Filler content with grandchildren

A review that originally appeared in Dream #29:-

CLIFFORD D. SIMAK – Our Children’s Children (Mandarin pb, 186pp, £3.99)

With a unique blend of rustic simplicity, human warmth, and genuine compassion, Clifford D. Simak carved out his own special niche within science fiction. In a career that spanned nearly sixty years Simak produced over forty books and won every major award the field had to offer. Some of those books, such as “City”, “Ring Around the Sun”, and “Way Station” are deservedly acknowledged as classics of their kind. To many Simak stood for human values and optimism in a genre increasingly devoid of either. His death deprived science fiction of one of its more reasonable voices. Mandarin are to be applauded for their efforts to keep his work in print, though it must be admitted that the very comprehensiveness of their list could undermine his reputation as, like most prolific writers, Simak produced plenty of duds along with the gems.

“Our Children’s Children” was written in 1974, by which time Simak was past his best but still producing good work. The concept at the heart of this slim novel is one of his most staggering. Five hundred years in the future mankind faces extinction at the hands of a ferocious alien predator. To escape they utilise their technology to build time tunnels and transport their entire population back to the last quarter of the twentieth century. With the world reeling at the sudden influx of nearly two billion refugees the unthinkable happens; an alien breaks through to the present day and eludes the military. A biological killing machine, supremely adaptable and capable of reproducing parthenogenetically the monster represents the greatest threat mankind has ever faced.

This is a small book but it manages to cover a lot of ground, with Simak’s seemingly effortless prose keeping you turning the pages at a rapid rate. It has something for everyone, from ferocious monsters to romantic human beings, from military action to the give and take of international diplomacy, from scientific and philosophical speculation to social commentary.

What distinguishes the book from so many other potboilers though is the Simak angle on human nature. The hero is Steve Wilson, White House press agent, and several other major characters are journalists, though you won’t recognise them as such if your expectations have been shaped by the antics of the less creditable tabloids. Simak, once a journalist himself, sees the fourth estate as one of the bastions of freedom and that’s how he tells it. It’s par for the course. When the refugees first arrive, before the government step in, shelter and food is provided by ordinary American citizens taking them into their homes. Industry and trade unions rally round to help. Of course this is only part of the story. There are those – politicians, businessmen, evangelists – who try to profit from the emergency. Simak isn’t naïve about human nature. It’s simply that, whenever possible, he likes to give our finer feelings the benefit of the doubt.

Reading Simak makes me think of that other journalist turned author, P. G. Wodehouse. Simak’s books bear the same relationship to science fiction in general as the latter’s do to the novel of social realism. They are not great literature and they are not strictly accurate about many things, but more often than not they are highly readable and great fun. That sums up “Our Children’s Children” to a T, so if you’ve got £3.99 to spare and want a few hours of undemanding entertainment in a science fictional mode go out and buy the book.

 

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