Monday, April 10, 2017

Mastodonia by Clifford D. Simak

The business of time travel
In 1955, science fiction author Clifford D. Simak published a story called “Project Mastodon.” As the title might indicate, this was a tale of time travel that involved journeying into the prehistoric past. With this story, Simak brought a novel and interesting perspective to the subject, exploring not only the adventure potential of time travel, but also the political and economic ramifications such a discovery might bring about. Though the story was pretty good, it felt a bit half-baked and too lighthearted to be taken seriously. Later, however, Simak would take its basic premise, adapt it to a new cast of characters, and develop it into a full-blown novel entitled Mastodonia, published in 1978. Thank goodness he didn’t give up on the idea, because his thoughtful resurrection of this concept has resulted in a very entertaining and thought-provoking book.

Like much of Simak’s fiction, Mastodonia takes place in rural western Wisconsin. Asa Steele, a professor of paleontology, is spending his sabbatical at the farm where he grew up. He is joined there by Rila Elliot, a former paleontological colleague with whom he had a brief love affair twenty years prior. As the two become reacquainted, Asa explains to her that he has isolated himself in this secluded region in order to investigate some strange artifacts he has found on his property. Also a mysterious creature has been seen lurking through the woods. One night, Asa stumbles through a time tunnel into a land populated by prehistoric mammals who walked the earth 100,000 years ago. Through a mechanism best left unmentioned, Asa and Rila discover that they can create similar time tunnels into various periods of the past. Though they recognize the incredible research potential of time travel, they decide that in order to construct the necessary infrastructure to make time travel accessible, they must first develop it into a commercially viable business, one centered around prehistoric safaris. The first step in their business plan is to declare their prehistoric haven an independent nation, which they dub Mastodonia.

Simak has an extraordinary talent for taking the scientifically incredible and rendering it believable within the mundane details of our everyday world. A large part of his ability to do this comes from his keen understanding of human nature and his ability to craft realistic and sympathetic characters that don’t merely serve as shills for his sci-fi speculations but actually function as complex characters worthy of literature. Through Asa’s first-person narration, the reader experiences a roller coaster ride of conflicting feelings from the joy of discovery, to the weight of responsibility, to the pangs of regret.

Mastodonia did not always live up to my expectations. For one thing, I thought there would be more time travel. Unlike other sci-fi novels which concentrate on the wow factor of time travel, this one focuses more on its ethical, legal, and logistical complications. Simak defying my expectations, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, truth be told, it makes for a better narrative. You never know where or when the story is going to lead, and Simak keeps you guessing right up until the very end. Though at times he may have led me down paths I didn’t want to travel, I always ended up admiring the author when we arrived at our destination. It’s a rare novel that can combine the pulp fiction thrills of a dinosaur hunt with a philosophical examination of time travel ethics. Even within Simak’s impressive body of work, Mastodonia is an exceptional read that delivers ample fun, thrills, and intellectual stimulation.
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