This story has some typical Simak elements: a hodgepodge of characters with very different agendas and a philosophical question. This one is one of my favorites.
It’s been a very long time since most all of mankind mysteriously disappeared. Our story focuses on the Whitney family, a band of Native Americans (Indians in the vernacular of the time) and the robots (a Simak standard). For a long time the Whitneys and the Indians thought they were the only ones left until one day when they met. A fortuitous meeting a happy cooperative friendship evolved. As the story progresses, we are also introduced to a traveler from a far-off tribe; I believe Simak intended them to be itinerant Mexican migrant workers.
The Whitneys discovered that the absence of most of humanity (and technology) seemed to have a profound effect on those left: they now enjoy an unprecedented long life span, although women still quit producing offspring in about thirty years, and all the Whitneys now have an inherent ability to travel to the stars. With this discovery, there is no reason to remain on Earth and all but one couple leave. With their additional ability of telepathy, contact is maintained a sort of long-distance gossiping and family catching-up. The Indians also enjoy the same long life span but if they have the same ability to travel, they have eschewed it; they are content to live much as their ancient ancestors did in harmony with nature but with an understanding of technology. The robots were the ones most affected by the disappearance thousands upon thousands of robots with no purpose. The Whitneys still enjoy the convenience of a handful of robots to care for them and the family estate; the Indians have no need of them.
Some of the robots, incomprehensibly, adopt Christian religion. They live as monks, covering themselves with coarse woolen robes. Others gather together to work on a great Project the purpose of which is unknown to the humans. The humans don’t actually care very much; the robots’ business is their own. Even the robots who care for the last remaining Whitneys have little interest in the great Project. Simak continually displays a strong preference for privacy in his writing; each person’s business is their own.
The young man who traveled to the Whitney’s home in search of answers finds that he and a young Indian girl share certain abilities. At first, Jason Whitney believes the young man’s people were a dead-end, evolutionarily speaking; but the man exhibits certain new traits and together with the girl, they represent yet another variation of humanity.
All the remaining humans and robots have enough room to exist without inconveniencing the others so harmony is achieved. But all that is challenged by the news brought back by a long-lost Whitney: the rest of the human race has been found and they are coming back. And this information is so impactful it actually dwarfs what might be even more significant: there is a great presence in the universe; an unimaginably huge intellect with a god-like indifference. And this Principle seems to be aware of the humans although no one knows what that will mean.
Simak had a certain contempt for religion and often poked gently at it; thus the title. He doesn’t resolve the question, just allows his characters their foibles and their choice of gods. The star-spanning Whitneys have no use for a god, the earth-bound Whitneys have no need, the Indians have nature. The majority of the robots are only concerned with building their Project. Only the monkish robots still revere a traditional Christian God. But if the Principle out in space should turn its attention to humanity, will humanity be forced to bow its head and worship? And Simak throws an incredible monkeywrench into the works when a wandering alien visits Earth to find its own salvation. The last chapter is where he winds up all his thoughts about religion and the destiny of mankind and it’s a whopper. And I really enjoyed his implied conclusion about the nature of the Project.
Simak is known for spare prose and this book is no different. Without wallowing in excessive character development or overblown worldbuilding, he relies almost solely on plot and he is the master. These questions about the nature of man and religion may have been a bit radical in 1972 but the themes were being widely debated in literature then. Today, there is nothing new here that hasn’t been done to death in the last few decades. What I find when I read these is a calming thought that once we believed in optimism. Once we believed we could overcome our basest desires. And once we believed we could, eventually, be better. And I like to think that maybe we were right then; and maybe we’ll be right again. ~~ Catherine Book
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