Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak

When universes collide
Depending on which bibliography you consult, Cosmic Engineers may be considered Clifford D. Simak’s debut novel. (His work “The Creator” had previously been published in book form, but it’s really only a short story.) Cosmic Engineers was first serialized in 1939 issues of Astounding Science Fiction, then revised for publication as a novel in 1950. For an early-career work, this is a very ambitious piece of writing from Simak that incorporates some high-concept theoretical science and encompasses the fate of the entire universe.

The story takes place in the year 6948. Mankind has colonized other planets in the solar system but has yet to venture to another star. A reporter and photographer from Earth are on their way to an outpost on Pluto to cover the first attempt at a flight to Alpha Centauri. When the journalists arrive, however, the big news turns out to be that scientists on Pluto have been receiving messages from the far-off edge of the universe. A chance encounter with a space castaway on a drifting derelict ship puts them in touch with the one human who might be able to understand these cosmic messages and communicate with the beings of profound intelligence who sent them.

Astronomers know that when stars or galaxies collide with one another, cataclysmic transformations occur, enormous amounts of energy are unleashed, and star systems are born or destroyed. Simak expands this idea by introducing the idea of two colliding universes. In this novel, space and time as we know them exist within a fifth-dimensional ether that is home to a multiverse of separate cosmos. When it is revealed that a collision between our universe and another universe is imminent, the fate of all life and the very existence of all time and space is at stake. Can a small team of humans from Earth hope to stop this interuniversal Armageddon? Simak delivers a challengingly complex plot vast enough to include multiple universes, higher dimensions, time travel, and the beginning and end of the human race.

One of the obstacles the humans have to face is a race of evil beings referred to as the “Hellhounds.” It is unclear whether these are intended to be related to the space invaders from Simak’s 1932 novella Hellhounds of the Cosmos. Both books deal with interdimensional warfare, and both are pretty bizarre. Of the two works, Cosmic Engineers is the more accomplished piece of writing and the more indicative of the cerebral sci-fi for which Simak would become known.

As an early work in Simak’s career, Cosmic Engineers is not one of Simak’s best novels. At this point in 1950, it still feels as if he hasn’t yet achieved his mature style, and the book certainly lacks in character development compared to his later works. Still, this is a far cry from the typical space action and bug-eyed monster pulp fiction of its era. Simak aims for intellectual high-ground and asks his reader to swallow some pretty trippy theoretical physics. The result is an admirably ambitious debut novel that keeps the reader interested and entertained throughout. Its biggest flaw is that Simak’s relentless faith in humanity as the cosmic underdog of the universe makes this David and Goliath story a little hard to swallow at times.
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