Monday, March 25, 2019

Review of Why Call Them Back from Heaven? by Clifford Simak

There is a reputation, a certain line of opinion that holds science fiction to be that form of literature which abandons human reality in favor of the theoretically abstract. And while I would argue the majority is not per se, indeed there are numerous examples to support the perspective. Straddling the fence in frustrating and engaging fashion is Clifford Simak’s Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (1967).

The Forever Center is an Adam Smith dream come true. Storing frozen, dead bodies for a future time when the universe is ready for teeming billions of immortals, they have likewise convinced these “stockholders” to let the Forever Center handle their finances while in waiting. Accumulating a majority of the world’s wealth in the process, they are the corporation of corporations—the mother of them all. Their future selling point keeping them somewhat honest, a newspaper headline threatens to blow them wide open, however: the technology for immortality they claim to own may not actually exist.

A scattered effort, Why Call Them Back from Heaven? moves between a number of playgrounds: immortality, economics, religion/spiritualism, class, all while keeping an eye on overpopulation and materialism. Too freely, Simak drifts in and out of these massive subject areas, unfortunately still with thin characterization. At roughly 200 pages, the book’s plot and character development cannot always support the weight of its subject matter. Damaging things further is the fact rarely if ever does the reader feel any sense of urgency—the sense of urgency that in theory was driving people to invest in the Forever Center, and wait for a better day. Simak’s narrative more rambling than focused, focusing on Frost from beginning to end, with relevant scenes and situations feeding the book’s premise, would have been a better route to go.

But that does not mean all is bad in the novel. Simak does uncover, or at least brush away the sand, from a couple of worthwhile ideas. The more subjective idea is one in common with Buddhism or Daoism, namely the value of accumulating wealth in the mortal world. While Simak was undoubtedly trying to put a more Western, pseudo-Christian spin on the idea, it aligns better with Eastern thought. And there is something to be said for that. But perhaps the more objective, relatable point Simak makes in the novel is one related to fixed nature of human nature. Avarice, greed, deception, etc. still possible even when concepts like immortality, abundant wealth, new life, etc. are believed by most in society, Simak complements his critique of materialism by harking back to the immutable nature of human nature. Indeed, it may be better to pick up the fishing pole and go out for the afternoon and be happy for the sunshine on your face then get caught up in the rat race of worldly concerns.

Thus, the reader’s potential enjoyment of Why Call Them Back from Heaven? is likely to hinge upon whether they are an idea reader, or a plot and character reader. Simak stirring a big pot with big, IMPORTANT ideas, rarely do the story or personalities populating it spring into relief of a 3D nature to match them. They are interesting ideas, particularly if the reader leans toward a less materialistic worldview, but be warned the color and the shape of the surrounding material can be bland.

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