Clifford D. Simak
Completed 1/16/2015, Reviewed 1/25/2015
Though not considered one of Simak’s better works, I still loved “Shakespeare’s Planet”. Another short novel, it represents to me how many of the authors of the golden age of SF were able to flesh out a story around a simple concept without bloating up into huge epic novels. In this story, Simak sticks with his common devices of helpful but slightly annoying robots and aliens that are not simply anthropomorphisms of common earth creatures, putting them into a story that I couldn’t help but think was a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. The result was thinner than the other works of his that I’ve read, but nonetheless still satisfying.
Carter Horton left earth over a thousand years ago in suspended animation with a crew of three other humans, a robot, and a computer consisting of three disembodied human brains. An accident leaves him the only survivor of the hibernators, and he is awakened when the spaceship lands on a miserable planet. There he meets Carnivore, a marooned alien who learned English from a man named Shakespeare, who was also marooned on the planet while Horton’s ship was still in transit. The planet, it turns out, is one of thousands connected by a wormhole-like network of transporters built by an unknown alien race. No one knows exactly how to program this transport system, leaving their destinations to chance. This planet, however, seems to have been deliberately set to not permit anyone or anything to leave, signifying the general sense that this planet holds a secret terror.
The plot is basically pretty thin. To me, the point of the book was more to reflect on ideas. The first idea that struck me is the problem with traditional space travel. If a crew leaves the earth today, it may take us hundreds of years to get to the nearest habitable planet. While in transit, technology will undoubtedly advance to the point where later space travelers may get to the same destination faster. It’s reminiscent of what we’ve already encountered with the Voyager spacecraft. It’s leaving the solar system with an 8086 processor while we’re looking deeper into space with 40 more years of technological development.
Another is moral ambiguity of alien. The greatest honor of Carnivore’s society is to destroy alien (to it) monsters before they destroy them. Are we therefore monsters to the alien, in danger of being destroyed? Or is Carnivore merely a metaphor for how we view those different from us. Simak explores this issue as Horton establishes a trusting relationship with Carnivore while reading the paranoid ramblings about the alien by Shakespeare. And of course, there are a few other intriguing, imaginative aliens who are also stranded on the planet.
But like the other books of Simak’s that I’ve read, the experience is not a plot driven adventure. It’s about a mood, a setting. And I think in this case, it’s about having a taste of The Tempest in space. Horton is a sort of Prospero. Science is his magic. Nicodemus, the robot of his crew is his Ariel and Carnivore, his Caliban. It’s not nearly as obvious as “Forbidden Planet”, but still seems to be the inspiration for the book. If I knew Shakespeare better, I’m sure I’d see more similarities or references to his works in the text.
“Shakespeare’s Planet” is not a profound book. It’s a wonderfully written little story that I found a joy to read. There’s just something about Simak’s prose that is warm, like a comfy quilt, without being pretentious and maudlin. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.