Clifford D Simak
Completed 4/5/2021, Reviewed 4/5/2021
This was a decent book. It was short, as many of Simak’s books are, but it could have been longer. It follows a man who stumbles across time travel via an alien in rural Wisconsin. It has two of Simak’s major recurring themes, the clash of the rural vs the urban and the benevolent alien. The prose is wonderful, as it is in many of the books of his I’ve read. The plot is decent, but this is where I felt it suffered because of the length. The end feels rushed. But I enjoyed it overall, as I do all his rural setting stories.
Asa is a paleontologist at a small university. He takes a sabbatical and purchases a farm in the town he grew up in in rural Wisconsin. There’s a sinkhole that he believes has extraterrestrial origin. Rila is a businesswoman who was on a dig with him quite a few years before. They had an affair but went their separate ways. She pops in out of the blue to visit him and their romance is rekindled. He confides with her about the dig, as well as the strange occurrences of a cat-like being roaming around, and the fact that his dog has been coming home with fresh dinosaur bones. One night, he goes out to chase away an animal that’s making noise outside and walks into the prehistoric past. They put together that the cat-like alien has created a gateway to the past. Rila, always the businesswoman, convinces Asa to sell the privilege to go into the past to a Safari company. Then lawyers, locals, and the government get involved and soon the whole enterprise spins out of control.
I really liked the plot. It has a Jurassic Park feel to it, though it was written over a decade earlier. Send people into prehistoric eras for safaris…what can go wrong? The nightmare is not so much a rampage of dinosaurs as much as it is about corporate and government interference, the rural vs urban motif.
I liked the characterization as well. Ara as the narrator is the most well developed. He’s a sort of average Joe, not a brilliant professor or famed archeologist. He’s just a guy who likes studying the past and gets by working for a small university. I also like Hiram, the slow-witted local man who apparently can talk to dogs, birds, the alien, and mastodons. He’s quite a colorful character who everyone in town knows but only some people, like Asa, take kindness on. I was expecting Rila to be a bitchy, pushy broad who coerces Asa into something he doesn’t want to do, but found her to be likeable as well. She calls herself bitchy and pushy, but really, she just has good business acumen.
What’s disturbing, though, is that they immediately go the safari route. Their rationale is that the African safari trade has dwindled (gee, I wonder why) and think that this would be an excellent outlet for the poor, frustrated big game hunter. Of course, they’d charge a fortune for the rights to go through the time portal. I was surprised that Simak never questions the morality of this choice. Nor does he bring up the anything like paradoxes or the butterfly effect, where doing something to the past would change the future. It’s only brought up with respect to interaction with humans in the past, not prehistoric animals. This would be the big failing in the book.
Despite the moral dilemma and the paradox problems, I still give the book three stars out of five. I found it an enjoyable read. It’s paced well until the end where things happen a little too quickly. I thought the chaos that ensues from all the interference could have been a little longer and little better written. Instead, it’s kind of journalistic in its style rather than part of the overall storytelling style. But in general, reading a Simak novel is almost always a warm experience, sort of a sit by the fire with your pipe and loafers feeling. I’ve come to really enjoy his books, even when it’s only one of his lesser works. Whenever I find a Simak book in a used book pile, I’ll always pick one up, and in lieu of a fire, pipe, and loafers, I’ll curl up with my quilt, sweatpants, and diet coke.