Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Time is the Simplest Thing by Clifford D. Simak

A paranormal pathway to the stars
Although science fiction writer Clifford D. Simak wrote quite a few books about time travel, the misleadingly titled Time is the Simplest Thing isn’t one of them. First serialized in 1961 issues of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine, this novel was originally entitled The Fisherman, which really isn’t any better at evoking what the book is actually about.

The story takes place at an unspecified time in the future, near enough to seem mostly recognizable yet distant enough to allow for flying cars. Despite this evidence of technological advancement, human society has regressed in some ways. Mankind has given up on the idea of manned space travel, at least to interstellar distances, because of the impossibility of protecting astronauts from cosmic radiation. An alternative method has been developed, however, by which special individuals with paranormal powers can explore other star systems through a form of telepathic travel. A megacorporation named Fishhook holds a monopoly on this method of space travel and uses it to find and develop alien technologies to sell for profit. The consequent advances in the development of paranormal abilities has had an adverse side effect, in that the majority of humans who are not so endowed have reverted to an almost medieval level of superstition, equating telepathic and telekinetic powers with witchcraft. Outside the confines of Fishhook, those with paranormal abilities, or “parries,” are persecuted and lynched like witches of old.

Shepherd Blaine is a telepathic employee of Fishhook tasked with visiting planets orbiting distant stars. On one of his missions, he meets a mysterious alien life form with whom he communicates telepathically. Though not his first encounter with an ET, this meeting will change his life forever. The creature openly shares its mind with Blaine, thus depositing an alien presence within the human explorer’s psyche. This alien mind remains with Blaine even after his consciousness returns to Earth, essentially making him part alien. Fearing that his employers will discover his alienness and eliminate him for it, Blaine flees Fishhook and runs for his life.

Though the plot does feature brief moments of time travel and space travel, the story focuses mostly on the paranormal. A whole spectrum of powers and abilities are exhibited by characters in the book. Sometimes Simak is a little too vague in his descriptions of these phenomena. Rather than just telling us that Blaine has acquired certain powers from his alien stowaway, some more thorough explanation and vivid description of the experience of those powers would have been helpful. As is often the case with a Simak novel, he crams a lot of ideas into this one book, which means not every concept gets fully developed. However, the science isn’t so half-baked that the story lapses into the realm of fantasy (as in his novel Highway of Eternity), and Simak’s conjecture into the political and social ramifications of paranormal activity is quite insightful.

Whatever flaws the book has in its sci-fi speculations are made up for by the fact that it is simply an exciting adventure novel. Blaine’s flight from Fishhook is like one of Jason Bourne’s chase movies but with all sorts of weird extraterrestrial tech and psionic powers thrown in. Time is the Simplest Thing was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel. I don’t think it is among the author’s very best—not on a par with books like City, Way Station, or a personal favorite, Mastodonia—but it is a very good example of Simak’s visionary brilliance and an entertaining read.

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