Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Empire by Clifford D. Simak

A rare stumble from a sci-fi master
I’ve only recently discovered the writings of Clifford D. Simak, but I already consider myself a big fan of his work. Based on novels like Way Station and his stories in the Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series, I was under the impression that he could do no wrong. His 1951 novel Empire, however, proved to be quite a disappointment.

The story takes place centuries in the future. Earth has developed the solar system, establishing colonies, mines, prisons, and industrial plants on all the worlds from Mercury to Pluto. There’s big business in extracting resources from our neighboring planets, and most of that business is controlled by the Interplanetary Power corporation. Interplanetary manufactures accumulators that harvest energy from the sun and are then shipped throughout the solar system to satisfy humanity’s appetite for power. Without these accumulators, space flight would be impossible. Because of this monopoly on energy, the tycoon who runs interplanetary, Spencer Chambers, is the de facto dictator of the solar system.

However, a rival billionaire aims to change that. Gregory Manning and his chief scientist Russell Page, have made the serendipitous discovery of a new source of power. Or perhaps they’ve made two or three discoveries in rapid succession, it’s really quite unclear. Simak goes to great lengths to describe the forces that Manning and Page have discovered and harnessed, but you’d probably need a physics degree to really make sense of it. There’s much talk about anti-entropy and negative gravity and space fields. Much of it falls within my understanding of physics, but a lot of it just seems to be made up to allow the two heroes to do cool things. For instance, they can propel spacecraft faster than the speed of light. They can capture an instantaneous television feed from anywhere in the solar system or project a three-dimensional television image in return. They can teleport people and things, or reach out and snatch anything, anywhere, and bring it to them. There’s seemingly no limit to what they can do with these remarkable space fields.

Which is really the crux of the book’s problem. This is supposed to be a David and Goliath story about two revolutionary upstarts taking down an empire. It’s hard for that sort of story to be fun, however, when the underdogs are practically omnipotent. Whenever the good guys come up against a challenge, they just snap their fingers and make it go away. Chambers has his own evil genius who is trying to duplicate Manning’s discoveries and use them against him, but the story never builds any suspense. The climactic confrontation is just a mess of confusing detail you’d have to draw a diagram to figure out. Simak is usually so good about maintaining the human element in his visionary sci-fi speculations, but here any emotional engagement is lost. All the characters are like cardboard cutouts, indistinguishable from one another except by name.

A writer whose body of work is as prolific and diverse as Simak’s is bound to have a few lackluster works in his catalog. Empire is definitely far from his best work, though perhaps someone with a more advanced knowledge of the science behind the fiction might appreciate this book more than I did. Simak produced so many exceptional works, however, most readers can afford to skip this one.
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