Monday, June 11, 2007

Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? fails the test of time

Books now read in ’07: 53
Title: Why Bring Them Back From Heaven?
Author: Clifford Simak
Genre: Science Fiction
Date Completed: 6-10
Pages: 191

It’s been 40 years since I first, and last, read Clifford Simak’s Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? I remember Simak’s writing fondly and with respect. I think of him as one of the more provocative science fiction writers I read during my teen years. My admiration for Simak seems to have been shared by his colleagues. In 1977 he was the third writer named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Recently, I decided to re-read Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? I wanted to explore the accuracy of my memory: Was Simak really that good or is that simply how I remember his books through the haze of four decades?

Sadly, (now, there’s a clue), Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? doesn’t hold up. The book is about man’s quest for immortality. Set in 2148, the world is dominated by the Forever Center, a corporation that stores away the dead even as it seeks a solution to immortality. People live Spartan lives, practicing self-denial as they set aside pleasures in this life for the promise of great wealth in the next.

Opposing the Forever Center are the Holies, a small, but intrepid group of neo-Christians, who believe in eternal life – but the immortality they envision is spiritual rather than physical. The Holies campaign against the Forever Center includes spray-painting buildings with the slogan: Why Bring Them Back From Heaven?

It’s interesting now, from the perspective of four decades, to remember the distrust with which we regarded corporations in the 60s. They were soulless, evil monoliths, tributes to greedy, rampant capitalism. It’s hard to hang on to that image today while using Microsoft software, wearing Nike shoes and sipping a Starbucks frappuccino. We proudly pay to wear corporate brands today and generally view corporations as benign, but necessary citizens of the world.

Simak’s mistrust of corporations is evident – the Forever Center is a soulless monolith, more powerful than any national government, sucking up all the world’s wealth, while encouraging people to live in literal and psychic poverty. Worst of all, the Forever Center may be withholding a terrible secret – that immortality cannot be achieved and that all those millions who slumber, awaiting a second life, will never be revived.

Ultimately, Simak betrays some ambivalence toward corporations. Evil elements are purged from the Forever Center, the corporation’s CEO restores the protagonist to his former position from which he had been ousted in shame, rewards him handsomely and help to restore his good name.

In the 40 years since Simak wrote Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? a lot has changed, but citizens aren’t stacked up like cordwood while awaiting eternal life and this science fiction grand master missed reality TV, the cell phone, the Internet and global warming – 140 years from now, in Simak’s world, the environment appears unnaturally healthy.

It’s also dated culturally. Consider these musings by a female scientist at the Forever Center: “Rather, it was the thought of someone such as she – a middle-aged and dowdy woman who too long had been concerned with matters that were unwomanly. Mathematics—what had a woman to do with mathematics other than the basic arithmetic of fitting the family’s budget to the family’s need? And what had a woman to do with life other than the giving and rearing of new life?”

Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? points to the dangers of re-reading. It's true that some books cannot be taken out of their social and historical context. It is also true that there are times when a fondly remembered books simply falls flat when it is re-visited.

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