Book Review: A Choice of Gods, Clifford D. Simak (1971)

(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1973 edition)

3.25/5 (Average)

Nominated for the 1972 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Clifford D. Simak’s A Choice of Gods (1971) is a flawed but intriguing novel.  Simak’s renowned for his original anti-technology pastoral visions.  His science fiction (replete with unusual aliens) is more likely to intersect our future world in the environs of the rural farm, the depopulated/gutted earth covered with forests or an isolated Native American tribe than an urban dystopia, trans-galactic spaceship, or distant planet.  The more famous examples are his Hugo winning Way Station (1963), deserving of at least some of the effuse praise it receives, and City (1952), rightly considered a classic.

Simak’s favorite themes are on show in A Choice of Gods including what happens to robots, whom Simak portrays as almost human but with a programed need to assist mankind, when they are severed from their original function.  And the sci-fi staple: how will mankind evolve in the distant future?  In Simak’s case, how will humanity evolve in a non-technological future.  Unfortunately, it is in his discussion of the dichotomy between technological and non-technological which weakens the novels.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

In 2135 the vast majority of the human population of Earth is removed by some unknown entity.  The same unknown entity grants the remaining inhabitants virtual immortality.  In the course of 5,000 years, where the novel’s main narrative thread picks up, humans have abandoned most forms of technology and thus, developed amazing abilities (the ability to journey to the stars with one’s mind, the ability to communicate with those among the stars, the ability to talk to trees).  The people transported off Earth by the entity (the vast majority of the population) have developed a similar society to the one they had before: a technologically driven society.

Jason Whitney and his wife Martha, the two main characters, were left on Earth by the entity.  However, most of those who remained have used their abilities to leave by their own accord and explore the stars.  Jason and Martha have never journeyed off planet — they live in their same house, replete with a large library, assisted in their daily life by robots.

Another group of humans who have been left behind and chosen not to leave Earth are a tribe of Native Americans.  They eschew technology completely (unlike Jason and Martha) and are highly suspicious of robots.

Because most people were transported off of Earth a massive population of robots remain without any duties to perform.  However, due to their programming they seek to assist man.  A few have stayed in the employ of Jason and Martha.  Simak’s most interesting passages concern the remaining robots without any humans to serve.  One group has formed a monastery.  Another group has created a much larger robotic mind which confers with the stars.

The “plot” of the novel concerns the arrival of Jason’s brother, John, from his interstellar ramblings.  He brings shocking news, The People (those transported off of Earth) seek to return to their ancestral home after 5,000 years (queue technology vs. pastoralist debates).  John also speaks of a force he’s discovered near the center of the Galaxy — could it be the entity responsible for the unusual experiment with Earth’s inhabitants?  Also, a mysterious alien which looks like a can of worms (!) is discovered by the Native Americans.  And finally, an unusual young man named David Hunt emerges from the forest and is discovered by the robot monks.

Final Thoughts

Simak attempts to construct a dichotomy between humanity striving towards technology and humanity without the drive towards technological development: “Let me spell it out to you once again.  You are either parapsychic or you aren’t.  You are technolgical or you aren’t.  You can’t be both of them” (161).  Simak is clearly in the camp of those that remained on Earth and became pastoral and thus developed their minds and abilities.  Unfortunately, the dichotomy doesn’t hold true.  Most technology has faded into oblivion over the course of the millennia (one can’t exactly make new parts for machines hanging out in a rural America).  However, a key technological advancement remains: robots.  Over and over again Simak mentions that Jason and Martha’s robot, Thomas, plants their crops, assists around the house, etc.

Without the need for medical advancements to live more than thirty years, without the need to protect oneself against others, without the need to support a large population, it’s all too simple to “choose” to eschew technology.  The entity which constructs this experiment imposes such highly artificial situations that Simak’s pastoral longings come off as rather unbelievable.  If I’m never going to die and will always have a gaggle of robots working for me perhaps becoming a rural pastoralist wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Because few science fiction authors include Native American characters — Andre Norton’s Sioux Spaceman (1960) comes to mind — on surface there’s much to praise in A Choice of Gods.  But Simak’s anti-technological and pastoral stance combines too “nicely” with a naive idealism concerning Native Americans and the land.  Simak’s longings for a future where humans are “one with nature” like the noble Indian strategically ignores (perhaps, he’s simply ignorant) Native American city-building (Cahokia, etc), violent intertribal wars/slave trading, and incredible mercantile/capitalistic trade networks.  The Native American characters have chosen to return to the “Native American way” constructed from a bucket of clichés mostly invented by white men.  These Native Americans have chosen to live according to their traditional (and idealistic ways) — it’s obviously unnecessary to engage in warfare when there aren’t any enemies.  Again, one can chose when the choice is possible.

Simak’s prose is on the whole successful in evoking his intense adoration for an anti-technological future pastoralist Golden Age.  A Choice of Gods is a mostly enjoyable read with intriguing discussions of robots, human development, and religion recommended for fans of Simak.  Praise aside, Simak’s arguments for the benefits of an anti-technological future are unbelievable and illogical considering the role that robots continue to play in maintaining Jason and Martha and the benefits bestowed on them by the entity that makes their choices possible.

(Michael Hinge’s cover for the 1971 edition)

(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1977 edition)

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17 thoughts on “Book Review: A Choice of Gods, Clifford D. Simak (1971)”

      1. Ah, what great luck. That is a very, very good one. Recently re-published by NYRB, I believe. Like Malzberg, of high literary quality. Even got my wife to read that one, and she was amazed.

  1. Simak is one of my favorites. But there’s always something really odd about his books, you really have to suspend belief completely to be a fan of his work

    1. Have you read this one? It’s definitely one of his more heavy-handed and preachy ones… I enjoyed Cemetery World and City and tolerated Way Station. This one was intriguing but too flawed to be enjoyable.

      1. I have it, but have not read it yet. I liked Way Station a lot. All Flesh is Grass is also very good. I read The Visitors last year and it seemed unfinished, ending abruptly. His short stories are often better than his novels.

      2. I also have Time and Again (one of his earlier novels), Heritage of Stars, and Our Children’s Children waiting to be read on my shelf…. I’ll get to them eventually….

        BUT, I have not read any of his short stories! Do you have a collection in mind? A favorite story? I’d definitely consider purchasing a short story collection — although, I prefer the old editions to any new compilation volume that might have come out recently (I like the feel of old novels — the smell, the paper, etc).

    1. I agree (although plenty of new covers are cruddy as well — just check out the hilarious website for some great examples http://www.goodshowsir.co.uk/).

      The old cover goes with the nice smell of aged paper, the feel, the delicacy one has to exert to prevent the book from crumbling, all part of the experience in my opinion :)

      1. Yes, one of the nicest thing about these covers is when all the shoddy binding comes undone, the pages fall out and they begin a life independent of their book.

      2. What do you do with the detached covers? I generally read things once so it doesn’t happen that often — I do have a cover of Blish’s Seedling Stars lying about. I generally just tape them back together ;)

  2. The aspect of this book that I found creepy (besides the whole “wouldn’t it be great if we could have all the benefits of technology without having to mess with technology) was the use of robots instead of, well, slaves. It just struck me too much as a plantation owner’s dream of having happy, healthy, willing slaves to do all his work for him so he could enjoy the gentleman’s life without getting his hands dirty. Ugh.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Although, I always find robotic servants creepy — but it’s the core function of robots to serve (it’s when they gain a form of sentience when it starts to feel fishy).

      However, in Simak’s case — the combination of rural pastoralism AND sentient (they certainly seem like they are) robotic “slaves” programed to assist man through eternity without doubt evokes, perhaps without Simak’s realization, plantation life. Simak’s pseudo-pastoralism is a unpalatable pastiche exactly as you point out — all the benefits of technology without admitting that it’s due to technology.

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