Visions of Paradise

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Choice of Gods

I discovered science fiction on Christmas Day, 1962, when I found the January, 1963 issue of Worlds of IF in my stocking. I immediately fell in love with the issue, and the story which most appealed to me was Clifford D. Simak’s “The Shipshape Miracle.” The next day I hurried to the local candy store and bought the February, 1963, issue of Galaxy which also featured a Simak story, “Day of Truce.” By then I was hooked, and Simak became my favorite sf writer almost immediately, especially when two months later Galaxy began the serialization of his novel Here Gather The Stars (which became the Hugo-winning Way Station in book form).

Since then I have read almost every Simak book with a few exceptions, and I have loved nearly all of them, even the simpler quest novels he wrote later in his career. But wrapped around those lighter novels was a trilogy of philosophical books which examined humanity’s need for religion and a higher entity guiding our existence: A Heritage of Stars, Project Pope and A Choice of Gods.

It has been several decades since I first read A Choice of Gods, so I approached it tentatively, since sometimes novels which shine in one’s memory do not retain that aura upon rereading. Its setting is a far-future Earth which has been mostly depopulated for two reasons: the vast majority of its eight million inhabitants were mysteriously removed several thousand years previously, and most of those who remained developed the ability to teleport elsewhere, which they did. Left behind are one family which chose not to leave with the others, a tribe of Native Americans who have returned to their traditional ways, and all the robots which had been built to serve humans and now seem to be trying to fill in the gap left by their absence. Virtually all remnants of Earth’s vast technology has been lost, and the remaining residents of Earth live a simple, rustic existence, the type which Simak obviously loved and portrayed in much of his fiction.

Much of the book consists of long discussions between its main characters:
▸ Jason, the patriarch of the remaining family;
▸ Horace Red Cloud, the chief of the Native American tribe;
▸ Hezekiah, a robot who has undertaken the role of head of an ancient Christian monastery and who is obsessed with his quest for a deity;
▸ Evening Star, a Native American girl whose desire for reading leads her to stay with Jason’s family and read Jason’s vast collection of books.

The interaction between these people are the basis of the book, but the plot takes a dramatic turn when Jason’s brother John returns from the heart of the galaxy. He tells Jason about an entity he sensed there which he calls the Principle which does not seem to be a deity, but rather something which is observing the galaxy and perhaps experimenting on its various life forms, since John believes the Principle might be responsible for removing most of Earth’s population.

In addition, John encountered the descendants of Earth’s population who have been living on three adjacent worlds where they have continued their technology and even advanced it to the point where they have located Earth and are sending a survey ship to it, presumably for the purpose of deciding whether the billions of humans wish to return home.

Readers who enjoy a slow-paced novel which mostly consists of conversations and speculation will enjoy A Choice of Gods as much as I did. I recommend it highly.


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