(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1973 edition)
Nominated for the 1972 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Clifford D. Simak’s A Choice of Gods (1971) is a flawed but intriguing novel. Simak’s renowned for his original anti-technology pastoral visions. His science fiction (replete with unusual aliens) is more likely to intersect our future world in the environs of the rural farm, the depopulated/gutted earth covered with forests or an isolated Native American tribe than an urban dystopia, trans-galactic spaceship, or distant planet. The more famous examples are his Hugo winning Way Station (1963), deserving of at least some of the effuse praise it receives, and City (1952), rightly considered a classic.
Simak’s favorite themes are on show in A Choice of Gods including what happens to robots, whom Simak portrays as almost human but with a programmed need to assist mankind, when they are severed from their original function. And the sci-fi staple: how will mankind evolve in the distant future? In Simak’s case, how will humanity evolve in a non-technological future. Unfortunately, it is in his discussion of the dichotomy between technological and non-technological which weakens the novel.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
In 2135 the vast majority of the human population of Earth is removed by some unknown entity. The same unknown entity grants the remaining inhabitants virtual immortality. In the course of 5,000 years, where the novel’s main narrative thread picks up, humans have abandoned most forms of technology and thus, developed amazing abilities (the ability to journey to the stars with one’s mind, the ability to communicate with those among the stars, the ability to talk to trees). The people transported off Earth by the entity (the vast majority of the population) have developed a similar society to the one they had before: a technologically driven society.
Jason Whitney and his wife Martha, the two main characters, were left on Earth by the entity. However, most of those who remained have used their abilities to leave by their own accord and explore the stars. Jason and Martha have never journeyed off planet — they live in their same house, replete with a large library, assisted in their daily life by robots.
Another group of humans who have been left behind and chosen not to leave Earth are a tribe of Native Americans. They eschew technology completely (unlike Jason and Martha) and are highly suspicious of robots.
Because most people were transported off of Earth a massive population of robots remain without any duties to perform. However, due to their programming they seek to assist man. A few have stayed in the employ of Jason and Martha. Simak’s most interesting passages concern the remaining robots without any humans to serve. One group has formed a monastery. Another group has created a much larger robotic mind which confers with the stars.
The “plot” of the novel concerns the arrival of Jason’s brother, John, from his interstellar ramblings. He brings shocking news, The People (those transported off of Earth) seek to return to their ancestral home after 5,000 years (queue technology vs. pastoralist debates). John also speaks of a force he’s discovered near the center of the Galaxy — could it be the entity responsible for the unusual experiment with Earth’s inhabitants? Also, a mysterious alien which looks like a can of worms (!) is discovered by the Native Americans. And finally, an unusual young man named David Hunt emerges from the forest and is discovered by the robot monks.
Simak attempts to construct a dichotomy between humanity striving towards technology and humanity without the drive towards technological development: “Let me spell it out to you once again. You are either parapsychic or you aren’t. You are technolgical or you aren’t. You can’t be both of them” (161). Simak is clearly in the camp of those that remained on Earth and became pastoral and thus developed their minds and abilities. Unfortunately, the dichotomy doesn’t hold true. Most technology has faded into oblivion over the course of the millennia (one can’t exactly make new parts for machines hanging out in a rural America). However, a key technological advancement remains: robots. Over and over again Simak mentions that Jason and Martha’s robot, Thomas, plants their crops, assists around the house, etc.
Without the need for medical advancements to live more than thirty years, without the need to protect oneself against others, without the need to support a large population, it’s all too simple to “choose” to eschew technology. The entity which constructs this experiment imposes such highly artificial situations that Simak’s pastoral longings come off as rather unbelievable. If I’m never going to die and will always have a gaggle of robots working for me perhaps becoming a rural pastoralist wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Because few science fiction authors include Native American characters — Andre Norton’s Sioux Spaceman (1960) comes to mind — on surface there’s much to praise in A Choice of Gods. But Simak’s anti-technological and pastoral stance combines too “nicely” with a naive idealism concerning Native Americans and the land. Simak’s longings for a future where humans are “one with nature” like the noble Indian strategically ignores (perhaps, he’s simply ignorant) Native American city-building (Cahokia, etc), violent intertribal wars/slave trading, and incredible mercantile/capitalistic trade networks. The Native American characters have chosen to return to the “Native American way” constructed from a bucket of clichés mostly invented by white men. These Native Americans have chosen to live according to their traditional (and idealistic ways) — it’s obviously unnecessary to engage in warfare when there aren’t any enemies. Again, one can chose when the choice is possible.
Simak’s prose is on the whole successful in evoking his intense adoration for an anti-technological future pastoralist Golden Age. A Choice of Gods is a mostly enjoyable read with intriguing discussions of robots, human development, and religion recommended for fans of Simak. Praise aside, Simak’s arguments for the benefits of an anti-technological future are unbelievable and illogical considering the role that robots continue to play in maintaining Jason and Martha and the benefits bestowed on them by the entity that makes their choices possible.
(Michael Hinge’s cover for the 1971 edition)
(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1977 edition)
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