I want to take back what I said in my monthly review about this Simak novel being more wacky than contemplative. Looking back, I see no reason why I would say such a thing. In a way, it reminds me of his Time is the Simplest Thing (1961), which is wacky–or whacked out, rather–with a giant pink alien blob and meat plants and a kind of Halloween motif, but All Flesh is Grass isn’t quite that ridiculous, so maybe what I meant to say was that it’s ‘colorful.’
But it’s also quite contemplative, in that it feels like a forerunner to his more famous, award-winning novel Way Station (1963)–which is weird because AFIG is two years younger than WS, even though it feels like the older, less developed iteration of the more popular one. Both novels involve that pastoral motif Simak is so famous for, they both address the idea of alien paternalism over humans (with varying ambiguous, though not entirely different conclusions), and they both involve that very special kind of hopeful Simakian criticism of humanity.
There is something… something about Simak’s philosophy that feels too conveniently idealistic– it feels too good, so I must be overlooking something. Much like Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), an even more famous novel about alien paternalism, the alien intervention in Way Station is an attractive deal, and the reader has to work to maintain their own skepticism. Simak is clearly disturbed by, but more fascinated with, the idea of benevolent interventionism, but, like Clarke, he’s not so quick to acknowledge this disturbance out loud. Because of this, Way Station has a misleading tendency to soothe the disturbances away with alluring promises of an on-the-cusp utopianism. In both AFIG and WS, the real conflict resides in trying to resolve the tension between cloistered, paranoid isolationism and naive, god-seeking rescue, but WS is far more subtle than the other. It is possible that AFIG is a backpedaling effort; perhaps Simak was concerned that the subtlety of WS could be misinterpreted as a desire for outside intervention–or, perhaps he found himself too compelled by the idea (and who can blame him?)–without consideration of the greater risks involved. It’s the same kind of thinking that makes Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation so misleadingly attractive.
So, even though AFIG feels like a clumsier earlier work that too often falls sway to silly tropish measures (much ado about domes and corded cell phones and magical marginalized community members), AFIG is actually a continuation of Simak’s Way Station thoughts regarding alien intervention in human affairs. Instead of a galactic UN of peacebringers, the intervention comes from a more sinister source: a meadow of purple flowers.
Leave it to Simak to bring ambiguity to such an innocuous place. Nature: the one setting that centered and calmed Way Station‘s earthly ambassador, Enoch Wallace (which sounds like “innocuous”), is now the one setting that can no longer be trusted in All Flesh is Grass. Like Ulysses, the alien ambassador of the former novel, the purple flowers promise entry into the greater galactic civilization in exchange for nuclear disarmament. Naturally, the human community (which, in this case, is ‘Murica) is distrustful and unwilling, and, naturally, as is the case in all situations involving intervention by a more powerful entity, benevolent or otherwise, they do not have a choice.
Of course, if we bring this concept down to earth, it’s really more Cold War pontificating by a frustrated journalist, and, more specifically, another SF examination of human violence, the role of the UN, and the insidiousness of imperialism. From Simak, this involves more “aww shucks” midwesternism, more rural peacenikism, but this time with a stronger ambivalence about the deus ex alien ambassador. For modern readers more interested in non-western concerns, AFIG can be viewed as a unique, earlier critical treatment of neocolonialism in SF, with the concept being flipped upon good, ol’ ‘Murica.