Thursday, 2 October 2014

Destiny Doll

Clifford D. Simak Destiny Doll (1971)

Destiny Doll is a quest and is as such one tale of a particular type which Simak clearly enjoyed writing at this stage of his career as he assembled peculiar bands of misfits and sent them off in search of something that was usually allegorical to a greater or lesser extent. He'd already done this in Out of Their Minds and would do it again in Enchanted Pilgrimage, The Fellowship of the Talisman, and others. I tend to dislike quest narratives on principal as they always seem to derive from authors who can't be arsed to come up with an actual story, but Simak always tackles the form with such vivid imagination as to sidestep most reasonable objections, and his quests feel more akin to The Wizard of Oz or even Alice in Wonderland than Tolkien and his legacy of grizzled ale-quaffing tedium.

Here a group of humans, one of whom is Friar Tuck - although no direct link to the Robin Hood legend is stated - all set off in search of a lost traveller and Roscoe, his telepathic robot. Along the way they encounter a race of probably robotic aliens resembling rocking horses, and Hoot, a sort of land-bound squid who joins their more-argumentative-than-merry band. Similarly askew with narrative convention, Ross our intrepid main man, is either a bit of a dick or at least significantly more cynical than the traditional hero, and treats Friar Tuck with near limitless contempt for reasons which remain unclear to the reader, at least unclear unless we simply accept that Ross is a bit of a dick. The quest itself is conducted in search of  some vague higher knowledge or understanding of the universe as supposedly achieved by the aforementioned lost traveller and his robot, and there seems to be a possibility that Simak himself either wasn't sure what they would find, or had no clear idea how best to express it. Ross and Friar Tuck respectively may represent cynicism and faith, and Tuck vanishes before the group come to the end of their quest, perhaps suggesting the view that the goal of a quest must by definition be unattainable, the journey being the point.

But there was no way to turn it off; for some reason I was committed and must keep on and could only hope that at some point along the way I could reach a stopping point—either a point where I could go no further or a point where I had learned or sensed all there was to learn and sense.

On the other hand, the disappearance of Friar Tuck may serve to highlight the supposed redundancy of blind faith, as Ross sees it in contrast to his own realism. Whichever the case, it becomes clear that Destiny Doll is an allegorical journey in the general tradition of David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, similarly impenetrable in places, but generally more readable.

The goal, when they get there, turns out to be an illusion - a 1960s Star Trek-style idyll complete with toga dress code concealing rot and decrepitude. At this point the choice becomes whether to accept the illusion as valid and hang around, or insist on the smellier, less pleasant reality. Ross initially opts for the latter, which may be where the Destiny Doll of the title comes in - a wooden fetish found by Friar Tuck which seems to represent utter despair, with destiny as that which will be, namely the inevitability of death, termination, confusion and so on - or realism as Ross would have it. All of this is debated within the greater environment of Simak's version of dualism, roughly speaking fellowship and the bond of all that lives in opposition to solitude and loneliness.

The conclusion, if there really is any one single conclusion here, depends either on the reader or repeat reading, this being the sort of novel which invites further investigation and poring over the subtle, more mystifying elements; not least because it's also a lot of fun, and certainly more successful than the next one, A Choice of Gods which attempted to take some of these ideas further.

After that issue of Granta, it's quite a relief to find that I am indeed still able to enjoy science-fiction, and so - as I suspected - Simak was a good choice as I clambered back into the saddle, so to speak. Destiny Doll is bewildering in places, but probably amongst Simak's more consciously literary efforts, and as such serves as a good example of why this author really deserves to be remembered with a little more fanfare than presently seems to be the case. Spaceships, gnomes, rocking horses, and folksy ontology - what's not to love?

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