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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1 comment:

  1. I’m very sorry to say that I agree with your review of Highway of Eternity. It hits me particularly hard because of what Mr. Simak said about it in a letter he wrote me in 1986, just 4 months before it was published. Here’s what he wrote:

    ”I have a feeling it just might be the best thing I have written. I have the horrible feeling it may be my last. I am not well and I am old and fairly beaten up and at the moment I do not have the physical strength to write another. I hope this is not true. There is one last story I would like to write.”

    So you can see why I get so sad when I think about this novel. My letter to Mr. Simak was written on 12/8/85; his wife had died the day before, after a long illness. They’d been married for 55 years. By the time he wrote me back, 2/28/86, he was making a life for himself without her, as she would’ve wished. He told me all this and more in a 3-page handwritten letter (which I’m rereading now) because he was stimulated by the letter I wrote him; in quite a circuitous, raconteurish way, I had told him what his Spec-Fic — in particular, The Big Front Yard — meant to me. This is what he told me:

    ”Your analysis of the thrust of The Big Front Yard is a welcome surprise to me. I knew, of course, what I was writing about, and I thought I’d spelled it out sufficiently for anyone to understand. But of all the comments that have been made of it, all the words that have been written of it by critics and science fiction historians, you are the first and only one who has put an unerring finger on what I tried so hard to say. Thank God for you. I think that in other stories I may have said or tried to say much the same thing, but less directly and with less emphasis.”

    So while I am sad about Highway of Eternity — so many interesting ideas (perhaps too many?) but jumbled all up — I have this beautiful letter that I’ve treasured these past 34 years, along with a copy of the 6-page printed letter that I wrote to him. That ”unerring finger” comment alone is worth the price of admission, so to speak.

    I confess, also, that other than Way Station (basically an expansion of Front Yard with action/adventure and romantic additions), I’m not a great fan of his long-form Spec-Fic. What I love are his short-stories and novellas: Front Yard, Desertion, Immigrant, New Folks’ Home, Drop Dead, and Skirmish were all featured on my now-defunct website, Prescience: Her Anthology of Classic Speculative Fiction. Out of 27 tales (including 3 novels, and all of which I typed, formatted, and edited), 6 of the entries are those Simak shorts. I had to take it down because I didn’t have author/estate permissions. (btw, my initials are ”her,” hence the Her in the site’s title.)