(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)
Fore more book reviews consult the INDEX