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Solid and thoughtful SF from a neglected master
on 7 September 2010
Although the title suggests a time-travel tale, this is actually a story about persecuted paranormals, standing in a tradition with Stapledon's "Odd John" (1935) at one end and "X-Men", "The 4400" and "Heroes" at the other. Simak's 1961 novel has more in common with the former, in that it shares Stapledon's pessimism about the possibility of reconciliation between exceptional and ordinary people.
Our hero is the slyly-named telepath Shepherd Blaine. He works for Fishhook, a corporation that employs paranormals ("parries") to visit the stars remotely. The rigours of solar radiation have rendered it impossible for mankind to travel there physically:
"And all the years were dead and all the dreams were futile and Man had finally ended up in a little planetary dead-end. For then the gods had toppled, and Man, in his secret mind, had known that after all the years of yearnings, he had achieved nothing more than gadgets."
Blaine encounters an alien who takes up squatting room in Blaine's mind. Former colleagues to whom this has happened have been abducted by Fishhook, so Blaine goes on the run. He travels through a little-changed small-town America (Simak's habitual terrain), looking for purpose, dodging not only his employer's pursuit but the blind prejudice and mob violence of ordinary people.
It's in this persecution that Simak's characteristic sadness about the human condition comes through. The attempts of Blaine and others to create understanding between the inevitably factionalised populations, parries and normals, are seen to come to naught: small-minded prejudice, ignorance and fear, Simak seems to suggest, are beyond the ability of reason and goodwill to defeat. Using the skills he inherits from the alien, Blaine has to make his own 'happy ending': it cannot encompass everyone.
Simak was a great SF writer, sadly neglected now, and unusual among the old US crop in infusing his folksy books not with indomitable optimism, but with a humane, clear-sighted melancholy. This is no classic of the genre, but it's intelligent, thoughtful and well-written.