Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Project Pope

Clifford D. Simak Project Pope (1981)

A year or so ago I read and reviewed Simak's A Choice of Gods, one of the author's supposedly mystic novels - although that wasn't a term of his choosing - exploring ideas of religion and a spiritual dimension which might be viewed as a sort of cosmic kinship of living things. The review provoked the apparent indignation of Bongo Smallpiece, a member of an online community of Simak fans in which I occasionally participate - that's not actually his name, but let's pretend it is. My review was stuffy, Bongo told me without feeling the need to  explain quite what he meant, and I got the impression he was annoyed at my having formed an opinion of the novel without consulting him first. He offered some further nebulous comment about things you would better understand had you grown up in nature's bosom, as did I, or words to that effect, which seemed faintly ludicrous given that I grew up on a farm which is the same fucking thing so far as I'm concerned; but when people pull cloaks over their heads and talk at me, a torch held beneath the chin so as to create a scary face just like in a Tim Burton film, I find it difficult to take them seriously, particularly when they claim understanding of forces that don't actually exist as part of some weirdly misjudged exercise in oneupmanship.

Anyway, Bongo's other favourite Simak novel was Project Pope, so I approached it with some trepidation - wouldn't want to anger the wise one after all; but first, by way of an authorial recap, here's what Andy Martin of UNIT had to say, quoted here simply because it's so nicely put:

In the early 1980s I read three books by Clifford Simak yet I have absolutely no recollection of their titles. They were all rather thin (page count) but thick (in ideas and characters). Oddly, I read them one after another as almost three facets of the same book.

I do know I enjoyed them because I recommended them to Dave - I gave them to him as a present circa 1985 shortly after the release of the fifth Apostles EP. When I read them I imagined a soundtrack by Aaron Copland with occasional incursions by Carl Ruggles for those curious, slightly surreal sections that require more atonal music.

For me, Simak is the acceptable face of American ruralism - his characters really ought to be clich├ęs and yet somehow they aren't - at least not in my opinion. Certainly it's not the kind of science fiction I normally enjoy but not once do I remember becoming irritated, impatient or offended by his style or content. He also has an ear for dialogue - I gained the impression he really liked most of his characters.

Anyway, Project Pope was written towards the end of Simak's life, and it's tempting to see this novel as an examination of mortality and  thoughts regarding death, which it may well be, although it's probably more significant that it further investigates themes explored a decade earlier in A Choice of Gods, itself expanding on ideas of universal kinship that had been running through Simak's fiction right from the beginning. I found A Choice of Gods a little underwhelming in that it didn't seem to communicate its ideas well - at least not to an intemallectual scientistic square divorced from the spirits of the Earth such as what I am. Although Project Pope seems similarly lacking in plot, it does a little better, or at least pulls together in the closing chapters.

The scenario here concerns a group of theologically inclined robots who have founded the institution of Vatican-17 on a remote planet called End of Everything. As ever, Simak's robots are probably unique in the history of science-fiction, as amiable as those of Asimov, but also thoughtful and effectively a race in their own right long divorced from mechanical servitor ancestry. In essence they can be regarded as innocent humans, enquiring spirits unburdened by the belligerent baggage of humanity. The enquiring spirits have in this case constructed a Pope, a machine designed to evolve and so to achieve such profoundly deep thought as to equal the ageless wisdom of even Bongo Smallpiece become a true intermediary between God and His creation. The true nature of that creation is similarly under investigation with the help of Vatican-17's human Listeners who telepathically explore other dimensions in search of Heaven, and it all takes a weird turn about half way through the book when it seems one of them has found it. We encounter mathematical entities strongly suggestive of those encountered by Asher Sutton in Simak's Time and Again, and a last minute revelation as Vatican-17 is attacked by Smoky and the Plopper. Smoky and the Plopper are alien inhabitants of the dimension initially believed to be Heaven. If you want to read that sentence again just to be sure, please be my guest.

The thing is, none of this is played for chuckles, and Project Pope ambles along in typical Simakian fashion, unassuming and yet endlessly thought provoking, and ultimately adding up to something much greater than the sum of its parts. I doubt there's been another author who could really have carried this story off without it all going horribly wrong, I mean seriously - Smoky and the Plopper - I'm still not sure if it's the most ridiculous thing I've ever read or a stroke of genius, although given my having to resort to such stock phraseology, it's probably the latter.

As with A Choice of Gods, the conclusion seems to be nothing more profound than that a person who claims to understand religion cannot by definition have understood religion, and so the search continues. Project Pope falls some way short of Simak's greatest, but nevertheless serves as a fine example of what made him so unique as a writer.

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