events. A strange cordless and dialless telephone appears on his office desk (no, not a smartphone), connecting Brad with a personage with three distinct voices, who asks the young man to be his/her/its representative. The town's preeminent businessman gives him $1,500 for some unnamed task. The town drunk starts babbling about the government and The Bomb. Brad's high school sweetheart, Nancy, returns to Millville after several years away. The "village idiot," Tupper Tyler, emerges out of nowhere after a 10-year absence. And, most distressingly, a mysterious dome is erected overnight, completely sealing Millville off from the rest of the world! "All Flesh Is Grass" follows the citizenry of Millville over the course of three days, during which time Brad discovers a time portal in his backyard that leads to an alternate Earth. In this alternate Earth he finds a world of sentient, purple flower creatures, the entities responsible for the whole mishegas. The Flowers only want to share their billions of years' worth of accumulated knowledge with mankind, but can we humans put aside our fears and suspicions before the trigger-happy U.S. government simply drops an H bomb on Millville?
Simak's great novel of 1953, "Ring Around the Sun," had also touched on the subject of alternate Earths, and in more depth than this 1965 offering. Still, the 50-page section (I refer here to the 1966 Berkley Medallion paperback, which I was fortunate enough to find somewhere) in which Brad explores this strange world is a fascinating and atmospheric one. Basically, though, "All Flesh Is Grass" strikes the reader as a sci-fi rendition of Thornton Wilder's 1938 play "Our Town," with Millville itself being the central character. The town sports a population of eccentric oddballs, and we ultimately do get to know several dozen of Millville's 200-odd residents fairly well. It is a nostalgic tribute by the author to his birthplace, although not quite as loving as one might expect. Brad often ponders on the need for himself to move away, while Nancy, as well as Brad's friend Alf, are only visiting after happily having gotten out.
As one might imagine, some of the wacky residents are very decent folk, many are petty and small-minded, while still others are reactionary and vicious. (In one of the book's most satisfying scenes, Brad beats the tar out of the town constable, who used to be the school bully and is still quite the despicable sort.) The book contains some of Simak's loveliest writing, and his descriptions of the town--and the alternate Earth--are very well drawn. In one early section, Brad thinks back on his high school sweetheart Nancy, and tells us "…we talked in whispers and we willed that time should move at a slower pace so we might hold the magic longer. But for all our willing, it had never come to pass, for time, even then, was something that could not be slowed or stopped.…" But Brad soon learns that the manipulation of time is possible, indeed, as had Shepherd Blaine in Simak's 1961 offering "Time Is the Simplest Thing."
And not only is "All Flesh Is Grass" written in a lovely, compulsively readable style, it also gives us some of Simak's philosophy on writing. Nancy, a budding author herself, says at one point "…it's a thing that you don’t talk about--not until you're well along with it. There are so many things that can go wrong with writing.…" To which sentiment Brad tells us "…You had to have a hunger, a different kind of hunger, to finish up a book…." (Fortunately for his millions of fans, Simak had the hunger, and pretty much nothing went wrong with this book!)
In his 10th novel, Simak seems to take a dim view as to mankind's chances of making a successful first contact with an alien race. As a matter of fact, strike that "seems to"; he is absolutely scathing in his denunciation:
"They would fail. We would always fail. We weren't built to do anything but fail. We had the wrong kind of motives and we couldn't change them. We had a built-in short-sightedness and an inherent selfishness and a self-concern that made it impossible to step out of the little human rut we traveled...."
Surprisingly, then, Simak does manage to resolve things on a positive note, with a last-minute, slightly rushed, deus ex machina ending that may as well have inspired Lennon & McCartney's song "All You Need Is Love."
"All Flesh Is Grass" also contains some throwaway bits that might strike the reader as somewhat weird. For example, Millville's sole Catholic priest is one Father Flanagan...the same name that Simak had given the Catholic priest character in "Time Is the Simplest Thing." Whether this is supposed to be the same Father Flanagan or not is a question for the reader to decide. Meanwhile, the name of the town barber is Floyd, and in 1965, the character of Floyd the barber, as played by Howard McNear, started to appear on "The Andy Griffith Show"! Coincidence? Who knows. And you've doubtless heard that old expression "Money doesn’t grow on trees"? Well, here, Simak demonstrates how true that maxim is: It grows, rather, on bushes, and Brad finds a whole bunch of them, sprouting $50 bills, right in his backyard!
Writing of Simak's book in his "Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction," Scottish critic David Pringle calls it a "charming sf pastoral in Simak's best vein. Not exactly mind-stretching, but most enjoyable reading for those who like their sf to be gentle and predictable." Well, I would agree with Mr. Pringle on everything except that last "predictable" part; personally, I could never tell where this book was headed next, and had no idea how the author could possibly tie things up neatly (which, impressively, he manages to do). Like many other Simak books, "All Flesh Is Grass" is a novel that could easily have served as the basis for a string of sequels; a temptation that Simak never gave in to. It is a novel that comes more than highly recommended by yours truly. And, oh...watch out for that nasty seed storm!
(By the way, this review originally appeared on the FanLit site at http://www.fantasyliterature.com/
... a most ideal destination for all fans of Clifford D. Simak....)