Monday, February 11, 2019

A Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak

Humanity’s stragglers: immortal but not immoral
Clifford D. Simak’s 1972 novel A Choice of Gods is a post-apocalyptic story of sorts, but without the apocalypse. Sometime around the year 2135, the vast majority of humanity mysteriously disappears from the Earth, leaving only a few hundred people behind. These survivors live somewhere near Minneapolis (Simak lived his entire life in western Wisconsin and Minnesota and set most of his fiction there.) Jason and Martha Whitney reside in a large stone house that tenaciously survives the ravages of time. That’s fortunate because when nearly all the humans vanished, those remaining discovered that they had stopped aging and could perhaps even be immortal, barring accidents. In addition, some have developed advanced parapsychic abilities, like interstellar telepathy. Nearby lives a band of Native Americans who have chosen to abandon modern ways and live off the land like their ancestors. To some degree they were forced to, since there aren’t enough people left to produce technology or operate power plants. There are, however, many robots remaining. Sentient and nearly indestructible, these former servants of mankind are now mostly masterless and searching for a purpose. One robot named Hezekiah takes it upon himself to preserve Christianity, a faith that humans have long abandoned.

It is easy to draw parallels between A Choice of Gods and Simak’s 1952 novel City, which is probably his most famous and acclaimed work. Both books deal with the distant future of the remnants of mankind on Earth after almost all the people have departed the planet. The Whitney house is very similar to the Webster house in City, and Jason Whitney serves as the custodian of human history and culture much as the Webster family did in that earlier book. The prevalence of robots, and their peaceful coexistence with mankind, is another common bond that unites the two novels. A Choice of Gods, however, does not have talking dogs or intelligent ants, though some robots in this book behave similarly to City’s ants. Both books speculate thoughtfully on the future of humanity, in particular questioning whether the human race will ever overcome the violent, greedy, and selfish flaws in its nature. What differentiates this book from City is that A Choice of Gods focuses more on religious and environmental issues.

The chronology of A Choice of Gods is a little screwy and difficult to follow. Due to the immortality of the characters, at times it is difficult to tell whether the story takes place 50 years or 5,000 years after the great disappearance. The main narrative of the novel seems to be closer to the latter. However, interspersed throughout the book are first-person journal entries that could take place at any time in the characters’ past (our future). Though these entries are dated, the years often don’t seem to correspond to any logical timeline.

Though A Choice of Gods asks some deep, dark questions about the purpose of mankind, Simak’s tone as usual is predominantly hopeful. This isn’t another post-apocalyptic book about warlords battling for scant resources. This novel emphasizes the cooperation of humans and robots in building a new society from the remnants of the old. This wild Earth, nearly empty of human habitation, constitutes an idyllic landscape that is inviting to the reader, but the peacefulness is not guaranteed and does face its share of threats. As always, Simak depicts mother nature and human nature with incredible sensitivity and insight. This book may be inferior to City, but it is far more than just a retread of old ideas. A Choice of Gods is yet another fine novel from this prolific sci-fi master.

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