Friday, 27 July 2012

A Choice of Gods

Clifford D. Simak A Choice of Gods (1972)
After Revelation Space, I felt the pressing need to self-medicate with Simak, probably not so much for his being the literary equivalent of comfort food as for his reliability. Even leaving aside novellas and short stories, of nineteen Simak novels I've read, only Why Call Them Back From Heaven? has been not entirely to my taste. His writing rarely fails to engage, never seems to sacrifice quality to quantity despite a prolific output, always throws up a few surprises, moments one would never have anticipated: in short, he can usually be trusted to come up with the goods.

I should probably qualify the comfort food metaphor (or simile, or whatever the hell it is) as a lazy comparison deriving from Simak's customary pastoral themes reminding me of The Waltons - in a good way I should stress - for said pastoral themes, on close inspection, tend towards an underlying pessimism that is anything but soothing. A Choice of Gods is no exception in this respect.

The novel is set many thousands of years after the depopulation of Earth by an unknown cosmic power with a handful of humans and robots left behind in the rural idyll as nature reclaims the planet. It's a familiar Simakian setting explored in other novels - notably City - yet  here remains very much its own story. Whilst falling short of full allegorical status by the terms of, for example, David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, A Choice of Gods certainly wanders some way in that direction, its rhetorical gait more pronounced than I've noticed in other works by the same author. However, his message remains open to interpretation. Simak tended to ask pointed questions and let the readers argue it out amongst themselves. Like his contemporary, A.E. van Vogt, he would leave things open or unexplained, an oddly refreshing habit given that it so closely reproduces a subjective experience resembling real life.

A Choice of Gods is about humanity and nature and the place of the former within the latter as understood by different means. Simak's robots tend to be innocents, and here they form a religious order which recognises that its own understanding of God will never transcend the limitations of their collective ignorance, and from this ignorance is born their fanaticism - although mild by the terms one might ordinarily associate with fanaticism. Anyway, in order to achieve a better understanding, the robots embark upon the Project, the creation of a machine more intelligent than themselves which they hope will communicate with the Principle, the cosmic power responsible for depopulating the planet - interestingly enough representing a prediction of technological singularity a full decade before Vernor Vinge popularised the idea.

The Principle, a force seemingly residing at the centre of the galaxy, is probably not God; the humans have moved some way beyond religious belief in conventional terms, and the Native Americans comprising a sizeable proportion of their numbers never really held with such ideas in the first place - a pleasantly authentic variation on the usual stuff you might expect about the Great Spirit and chanting around a campfire. The Principle seems to be nature itself, a force which, whilst not necessarily evil, is certainly amoral or indifferent. For reasons we probably wouldn't understand despite both humans and robots having their own ideas, the Principle depopulated the Earth by moving most of the people to three very distant planets, and after five centuries, they've decided they're coming back.

Simak draws no conclusions, preferring to ask questions and leave you to it. A Choice of Gods might therefore be deemed an unsatisfactory novel in terms of ripping yarns with neat solutions, but that was never its purpose. As 175 pages of a very literate writer  thinking aloud and seeing what happens, it probably has no right to be quite so enjoyable, but that's Simak for you.

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