Clifford D. Simak
Completed 12/24/2014, Reviewed 12/27/2014
I first fell in love with Clifford Simak while reading his award winning novelette, “The Big Front Yard”. Two novels later, I am still enamored with the way he juxtaposes rural America and science fiction. In this novel, Simak’s characters are the few remaining humans on earth after a mysterious rapture has taken most people to another planet. Of the remaining few, most have developed instantaneous interstellar thought-travel, and all are nearly immortal. Only Jason and Martha Whitney, a small tribe of Native Americans, and some scattered others are left to a world that has slowly returned to a nearly pre-modern human state, except for the robots. Now after 5000 years, the raptured masses have rediscovered their planet of origin and want to return, threatening the idyllic life of the remaining few, and the Eden-like state to which the Earth has returned.
Most technology has decayed, except for the huge population of nearly indestructible robots. Thepre-rapture population created the robots to serve humans. Bereft of their prime object, they are left to figure out for themselves how to satisfy their primary programming. The Whitneys have a few robots to help them farm the land. One small group live in a monastery, reviewing theological writings in search of religious truths left unanswered by humans. The Native Americans eschew the robots, reclaiming their ancestral subsistence lifestyle. The rest of the robots live in the decaying metropolitan remnants, searching for meaning.
What I love best about Simak’s work is the way he uses prose to convey the peaceful existence of his characters in their rural settings. This is not a long a book, so there are not multipage odes to rustic life. It is simply the way he advances the plot through walks in the forests and along rivers that create the sylvan mood that puts the reader into a state of calm. When the prospect of billions of returning humans nears, it not only threatens the characters, but the comforting state the reader has reached through the prose.
There is only one alien in this story, but it epitomizes what I have loved so much of the few of Simak’s work that I’ve read. His aliens are not anthropomorphized earth animals, like Card’s piggies in Speaker for the Dead, Niven’s Ringworld horse and tiger creatures, or Leiber’s cringe-worthy Tigerishka of The Wanderer. They are always truly weird. Here our one alien most closely resembles a can of worms. I also really like how Simak makes mention of the inability to communicate with aliens. It’s not just language, but the frame of reference for language. While it’s great that we can communicate with other sentient species in most science fiction, the tack Simak takes seems more plausible, at least from the perspective of early contact.
Most importantly, I admire the theme of the novel. Left unchecked, humanity will deplete the Earth of all its resources. Once removed, nature can reclaim much but not all of what it lost. A small population can live in harmony with nature, though it is nice to have some robotic help. Simak loved his rural Wisconsin roots and conveys that admirably in his work. It recalls for me my own desire to live in a small town near natural wonders, despite the practical problems of high cost of living and low wages, just to have that experience that we give up in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
I give this book 5 stars out of 5. Though it could have been longer, with more development of secondary characters, it is a beautiful work with meaning and message that tugs at the heart of who and where I would like to be.