Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Highway of Eternity

Clifford D. Simak Highway of Eternity (1986)

This was Simak's final novel, and one I approached with some caution. Whilst Simak tended to a clear and uncluttered style with little ambiguity in terms of narrative development, the meaning of his stories has often seemed ambiguous or vague, at least beyond it being obvious that he was trying to say something. He was in his eighties, had spent three years in recovery from leukemia and emphysema, and his wife Kay had passed on in 1985, so it seemed probable that there would be a lot going on in this novel, particularly given the title.

Sure enough, there is a lot going on here, but the whole is much lighter than I had anticipated, and with no sense of a subtext tangled up with convoluted rhetoric unable to decide which way it wants to go; as has appeared to be the case with a few of his novels which were, I suspect, intended simply to inspire questions, but suffered for fostering an impression of some deep and profound statement made just beyond the reader's grasp; at least that's the impression I got.

The story itself perhaps suffers from a surfeit of characters, but is nevertheless readable, a pleasantly surreal tale of humans travelling through time in the hope of escaping their destiny, specifically that staple of much golden age science-fiction, transformation into beings of pure thought. As with many of Simak's novels, I can never quite tell if he has a slightly skewed view of evolution as something guided by a greater purpose, or whether it is simply presented this way for the sake of argument, but the latter is at least suggested by the human rebuttal of destiny as something imposed from outside by those claiming to know better. In this respect, Highway of Eternity is pleasantly straightforward compared to some of Simak's earlier novels in so much as its purpose is relatively clear; and as pastoral science-fiction it scores highly, particularly for the lengthy and evocative chapter of Boone making his way through the wilderness of prehistoric America. It probably isn't the crowning achievement of his career, but it's good enough to inspire regret that of all his oeuvre, I have just six as yet unread novels to go.

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