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While walking in the woods near the small town of Haven, Maine, Roberta (Bobbi) Anderson, a writer of Wild West-themed fiction, stumbles upon a metal object which turns out to be a protrusion of a long-buried alien spacecraft. Once exposed, the spacecraft begins releasing an invisible, odorless gas into the atmosphere which gradually transforms people into beings similar to the aliens who populated the spacecraft. The transformation, or "becoming," provides them with a limited form of genius which makes them very inventive, but does not provide any philosophical or ethical insight. Instead, it provokes psychotic violence (on the part of people like Becka Paulson, who kills her adulterous husband by fatally rewiring their television receiver, killing herself in the process) and the disappearance of a young boy, David Brown, whose older brother Hilly teleports him to another planet, referred to as Altair 4 by the Havenites. The book's central character is a poet and friend of Bobbi Anderson, named James Eric Gardener, who goes by the nickname "Gard". He is a fundamentally decent person with left-leaning, liberal sensibilities who is apparently immune to the ship's effects because of a steel plate in his head, a souvenir of a teenage skiing accident. Unfortunately, Gard is also an alcoholic, prone to binges which result in violent outbursts followed by lengthy blackouts.
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