A Case of Might-Have-Been

This one is about some books I read a few weeks ago, when I decided to take a closer look at the works of Clifford D. Simak. It was an interesting experience, especially because while today he is nowhere near as well-known as either Bradbury or Asimov, there was a time when he was considered to be in the same league with them, or almost (in fact he won the Grand Master Award in 1977, long before either of the others did). I can understand the appeal, and I can also see some of the problems with his works. In a way I would say that he is more spiritual than some of his contemporaries, and his stories tend to take place in more rural settings, but the thing that caught my attention is how irregular his books seem to be. In fact that was something I found quite frustrating at times. For instance in Time Is the Simplest Thing (1961) I loved the premise and how he finished his tale, but at times the story itself seemed to drag on, whereas in Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (1967) I loved the premise and some of the things he hinted at, but the ending was a major disappointment… that and the fact that he tried to pack a few too many subplots into that one for my liking.

So what are these books about? Without giving away too much of the plot, Time is the Simplest Thing deals with the adventures of a paranormal man who has come across an alien intelligence, and with his struggles to survive in a world dominated by fear in which ‘parries’ are routinely hunted by a backwards society that is both terrified and dependent on them, as they are their only conduit to the stars. The portrayal of bigotry and fanaticism in that one is great. Why Call Them Back from Heaven? deals with a world that is essentially dominated by a cryonics company, in which people literally sacrifice today for the sake of tomorrow. They live in misery and invest every penny to ensure that, once they are revived into their promised ‘second life’, they will be in a position to live a life of luxury for all eternity with the compound interest of their savings from their first life.

In a way that was one aspect of the plot that I found all too easy to relate to because in one way or another, it takes one element of our everyday life and takes it to the extreme. Yes, we need to plan for the future, to think ahead, but how much of today should we sacrifice for the sake of tomorrow? Should I follow a strict vegan diet that is low fat and sugar free, or should I just grab another doughnut?

Over all I have to say that, enjoyable as they are, these books also left me wondering what might have been, though there is one short story I would not hesitate to recommend: Grotto of the Dancing Deer (1981). That one is great. It is also only a few pages long and one of the author’s last works. Unfortunately most of these books are now out of print, so tracking them down may be something of a challenge.

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