fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWhy Call Them Back From Heaven? by Clifford D. Simak science fiction book reviewsWhy Call Them Back From Heaven? by Clifford D. Simak

Although the concept of cryogenically preserving the bodies of the living had been a trope of Golden Age science fiction from the 1930s and onward, it wasn’t until New Jersey-born Robert Ettinger released his hardheaded book on the subject, 1962’s The Prospect of Immortality, that the idea began to be taken seriously. Ettinger would go on to found the Cryonics Institute in Michigan around 15 years later; over 1,300 folks have subscribed to this facility as of 2015, agreeing to pay $30,000 to have themselves turned into human “corpsicles,” and 130 are currently “on ice” there. (And let’s not even discuss Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, whose head is currently in deep freeze at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona!) But getting back to Ettinger’s book: This volume apparently impressed sci-fi author Clifford D. Simak so much that he was inspired to write a book on the cryonics theme himself. The result was the author’s 11th sci-fi novel (out of an eventual 26), Why Call Them Back From Heaven?, which was first released in 1967. Simak, who would ultimately win three Hugo Awards and one Nebula — and be named, by the Science Fiction Writers of America, its third “Grand Master” (following Robert A. Heinlein and Jack Williamson) in 1977 — is an author who I had not read in several decades, but who used to be one of my favorites back when, largely by dint of such classic books as City (1952), Ring Around the Sun (1953) and, especially, Way Station (the 1964 Hugo winner). His simple, clean writing style, gentle prose, and rural settings have endeared him to generations of readers, and, I am happy to say, Why Call… turns out to be still another of his wondrous creations.

In Why Call Them Back From Heaven?, the year is 2148. Mankind, inspired by Ettinger’s work, has decided that cryogenic freezing of its elderly and hopelessly ill inhabitants, against the day when they might be resuscitated and cured, is assuredly the way to go. Thus, the Forever Center has come into being, a mile-high building where the “living dead” are stored. As the tale begins, Earth holds some 50 billion living souls, with another 100 billion “on ice,” as the Forever Center prosecutes its manifold projects; namely, finding an “immortality serum” to keep the newly awakened alive forever; finding habitable planets for living space; and exploring the possibility of dumping all those billions somewhere back in time! Meanwhile, the bulk of humanity lives in a state of penny-pinching frugality, hoarding all their money for use in their “second life,” and amusing itself with inexpensive entertainments, such as watching TV and taking legal hallucinatory drugs (perhaps Simak had been reading Philip K. Dick at this point also!).

Against this backdrop, Simak weaves his tale of numerous characters. Foremost, we have the dilemma of Daniel Frost, a PR man at the Forever Center, whose life is turned upside down when he is, for reasons unknown, tried for treason and marked with the ostracism tattoo on his face (in a scene straight out of Franz Kafka’s The Trial), then framed for murder and forced to take it on the lam into the deserted countryside. Other plot threads involve Franklin Chapman, another Center worker, who, after inadvertently causing the death of a client, is punished by having his “second life” denied him; Ann Harrison, who is Chapman’s lawyer and comes to Frost’s aid, as well; Mona Campbell, a Forever Center scientist working on time travel, who disappears suddenly; Ogden Russell, a religious hermit seeking God and truth on a Wisconsin river island; Amos Hicklin, who seeks a jade treasure in that same Wisconsin area; and the Holies, a religious band that rejects the Center’s “physical immortality” in favor of its more Christian teachings.

Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (the title is derived from one of the Holies’ many slogans) is a fast-moving yet thoughtful novel, written in Simak’s endearingly straightforward style, but one that ultimately feels somewhat unsatisfying. The book could easily have been another 100 pages long, for my money, and given us a larger worldview, a more in-depth weltanschauung, of this unique society. Several plot threads in the book — a young man studying to be in the Forever Center, the rumor that cryogenic freezing allows for bacterial buildup in the brain, and, most especially, a suppressed book that claims the Forever Center is a monstrous fraud — simply peter out. Simak, pro that he was, cannot have forgotten them; more likely, he presented these tantalizing tidbits to make his story more interesting, although the result — for this reader, anyway — is one of frustration. The book is also marred by its dependence on unlikely coincidence (really, what are the odds of Frost and Mona winding up in that same Wisconsin farmhouse?!). Still, there is much to enjoy here.

Frost’s story, in particular, is a thrilling one, growing increasingly nightmarish as it proceeds, to the point where he is a mud-caked, naked man stumbling along the road toward his old family farm near Bridgeport, Wisconsin. (Simak, who was born in nearby Millville, Wisconsin, in 1904, would use that rural setting in many of his novels.) The author gives the reader some very convincing thoughts regarding the afterlife (apparently, he has little confidence in the benefits of cryogenics, and pooh-poohs the heaven/hell concept offered by religion, instead opting for a model that equates matter/energy and life/death) and shows us, somewhat cynically, how even the clerics of 2148 are more trusting of the Forever Center than they are of the Bible’s promise of “life eternal.” Still, the Holies ARE shown to be the most practical and efficient when it comes to everyday, worldly affairs. And Ogden’s assertion, at the book’s end, that “God has turned his back on us” is surely undercut by Mona’s startling scientific pronouncements. Yes, this is a book that certainly gives the reader food for thought, in addition to providing action and thrills. With just a little more in the way of detail, Why Call Them Back From Heaven? could have been a true classic. Still, what we have here is enough for my reserved recommendation. This is a book that will, at the very least, make you rethink your decision to send off a $30,000 check to Ettinger’s Cryonics Institute!


  • Sandy Ferber

    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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