Clifford Simak has an important message for all wannabe McFly’s and TimeLords: Don’t bother. Life moves with time. It doesn’t hang around to be observed by time travelers. The past is deserted of life, and the future is a void.
More importantly, Mr. Simak also has a message for NASA: Stop what you’re doing. Humans are too frail for space. If we want to explore space, we must do so with our minds (cue wobbly theremin music).
That’s the basic premise for Simak’s 1962 Hugo-nominated novel Time is the Simplest Thing (a.k.a. The Fisherman). Shepherd Blaine, telepathic space explorer for Fishhook enterprises, embarks on a mental journey to a planet 5,000 light-years from Earth and encounters the Pinkness (not a sexual metaphor!), an equally telepathic creature. The creature automatically shares its mind with Blaine, without so much as a hello, (well, it shouts “Hey, Pal!”– because every planet shares a lexicon of wholesome epithets), and Blaine, fused with his new alien mind, returns to Earth and flees Fishhook’s greedy desire to collect alien life in any form.
Written during the peak of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, Time is the Simplest Thing presents a rather transparent allegory of intolerance in the United States. “Parries,” or those with paranormal abilities, are feared and ostracized by the larger society, but Blaine’s omniscient alien mind may have the knowledge to save humanity from itself (hence the eye-roll-inducing first name of “Shepherd”). Imagery of rusty, backwater towns, filled with angry mobs and dangling corpses add to the swollen metaphor. It feels like a superficial attempt at making a statement, but maybe that’s just due to the jaded, 20/20 hindsight of my generation. Still, other SF authors have mastered the civil rights allegory on a more personal and subtle level.
But inelegant social metaphors aside, the richness of this novel is in its storytelling, which stacks each plot movement as neatly as a staircase, encouraging the reader to proceed upward, toward a gentle, sloping climax. Nothing jumps or jerks here; there are no sudden, contrived plot twists. The story feels organic and natural, and it builds to a satisfying conclusion. It’s an easy read, well-paced, with a comfortable level suspense. The prose is basic– neither beautiful, nor distracting– but it will urge the reader to turn the page, without losing any sleep when it’s time to put it down. From what I have read about Simak, this steady storytelling style is atypical, but Time predates his mind-trippy era.
For a novel about an alien entity called the Pinkness, the mood is quite dark. Space- and time-travel take a backseat to the sometimes horror-like atmosphere sprinkled with fear, with references to witches, warlocks, and werewolves. Simak’s sense of horror is not nearly as doom-laden as Lovecraft or Poe, but the attempt is a refreshing change of pace from a standard SF novel. Its October setting makes it an ideal book to read around Halloween.
Hard sci-fi fans will be disappointed by Simak’s lack of scientific explanation. The confusion that results from Blaine’s alien mind-meld is a convenient ploy to avoid the heavy how-to’s about space- and time-travel. Even basic descriptions of other planets are devoid of scientific data. For example, Blaine can use his new mind to calculate the atmospheric conditions of other planets, but he refers to his choices as either “poison” or “paradise,” rather than sharing those chemical compositions with the reader. But Simak compensates with imaginative futuristic ideas, such as a dimensino (interactive television) and butcher plants (plants that grow steak-like protein).
Time is the Simplest Thing is a Halloween-themed conspiracy thriller about telepathic space travel, alien mind-melds, with a side of time-travel, and a vein of civil rights-related social commentary running through the middle. Simak’s undemanding, uncomplicated approach makes this potential SF disaster a pleasurable and worthwhile story.
In the simplest terms, Time is simply a good read.