Monday, April 25, 2022

Shakespeare’s Planet by Clifford D. Simak

Interstellar castaway on a mysterious world
Clifford D. Simak was a prolific science fiction author whose writing career lasted from the early 1930s to the late 1980s. In addition to over a hundred short stories and novellas, Simak published 27 novels. Shakespeare’s Planet, his 19th novel, was published in 1976. Highly respected in his field, Simak is known for the consistent high quality of his works, and Shakespeare’s Planet is no exception.

Space traveler Carter Horton has just awoken from suspended animation. He left Earth in the 25th century as the planet was facing environmental and economic collapse. His journey was one of a number of scouting missions to look for habitable planets. He is now shocked to find that he has been asleep for over a thousand years, and his three human traveling companions died long ago. He is informed of the situation by his robot chaperone and by his sentient spaceship with whom he communicates telepathically. The good news is that after wandering over the galaxy for over a millennium they have now discovered a habitable planet. When Horton debarks on the planet’s surface, he encounters a being of an intelligent alien species, also a visitor to this world. This alien, a hunter and warrior nicknamed Carnivore, informs Horton that he is not the first human to visit this world. Carnivore had a previous acquaintance with an Earthling who facetiously referred to himself as Shakespeare. Though now deceased, Shakespeare left behind writings that can still teach Horton a thing or two about this world, which has its share of strange mysteries. The biggest puzzle facing Horton: Is there a way off this desolate world?

Shakespeare’s Planet is like an ingenious mystery story set in a far-flung star system. Simak expertly parcels out the clues to the mystery planet’s secrets while introducing innovative alien species and strange phenomena that question the very nature of time and space. Most outer space sci-fi stories revolve around conflict between different species or warring planetary factions. Simak’s fiction, however, more often than not hinges on friendship between humans and alien species. If we met intelligent life from elsewhere in the universe, how would we communicate with them? How could we help each other? What can we learn from one another? These are the questions that Simak explores again and again in his novels and stories. His works express a kind of interstellar environmental ethic: We should respect other worlds and their inhabitants just as we should respect the nature and peoples of Earth. Simak’s stories often exude a melancholy regret for mankind’s past rapaciousness but an optimistic faith in the future resilience of humanity. Shakespeare’s Planet is a perfect example of Simak’s passion for these recurring themes.

I have read at least three-fourths of Simak’s complete works, and I would count Shakespeare’s Planet among his best novels, though not quite on the same par with classics like Way Station or City. If you read enough of Simak’s works, you begin to notice certain elements and speculative ideas repeating themselves, so parts of this novel will feel vaguely familiar to diehard Simak fans, but rarely has he put such elements and ideas into an arrangement as compelling as this. Shakespeare’s Planet is a suspenseful interstellar adventure that keeps the reader guessing, reveals ingenious sci-fi visions, and provokes deep thoughts with its philosophical questioning of the future of mankind.
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