Clifford D Simak
Completed 9/2/2019, Reviewed 9/11/2019
Not quite his best, but I still enjoyed this short novel by Simak. Written in 1961, it’s a novel about intolerance and fear of the other, couched in a story about some people who have psychic abilities. They are called witches and werewolves and strike fear and loathing in the people of the heartland of the U.S., a typical setting for many of Simak’s works. It still has its relevance today; whereas when written, this was a metaphor for the racial issues of the day, it could be seen as representative of the many forms of intolerance and xenophobia present today. Simak is one of my favorite authors, and this book confirms that, even though it is a little weaker than the others of his I’ve read. It was nominated for a Hugo in 1962.
Shepherd Blaine works for the Fishhook company as a psychic astronaut, traveling to distant planets not with spaceships but with his mind. It turns out that humans are too fragile to travel in space, being affected by the radiation belt around Earth. But with psychics, humans can travel to distant planets in the galaxy, meeting aliens and bringing back alien technology. On one mission, Blaine encounters an alien which mind melds with him. So now he is more than human. Fearing being discovered by Fishhook, he escapes and hitches a ride to South Dakota. Along the way, he meets others like him, as well as people who are terrified of psychics. He is nearly lynched in one town. His journey brings him face to face with an evil preacher who was also a psychic employee of Fishhook, but now travels the country spreading his gospel of fear, hate, and violence.
Blaine is a decent character, although I felt that most of the characters were a little one dimensional. He being the main character and the book being told from his point of view, we get to know the most about him. My favorite sequence is when Blaine hitches a ride with a trucker who is so terrified of psychics he carries a gun with him and won’t travel at night for fear of the “witches and werewolves”. Blaine handles him expertly, balancing his own fear of being found out with his need to get to South Dakota. Along the way, they encounter a group of teens who are telekinetic and can fly, so of course the trucker is terrified of the witches and almost kills them. Blaine prevents anything too major from happening, and makes a contact that can help in out of a jam later in the novel.
The opening scene with the alien is standard Simak. Rather than being humanoid, the alien is a pink amorphous blob. I like Simak’s aliens. I think the fact that they tend to be very unlike humans lends an air of believability. I also like that this one communicates psychically, for any audible form of communication would probably be terribly difficult to comprehend.
Overall, the book was satisfying, but felt like it was lacking in substance, despite the message. It was initially published in serialized form, so the journey/chase format probably worked better with a couple of cliffhangers. I enjoyed it, but I still think “Way Station” was his masterpiece. I give the book three stars out of five. I got it as an Amazon deal of the day, and for that price, it was well worth it.