Monday, July 27, 2020

The Fellowship of the Talisman by Clifford D. Simak

Preachy sword-and-sorcery fantasy
Fantasy literature isn’t really my thing, but I am a huge fan of Clifford D. Simak’s science fiction, so I was more than willing to give this novel a try. The Fellowship of the Talisman was first published in 1978. The poorly chosen title leads one to believe this is going to be a rip-off of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, and as with any book in this genre there are some inevitable similarities. Simak, however, adds some interesting science fiction ideas to this traditional sword-and-sorcery quest narrative. The tone of the storytelling calls to mind Stephen King more than it does Tolkien, but the cast of characters is comprised of representatives of dozens of mythical species straight out of the Dungeons & Dragons handbook, similar to the popular 1970s fantasy literature of authors like Piers Anthony or Fritz Leiber. For that genre, The Fellowship of the Talisman would be a satisfying read had Simak not chosen to add elements of theology and religion that ruin an otherwise adequate story.

The Fellowship of the Talisman takes place in England during the 20th century, but this is not the 20th century that we lived through. In this alternate history, Europe has yet to emerge from the Dark Ages. Medieval feudalism still reigns. The progress of civilization has been halted by waves of evil that periodically sweep across the land. Swathes of territory are decimated by an army of evil nonhuman beings known as the Harriers. Simak partially attributes this evil to the fact that in this timeline the Christian crusaders never took Jerusalem.

Duncan Standish, a nobleman’s son, is asked by his father to undertake a dangerous mission. A rare manuscript has been discovered that purports to be an eyewitness account of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. If proven genuine, this document will bring hope to the good people in their fight against evil. In order to authenticate the manuscript, Duncan must take it to Oxenford, where a noted scholar will examine and translate the document. To fulfill his mission, Duncan must cross the Desolated Lands that are currently under attack by the Harriers. He departs with a small party that grows larger as his journey continues. Beings that we consider mythical are real in this world, and Duncan encounters many of them, both good and evil.

The fundamental flaw of the novel is Simak’s implication that Christianity was the key to freeing Western civilization from the Dark Ages. On the contrary, it was the humanists of the Renaissance and the deists of the Enlightenment who got us out of the Dark Ages. If it were up to the Church, we would all still be living under feudalism and being executed for believing in Copernicanism. The best thing about the Crusades was not that the holy warriors of Western Europe took Jerusalem, but rather that they took the knowledge of Islamic philosophers and mathematicians home with them. The plot premise is acceptable at first, while the pro-Christian theme is kept pretty quiet throughout a story filled with characters of pagan origin. When it comes to the conclusion, however, Simak escalates the religious fervor to the point of ridiculousness. The reader spends the whole book waiting while this band of misfits trudges along on their journey, only to have the entire quest wrapped up in the final 14 pages with a silly and simplistic ending.

Because Simak is a great writer, this book has its fair share of interesting characters and exciting scenes. The novel suffers, however, from a slow pace overall and a cockamamie plot with a preachy ending that adds insult to injury. I’m still an avid fan of Simak, but The Fellowship of the Talisman is among my least favorite of his works.
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