Earth: interstellar humanity’s burial ground
Thousands of years in the future, mankind has colonized many planets throughout the galaxy. The vast majority of people were neither born on Earth nor have they ever visited humanity’s home world. Fletcher Carson, a native of the planet Alden, arrives on Earth for his first visit. Fletch is an artist whose medium of choice is the compositor, a large robotic recording device that captures stimuli for all five of the human senses. Fletch hopes to create a work of art that encapsulates what Earth is really like, not just what’s shown in promotional brochures.
Such brochures are put out by Cemetery, now the largest corporation on Earth. Though few humans have set foot on the planet, Old Earth has become an object of fond nostalgia. Billions of people want to be buried there, which has resulted in an industry of mortuary services and funerary tourism that dominates the planet. The undeveloped areas of Earth, however, those untouched by Cemetery, are still very much like the wildernesses of today. It is this authentic Earth ambience that Fletch hopes to capture in his art with the help of his two assistant robots. Cemetery wants to control humanity’s perceptions of Earth, however, and when Fletch defies their attempts at artistic control he becomes a threat to him that they wish to extinguish.
Like many a Simak novel—A Heritage of Stars, Where the Evil Dwells, and The Fellowship of the Talisman come to mind—Cemetery World is a quest novel, involving not only the flight of fugitives but also a treasure hunt. Much of the plot, therefore, is occupied by traveling and by camping in particular, with various monsters, robots, and ruffians invading Fletch’s campsites. This gives Simak the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the woods, a place he clearly enjoys, as evidenced in many of his novels and stories. Simak may be science fiction’s most outdoorsy writer, the genre’s preeminent pastoralist. As his characters of the future reconnect with nature, Simak asserts the importance of nature and the value of rural life in today’s world.
The idea of Earth as a burial planet is an interesting idea, but Simak doesn’t really explore it thoroughly. Cemetery just becomes another evil corporate empire bent on persecuting the book’s heroes. The commodity they’re dealing in doesn’t really matter much to the story. Simak often populates his books with bizarre beings, and here some of them come across a bit too fanciful. This novel is high on imaginative occurrences but low on any sort of logical (even sci-fi logical) explanation for them.
Cemetery World is not a great book, but it’s not a bad one either. As far as Simak’s bibliography is concerned, this is a middle-of-the-road work amid an exceptional career. Simak fans won’t mind spending the time on it. Those unfamiliar with Simak’s work would be better off reading Way Station, City, Mastodonia, Time and Again, or any of the volumes in the Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series.
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