(Leo and Diane Dillon’s cover for the 1970 edition)
4.5/5 (Very Good)
I have found that the most successful science fiction novels on the theme of immortality are not about the immortals themselves or the state of “being immortal.” Novels like Raymond Z. Gallun’s The Eden Cycle (1974) might attempt to convey, at moments effectively, the ennui of an endless existence with endless possibilities but, as with mind of the immortal in question, the reader too feels the effects of endless, repetitive inundation. Rather, the most successful and evocative novels — for example James Gunn’s The Immortals (1962) — explore the social space that is created by the presence of immortals although they might be only peripheral characters. Simak’s Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967) takes Gunn’s premise a step further: What would happen to our society if almost everyone bought into the idea that immortality would be a real possibility sometime in the future?
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)
In Simak’s vision a corporation called Forever Center promised the world that immortality was a distinct possibility that would occur a few decades hence. How this would be accomplished wasn’t exactly clear. However, if someone wanted a chance at immortality then their recently (and this is key) dead body would be cryogenically frozen and reanimated when immortality was reality. Unfortunately, when the events of the novel transpire immortality is still not a reality. Rather, billions of bodies of individuals who have voluntarily chosen to die and those who have died by natural causes lay in vast chambers waiting… Of course, not only is the price astronomical but extensive investments (in Forever Center — which will naturally last “forever”) are necessary if you want income when you are reanimated.
Much of Simak’s novel concerns the changes in a society that has been seduced by this possibility of immortality. Soon a chance at immortality becomes an inalienable right. Transmitters are implanted into the body in order for rescue personnel to quickly attend to your corpse so that reanimation is possible. It becomes a crime — and your chance at immortality is revoked — to not attend to a body that a recently died. Due to the massive investments that are needed for any chance at wealth in the future all “superfluous” costs are cut. Only cheap entertainment — like books and newspapers and TV — are indulged in. Even the high level officials at Forever Center, for example the main character Daniel Frost, live in dungy apartments and eat at home.
The drastic overpopulation that would occur then the billions of dead that have gathered over the decades are reanimated is almost too hellish for the characters to contemplate.
A new strain of pseudo-Puritanism runs deep…. The drive to provide for your family when they are reanimated becomes the sole concern. Of course, if one is no longer able to accrue additional wealth and living an additional day will cut into one’s reserves than a licensed mortician will end this stage of one’s existence.
Not all adhere to this new ideology. Small groups of unemployed loafers — whom may still have transmitters implanted in their chests — wander what remains of the countryside looting and living off the land. Others whom are ostracized for various crimes live in the streets rooting through dumpsters. A few Holies, whom believe that Forever center’s promise of immortality violates God’s plan for humanity (i.e. Heaven + Hell), cut out their transmitters and resign themselves for a normal lifespan and God’s judgement.
The main narrative — that often comes across as a loose framework for societal meditations — concerns a plot within Forever Center against Daniel Frost whose job it is to censors the occasional anti-immortality sentiments in the press. Soon Daniel Frost encounters an attorney by the name of Ann Harrison — a surprisingly well-written female character. I was impressed with Simak’s refusal to indulge in endless melodrama that often characterizes love interests in books of this period. Ann, who recently lost a case where a man by the name of Franklin Chapman was unable to attend to a recently deceased body fast enough, approaches Daniel for help. But, the plot at Forever Center thickens and Daniel soon finds himself ostracized from society.
Unlike many of Simak’s novels, this future is an overpopulated rather than world that has returned to a more “natural” state (à la City, A Choice of Gods, Way Station, etc). The pastoral nostalgia that permeates the last third of the work is well placed and contextualized. Also, unlike most of his writing, this vision is an aphotic one — there are no easy answers for a society so wedded to the idea that immortality is possible.
Why Call Them Back From Heaven? might also be the most “literary” of Simak’s novels I have read. Although the prose is seldom transcendent, certain scenes are metaphoric and the structure of the novel allows for short character vignettes/sequences that tie nicely into the narrative of the main character.
One of the most interesting vignettes concerns Ogden Russell, who lives by himself on a island in a river, who is waiting for a sign from God that his continued faith is justified. Ogden repeatedly tries to keep a cross erect in the sand…. The vignettes concerning Franklin Chapman, who had his chance at immortality revoked after being found guilty of not aiding a recently deceased woman due to mechanical problem of his rescue vehicle yet still tries to provide for his families immortal existence, are deeply emotive.
Simak’s treatment of Christianity under threat from this “manmade” “heaven” is never overdone or preachy. Despite the short vignettes devoted to many of the characters, I found they were on the whole well-drawn.
Why Call Them Back From Heaven? has rekindled my desire to read more of Simak’s work. Highly recommended for all fans of thoughtful 60s social science fiction.
(Leo and Diane Dillon’s cover for the 1968 edition)
(Jan Esteves’ cover for the 1980 edition)
(Gino D’Achille’s cover for the 1977 edition)
(Robert Webster’s cover for the 1967 edition)
(Chris Moore’s cover for the 1985 edition)
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28 thoughts on “Book Review: Why Call Them Back From Heaven?, Clifford D. Simak (1967)”
Happy discovery day Joachim! Simak wasn’t a one-note author. I haven’t ever read Why Call Them Back From Heaven?, as I’ve always focused on his pastoral works, which I like a lot. But I’m very curious to read this Simak now, after your review. As for the covers, I find the Dillon kind of dull (and maybe too childish for the subject matter, as you describe it). The Webster is nice, if a bit generic. The Esteves, however, is excellent, with its visual references to man’s ancient attempts at godhood, i.e., Egyptian mummies and the Tower of Babel. (I’ve always felt a strong attraction to symbolism in SF cover art.) The Moore and D’Achille are on the atrocious side.
This has a pastoral element in the last third — but, the characters don’t necessarily lament it endlessly. They are all too caught up in preparing for immortality — which is Simak’s point. The Webster cover actually refers to the practice of ostracism in the novel where the victim is tattooed with three circles.
I think the Tower of Babel is the Forever Center of the novel. But perhaps purposefully conflated.
Thanks for the fact about the Webster cover. The book sounds even more interesting now. 🙂
Definitely! The dark tone struck me as somewhat unusual for him…. His novels tend to be more of the nostalgic lament variety.
This sounds like a good one; if I see it used I may pick it up. I am always interested in stories about immortality; one of my favorite Gene Wolfe stories, “The Doctor of Death Island,” is (in part) about immortality and it’s radical effects on society.
This is a peculiar Simak book in that I keep thinking to myself (in the used book store) that I’ve got and have read it, and keep realizing that I haven’t actually. I don’t know why I should have this particular mental block about this one Simak book, yet I’ve bought more copies of Mastodonia than I really need.
I have two copies of Jack Vance’s The Face due to absent mindedness; I bought one, didn’t read it because it is 4th in a series and I didn’t have the third yet, and then like a year later forgot I had bought it and bought it again. At least the covers are different.
This definitely seems like one of his lesser known works…. I didn’t know about it until my fiance found a copy at a used book store and called and asked if I wanted it…
I do want to read Wolfe eventually…. Especially his short story collections containing 70s material.
Hmm, I’m tempted to make a list of sci-fi on the theme of immortality. The SF encyclopedia entry is limited.
In some ways I think Wolfe is the “ultimate” example of “literary SF.” On the one hand, Wolfe loves traditional SF and fantasy adventure tropes and elements, the stuff you find in Edgar Rice Burroughs, J R R Tolkein, Robert Howard, Robert Heinlein, etc. On the other hand, Wolfe is very strongly influenced by both high brow and popular modern literature, like Proust, Melville, Nabokov, Kafka, Dickens, Conan-Doyle, etc., as well as classical history, his military experiences, and his Catholic faith. So something like Book of the New Sun is a thrilling adventure story of a guy who fights monsters with swords and ray guns, but also a bewildering mystery, a metaphor about life and religion, and a touching, at times heartbreaking, look at various sorts of human relationships.
A list of SF about immortality would be very interesting. I’m trying to remember that Silverberg short novel about a guy who tries to hook up with his revived wife while she is in Africa on a safari, but he learns that the living and the revived no longer have anything in common so any sort of relationship is impossible.
Hmm, as Tom points out that Silverberg short novel is definitely Born With the Dead. One of the few Silverberg pre-1980 great works I’ve yet to read.
From everything I’ve heard I definitely think I’ll enjoy Wolfe’s work. He’ll be one of the first post-1980 writers I’ll read when I feel like emerging from my self-imposed time constraints. I do prefer reading short works before getting to longer ones — and his earliest collections contain 70s stories… hmm.
@ mporcius, Born With The Dead (Nebula Award, best novella, 1975).
Joachim, you could read Wolfe and remain within your time constraints by starting with his first book, composed of three connected novellas, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1974). Whole websites have been devoted to its analysis. Well, at least one website.
Have you read Operation Ares (1970)? Cool Lehr cover…
The critics seemed to hate it. And reviews online… It appears to have been heavily edited, cut, etc from Wolfe’s original vision (if I recall what I read about it correctly).
Or Peace (1975)? That sounds fascinating, although it probably is not SF.
Huh. And I thought Cerberus was his first. I guess I never saw Ares on the stands back in the day. But I don’t think I’ll ever read it now, if it’s as badly edited as this says …
… and as strongly Libertarian. I can’t think of a more tiresome philosophy. The Lehr cover is gorgeous, yes. When Lehr was bad, he was merely mediocre. When he was good, he was fantastic. Absolutely the greatest SF cover artist ever. Him or Powers, anyways.
I think I’d only read it if I found it on the shelf at a store… Probably won’t got out of my way to find it. Many many many works we enjoy were probably treated the same way — heavy cuts by editors — if they were published during that era (especially before an author was famous).
I should read Born with the Dead again; I remember loving the concept, but being disappointed in the book.
Joachim, The story I mentioned, “The Doctor of Death Island,” is from 1978, and I think it, like Fifth Head of Cerberus would be great first Wolfes to read, good representative samples of what Wolfe is all about.
I have a sort of time constraint of my own, but I base it on when people were born or when they began their careers, not on publication dates. I tell people I read “classic science fiction,” but because, for example, Wolfe, Vance, and Silverberg started their careers much earlier, books written by them in the 1980s and 1990s fit within my idiosyncratic definition of Classic SF.
For me, as a historian, I am interested in the context in which the author was writing. In this case, the social movements of the 60s, the precursors in the 50s, the Cold War, the New Wave social movement and the drive to be more literary etc…. And then the 80s come and space opera/military SF is cool again (an overstatement obviously — haha) and I utterly lose interest. I know things have improved recently 😉
But yes, those two Wolfe works have been on my radar a while — I just need to get around to buying them…
Joachim, I own this book but haven`t read it, but I`ll check it out. Simak`s best works are in that pastoral nostalgia vein, but so are his worst; I might be able to think of a worse book by a major sf writer than CEMETERY WORLD, but I`d rather not…..Read Wolfe`s collection THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR DEATH AND OTHER STORIES AND OTHER STORIES [sic]. I have a feeling you will read that or FIFTH HEAD… and then we`ll see a flood of Wolfe reviews here. I don`t know where the Libertarian comment in that review comes from; I`ve never gotten that from any of his writing. [I find the responses of folks who dislike Libertarianism a lot more peculiar than I find Libertarianism interesting.]…..Zelazny was big on both immortality and also mythology, so considering your interests you might look for some articles online about Zelazny`s treatment of the subject……the D`Achille cover incorporates the spaceship from the very, very bad 70s movie SILENT RUNNING, and is truly horrid. I like the Dillion.
I think this is one of his best and it’s not in the pastoral vein. But yes, I’ve read Cemetery World — I actually enjoyed the idea of the machine that the main character takes around but the delivery and the hillbillies was intolerable.
John Brunner, despite being a brilliant/major author, wrote some really awful works — and Silverberg… So perhaps I can think of a worse one than Cemetery World 😉
I like the Dillons as well…
P.S. Ever read Philip Jose Farmer`s short story on immortality `The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World`? It was expanded into a novel. The story itself is okay but the concept of the future world that incorporates a spin on immortality [everyone is frozen except for one day a week] was kind of funny, and an interesting approach to overpopulation that leads to a form of `life extension`.
No, I have not. Immortality and overpopulation! Sounds like an intriguing read…. I’ve been unimpressed with what I’ve read of Farmer so far — didn’t care for Riverworld (or the sequels) or the Traitor to the Living. But perhaps his short works…
Those Dillon covers are fantastic, the artwork starts to go downhill rapidly in subsequent printings for me.
this is my favorite Simak book, I’ve read it 3 times over the years.
I generally dislike Simak (surprising perhaps?) but I was really impressed with this one.
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Love this novel! Adore Simak in general. Such a fascinating author. I stumbled upon Time is the Simplest Thing a few years ago and never looked back. City is breathtaking.
“I can’t go back,” said Towser.
“Nor I,” said Fowler.
“They would turn me back into a dog,” said Towser.
“And me,” said Fowler, “back into a man.”
Thanks for you comment! I have to admit that I hold a particular ambivalence towards Simak other than Why Call them Back From Heaven? (City was solid). I present some of my critiques (at least of his 70s stuff) in my review of A Choice of Gods (1971). https://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/book-review-a-choice-of-gods-christopher-simak-1971/