Thursday, November 8, 2018

Our Children’s Children by Clifford D. Simak

Unexpected guests from the future
Clifford D. Simak gets down to business very quickly in his science fiction novel Our Children’s Children. On page one, an interdimensional doorway opens up on a suburban lawn, and out walks a stream of people who claim to be refugees from the future. In their time, five centuries ahead of our own, a highly intelligent and incredibly lethal alien species has attacked Earth. Unable to defeat the extraterrestrial invaders, the human race opts to prevent the extinction of humanity by fleeing into the past. The constant stream of refugees pouring forth from “time tunnels” around the world may eventually add up to as many as two billion people, placing a heavy burden on the present-day population. Though these uninvited visitors are our distant descendants, do we have the means or the wherewithal to help them? And given the threat they faced in the future, perhaps human beings won’t be the only unexpected guests traveling through those time tunnels.

Simak usually sets his science fiction stories in rural Wisconsin or Minnesota, but in this novel the main plot line takes place in Virginia, so that the author can have easy access to Washington, DC. The phenomenon is not localized, however, as the time tunnels have opened in various nations, and international relations plays a part in the overall story. One solution that’s suggested for the refugee problem is to start a new civilization in the prehistoric past, an idea that Simak would further develop to better effect in his 1978 novel Mastodonia. As ingenious a premise as that may be for a science fiction novel (or two), Simak never really addresses the fact that every animal that’s killed, tree that’s burned, or rock that’s overturned might have a butterfly effect that alters the course of human history. Still, it makes for some fun speculation if you don’t take it too seriously.

Though this was published in 1974, relatively late in Simak’s career, it feels rather simplistic, like the plot of an early ‘60s monster movie. I kept expecting some startling revelations that would turn conventions on their ear, but such twists never came, just a few small surprises at the end. Simak doesn’t really even delve too deeply into the theory of time travel, but instead just uses it to set up the refugee crisis, which he explores from various political, social, and economic dimensions. The character development is weaker here than in most of Simak’s stories. Only one person, a White House press secretary, is really fleshed out in more than two dimensions. Simak opts for quantity instead, introducing new characters in almost every chapter. Since almost everyone is a white, Anglo-Saxon male (except for two female characters), after a while it becomes very difficult to tell the difference between a Steve Wilson, Tom Manning, or Sam Henderson, especially when their occupations are the only factor that distinguishes one from another.

The ending of Our Children’s Children is rather inconclusive. Instead of a problem being solved, only a plan has been formed that may solve the problem. If this were a longer book, such a lack of closure might be truly annoying, but since this book is only about 200 pages, and a rather brisk and engaging read, the reader doesn’t much regret the fact that all the loose ends aren’t tied up in a neat little bow. Our Children’s Children reads like Simak lite. This novel is not a science fiction masterpiece by any means, and I wouldn’t want anyone to judge Simak on the basis of this work. To those who have never read Simak’s writing before, I would recommend better novels like Way Station or City. For Simak fans, however, this is an entertaining read, even if it’s not as intellectually deep as his typical fare.
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