First He Died: No Excedrin needed

First He Died by Clifford D. Simak science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsFirst He Died by Clifford D. Simak science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsFirst He Died by Clifford D. Simak

As I think I may have mentioned elsewhere, stories about time travel can sometimes give me a headache right between the eyes. And really, who among us hasn’t, at one time or another, come close to getting a major-league migraine when trying to suss out the temporal conundrums inherent in many of these tales? Fortunately for me — and my head — the novel that I have just experienced is one that does indeed feature time travel in its story line, but that lays out its complexities in a manner that leaves the reader blissfully headache free. The book in question is Clifford D. Simak’s second novel, First He Died; an early and surprisingly superior outing from the beloved future Grand Master.

First He Died has a somewhat complicated publishing history. It initially appeared serially under the title Time Quarry in the first three issues of the legendary pulp magazine Galaxy Science Fiction — the October, November and December 1950 issues — when Simak was already 46. That first issue, which must be a collector’s item today, featured beautiful cover art for Simak’s story by David Stone, and sold for 25 cents. From 1952 to 2005, Simak’s second novel was reprinted in over a dozen foreign-language editions, in countries such as Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Serbia and Russia. Here in the U.S., the 1953, 25-cent Dell paperback offering sported the altered title First He Died, a name that has apparently stuck, and with cover art by one Walter Brooks. There have been any number of other U.S. printings as well, some of them under the title of Time and Again. (And do not fear — this publishing history is the only headache-inducing aspect regarding this book!) Thus, laying one’s hands on a copy of Simak’s novel, under any one of these titles, should not pose too much of a problem for you. And to make things even easier, Armchair Fiction, in 2020, came out with its own reasonably priced edition, sporting the same title and Walter Brooks artwork as on that 1953 Dell paperback.

Now, although Simak had already seen over 30 of his sci-fi short stories published, 1950 was the year in which he really started to fly as a novelist. I have already written here of his first novel, Cosmic Engineers, which appeared earlier that year in hardcover; an expansion of a 1939 serial. Time Quarry would appear just months later, followed by his third novel, Empire, in 1951. As compared to that first novel, Time Quarry finds Simak just beginning to discover his gentle, pastoral tone, as will be seen.

The book introduces the reader to one Asher Sutton, a space explorer who returns to Earth after a period of 20 years. Sutton had been tasked with the seemingly hopeless mission of making contact with the denizens of a planet in 61 Cygni, 11 light-years away; a world encased in some kind of protective screen that had previously made any approach impossible. But Asher had somehow managed to find his way through, only to crash-land to his death on the planet’s surface. But that demise, apparently, was only the beginning of Sutton’s story! Brought back to life and physically and mentally modified by the “symbiotic abstractions” who peopled that world, Sutton would go on to spend the next two decades there before returning home. And so, when we first encounter Asher Sutton, the year is 7990, and he has come back to Earth both driven by a mission and thoroughly confused as to what transpires around him. Sutton’s boss, Christopher Adams, is contacted by a man from the future, urging him to kill Sutton immediately upon his return. Our hero, soon after his arrival, is challenged to a duel for no good reason by a notorious marksman, and manages to kill this adversary by shooting him … in the arm? A spaceship crashes on Aldebaran XII, and one of its deceased passengers is discovered to be holding a book written by … Asher Sutton. Later, another spacecraft, this one from the future, crashes on Earth, and Sutton finds, on the dying pilot’s body, a book on the subject of destiny written by one … Asher Sutton. An android brings Asher a suitcase that had been packed by his family’s loyal robotic retainer, containing a letter written by one of Sutton’s ancestors in a place called Wisconsin around 6,000 years earlier … in 1987, to be exact. Numerous attempts are made on Sutton’s life, and a mysteriously motivated woman named Eva Armour, as well as an equally mysteriously motivated android named Herkimer, apparently come to his aid on several occasions, even going so far as to shanghai him to one of the lonely planetoids in the Asteroid Belt for his own protection.

As the mysterious events pile up, however, and Sutton’s latent superhuman abilities come to the fore, we begin to slowly understand what is going on: Asher, during his stay in 61 Cygni, had been vouchsafed the secret behind the destiny of all living things, and would eventually write a book on said subject, changing the course of human — and nonhuman — history. And upon his return to Earth, three alliances, that have been/will be warring temporally for centuries, try to either (a) kill Sutton outright, (b) allow him to write his book as planned, OR (c) make revisions to the sacred text for reasons of their own. It is quite the long game that is in progress here, with all of time and space for its playing field, and with the befuddled Sutton understandably at a loss as to just how to proceed…

First He Died is a difficult book to write about without giving away too many of the story’s many surprises, and I do hope that I have not already said too much. It is also hard to convey the sense of mystery and outré weirdness that pervades the novel’s first half, before things start to clear up a bit. Simak’s book is complexly plotted but, as I mentioned up top, the author manages to nicely resolve all the potentially bewildering temporal sticking points. His book boasts some new mind-blowing development or some kind of imaginative adornment in every one of its 50 chapters, and, as the story jumps from Earth to outer space, and from the year 7990 to 1977 to 8500, there is just no way for the reader to predict what will occur next. And if we readers are a bit confused in the book’s first half, it is comforting to realize that Sutton is just as perplexed as we are: “…none of it makes sense,” he ponders early on. “The tangled thread of logic was too much for him,” we are told later. Readers should be advised to hang on tight, and know that the author will indeed clarify all of the book’s many mysteries before long.

Though written in Simak’s easygoing, reader-friendly style, First He Died boasts any number of colorful, futuristic touches. Besides the time machines, there are the teleport booths, for instantly zipping from one location to another; the ubiquitous metallic robots and chemically created androids; those legalized duels; mentophone caps, with which one can mentally communicate with another person in a faraway section of the galaxy; fantasy clubs that almost sound like the holodeck on the starship Enterprise; psych tracers that can detect a person’s brain wave pattern from millions of miles away; and, of course, the notion of a time war itself. As for those time machines, you’d think that Simak would have given them some kind of stressed importance here, but no. They’re just there, part of the background and taken for granted, like a kitchen sink; just part of everyday life. Robert A. Heinlein would no doubt have approved of this offhand manner of presenting the most flabbergasting futuristic gizmos. Further wonder in the book is engendered by Sutton’s gradually increasing, superhuman abilities. Besides coming back from the dead several times, our leading man also has, embedded in his noggin, one of the Cygni denizens, who Sutton calls “Johnny” and who advises him in tight spots. Sutton, as we come to realize, is able to absorb energy from both distant stars and mechanical engines; can kill with a mere thought; can fly a powerless and crumpled starship; can control dice telekinetically; and can enter the minds of other humans and animals. And yet, despite his remarkable abilities, Sutton remains a very challenged individual throughout, to put it mildly.

For the rest of it, First He Died shows Simak giving voice, for the first time in a novel, to his love of the rural setting that he knew so well. A significant part of this particular book takes place in the Bridgeport, Wisconsin of the late 20th century, an area just a few miles away from the town of Millville, where the author was born and raised. His gentle and lovely descriptions of the countryside betray his adoration for this southwestern corner of the state. In one section, as Sutton gazes at the Wisconsin landscape, he ponders:First He Died by Clifford D. Simak science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

…Man leaped rivers on great spans of steel and he never heard the talk of rivers as they rolled down to the sea. Man leaped seas on wings powered by smooth, sleek engines, and the thunder of the sea was a sound lost in the empty vault of sky. Man crossed space in metallic cylinders that twisted time and space and hurled Man and his miraculous machines down alleys of conjectural mathematics that were not even dreamed of in this world of Bridgeport, 1977.

 

Man was in a hurry and he went too far, too fast. So far and fast that he missed many things … things that he should have taken time to learn as he went along … things that someday in some future age he would take the time to study. Someday Man would come back along the trail again and learn the things he’d missed and wonder why he missed them and think upon the years that were lost for never knowing them…

And First He Died is nicely right-on when it comes to its espousing a belief in the equality of all living things … even the artificially created androids. To quote Sutton again, vis-à-vis those androids:

…We gave them inferiority … we made them less than human and that gave them a reason to fight us. We denied them something they have to fight to get … equality. We furnished them with a motive Man lost long ago, though he still has a need to feel superior to other humans for some arbitrary and unimportant difference. Once it was religion, nationality, the color of the skin. Now it’s the ability to reproduce…

Thus, we have a highly imaginative and colorful work, mind-blowing in parts but ultimately impeccably plotted, with some lovely bucolic sections and a modern-day take on the brotherhood of all sentient beings. As a matter of fact, I only have two very minor quibbles that I would raise against Simak’s sophomore novel here. The first is the fact that he mentions that Aldebaran is 50 light-years away from Earth, whereas it is more like 65. And the other is that one of Sutton’s nemeses is shown to have an inkwell on his desk. Really? An inkwell? In the year 8500? I think those things had pretty much disappeared by 1960! But as I say, these are mere quibbles. First He Died is a very solid early work from a novelist just beginning to come into his own, and I do recommend it. To read it is to experience a desire to check out the author’s seldom-discussed follow-up novel, Empire. Happily, I believe that this third novel of Simak’s is also available from the fairly gigantic catalog of Armchair Fiction…

Originally published in 1950. Armchair fiction presents large deluxe paperback editions of the best in classic science fiction novels, complete with original illustrations. “First He Died,” first published in Galaxy Magazine in 1950 under the title, “Time Quarry,” put author Clifford D. Simak’s name clearly in the science fiction spotlight. This Armchair Fiction edition is the exact text of the original 1950 publication. “First He Died” is a great novel of time and intrigue: As Man continued to stretch his reach to every corner of the galaxy, there was one planet they could not crack. The seventh planet of 61 Cygni had thwarted every attempt of contact by use of a mysterious screen that would stop anything from entering it. But there was one man who was able to penetrate that screen: Special Agent Asher Sutton—for he alone was chosen by “Destiny.” Destiny would change Asher Sutton, who would leave 61 Cygni twenty years later, half the human he once was. Destiny had recreated Sutton and given him the power he would need to spread the word of Destiny throughout the galaxy. But the warring factions of the future had other plans as they plotted to literally rewrite history with a war not so much throughout the galaxy, but throughout time itself.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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4 comments

  1. Paul Connelly /

    Your description, up through “the mysterious events pile up”, would sound like it might apply to a previously unreleased Philip K. Dick book if you left the author’s name out. That is, PKD when he was channeling his own inner A. E. van Vogt.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      A valid comment…especially since Phil would have turned 93 today….

  2. Your reviews are amazing, Sandy. Thanks for another one.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Thanks for the kind words, Brad. I have trouble knowing if they’re good or not, or if I’ve done a book justice, or if I’ve revealed too much, so your comment is very much appreciated!

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