Monday, January 16, 2023

The Goblin Reservation by Clifford D. Simak

Simak put everything but the kitchen sink in this book
Author Clifford D. Simak was awarded the title of Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America. I have read most of his works and can say that in general his sci-fi certainly lives up to that distinguished designation. On the other hand, Simak also wrote fantasy novels of the Dungeons and Dragons or Lord of the Rings variety, which in my opinion are not as successful as his purely science fiction works. With his 1968 novel The Goblin Reservation, Simak crafts an odd mash-up of the two genres. In fact, this book is a mash-up of a lot of things. Simak put everything but the kitchen sink into this story, as if it were a garbage disposal of leftover ideas. Nevertheless, he manages to juggle all of the novel’s disparate elements, and through the story’s own perverse logic, somehow it all works together.

The Goblin Reservation takes place on Earth at an unspecified time in the future. By this time, mankind has explored other planets and become acquainted with their various life forms, some of whom have immigrated to Earth. Scientists have also achieved time travel. A Time College, devoted to the firsthand study of the past, has been established in Madison, Wisconsin. (Readers familiar with Simak’s writing will not be surprised at that location, since he frequently sets his stories near his hometown of Millville, WI.) Over the centuries, humans have also discovered that many of the creatures we thought were mythical or supernatural—fairies, goblins, banshees, trolls, ghosts, etc.—are actually real, natural beings that have managed to mostly live in hiding since ancient times. Many of these beings now reside on a Goblin Reservation near Madison; hence the book’s title, although the reservation itself occupies but a small part of the story.

Peter Maxwell, a professor at Time College, returns to Earth after an interplanetary research trip. The method of travel is matter transferral—essentially teleportation. Something went wrong with Maxwell’s trip. Instead of going to his intended destination, he was transported to an unknown crystal planet where mysterious beings gave him a glimpse of their staggering wealth of knowledge of the universe. Upon returning to Earth, Maxwell discovers that during his teleportation his matter was not only misplaced but also duplicated, resulting in two Peter Maxwells, one of whom returned to Earth prior to him and subsequently died. Now officially a dead man, Maxwell sets out to investigate what exactly happened. Aiding him in this endeavour are some of his friends from the university, including a Neanderthal brought forward in time, a ghost with no memory of his prior life, a woman with a saber-toothed tiger for a pet, and visiting lecturer William Shakespeare. Together this motley crew uncovers an alien conspiracy.

Of course, none of this is played dead serious; there is certainly an element of humor to much of the novel. That’s not to say, however, that anything goes, and whimsical events can just take place willy nilly. Despite the fact that the story involves space travel, time travel, and folkloric fantasy, Simak manages to weave everything together into a plot that makes sense, and it is a joy to follow along as he does so. This is not one of his more profound works, however, and at times the reader might wish it would be less comical. The ending feels a little weak as well, given all the bizarre and incredible events that lead up to it. Hard sci-fi purists will probably think The Goblin Reservation is just a load of nonsense, but readers with a tolerance for weirdness and whimsy, particularly habitual Simak fans, should not have much trouble enjoying the fun.
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