Thursday, April 21, 2005

Book Review: Special Deliverance by Clifford D. Simak

I'm trying to read a new author each month now, in order to broaden the range of authors I have to draw from when looking for a new book to read or making suggestions for what to read.

This month, my new author was Clifford D. Simak, a SF grand master, most noted for his classic book Way Station, dearly loved by many as a masterpiece of the genre.

Of course, I didn't know this when I was at the library. I'd picked Simak for this month based solely on a favorable Tom Easton review in Analog of another Simak book, Project Pope.

Of course, I didn't get that book either.

What I ended up getting was a thin little volume called Special Deliverance. It's about a university professor who's suspicious of a student who turned in a paper that seems suspiciously good, and which seems to have entirely fictitious references. When he confronts the student about the paper, the student says he got it from one of the slot machines the government has set up all over the nation to raise extra money to feed the poor. A slot machine in the basement of the student union apparently spat him this paper, which the student suspects came from another dimension.

The student is right, of course. When the professor goes to investigate, he finds three machines working. One tells him a dirty joke, one gives him gold, and one whisks him away to another world.

On this other world, he meets up with a group of stereotypes. Okay, okay, I guess that technically they're characters, but when one character is a war-monger from a war-world, one is a head-in-the-clouds creative type from a creative world, one is a religious "bigot" from a religious world--you get the picture.

The most interesting of all the characters is an android, who comes from a world where most humans have fled the planet, and the robots take special care of the ones who remain--a duty which this robot seems to resent. Back on his world, he spent much of his time creating tiny biological puppet recreations of crazy humans from literature.

The story is structured as a puzzle--Who brought this strange assembly to this world, and how can they get off?--but the solution to the puzzle is ridiculous and simple. In the end, the book ends up feeling like a strange mix of red herrings, pointless wandering, and--what I think is the real point of the book--thinly veiled allegory.

This is obviously Simak's Pilgrim's Progress, with his professor and engineer--the ones embodying Simak's ideal "virtues"--getting to stare down their noses at the antics and blunders of those around them.

And because the book fails as fiction, I think it also fails as polemic. Because the "solution" to the puzzle does not end up requiring much wit, a book that wants to be a tract for the virtue of knowledge feels more like a finger-pointed accusation that those without formal education lack common sense.

I'm interested to hear from anybody who has read more Simak to know if, given my fairly strong feelings about this book, there are any of his you think I might enjoy more, or if there was something to this book I'm missing. Feel free to comment or email.

Update: Actually, in terms of plot, puzzle, and character, this is a lot like one of those early 80's text adventures. You know the kind:

You are standing in a field. There is a giant cube sitting in the middle of the field, surrounded by white sand. There are a few bushes here.
There is a cube here.
There is sand here.
There is a bush here.

And you'd type something like:

Go cube.

And then you'd read:

A monster comes out of the sand and knocks you away from the cube.
You are standing in a field. There is a giant cube sitting in the middle of the field, surrounded by white sand. There are a few bushes here.
There is a cube here.
There is sand here.
There is a bush here.

And of course there's an Inn, and the innkeeper insists you have to pay him money, even though you've been to the edges of the game on the north, south, east, and west, and the only person who seems to have even heard of money is the innkeeper, so you can't help but wonder why he would even need it.

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