Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Heritage of Stars by Clifford D. Simak



Searching for hope in a post-technological future
Celebrated science fiction writer Clifford D. Simak’s novel A Heritage of Stars was originally published in 1977. In 2015 it became available in e-book format from Open Road Media, along with many other Simak works. Simak is a master sci-fi visionary whose career spanned over half a century. A Heritage of Stars displays the high level of speculative creativity and quality storytelling indicative of Simak’s body of work, but still it’s not one of his most successful efforts.

The story takes place about two thousand years in the future. Earth is now a post-apocalyptic world in which mankind has reverted to barbarism. About 1500 years prior to the events of the story, humanity began to feel an intense hatred toward the technology they had created and the problems it had fostered—massive unemployment, depleted natural resources, environmental pollution, and oppressive, ungainly social, economic, and political systems. In a fit of worldwide rage, humans rebelled against their technology and destroyed it, along with most of the recorded knowledge of their machines and how they functioned. Thus, mankind reverted back to a primitive existence of nomadic hunting, subsistence farming, and tribal warfare. One bastion of civilization still holds out—the former University of Minnesota, where a band of peaceful citizens mostly practices potato farming but still maintains a respect for literacy. Thomas Cushing, one of the university’s inhabitants, comes across a millennium-old history that mentions a Place of Going to the Stars, suspected to be a launching pad for interstellar travel. Restless and curious, Cushing decides to leave the safety of the university, head west, and seek out this mythical site.

The novel starts out as a pretty good post-apocalyptic wilderness adventure, reminiscent of Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague. The saga of a lone explorer striking out into an unknown and dangerous world is always a compelling one. As the novel proceeds, however, it begins to veer further and further into the realm of fantasy. Though Simak tackles hard science concepts, the plot begins to follow the familiar fantasy formula that’s been used in everything from The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings. Cushing picks up a band of misfits, each of which has a special power, and together they make a pilgrimage to a lost city, encountering scary monsters along the way. A Heritage of Stars deals with a number of recurring Simak themes, including intelligent plants, robots struggling to find their place in the world, and mankind’s relationship to those robots. The way in which Simak treats these topics in this novel, however, feels less scientifically sound and more poetically imaginative. Even the very premise upon which the plot is built, the revolt against technology, seems too unrealistic the way he’s handled it here.

I recently read I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume 1 and found it to be an excellent collection of short stories and novellas. Simak is truly a master of the short form narrative. This longer work, however, feels like a short story that’s been drawn out far too long. Even though it overstays its welcome, the ending feels half-baked, as if left open for a sequel that would never come. Despite my complaints, this is not a bad book. I was engaged by Cushing’s journey and eager to see its resolution. However, A Heritage of Stars is merely an OK book by a great author. Compared to Simak’s other works, it’s nothing special, but compared to 90% of the science fiction out there, it still holds up pretty well.
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