This is a very early Simak which is unlike his later works. This is a ponderous treatise where it seems he was trying to impress his readers with his erudition.
Asher Sutton went out into space to make contact with a mysterious planet. He was presumed lost so everyone was pretty astonished when he made it back to Earth and doubly so because his ship had no power, no air, no food or water. But Asher was in fine health; a situation that was becoming more challenging with the number of people who wanted to kill him.
There’s this book, you see. A book that Asher was to write from notes he brought back from his visit to the mysterious planet. The inhabitants of that planet were stranger than anything imagined and they picked Asher to be their messenger; although prophet might be more accurate. But more than one person has already seen the book and they don’t want it written. And, on top of all that, factions from the future are either protecting him so he can write the book or trying to persuade him to change what he’ll write, or kill him before he does.
The book describes how destiny follows every single living creature in the universe; no one is special, everyone matters. I gathered that if one understood that destiny sat on your shoulder and you could consciously consult it before making a decision, why then you’d make the best decisions of your life. But I’m not actually sure of that; the prose was rather convoluted. At the heart of the conflict are the androids. Man made androids to do the dirty work not a new idea but marked them so they would remain property. But these androids are not what we might expect today: made of organics maybe but with circuitry. These androids appear to be test-tube babies but sterile. Simak was very short on details of how they were grown but more than one reference implied they were identical to man except they weren’t born of a woman. I don’t think he used the term android appropriately but perhaps in 1951 the concept wasn’t yet codified. And certainly the idea of test tube babies was spectacularly visionary. Those in power didn’t want the androids, or anyone else, to get the idea that their existence their life was just as important as any other life. The “philosophy” of destiny also included all lifeforms down to the smallest but those didn’t threaten the status quo as proclaiming androids as human would do.
So, the androids in a secret league want to ensure the book gets written, certain future factions want the book written but with the androids excluded and others didn’t want this destiny idea at all. As Ash is tossed about in the story from one faction to another, he marvels over the idea that he already has a copy of the book that he hasn’t yet written and worries what impact it will have.
Simak has always shown in his later works strong plotting and this story was, I think, a good beginning. Thank the literary gods that he got better at it. This plot was, on the surface, a very interesting idea and one that he used at least twice more that I can remember: can a new philosophy significantly change mankind? And we see the beginnings of Simak’s tendency to put his characters into situations just to see how they react. But the story was too ponderous and the prose too dense. There was next to no character development, even of Asher. By the time I was halfway I simply wanted the story to be over. I didn’t even care about the resolution. Unless you are interested in writing a paper on Simak and want to track his evolution as a writer, you will want to skip this one. ~~ Catherine Book
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