Joe Fernwright is a pot healer – as was his his father before him – in a future totalitarian dystopia although his services are somewhat redundant since no one makes or breaks ceramics any more.
One day Joe gets a mysterious message offering him a job on Sirius V. The message turns out to be from an all powerful entity known as the Glimmung who is launching a project to raise a sunken cathedral from the ocean bed.
Being a Dick novel, things are not as straightforward as this synopsis would imply.
Fernwright is one of a large number of humans and alien experts in various fields who have been promised a fortune in payment to undertake work on the project. Many, however, are suspicious of the Glimmung’s ultimate objectives, especially as the experts all appear to have all been implicated in various crimes just prior to departure which they suspect were engineered by this being.
There are various Dick hallmarks here, such as the grasping ex-wife, the concept of Fatalism and a surprisingly overt use of humour where he is normally more subtle and understated. We have the world of the dead and the decaying beneath the ocean where at one point Joe meets his dead self.
There is also a religion which features the concepts of the duality of light and dark, something he had already explored, perhaps to better effect, in ‘The Cosmic Puppets’.
We are also in familiar territory with Dick’s lackadaisical attitude to technology and actual science since there is no attempt to explain how the ships that ferry the team to Sirius V operate or indeed the very idiosyncratic robots with whom they have to deal once they arrive. We have no problem as readers with the fact that Sirius V has Earth standard gravity and atmosphere. It didn’t matter to Dick, and for reasons I can’t fathom, doesn’t matter a jot to me either. He somehow always get away with it.
Much of the novel hinges on truth and trust. It becomes clear that the Glimmung is quite capable of lying, and Joe and his colleagues have to employ a a mixture of logic and intuition to determine the best course of action. Added to this is the book of the Kalends, a kind of prophetic bible which changes daily and seems to prophesy the future of the protagonists with uncanny accuracy (in English and various other languages, both human and alien).
Joe, on his dive into the ocean to see the cathedral – against the Glimmung’s express instructions – discovers an ancient vase half covered in coral but one which carries a personal message for him under the glaze. He notices that some of the coral has been removed, which implies that he was meant to see it, but did the Glimmung forbid Joe to go down to the sunken cathedral simply because he knew that Joe then would?
This is one example of a paranoid undercurrent that runs like a thread throughout this novel showing Joe and his companions forced to question the veracity of what they have been told or read. It’s a fascinating and particularly Dickian concept but like almost every other concept in this book is underdeveloped.
There’s something else very flawed about this novel, most essentially in its internal reality which produces an uneasy mixture of tone. There are the serious scenes, such as Joe being given a message by his dead decaying self, and those in which we have comical robots called Willis and clams that tell jokes. Maybe Dick considered that the contrast would make the serious scenes more powerful but it just doesn’t work. ‘Clans of The Alphane Moon‘ held the balance perfectly and despite its ludicrous premise – that Earth had set up a Mental Health facility on one of the moons of Alpha Centauri which was cut off and left to its own devices during the long years of the Alphane war – is a far more complex, structured and amusing work.
This is not a major Dick novel but it has its moments and needs to be studied by Dick enthusiasts if only to identify the PKD trademarks and how they are related to their use in other novels.
‘He Alone Defied the Cosmic Vampires!
When the outlawed scientist Jim Hunt leaped from the prison plane, he had no suspicion that he was not the only one falling silently through the midnight sky. But other, stranger exiles were landing at that very moment in the same backwoods region… exiles from the unknown depths of outer space, exiles seeking human food.
When Jim started to make his way back home, he discovered the full horror of that night’s events. For the people he met had become mere flesh-and-blood puppets, mindless creatures doing the bidding of the unseen invaders. And though every man’s hand was against him, both free and enslaved, Jim knew that he alone was humanity’s only hope for survival.
Murray Leinster’s BRAIN-STEALERS is an unusually gripping science-fiction novel of thought transference, invaders from space, and vampirism on a world-wide scale!’
Blurb from the 1954 Ace Double D-79 edition.
This is an expansion of the novella ‘The Man in the Iron Cap’ from Starling Stories (November 1947) and fits right into that subgenre of specifically US novels of the time which feature ‘aliens among us’ which may possibly represent a reflection of the US’ reaction to the cold war and the nationwide paranoia over communism at the time. (see The Puppet Masters and The Body Snatchers)
Leinster has created a future Earth where the Powers That Be – a worldspanning organisation known as Security – have become so obsessed with Human Safety that all dangerous research has been banned.
Jim Hunt was experimenting with thought fields, and was subsequently arrested and charged due to the dangerous nature of his experiments. Jim escapes from a plane, convincing the authorities he is dead.
Meanwhile, a ship of telepathic bloodsucking aliens have landed and have been mentally enslaving the population of an increasingly large area of rural America. Hunt discovers this and narrowly avoids becoming enslaved. He devises a cap made of iron wire that blocks the alien thought signals, then has to escape from the area, somehow warn the rest of the world and design a device that could save mankind.
There are some interesting parallels with Heinlein’s ‘Puppet Masters’, but one cannot say whether either writer was aware of the other’s work at the time, and without reading Leinster’s 1947 novella, I can’t say how much was changed for the 1954 novel, published after Heinlein’s 1951 Galaxy serialisation and novelisation.
The aliens, for one thing, breed though fission, dividing into two and moving on to new hosts. They are not concerned about the health and well-being of their hosts and, as in this novel, were brought to Earth by another enslaved race.
They are however very different novels, Heinlein’s being in any case by far the superior.
It’s very readable however, as Leinster’s work generally is, and has its moments of real drama and suspense, but ultimately is nothing out of the ordinary.
Cousins Len and Esau Coulter are two young boys living in a family community in a post-nuclear war US. The States has sunk to the point where a theocracy has taken over, opposed to the scientific excesses of the past and with a strict ruling that communities can not hold more than a thousand people.
Len and Esau however, fueled by their semi-senile grandmother’s tales of prewar cities and glamour, yearn to learn more. They have also been infected with tales of a forbidden town, Bartorstown, where people still live as they did before the bombs fell.
Comparisons can be drawn between this and John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ where, in a post-nuclear Canada, a group of telepaths have to hide their true nature from their Christian fundamentalist community. Both novels feature a Christianity adapted for circumstances, and both feature young people desperate to escape the straitjacket of their lives.
Perhaps wisely, Brackett chose to avoid the SF clichés of mutations and consequent psychic powers and focus on the question that Len has to ask himself which is, put bluntly ‘Is it better to live in ignorance and be happy, or be knowledgeable and depressed?’
Ultimately, what is learned can not be unlearned, as is reiterated to Len in various ways by his father, by the mysterious Mr Hostetter, and by a pastor with whom Len was lodging.
Brackett has, quite elegantly, taken the national paranoia of the time with its fear of communists-among-us and nuclear destruction and converted it to a fear of knowledge itself. The ‘aliens-among-us’ who, in other works of the time such as The Puppet Masters, are a metaphor for un-American outside influences are replaced here by the people of Bartorstown; ordinary humans who have a deal more knowledge than the rest of the country and no doubt practise forbidden science.
In one of the early sections, the boys sneak away from their Amish-esque village to visit a fair. It is a turning point in their lives as they witness a preacher rousing a congregation against the ideals of Bartorstown. A man is pointed out, denounced and duly stoned to death.
Because Brackett avoids proselytising from either viewpoint and concentrates on letting her characters express themselves within this strange world it becomes a work far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s about people, society, happiness and the perennial battle between technology and religion. It’s also one of the finest novels about the best and the worst of America that one is likely to read.
‘How do you find a space spy who substitutes perfectly for anyone in the universe?
THE SPY BENEATH THE SKIN
The fate of the Earth Empire hung in the balance – and Security Commissioner Spangler knew it was up to him to find the monster, the Rithian Terror, as some called it. Seven Rithians had landed on earth. Six had been disposed of. One was loose.
Surely, Spangler reasoned, the stereoptic fluoroscope would flush it out. ‘That’s one test the Rithian can’t meet, no matter how good his human disguise may be.’ Spangler explained to Pembun, the strange, little Colonial who had been sent to help find the monster.
But Pembun didn’t agree. ‘The trouble,’ he said, ‘is that the Rithi have no bones. Which would be indication enough under a fluoroscope, if it weren’t for the fact that it can easily swallow a skeleton.’
Blurb from the 1965 Ace Doubles M-113 Edition
Thorne Spangler, Earth’s Security Commissioner is on the hunt for a shape-shifting Rithian.
Seven Rithians came to Earth and only six returned, which means that a Rithian spy is at large disguised as a human. A Colonial, Mr Pembun, is called in to help but is looked down on because of his accent and his uncultured behaviour.
As the hunt goes on, we realise quite quickly that Spangler has underestimated Mr Pembun.
Spangler is the product of an Earth which is at the centre of a new Empire, a society which has evolved a language, ‘standard’ where every word has one and only one meaning.
Pembun turns out to be of immense help to Spangler. However, having realised that Pembun has outperformed and undermined his authority at every turn in ingenious and creative ways, Spangler is now determined to discredit him.
It’s a curious novel, fairly light-hearted and with its social attitudes locked into those of the Nineteen Sixties. Spangler’s relationship with his girlfriend is a case in point, since he treats her like a possession, and at one point employs physical violence. She forgives him of course and an enlightened Spangler reaffirms his love for her at the end of the novel.
The presence of the Rithian is, ultimately, irrelevant. The furry-tentacled impostor is merely a device to highlight the increasingly insane single-mindedness of Spangler who is bent on continuing his search for Rithians even though the alien has been found and destroyed. Indeed, even the need to kill the Rithian seems an over-reaction, since the people of Pembun’s homeworld trade with them and seem to be on very friendly terms with the beasties.
It’s tempting to see this novel as a metaphor for America’s relations with foreign powers. Certainly, the ‘aliens among us’ theme is an enduring concept, and Spangler’s paranoia and distrust of ‘foreigners’ is shown very clearly. Whether Knight intended such an interpretation is another matter.
Knight has long been a respected figure in the field and is perhaps better known as a critic, anthologist and short story writer, perhaps his most well-known piece being ‘To Serve Man’ which was dramatized as an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’.
He could have clearly achieved great things as a novelist had he persevered, but perhaps he realised his talents were best employed elsewhere.
‘The Rithian Terror’ is, to be fair, cleverly written with some touches of wry wit and may have fared better if given some room to expand. The denouement is abrupt and somewhat confusing, but brings the odd duel that Spangler and Pembun have been waging to a conclusion.
Classic SF Noir displaying America’s paranoia in what has always been for me Heinlein’s best novel. It exemplifies all that is good about mainstream SF of the Nineteen Fifties and suffers only from minor political incorrectness in terms of male and female stereotyping, and the rather irritating remark made about gay men by the US President; ‘There have always been such unfortunates.’
But then, Heinlein is rather on the right wing of the SF stalwarts of the time, and this is a peculiarly masculine novel. We are told in the first few pages that the entrance to the secret headquarters of a government department so secret it doesn’t even have a name is situated in the men’s washroom on Macarthur Station. The women (for thankfully there is at least one female agent) no doubt use the other entrance situated in a shop called ‘Rare Stamps and Coins.’
Our hero, Sam Nivens, is a square-jawed All American type who would willingly die to preserve the liberty of America and whose laconic monologue tells the tale of the invasion of the Puppet Masters.
A rather decent TV movie of the book was made with Donald Sutherland in the role of ‘The Old Man’, the hard-nosed boss of the Department. Although surprisingly faithful to the text of the novel it suffered in that it was set in the present day. It should really have been made in black and white and visualised as a Nineteen Fifties view of America in 2007.
Heinlein’s aliens, a perfect metaphor for what America believed typified the evils of Communism, are a kind of gestalt entity; grey slugs which attach themselves to the backs of humans and take over the mind and body of their hosts. They are sexless, appear to have no individual personalities and exchange information by some form of physical transference when in direct contact with each other.
Just as in ‘The Body Snatchers’ (Jack Finney, 1955) the aliens ‘infect’ humans by stealth, reinforcing the idea of communism as a plague, contagious, insidious and more than anything else, invisible.
The hosts are literally enslaved by their masters (‘Master’ actually being a term which Sam uses to describe them). Heinlein takes these threats of loss of individuality, the natural fear of disease and the rather disturbing concept of slavery (which is as alive and well today in the guilty American consciousness as it was in Nineteen Fifty One) and winds them all together into a chilling tale of what is essentially a war of ideologies.
I imagine a writer of today would not make the story so one-sided. In a sense this novel says a lot about Heinlein. The book might well have been stronger if there had at least been some benefit, or purpose to the aliens’ invasion. As it is the aliens do not compel their hosts to wash or eat properly, and so are destroying the hand that feeds them, as in when it is discovered that the bubonic plague has returned to Communist Russia.
No system is truly evil. If Heinlein consciously meant these aliens to be metaphors for Communism then he should have made them less unknowable. The suggestion is that one shouldn’t even try to understand Communism. To attempt to know Communism is to be infected by it. The menace cannot be lived with. It has to be eradicated from our minds.
Of course, it’s difficult to understand, in a post USSR world, what level of paranoia existed in America at the time.
Certainly, whether consciously or not, a large number of SF films and novels of the time featured ordinary people being ‘possessed’ by aliens, often taking over an entire community, abandoning American culture and values and replacing it with something else.
Sam – who eats steak ‘just warmed through’ – needs to prove to a sceptical President that the aliens exist. His plan fails and when a live slug is eventually captured, Sam is ‘possessed’ and for a while we see the world of the ‘hag ridden’ through his submissive eyes. It is this experience which elevates Sam from a mere two-dimensional hero into something greater. A stereotype he may be, but in Nineteen Fifty One it is interesting to see an SF hero with fears, emotions and failings, and who even cries on occasions.
Of course, with the help of his partner – an efficient female agent with a taste for weaponry – the world is saved and Sam spearheads a military operation aimed at saving the elf-like denizens of Titan from the curse of the Puppet Masters. This suggests, one presumes, that even back in Nineteen Fifty One Americans felt they had a duty to right wrongs beyond their own borders.
The aliens themselves are beautifully thought out. An immortal gestalt entity which reproduces additional units of itself by binary fission and may which hold memories dating back to the dawn of its sapience.
At the end of the novel they remain enigmatic, and the question, raised in the opening paragraph of the book as to whether they are intelligent in any way we understand, is never answered.
See also Murray Leinster’s ‘The Brain-Stealers‘ (1954)
‘Evolution is no longer just a theory
Stella Nova is one of the ‘virus children’, a generation of genetically enhanced babies born a dozen years before to mothers infected with the SHEVA virus.
In fact, the children represent the next great evolutionary leap and a new species of human, Homo sapiens novus, but this is officially denied. They’re gentle, charming and persuasive, possessed of remarkable traits. Nevertheless, they are locked up in special schools, quarantined from society, feared and reviled.
‘Survival of the fittest’ takes on a new dimension as the children reach puberty. Stella is one of the first find herself attracted to another ‘virus child’ but the authorities are watching and waiting for the opportunity to strike the next blow in their escalating war to preserve ‘humankind’ at any cost.’
Blurb from the 2004 HarperCollins paperback edition.
The virus children of Bear’s ‘Darwin’s Radio’ are growing up in a terrified world. The children are being rounded up and kept in special schools where they are studied, but not allowed to learn anything which might help them escape.
So far Kaye Lang and Mitch have kept their daughter with them by fleeing from town to town. Stella however is keen to meet others of her kind and escapes. This results in her capture and incarceration in one of the isolated schools.
Bear sequels in the past have not lived up to the quality of the first instalment and sadly, this is the case here. Despite it being a good solid novel and streets ahead of most of the competition it lacks the tightness and pace of the original. It also includes a rather unnecessary exegesis on the part of Kaye who experiences an encounter with what appears to be God. Unfortunately this never really dovetails into the structure at all and lacks relevance.
However it is an exciting examination of Neo-Darwinism and Bear provides an excellent afterword which includes further recommended reading on the subject.
Taking the two books as a whole the work can be seen as a Twenty First Century update on Van Vogt’s ‘Slan’ with echoes of ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’. The nature of Bear’s homo superior is very interesting. They communicate on various levels; by scent, colour flashing of the marks on their faces and in a strange two-levelled speech by which more than one meaning or message can be conveyed at once. They form bonded ‘families’ which they call demes and seem to have lost any desire for competitive behaviour, finding co-operation to be a better genetic survival strategy.
In context ‘Darwin’s Children’ is a post-aids retrovirus-aware work of paranoia, set in a declining USA. Sadly, Bear gives us only brief glimpses of how the virus children are treated elsewhere in the world. An Indian taxi-driver, for instance, at one point talks quite happily of his ‘Shivite’ grand-daughter and of how proud the family are of her.
There is an upbeat ending in which society has grudgingly accepted its children and they live in their own communities. More and more Shivites are being born among the general population in waves every few years.
It’s hard to see how Bear could get a third novel from this idea but one suspects that there is another story in there somewhere, waiting to be hatched.
Nick Appleton lives in a world governed by two new types of human, the New Men and The Unusuals. Children, like Nick’s son Bobby, are given a test when they are eleven, to determine if they are fit to work in government. Nick is convinced that the tests are not rigged but his son knows otherwise.
The tests are rigged, and we are privy to a discussion in the testing centre before Nick and his son even arrive, deciding whether the boy should pass or not. Bobby is quite cynically convinced he will not pass.
In this society, alcohol is illegal but drugs are freely available at drugbars. Alcohol can be obtained on the black market as well as the illegal literature of the Undermen, the writings of a political prisoner called Cordon who beams his writing out via a transmitter implant, after which it is edited and sold in pamphlets illegally,
Nick works in a garage for a man called Zeta, where he regrooves bald tyres to make them look new, while making them more dangerous.
Cordon is a disciple of Thors Provoni, a man who set off on a ship decades before looking for help from advanced aliens.
The narrative follows Appleton, a law abiding citizen ostensibly committed to following the rules of society. A man called Darby Shire (an ex-colleague of Appleton’s) arrives at the house in fact, attempting to entrap Appleton into illegal activities. Then his boss, Zeta, takes him to a Cordonite apartment where he meets Denny Strong, an alcohol addict, and his girlfriend, Charley. Denny flies into an alcoholic rage when he finds Cordonite literature that Charkey has hidden and attacks her. Charley escapes with Nick, who realises that he has already crossed the line of law-breaking and become an Underman.
The New Men and Unusuals believe that the announcement of Cordon’s impending execution has turned many standard citizens into Undermen. They have of course, been monitoring everything and know where Appleton has been.
The kingpin of the government is Chairman Willis Gram, a corpulent old telepath. he has begun to ignore the advice of his aides and orders Cordon’s immediate execution.
Then comes the news that Provoni is returning with friends. Friends from Frolix 8.
This is one of Dick’s more frenetic and disjointed novels. It can be read as a warped mirror of Orwell’s ‘1984’ in terms of this world of relentless surveillance and control, where the ‘evolved’ humans, the New Men and the Unusuals, control who can and can not enter government service.
There are odd religious themes and concepts creeping in. At some point earlier, a ship had discovered a large frozen corpse in deep space which most humans believe to be God.
Cordon in a sense is an apostle, a John the Baptist figure who distributes his gospel directly through a transmitter implanted in his body.
Thors Provoni is returning – symbolically – from the dead with hope for all mankind. Dick being Dick, however, the nature of the help that the Frolixians is offering is ambiguous.
As is common to many Dick novels, the female characters are more fascinating than the males, and here we have a contrast between Appleton’s wife, a nervous paranoid woman, and Charley, the girl he leaves her for, a complex psychotic woman whose motives and actions are ambiguous and unpredictable.
‘What IS Paul Breen?
An ordinary, patriotic American with unusual powers? Or the first, chilling incarnation of a threat that has haunted the mind of Man ever since he first gazed into the heavens – the threat of invasion from another planet?
Certainly, Breen’s mind had extraordinary – some would say terrifying – potential. No wonder the scientists and politicians who examined him were so quick to see devastating political uses for his telepathic powers.
But Breen’s ‘wild talent’ was a double-edged sword: true, he could pierce the hearts of America’s enemies. Bust just as clearly, he could read the guilty secrets of the nation he was born to serve…’
Blurb from the 1980 Coronet paperback edition
Tucker take an interesting look at telepathy in ‘Wild Talent’, a novel which begins in the depression of the 1930s, rushes us through World War II and lands us in the Nineteen Fifties. It is the story of Paul Breen, a young man with gifts which he neither understands nor welcomes.
While visiting the Chicago World Fair in the 30s, he witnesses the murder of a policeman and, reaching the man just as he is dying, manages to extract from his mind not only the policeman’s name and his call-sign, but the names of his murderers.
Not knowing what to do he writes an anonymous letter to the President about the murder.
Much later, Breen is identified through his fingerprints found on the envelope and is recruited into a government project where he becomes a virtual slave to the system, using his powers to receive information from US agents abroad (though in the main in the USSR) and to follow the thoughts of his colleagues nearer at hand.
The head of the project, Slater, finds Breen to be a useful tool, but is worried that the telepath will uncover his own terrible secret.
It’s an interesting novel to emerge from the Nineteen Fifties, being as much an examination of xenophobia as an attack on the Establishment. If we compare this with ‘The Puppet Masters’ we see Heinlein’s government agency as being immune to corruption, unless of course their minds are controlled by the fiendish alien slugs.
Tucker has no such illusions. At least three government employees are selling secrets to the highest bidder, and a sergeant is exposed by Breen as having fraudulently diverted shipments of coal for sale to his own personal benefit.
The ending, in which Breen is discovered by a secret group of telepaths, clear in their belief that they are the next stage of human evolution, is upbeat and optimistic. However, the implicit secrecy of their existence and their fear of being discovered says much about the paranoia of the time.
‘Scott Carey has been exposed to a cloud of radioactive spray. Now he can no longer deny the extraordinary truth. Not only is he losing weight, he is also shorter. Scott Carey has begun to shrink.
At first Carey tries to continue some sort of normal life. Later, having left human conflict behind, he must survive in a world where insects and spiders are giant enemies. And even that is only a stage on his ultimate journey into the unknown.’
Blurb from the 2002 Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition
‘The Shrinking Man’ can be seen superficially as the very basic tale of a man who shrinks one seventh of an inch a day, with all that may entail. Chris Moore’s cover for the Gollancz Masterworks (2002) edition shows the hero, Scott Carey, pursued by a monstrous Black Widow spider and indeed, the film version ‘The Incredible Shrinking man’ focused very much on the sensational/adventurous elements. The novel however is far more than it may at first appear, particularly since I believe Gollancz would not put a title in their prestigious Masterworks series unless they felt justified in its inclusion.
The structure is a dual timeline and alternates between Scott Carey’s ‘final’ week (He is one inch tall when he begins his narrative) and his gradual diminution from a six-foot American average guy.
What makes this novel more than a sensationalist pulp-fiction work is that Matheson concentrates on the psychological and social implications which first make themselves felt when Scott realises that his wife is taller than he is.
Matheson then embarks on a gradual process of emasculation, exploring not only Scott’s reactions to the shrinking of his body but the changing attitudes of his wife, daughter and the outside world.
Matheson cleverly exploits symbolically and metaphorically issues central to male pride and the integrity of one’s masculinity. Scott is already dependent on his brother for a job, but is criticised and patronised by his sister-in-law. His effectiveness at work decreases with his height, leaving his brother’s company in financial difficulties. Later, his wife unconsciously begins treating him as a child and even driving a car (another benchmark of American masculinity) becomes difficult. Scott punctures a tyre and, too weak to change it, sets off on foot and is lured into another car by a drunken paedophile. Scott’s physical impotence in these situations is paralleled by his inability to make love to his wife. His sexual frustration is exacerbated by clandestine stalking of the teenage babysitter his wife hires to look after their child while she goes out to work (another emasculating factor). During this period Scott is locked in the cellar in order that Catherine, the babysitter, will not unexpectedly wander into the cellar and discover him.
Scott briefly regains a degree of self-esteem when he meets a female midget at a local circus, but this hiatus is short-lived.
The redemption, if we can call it such, comes in the intervening ‘final week’ sections, in which Scott, having been accidentally locked out of the house and fallen into a cellar from which he cannot escape, is forced to find ways to survive with minimal food and water. Tellingly, Scott also has to do daily battle with a Black Widow spider which – we are reminded in the text – is female; the males of the species being consumed by their partners after mating.
Losing a seventh of an inch every day, Scott’s plight gets more difficult every day, but he finally triumphs by using his cunning to trap the spider and kill it.
Whether there is some metaphor in this final destruction of a malevolent female force is unclear.
The novel is only slightly let-down by the science involved, the explanation for Scott’s condition being that exposure to a combination of radioactive sprays was causing his body to expel nitrogen at a constant rate.
But then this was the Nineteen-Fifties, and it was America, so any explanation regarding radioactivity was guaranteed to add an additional frisson of paranoia.
It is undoubtedly a minor classic and deserves to be re-filmed by a director who can concentrate on the issues that Matheson was actually writing about.
‘Asher Sutton has been lost in deepest space for twenty years. Suddenly arrives a warning from the future, that he will return – and that he must be killed. He is destined to write a book whose message may lead to the death of millions in centuries to come. For this reason Sutton is hounded by the sinister warring factions of the future who wish to influence or prevent the writing of this book he has not yet begun to write.
Yet already a copy has been found in the burnt-out wreckage of a space-craft on Aldebaran XII.’
Blurb from the cover of the 1977 Magnum edition.
On the surface this – one of Simak’s better novels – is a complex and intricate tale of time-travel and paradox. Simak is very much a pastoral writer, in that his SF is often set against a backdrop of solid American rural values, and though he never preaches, his writing nevertheless extols the virtues of tolerance and pacifism.
Six thousand years in the future Earth is at the centre of an interstellar Empire, clinging to control of the galaxy with the help of androids who are only differentiated from true humans by their inability to reproduce and the tattoos on their foreheads. Asher Sutton, a reconnaissance agent, has been missing for the last twenty years after being sent to 61 Cygni to assess an alien planet which may or may not pose a threat to the stability of Human Culture.
Sutton’s boss, Adams, receives a visit from a mysterious stranger claiming to be from the future, who predicts Sutton’s imminent return and tells Adams that Sutton must be killed to prevent him from writing a book which will plunge the Human worlds into war.
Sutton does indeed return, but there is reason to believe that Sutton may not be Sutton at all, and indeed, may not even be human.
This is the alien in human form, which often in American SF of the time was a symbol for communism, or at least of some sort of threat to the values of American culture. Here at least, it is a benign presence, employed as a metaphor of intolerance and misunderstanding.
Sutton has discovered ‘Destiny’ or, as he puts it, the ‘symbiotic abstractions’ of 61 Cygni who latch themselves onto all living things throughout the galaxy and guide them through life.
Sutton’s not-yet-written book is a Bible which explains our relationship with these creatures, a philosophy which could destabilise Human control of the galaxy, since it espouses equality of all life, including androids. There is also a possibly deliberate Messianic symbolism within the character of Sutton himself since he dies (twice) and is resurrected.
The book itself, copies of which Sutton discovers before he has even begun to write it, is the reason why various factions, including the androids and groups from other periods in time are eager to either kill Sutton or use him and his ‘revised’ book for their own devices.
Like most Simak novels, it’s an affirmation of the basic goodness of human nature and a very ‘cosy’ novel.