Written s(i)mack-dab in the middle of the American Civil Rights Movement, Clifford D. Simak’s Time Is the Simplest Thing utilizes the tools of science fiction to make poignant comments on the issues of the day. The novel, the author’s sixth out of an eventual 29, was initially serialized in the May – July 1961 issues of Analog magazine with the equally appropriate title The Fisherman, and went on to be nominated for that year’s Hugo Award. (It lost, to Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land.) Later that year, it made its first book appearance as a Doubleday hardcover, the selfsame edition that this reader was fortunate enough to acquire at NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand. Simak, it should be mentioned, was actually only a part-time writer at this stage of his lengthy career. From 1939 – ’76, the Wisconsin-born author held a full-time job on the Minneapolis Star, where he worked as news editor from 1949 on. Nevertheless, by 1961, Simak had already written those five earlier novels, not to mention some 95 short stories, and had already copped his first Hugo (for 1959’s Best Novelette, “The Big Front Yard”); he would go on to win two more Hugos and a Nebula, and be proclaimed sci-fi’s third official Grand Master, before his career was through. Time Is the Simplest Thing was written when the author was 57, and finds him in very fine form, indeed. It is a fast-moving, imaginative tale, and one that had — as I mentioned — the added benefit of being socially relevant, as well.
In Simak’s novel, mankind has finally admitted defeat, as far as ever traveling to the stars is concerned, that pesky Van Allen radiation belt seeming to be a practically unpassable obstacle. Thus, around 100 years from the present day, an organization known as Fishhook comes into being. Headquartered in northern Mexico, the group makes use of telepathically gifted individuals who can explore other worlds by projecting outward with their minds! And so, mankind can safely wander over the worlds of the galaxy while its “paranormals” lie safely in their “star machines” at Fishhook HQ. Shepherd Blaine is one such paranormal, one whose life is upended one day when he shares minds with a gigantic, pink, bloblike alien as he mentally explores a planet around 5,000 light-years distant. When he is revived at Fishhook, Blaine discovers that the alien mentality is still sharing part of his noggin, making him a suspected, infected target for the organization’s security force. Shep thus takes it on the lam, along with sympathetic, telepathic newswoman Harriet Quimby.
The two manage to make it to the U.S., where Blaine is almost lynched in a small border town. The entire populace, it seems, is in great fear of all “parries,” branding them witches and werewolves. Fortunately, as Blaine continues to flee across the country, hunted by the Fishhook people and the frightened populace, he discovers that he now possesses some unusual new abilities, thanks to that alien residue in his mind: the ability to speed up or slow down time, the ability to divine an object’s history by merely staring at it (psychometry), and … one other crucial ability, that comes in very handy when he discovers that another Fishhook ex-employee, Lambert Finn, is planning a genocidal pogrom against all the parries in the world. But will even these godlike abilities be enough to quell worldwide discrimination and unrest?
As Time Is the Simplest Thing proceeds, it becomes evident that all these folks with paranormal abilities — be they telepaths or teleporters or psychokineticists — are stand-in symbols for all those folks who are discriminated against in modern-day, real-life society. Whether they are blacks, Jews, gays … or Muslims, Simak has this to say on the subject:
…how much ability and genius might be lying barren, ability and genius that the world could use but would never know because of the intolerance and hate which was held against the very people who were least qualified as the targets of it.
And later in the book:
Someday … the world would look back and wonder at the madness … at the blindness and the folly and the sheer intolerance. Someday there would be vindication. Someday sanity.
And later still:
The darkness of the mind, the bleakness of the thought, the shallowness of purpose. These were the werewolves of the world.
For its right-on central message alone, regarding the evils of intolerance of those who are different, Time Is the Simplest Thing would get my heartiest recommendation. But the book offers the reader many other pleasures, as well.
As I said before, the book gallops along at a rapid pace, and Blaine’s predicament is an interesting one. As Scottish critic David Pringle mentions in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, the novel is “a shade tougher than this sentimental/pastoral author’s normal fare,” and I suppose that this is true, with any number of violent confrontations, fistfights, murders, suicide and assorted mayhem on display. Simak was a wonderful writer, need I even mention, and adds pleasing, futuristic grace notes throughout his book, such as automobiles with air jets and nuclear engines, not to mention all the many wonders that Fishhook has managed to bring back to Earth (becoming at the same time more of a venal, capitalistic monopoly than a space exploration agency): the “Dimensino” entertainment program; the “transo” booth for instantaneous transportation; the Gobathian drug, used by an insect race to repair broken bodies; and that straitjacket-like robe, made from the striped skin of an alien creature.
Simak’s writing style is simple, clean and compulsively readable, and yet still capable of delivering a choice line such as “a face that looked as if it were a place where chickens scratched in their search for grubs and worms.” As had Alfred Bester in his 1953 masterpiece The Demolished Man, Simak here utilizes different typefaces very effectively to convey spoken and telepathed conversations, often mixing the two in the same paragraph. He’s not above coining his own words — such as “smuggery” — to suit his needs, and even seems to have beaten Patrick McGoohan’s classic television program The Prisoner to the punch when he describes the idyllic Fishhook pleasure village by the sea, in which it holds captive those who attempt to escape the organization!
All of which is not to say that Simak’s novel is a perfect affair. Indeed, this reader had two problems with Time Is the Simplest Thing, one large and one small. The minor complaint is that it is a bit too dependent on (double) coincidence; I’ll let you find out just where and when yourself. My main problem with Simak’s story, however, is that we never learn precisely just how Fishhook has managed to bring back all those alien goods to Earth, when our explorers are only visiting those planets mentally. It is an aspect of the story that is hardly touched on, and yet one that plays a central role in Fishhook’s position in Earth society. This reader wanted to know more, to put it mildly. Simak’s book ends with matters not completely resolved, either, with the fate of many of the parries still very much in jeopardy, and with Blaine thinking that a lot of work remains to be done. Simak could easily have revisited this fascinating story line of his for a justifiable follow-up tale, but no; this was one author who never wrote a sequel to any of his 29 novels, preferring to always come up with something fresh and original.
Still, for what it is, Time Is the Simplest Thing remains a satisfying experience, and, as I say, a right-on one. It is a book whose central message — a plea for understanding and acceptance for those who are different — is more needed today than ever.