Friday, March 20, 2020

Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak

Crisis of infinite Earths
First published in 1952 in the pages of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, Clifford D. Simak’s novel Ring Around the Sun has since been reprinted in over 50 editions in at least 15 languages, amounting to hundreds of thousands of copies. These days, however, it is not as well known as some of his other works, such as his novel City, which came out that same year. Nevertheless, Ring Around the Sun garnered positive critical praise upon its release, and it still holds up well as a quality work of visionary fiction.

Despite the title, the novel has nothing to do with space travel. The story takes place on Earth, perhaps a few decades in the future. Jay Vickers, an author, lives in a small town outside of New York City, close enough that he can make trips downtown to visit his literary agent. Like many of Simak’s heroes, he grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, so he gravitates toward a simpler, more rural lifestyle. He is haunted by memories of his bucolic childhood and by longings for a girl he loved as a teenager. He vaguely remembers an experience he shared with her, in which they both seemed to stroll into a pastoral “fairyland” not of this Earth.

Present life on Vickers’s Earth, however, is no fairyland. The Cold War is at its height, inspiring fears of nuclear Armageddon. Many citizens of this near-future America are so discontented that they seek refuge in the past by becoming “pretentionists” who take up historical re-enactment as a hobby. Many also find comfort in technological advances that make their lives easier. Recently, a surprising number of products have been appearing on the market that seem just too good to be true. These inexpensive goods of impeccable manufacture—cars, houses, light bulbs, razor blades—are guaranteed to last forever, thus eliminating planned obsolescence, and they are priced so low they couldn’t possibly turn a profit. While initially consumers are pleased by these new wonders, they soon become alarmed when these perfect products of unknown origin cause them to lose their jobs. Could this abundance of technological wonders be an attempt by some secret cabal to subvert our capitalist system and destroy our economy?

If that scenario doesn’t sound sci-fi enough for Simak, fear not. He takes it much further, but little can be revealed without spoiling the surprises. Simak creates a futuristic scenario of intricate complexity in which fantastic occurrences all logically build upon one another to construct a credible sci-fi thriller. Like a great mystery writer, he judiciously parcels out clues, gradually letting the reader in on the secrets of this fascinating world he has created. The plot of Ring Around the Sun is delightfully ingenious and chock-full of visionary ideas, several of which are familiar recurring themes in Simak’s work. At times, however, the story becomes more complicated than it needs to be. For example, Simak introduces mutants into the novel, then robots, and eventually he goes two steps beyond robots to introduce plot twists that just seem like unnecessary overkill. He undermines the elegance of his own creation by throwing too much into the kitchen sink.

Simak’s books are consistently excellent, and I enjoyed Ring Around the Sun very much, but it’s not quite as good as his novels City and Way Station or many of the stories in The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. By Simak standards, this novel is very good. Compared to the work of most other science fiction writers, it’s quite exceptional.

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