Book Review: The Werewolf Principle, Clifford D. Simak (1967)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1st edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

“Have you ever thought that I was frozen and thrown off the ship because they didn’t want me aboard, because I’d done something or they were afraid of me or something of the sort?” (49)

Andrew Blake, with memories of an earlier Earth, is discovered by asteroid miners frozen in a capsule. Is he the crew of a lost vessel? Was he the victim of a catastrophic accident? Or, something far more sinister? A claustrophobic and violent mission unfolds has Andrew Blake seeks to establish his identity, and the reason for the two alien voices in his head, while politicians argue the definition of humanity.

I appreciate Clifford D. Simak’s unique voice. His works have proved hit or miss—I adored Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967) but struggle with the technological hypocrisy of his more pastoral visions, for example, A Choice of Gods (1971). Few memories of Way Station (1963) or City (1944) remain as they were consumed (I think with relish?) in my late teens. And I’ll try to forget about the failure that was Cemetery World (1973)….

The Werewolf Principle doesn’t live up to its premise. Recommended only for Simak’s fans.

Plot Summary (*spoilers*)

Discovered by chance in a capsule in space, Andrew Blake returns—centuries after his departure—to an Earth transformed. In perfect health and with no knowledge of his past, Andrew must learn the secrets of his existence. Three beings dwell in the body of Alien Blake—the Thinker, the Changer, and the Quester. Andrew, a “simulated” human, is an experimental technology–tasked with exploring strange new worlds and killing alien lifeforms in order to learn about them.

The sinister process would go something like this. 1) An exploratory ship would land on a planet and the “dominate species of the planet would be captured and scanned” (64). 2) The data would be storied in the ship’s computer where it would be transmitted to a simulated human which would become “an exact copy of the creature” (64). The original creature would die in the scanning process… 3) The copy of the original creature would explore the planet and carry out its “investigations” (65). The human “mentality and memory and identity” remains—“deeply subliminated” (65). After an interval of time the alien copy would return to the ship and transform back into  human form where it would be able to “recall memories of its existence” as an alien (65).

But something went wrong! The subliminated human mind did not kick out the alien mind. They existed together, along with a third alien mind they gathered on their exploratory journey. The crewmen, terrified by what Andrew had become, eject him into space (80). On Earth, Andrew does not remember his past or the reasons for his unusual behavior (when an alien mind resurfaces its overrules the human one and shapeshifts him into other forms).

Over time, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Andrew relearns how to interact with the two alien minds simultaneously: “but now, finally, after a time, the three of them together once again, blood brothers of the mind” (80). But Andrew is on the run, hunted by forces terrified of his shapeshifting abilities.

Final Thoughts

Simak weakens the intensity of the narrative with passages of unnecessary whimsy that interrupt the justified paranoia.

Architectural technologies:  Despite a late 60s publish date, the novel has a distinct 50s feel towards technology. Simak revels in lengthy passages describing various gadgets—some of which fit his overarching themes. For example, the evolution of the TV: “Not only was one surrounded and caught up by the sound, the smell, the taste, the temperature, the feel of what was going on, but in some subtle way became a sympathetic and an understanding part of the action and emotion that the room portrayed” (38).  This passage connects to the novel’s focus on new ways of understanding and experiencing the world. Just as Andrew, as a synthetic being, gathers input from is other alien selves, the dimensio provides a new range of sensory data.

However, Simak allows himself to get carried away with other technological marvels that add little: for example, the transformed house. In this future, the humble abode is now run by a sentient computer (which talks for fun with other neighboring houses). Simak imagines a grandmother version of Alexa on steroids which goes around badgering the poor occupant—begging them to eat and redecorate. Andrew is horrified by its persistent interruptions and demands. As was I!

Another off-putting sequence concerns Simak’s obsessions with Folkloric pastoralism: Blake finds himself in the woods. He observed an “otter-mink emerge[..] from beneath the log. It was neither an otter nor a mink. It was a bipedal being-like something that had stepped from the pages of a children’s book” (45). Blake, unsure of his own sanity, assumes the creature is a Brownie. Later we learn an alien species arrived on earth, eschewed Earth technology and culture and decided to live in Earth’s forests.

Yes, I know what Simak is doing. He’s takes Earth legends—Brownies shapeshifting into woodland animals and the “werewolf(ish)” transformation of one of Blake’s aliens—and gives them a SF twist. For me, this is Simak’s pastoralism at its most awkward and childish. In a single sequence the paranoia and terror Blake experiences as he grapples with the nature of his being becomes trite.

The biggest narratological crime is Simak’s relegation of the details of Andrew’s origins to a boring senate committee Q & A.  This is the core of the story! Why must we read pages of a transcript of a committee meeting when it could be told in a more exciting manner? Andrew, on the loose, comes to the same realization of origins. Simak, to fill space (?), ends up retelling the same story twice.

Fascinating ideas. Frustrating delivery. End result: a somewhat engaging hodge-podge that doesn’t manage to sustain itself.

(Terry James’ cover for the 1969 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1971 edition)

(Frank Kelly Freas’ cover for the 1982 edition)
(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1968 edition)

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15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Werewolf Principle, Clifford D. Simak (1967)”

      1. I have read it, but it was several years ago and I only recall it as a middle-of-the-pack effort. I recently finished Destiny Doll, and put that in the 2 to 3 star range. Some wonderful moments, but also some unexplained weirdness and a rushed ending.

        1. I haven’t read that one yet. Have you peeked at my review of Simak’s Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (1967) (I linked it in the review) — it’s my favorite of his… and I’d claim better than some of his better known classics.

  1. Hi

    I have to get back to reading Simak. I am a fan and would put this in the average pile. But I did like it. Simak has a real tendency to reuse certain of his own tropes, characters, themes? As you say the Brownie despite its alien origin is yet another folklore character inhabiting a Simak story and burring the line between fantasy and SF. Also as is often the case a lot of action takes place off stage. And he often tells rather than shows. He loves to inject the same pastoral thread into many of his works, I wonder if that is why a number of his plots involve an escape thru a barely inhabited rural landscape that brings the contrasting nature of the countryside or wilderness into the narrative even if it serves little overall purpose. Still he’s my guy and I have to start reading his short stories again. And I will read Why Call Them Back from Heaven, but my TBR pile is galactic in scale. Cover-wise I am picking the Freas probably because it was the edition I first read. I like the various elements, the very Freas city lights in the background with the weedy verges on the road. I also like the head looming over everything with the two characters striding out of the corner of the front frame.

    Happy Reading
    Guy

    1. Dear Guy,

      Thanks for the comment. Now that I think about it even Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967) has a flight through the pastoral landscape… although it is a primarily urban setting for the rest of the novel. Again, I find it all a tad bit endearing — yes he can be predictable, but it’s in sort of humorous/silly ways. And although those sections don’t work in The Werewolf Principle, they might in his other novels.

      Let me know if you get to it!

      Sincerely,
      Joachim

      1. I’d love to see a Terry James gallery post. I’d think of it as an apology for dredging up the bad memory of being crushingly disappointed and cruelly betrayed by this book.

        1. Hmm, perhaps later this week. I’m bad at keeping blog-related promises as what I review and write is entirely dictated by my every changing whims…

          What bothered you the most about the book?

          1. I don’t expect obedience to my whims. Not from you, at any rate.

            I was utterly infuriated by the idiotic notion that aliens with sufficiently advanced tech to get to Earth are the kind of beings who 1) want to pillage our pretty meager resources and think enslaving us is a corking notion or (this book) b) think the place is so spiffy that they’ll just move on in and nottalktous* at all.

            Stupid, stupid ideas without any basis in reality. It’s not like developing better ships and perfecting navigation to trot over to other continents and rape, pillage, and clap; it takes an entirely different level of effort to travel interstellar distances. One that presupposes a culture vastly older and more cooperative than this one. A whole planet’s resources, in fact those of a significant percentage of the star system, need to be dedicated to reaching other spots in the Universe. A craptastic jingoistic culture will self-destruct during the run-up to interstellar flight. pointedly looks around As we can see.

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