It’s an unfortunate indication of the quality of this novel that it took me a week to get through it. Yes, I was doing other things and reading other books, but it is still indicative of the sometimes less-than-stellar quality of Simak’s later writing that this book didn’t hold my attention better. Unless, of course, I’m just a dullard.
The compelling thing about Simak is always the premise, which he creates and makes interesting seemingly from nothing. In A Heritage of Stars, he has created another interesting beginning: Thomas Cushing lives hoeing potatoes in what may be the last remaining University, in the state that used to be Minnesota, a thousand years after the Collapse, a disaster five hundred years in our future. During the Collapse, humanity in mob form turned on itself and its technology. In mass uprisings, these mobs destroyed almost any vestige of the technological past and left only a few references to the achievements of humanity, including spaceflight. The world has been devastated, and reduced to a barely-Mediaeval state.
Cushing, who had taken refuge behind the University’s thick walls after several years of almost serf like existence, has read a history of the Collapse, based largely on inference and hearsay, but is compelled by a reference in the author’s “unpublished” notes (although his book on the Collapse could hardly be said to have been published, having been hand-written in one sole copy); the reference is to “the Place of Going to the Stars”. Cushing resolves, seemingly on a whim, to find this place and learn if, in reality, humanity went to the stars.
And here’s where things start to fall apart. Simak wrote a straightforward “quest” narrative, along the way of which Cushing picks up the members of his party. They eventually overcome a few obstacles and challenges, and reach their destination. The place isn’t what they thought. There are convesations: a lot of conversations. Then the narrative is left largely unresolved. It’s not quite as bad as The Fellowship of the Talisman, another 1970s Simak outing, but this type of storytelling is really irritating to me. It feels very formulaic and, if I’m being honest, lazy. This is clearly not the Simak of City, or of Ring Around the Sun… or perhaps it is and I’m now bored with the trick.
You would think that, in a civilisation where all of the robots were destroyed by raging mobs, a man and a robot meeting for the first time in a thousand years would be a dramatic moment, wouldn’t you? But for Cushing, and Rollo the Robot, it’s fairly blasé. You would think that finding that extraterrestrial probes, and trees, and rocks, and other entities still survived on Earth would be an interesting discovery? Not if you’re this bunch of gormless halfwits. There are frankly so many missed opportunities in this book that it’s hard to see, beyond a fascinating but underdeveloped premise, what is good about it. If you want to read Simak, I wouldn’t start here, unless you like your science fiction slow, tedious, and somewhat frustrating. Two and a half stars.
Originally reviewed 16 April 2014.
Find your copy of A Heritage of Stars at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).