Monday, May 27, 2019

Time and Again by Clifford D. Simak

Ingenious time travel mystery thriller
Having read at least 20 of Clifford D. Simak’s books, I can confidently say that he is an author that rarely disappoints. As a big fan of his writing, I approach his work with high expectations, yet he almost never fails to impress with his boundless creativity, prodigious literary skill, and visionary sci-fi speculation. Time and Again, originally published in 1951, is yet another great novel by Simak. This one is a mystery thriller of sorts that incorporates time travel, interstellar exploration, and warring factions fighting over humanity’s future.

The year is 7990. Aided by a workforce of androids and robots, mankind has spread throughout the galaxy and conquered a multitude of planets. Twenty years ago, Asher Sutton was dispatched to the star system of 61 Cygni as one of many advance scouts sent forth from Earth to make first contact with other worlds. Unlike so many others sent on similar missions, however, Sutton was never heard from again. Christopher Adams, a high-level government functionary, was the man who sent him there. Adams had given up Sutton for dead until one night a visitor shows up unexpectedly on his doorstep. This visitor claims to be from the future, a future in which time travel has become a reality. He informs Adams that Sutton will soon be returning from 61 Cygni, and when he does, this visitor urges that Adams have Sutton killed immediately.

Thus in the very first chapter Simak quickly and skillfully sets up a science fiction mystery with two baffling questions: What happened to Sutton on 61 Cygni? And what exactly is he going to do that merits this death sentence from the future? The story grips the reader from page one and never lets go. Sutton himself, once he enters the story, is largely clueless as to the answers to these questions, and the reader follows along with him as he gradually uncovers the truth. The story that Simak constructs is intricately complex and delightfully ingenious. Time travel is a frequent topic of Simak’s fiction, and he is consistently one of the best writers to tackle the subject. Here he constructs a plot with just about as many time travel twists, turns, and paradoxes as the Terminator series. At times, quite frankly, it can get a little too complex, to the point where necessary explanations slow down the otherwise riveting forward momentum of the story.

Though most of the narrative takes place in the 80th century, the element of time travel allows Simak to return to one of his favorite settings: the rural Wisconsin of his youth. Simak grew up in the farming country of southwestern Wisconsin, and perhaps for that reason he writes with an appreciation of nature and a sensitivity to the natural environment that few science fiction writers possess. His work is also characterized by a heartfelt compassion and a deep philosophical questioning of the purpose and fate of humanity, which manifests itself here in the form of a philosophical manifesto that ignites a future ideological war. The details of this fictional future philosophy, however, are a little sketchy. While its sentiment is commendable and compelling, the terminology in which it is expressed is sometimes rather vague and confusing.

Time and Again may not be quite as good as better known Simak works such as Way Station, City, or Mastodonia, but it’s right up there alongside them, likely among his top five novels. I will be able to judge for certain after I finish his complete works, which is something I fully intend to do, because Simak never ceases to amaze.
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