Berkley - copyright 1972
Book read in January 2001
Rating: 7/10 (Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
There is no shortage of SF novels set on another world, or in the corridors of a spaceship or space station. Of SF set on Earth, it's easy to call to mind books centered in a thriving metropolis of the future, or in a dismal dystopia or smog-ridden cyberpunk vision of times to come. But how many SF novels have you read recently set in the heartland of rural America, on a farm or in the quiet countryside? Clifford Simak is by far the most important writer of what I think of as "rural science fiction," stories of simple, ordinary country folk who encounter extraordinary things. (This is a subset of what The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls "pastoral" SF.) A Simak character scrambles eggs for breakfast, tinkers on his decades-old car on a daily basis to keep it running, and worries about who is going to harvest the crops while he is busy trying to communicate with this weird-looking alien who just arrived on his doorstep.
To illustrate, try to think of SF stories you have read recently in which somebody took his dog for a walk. Not a magic dog, mind you, or a person who has been transformed into a dog, just an ordinary, tail-wagging dog. Clifford Simak's protagonists almost always have a dog, usually named Bowser. They take their dogs for walks, and not because it advances the plot, but just because most people Clifford Simak knew in rural Wisconsin had dogs and took them for walks.
Simak published his first story in 1931, although he didn't become a regular contributor to the SF field until 1938, when he became part of the explosion of talent assembled by John W. Campbell at Astounding. His career spanned fifty more years, until his death in 1988, including some thirty novels and better than a dozen collections of short fiction. Most of his novels were clustered in the period from 1961 to 1982.Simak was a notable influence on many of his contemporaries, including Isaac Asimov, who has said he deliberately patterned his writing after Simak. Among the awards Simak garnered were the International Fantasy Award for City (1952), assembled from short stories first published in Astounding in the mid-40's, in which dogs inherit the Earth; a Hugo for his novelette "The Big Front Yard" (1958); a best novel Hugo for Way Station (1963); a Nebula Grand Master Award in 1976; and a Hugo and Nebula for his short story "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" (1980). Between 1962 and 1982, four other Simak novels were Hugo nominees, including A Choice of Gods.
A Choice of Gods is a "What the hell happened to everyone?" story, where a handful of survivors wander a mysteriously depopulated Earth. (Other examples that jump to my mind are Joe Haldeman's recent Forever Free and The Quiet Earth by Craig Harrison, the basis for a quirky but interesting low-budget film from New Zealand, but I'm sure there are many others. Heck, they even used the idea in Star Trek.)
In A Choice of Gods, the disappearance of most of mankind occurred in the year 2135. After an introductory chapter, however, Simak quickly advances us five thousand years, to show us what has become of the sparse remnants of humanity. These folks have enjoyed some nice perquisites from being left behind. For one thing, their life spans have inexplicably lengthened to near immortality. For another, all of the robots people had built by 2135 remain here, so there are plenty of robot servants happy to take care of all the holdovers' needs if they wish it. Finally, people have developed surprising new abilities, including being able to communicate telepathically and to teleport themselves to other planets.
Most people have taken advantage of these new talents to go off exploring. Left on earth are: (1) The main protagonist, Jason Whitney, and his wife Martha, who are just too fond of the ol' homestead (not to mention Bowser and Rover) to think of leaving; (2) a tribe of native Americans who have chosen to revert to the old ways, and have no interest in robot assistance or space travel; (3) a peculiar fellow named David Hunt, perhaps the last remaining member of a band of West Coast survivors, who has traveled to the Midwest on a strange quest; and (4) a whole mess of robots. The robots include a handful who tend to the Whitneys, a group that has established a monastery to carry on Christianity (the remaining humans have lost all interest in religion since the disappearance), and a large number engaged in some mysterious project (although it turns out it's only mysterious because no one was ever curious enough to go ask them what they were doing).
Several things happen nearly simultaneously to shake up this peaceful, static existence. Evening Star, one of the Native Americans, and David Hunt begin developing unexpected abilities to affect living things around them. An alien, whose appearance resembles "a can of worms," arrives inquiring about this strange earth phenomenon known as a "soul." Most importantly, Jason's brother John returns from a visit near the center of the galaxy. He confirms earlier reports that a being of such awesome power and intellect that it defies human comprehension inhabits the galactic core. What's more, he has also located the rest of mankind inhabiting three planets near the core, and has learned that they have launched an expedition back to earth that is likely to arrive soon.
It seems that the rest of mankind has followed a different path from those they left behind on earth. They have not developed skills like telepathy and teleportation, but instead have continued to devote their energies to technological advancements. Jason strongly disapproves, and begins to wonder if there is anything he can do to prevent the ecological destruction he anticipates if much of mankind returns to earth.
As always, Simak's writing style in this novel makes for pleasant reading. He moves the story along at a rapid pace without seeming hurried, always allowing time to show us the beauty of the peaceful rural settings he loves. There are some aspects of his old-school writing that might annoy SF readers of today. For example, important developments frequently occur offstage, and the reader learns of them only through later conversations. On the other hand, Simak experimented with his writing more than he is often given credit for. For instance, in this book he peppers the narrative with journal entries that are taken out of chronological sequence, the relevance of which is not always immediately apparent, to very nice effect. There's also a strong flavor of mysticism that Simak carries off well.
My only complaint about this book is that Simak's anti-technological bent seems too heavy-handed. Simak goes beyond just showing the advantages of a rural lifestyle, to tell us expressly and at length the problems he sees with modern culture's desire for ever greater material gains through technological advancement. To me these lectures lack Simak's usual subtlety, nor did I find them terribly persuasive. It's easy to do well without technology if you live forever and have an army of robots to take care of you. Try convincing me it's worth it to give up the advantages of technology even if it makes your life harder and shorter!
But the other issues addressed in the novel work well. I especially enjoyed watching the various groups of confused robots try to come to grips with their solitude. They face a "choice of gods" different, and in some ways more profound, than the choice the humans have to make.
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|Copyright © 2001 Aaron Hughes|