Tuesday, 27 June 2017


Clifford D. Simak Mastodonia (1978)
Mastodonia seems slightly unusual within Simak's body of work in so much as that while it makes use of many of the man's characteristic tropes, the tone is perhaps more serious and sober than one might anticipate. So we have time travel and an extraterrestrial presence, but neither gnomes, robots, nor mischievous woodland sprites, and it's written with the same sense of practicality and realism I seem to recall having informed 1980's The Visitors*; and it's quite dark even by Simak's occasionally pessimistic standards.

Interviewed by Darrell Schweitzer in Amazing Stories, Simak spoke of the difficulty of writing a genuine alien being, one betraying no obviously anthropomorphic features informed by what a human author is able to imagine. It was clearly something to which he gave some consideration, and he did quite a good job with Catface in Mastodonia, an alien quite unlike those which more often tend to spring from the human imagination and accordingly described in mostly abstract or visionary terms. Catface is marooned in a typically Simakian wilderness, the same Willow Bend as we've visited in  previous novels, and he busies himself by creating time roads, passages through to earlier stages of Earth's history. Simak is riffing on themes and ideas he already explored in Small Deer, The Marathon Photograph, Project Mastodon and others, here achieving some philosophical depth with the greater page count and exploration of well trodden, familiar territory.

So Asa Steele, our guy, finds himself able to visit prehistoric Wisconsin by agency of Catface, striking what seemed an ominous note, at least to me, when he facilitates excursions for big game hunters keen to bag a triceratops. I say that it's an ominous note because for most of the novel, it's quite difficult to discern where Simak stood on the subject of overfinanced arseholes destroying critters for fun; so it's a relief when karma catches up with the big game hunters towards the end, which unfortunately still leaves Steele's slightly unsavoury efforts to treat the time roads as untapped commercial enterprises; but then we don't always have to like our main character for him to do his job.

Still, aside from foreshadowing Jurassic Park, I suppose, I'm not sure any of the above quite constitutes the point of this one, at least not directly. I suspect some of this may be the older metropolitan Simak wrestling with his own nostalgia for the rural simplicity of Millville to which he never returned.

'I'm that nutty Steele kid, who came back to the old hometown, and they're suspicious of me and resentful of me and most of them don't like me. They're friendly, certainly, but they talk about me behind my back. They don't like anyone who isn't bogged down in their particular brand of mediocrity. It's defensive, I suppose. In front of anyone who left the town and came back short of utter defeat, they feel naked and inferior.'

For Steele, Pleistocene Wisconsin seems to become the pastoral ideal central to so much of Simak's science-fiction, the tranquil Eden to which he returns, and which he will inevitably spoil because he's human and he needs to make a living. Thomas Wolfe's assertion that one can never go home may not seem complex or even particularly profound in 2017, and although it's not the first time Simak batted it around, it's rendered a surprisingly powerful statement in the pages of Mastodonia. There's a lot to chew on in this one, even before we get a glimpse of Catface's point of origin - where he began rather than where he was born - much of it relating to Simak's ideas regarding a universal fellowship of living things. It all ties in, and as with the work of any of the greats, you'd do better to just read the novel than have it explained to you.

*: Whilst we're here, I know Denis Villeneuve's film Arrival is based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang but it sure reminds me of Simak's Visitors.

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