Monday, July 22, 2019

Highway of Eternity by Clifford D. Simak

All over the (space-time) map
Award-winning and critically acclaimed science fiction author Clifford D. Simak’s final novel, Highway of Eternity, was originally published in 1986. Since publisher Open Road Media recently began rereleasing Simak’s works in ebook form, I have reviewed over 20 of his books and given many of them five-star ratings. Simak is easily one of my favorite science fiction writers of all time, and one subject in which he particularly excels is time travel. Therefore I had high hopes for Highway of Eternity, but unfortunately it is not one of his better novels. While the book contains some good ideas, it may contain too many, for few if any are developed to the point where they amount to much more than mere foggy notions.

The weirdness starts right out of the gate, as the reader is immediately introduced to two characters with unusual powers. Boone has the ability to inexplicably “step around a corner,” which is his rather inadequate way of describing the fact that when he feels threatened he somehow involuntarily transports himself to a realm seemingly outside of time and space as we know it. His friend Corcoran, on the other hand, at times experiences the power to see things that normal humans cannot see, such as beings or object that are invisibly present but out of phase with our own time-space. In the course of investigating a mysterious disappearance, these two stumble upon a family of revolutionary refugees from mankind’s future who dwell in an 18th century English manor house that has been removed to an isolated bubble outside of time and space. The cast thus enlarges to about eight or nine main characters, and the rest of the novel follows their diverse travels through time and space as they flee persecution from a foe that threatens the end of humanity as we know it. Over the course of their space-time peregrinations, they encounter everything from saber-toothed tigers to sentient robots to various races of aliens.

As one might surmise from that description, there isn’t a great deal of rhyme or reason to the goings-on here. It is as if Simak merely came up with a bunch of “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if” moments and then lumped them all into one book. The robots and aliens are barely described, leaving much to the reader’s imagination, and the same could be said for most of the novel’s scientific concepts. Six or seven different methods of space and/or time travel are presented over the course of the story, and they are all so vaguely defined as to border on the magical, making this more of a fantasy novel than anything firmly rooted within the science fiction genre. Though Simak, as he often does, addresses deep philosophical issues of mankind’s purpose and future, the prose is often written with a deliberate simplicity that evokes the feel of young adult literature. The dialogue frequently consists of rapid exchanges of vague phrases of five words or less, a stylistic choice that annoys more than it enlightens. It is as if Simak was after some sort of fairy-tale feel to his prose that garishly clashes with the speculative sci-fi subject matter at hand.

Highway of Eternity is by no means a terrible novel, and those who enjoy Simak’s writing will still find patches to admire and enjoy amidst this hodgepodge quilt of meandering plotlines and partially developed concepts. Those wishing he had gone out on a high note, however, are likely to find this a disappointing swan song.
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