Clifford D. Simak was an award-winning American science fiction writer, born in 1904 in Millville, Wisconsin. Setting a story like Time and Again (1951) in rural Wisconsin characterizes much of Simak’s fiction. For example, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in Time and Again Simak imagines a University of North America, located a short distance from the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.
Another pervasive theme in this novel and other Simak fiction is time travel, in his view rarely a good strategy for escaping contemporary woes. Asher Sutton, a human transformed by his deep-space planetary encounter with ‘symbiotic abstraction’ beings, ethereal or spiritual in nature, returns to Earth around 7999, 20 years after his departure, and finds himself in the middle of a quasi-religious war between proponents of human hegemony throughout the cosmos and its opponents advocating equality for all creatures, whether extra-terrestrials, squirrels, worms, android/robots, or human.
When I began to read this narrative, its references to paper, books, typewriters—all the appurtenances of mid-twentieth century writing craft— as well as pipe-smoking, intercoms, and ham and eggs for breakfast, felt out of place in a story based on human exploration and settlements throughout the Milky Way. My objections fell away as the story pulled me into its big question mark, the definition of ‘human.’ An indictment of humanity’s arrogance, stemming from a belief in a version of Manifest Destiny whereby our species inevitably will colonize and dominate the universe, makes this nearly seventy-year-old work relevant. Corporate and religious arrogance prevail today and influence nations and the state of the planet. Concerns about AI are growing. Inequalities informing economies and the application of social justice have fostered anger, polarized communities, and encouraged desperate behaviors. Those forces are at work in Time and Again, seven centuries in the future—as they are in our own time. Does Simak ask if our species will ever learn to transcend them?
In the Foreword to his collection Skirmish Simak states, “Overall, I have written in a quiet manner; there is little violence in my work. My focus has been on people, not on events. More often than not I have struck a hopeful note… I have, on occasions, tried to speak out for decency and compassion, for understanding, not only in the human, but in the cosmic sense. I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space. I have been concerned where we, as a race, may be going, and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme—if we have a purpose. In general, I believe we do, and perhaps an important one.”