Wednesday, 7 August 2013

First He Died

Clifford D. Simak First He Died (1951)

First He Died is better known as Time and Again, the title it gained upon reprint. I read Time and Again only a couple of years ago, but saw a copy of this earlier incarnation amongst the titles some person had up for auction on eBay. I'd already bagged Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique collection, David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, and George MacDonald's Lilith off the guy, and somehow I just couldn't leave this one behind, even given that the bid would mark my crossing over from reader to collector.

Anyway, I still can't tell if this is quite the same as the retitled version. There are scenes I don't recall having read first time around amongst other apparent discrepancies, although quickly comparing the two, flipping from one copy to the other, I strongly suspect  they're identical and this is simply a book which improves quite dramatically with repeated reading. Certainly I don't remember it striving for quite such philosophical depth last time, or at least not doing it so well.

First He Died is yet another curiously early novel about a time war, predating Fritz Leiber's The Big Time by nearly a decade, and of course the All-New Doctor Who Comedy Slam by half a century, and whilst we're here, let's not hold back from pointing out that Asher Sutton, the novel's protagonist returns from a mysterious region of space cut off from the rest of the universe, reborn with two hearts and a secondary nervous system - not sure if that one rings any bells.

Sutton, who somehow arrives on Earth in a ship which should never have flown - the engines don't work and it isn't even airtight - discovers he will one day publish a philosophical text entitled This is Destiny which discusses the fundamental truths of existence, the universe and the place of humanity therein. The trouble is that humanity isn't going to like what he has to say, not least because of the immense influence this book will have on future history; and so war has broken out between those factions who wish to prevent Sutton writing his book, and those sympathetic. Curiously, this results in two future versions of This is Destiny, only one of which is true to Asher Sutton's vision, which in turn presents an odd parallel to the alternately titled editions of the novel we're reading; and if this weren't in itself sufficiently self-referential, Sutton travels back to 1977 in search of an ancestor and finds himself discussing the subject of his magnum opus with a character called Old Cliff:

'But destiny? you said something about destiny?'

'Interested in it, lad,' said the old man. 'Wrote a story about it once. Didn't amount to much. Used to mess around some, writing, in my early days.'

For some time I've regarded Clifford D. Simak as something like the rural Philip K. Dick, a cleaner living, more traditional counterpart to the urban paranoia of his junior, but nevertheless similar. As authors, whilst they may be worlds apart, they both speak from a blue collar perspective, telling stories of the little guy who works hard and generally tries to do the right thing; and their respective careers were in each case engaged with repeated attempts to reach a broader understanding of the universe. Dick regarded that which we experience as the universe to be possibly illusory, whereas Simak held it to be real, but perhaps ultimately beyond our comprehension. Also they both made use of a middle initial and had some of the same letters in their names...

Whereas Dick made frequent and occasionally inscrutable reference to historical philosophy, Simak kept it simpler - just a brief nod to Henry Thoreau in First He Died and the rest otherwise discussed without bringing in anything beyond that which is directly experienced by the characters of the novel.

'We've lived by faith alone,' said Sutton, ' for eight thousand years at least and probably more than that. Certainly more than that. For it must have been faith, a glimmer of some sort of faith, that made the Neanderthaler paint the shinbones red and nest the skulls so they face toward the east.'

'Faith,' said Dr. Raven gently, 'is a powerful thing.'

'Yes, powerful,' Sutton agreed, 'but even in its strength it is our own confession of weakness. Our own admission that we are not strong enough to stand alone, that we must have a staff to lean upon, the expressed hope and conviction that there is some great power which will lend us aid and guidance.'

This idea is the foundation of Simak's writing, and one which in its deceptive simplicity has probably denied him a posthumous reputation of the kind now enjoyed by Philip K. Dick. Simak writes simple, communicative sentences in the voice of occasionally somewhat homespun characters. That which Asher Sutton will one day write in his great work is likewise straightforward:

We are not alone.

No one ever is alone.

Not since the first faint stirring of the first flicker of life on the first planet in the galaxy that knew the quickening of life, has there ever been a single entity that walked or crawled or slithered down the path of life alone.

Read a little too quickly, it seems to amount to hey like we're all brothers so let's all just try to get along, mkay? but of course such would hardly require elaboration by means of an entire book; and with this arguably being Simak's first full novel - Cosmic Engineers and Empire both having been guided by John W. Campbell to varying degrees - you can tell he's really going for it, piling on all his biggest ideas, making concessions to no-one but his own conscience and hoping some sense will result; and it sort of does, or at least it did for me during this second reading.

Destiny by Simak's terms might almost be considered an inversion of all those 1950s supermen, utopian science-fiction futures with man - and it usually was quite specifically man - stood at the technological pinnacle of creation. Sutton's Destiny is more like an understanding of the equilibrium of existence, or at least its potential, with all that lives as part of an indivisible whole, and one illustration Simak provides of this is that not even a cell can be considered a single discrete organism given the presence of mitochondria. In essence, First He Died strives to communicate a quite subtle philosophical model without recourse to either religion or even the language by which it might best be communicated; and this seems to provide a glimpse of Simak's almost existential view of the universe, a view which, by the by, might also be characterised by his writing time travel as a psychological rather than temporal process - an idea later revisited in Time is the Simplest Thing in which the past is revealed to be an empty stage from which all trace of life has vanished; and all this even without getting into Asher Sutton as a man returned from death with the potential to save humanity from itself...

First He Died or whatever you want to call it is a bit of a mess in terms of traditional narrative, and yet seemed to me quite straightforward first time around, mainly due to Old Cliff's insistence on communicating everything through the medium of folks who just like to sit on the stoop awhile with their faithful hound chewing a straw and maybe getting in some whittling; but don't be deceived, these still waters run surprisingly deep.

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