Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Project Pope by Clifford D. Simak

Faith from knowledge or knowledge from faith?
Published in 1981, Project Pope is one of the last few novels penned by Clifford D. Simak, a Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master whose career spanned over half a century. This is the 28th book I’ve reviewed by Simak, so I’m definitely a fan. Neither the best nor the worst of his novels, Project Pope could be considered an average work by Simak standards, but it still upholds a higher level of quality than most of his sci-fi contemporaries.

Project Pope takes place in a future in which mankind has populated planets in myriad star systems. Fleeing some legal trouble, James Tennyson, a physician, stows away on a spaceship headed to End of Nothing, a planet situated on the very outskirts of our galaxy. There he finds a society established by robots from Earth, along with a few human citizens. The robots have created a center of religion and research named Vatican 17, complete with a supercomputer as Pope. In their search for a one true universal religion, the robots employ Listeners, humans capable of mental projection, to explore other worlds and gather data on alien cultures and faiths. When one of the Listeners claims to have found Heaven, a political schism develops in the Vatican hierarchy. As dissension escalates, Tennyson and his human companions seek to learn the truth behind this mysterious world propounded to be the one true Heaven.

Simak expresses Christian sentiments and features Catholic characters in several of his works, which leads one to assume he was Catholic. He was, however, open-minded enough not to accept Catholic dogma unconditionally but to thoughtfully question his own religious views through his work. His most overtly Christian work is the 1978 fantasy novel The Fellowship of the Talisman, which concludes with a blatant preachiness almost bordering on the fanatical. Project Pope demonstrates a much more even-handed approach that criticizes organized religion as much as it respects faith. Here Simak examines the dichotomy between knowledge and faith. Should empirical investigation into the workings of the universe lead to the development of a rationally acceptable theism, or should an a priori faith serve as the moral and ethical lens through which man seeks knowledge and defines his relationship to the universe? In Project Pope, Simak gives credence to both views but ultimately settles on the former more than the latter.

If there is a profound message to be learned here about religion, however, it is not carved in stone tablets. The book really raises more questions than it answers, but perhaps that was Simak’s intention. His philosophical investigation isn’t helped any by certain whimsical touches that undermine the gravity of the themes discussed. A planet named End of Nothing seems right at home in a Simak novel, but other worlds mentioned bear unrealistic names that comically evoke the Wild West, such as Gutshot. The humans in the novel designate alien species by cartoonish pet names, such as Bubbly, Plopper, and Haystack. When first presented, these playful word choices may be mildly entertaining, but they do make it difficult to take the story seriously.

To its credit, Project Pope is never boring. It starts out weird and just keeps getting weirder. As the plot progresses, Simak throws logic to the wind and seems to be just making up the rules as he goes along. This is not one of his more expertly crafted novels, but Simak’s visionary imagination still has the power to inspire awe, admiration, and amusement. For newcomers to Simak’s work, this is probably not the best book to start with—try Way Station, City, or All Flesh is Grass—but confirmed Simak fans will find it a satisfying read.
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