Saturday 21 November 2009

Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D Simak

Yet another tale from 1950, although based on a 1939 short story. Like the Van Vogt books reviewed last week, Cosmic Engineers is set several thousand years into the future and also features a time when mankind has spread through the Solar System but not beyond. Two reporters are heading out to Pluto where a new type of spaceship is being prepared for a voyage to the stars. On the way they find a drifting spaceship which contains a young woman in suspended animation, whom they revive. It transpires that she is a mathematical genius whose brain has been active for the entire thousand years of her time in the ship, leading to her developing highly advanced mathematical concepts. On arrival at Pluto they find that the base has been receiving telepathic messages from outer space and discover that our entire universe is facing a terrible threat from which only they can save it.

The astrophysical concepts included in the story are astonishingly advanced and could easily be included in a story written today: the multiverse, colliding universes, mysterious energy between the universes and so on. On a more mundane level there are also a number of ideas which crop up in later works by other writers (which may be coincidental, of course). Unfortunately, this is all wrapped up in a decidedly old-fashioned tale, even taking account of the publication date.

Simak also wrote City, which is in my top-20 list of favourite SF books. This was published only a couple of years after Cosmic Engineers but is in my opinion a vastly better - and better written - book; it really is time I read that one again! Most of Simak's other work is worth reading but not as striking and memorable.

Cosmic Engineers is a strange combination of amazingly advanced ideas with a rather ordinary story written in a dated style. I much prefer the contemporary Van Vogt stories reviewed below; their fantastic elements seem more in the spirit of their period.


Jim Harris said...

Cosmic Engineers wasn't a short story from 1939, but a 3-part serial. I'd love to know how much Simak changed the story for the 1950 book publication. For 1939 the ideas were amazing, for 1950, a good deal less amazing.

City is one of my all time favorite SF books too, and it was a fixup novel containing several previously published short stories, but it did hold up well as a single story, and still does. I find it about equal to Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles in terms of gentle humanistic science fiction.

The Cosmic Engineers is very dated and clunky, so I think it's essentially the same as the 1939 serial. I'd like to think it's exactly the same, because it would be a major classic from 1939, but dated by 1950 in terms of story telling style.

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for that, Jim