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Cosmic Engineers
by Clifford D. Simak
Gnome Press, 224pp
Published: 1950

This is one of Simak’s earlier works and follows the themes of the time: spaceflight, adventure, aliens, saving the world.  He was following the current popularity of science fiction and hadn’t yet found his own style.

There is no one main protagonist in this story, in fact I wouldn’t even say there was any.  The plot and setting is all.  But the story begins with a pair of newsmen – a writer, Gary, and a photographer, Herb.  This is not unexpected as Simak was a newspaperman and writers write what they know.  But these characters could have been anyone as the skills of news writing wasn’t a part of the plot.  They are following a story taking place on Pluto; the site of a historic launch towards Alpha Centauri. The pilot is a hotshot whose planned trip – Evil Kneivel style – has been forbidden by the government.  The newsmen are there to observe if the man will take the trip despite the government’s orders or if the government will find a way to stop it.  But this is only a plot device to get these two men to Pluto and barely figures into the story.  As they approach Pluto they just happen to find a drifting ship with a mysterious woman in suspended animation.  The woman, Caroline Martin, is a historical figure who factored heavily in an ancient war between Earth and Jupiter a thousand years earlier.  She had been exiled because she refused to give Earth a weapon to destroy Jupiter; which would have, in her opinion, quite probably destroyed the entire galaxy.  But she didn’t die as expected; her extraordinary intellect enabled her to devise a suspension chamber of her own design and she lay there for centuries – fully awake and aware.  Now, most stories would have accepted the idea that such an experience would have made the person quite insane.  But, in order to maintain her sanity, she spent the time devising problems and creating solutions; making her uniquely suited for the task of interpreting messages from somewhere on the other side of the universe.

The people manning the outpost on Pluto have been intercepting patterned energy emissions but hadn’t been able to figure them out.  Caroline does it for them and it appears to be a cry for help. And the energy emissions appear to be telepathic in nature enabling an instantaneous communication – thought travels at the speed of thought. So, just as in the movie/book Contact, the aliens instruct our intrepid band in how to build a wormhole. (I wonder if Sagan and Simak had coffee together…) Once the ship, piloted by the hotshot, of course, travels to the other side of the universe they meet their penpals – metal men in a fabulous yet deserted city.  These metal men have a tale of the end of the universe and a plea to use the uniquely human imagination to find a solution.  Well, that goal is hard enough but to complicate matters, there’s a nefarious race in the universe who want the universe to be destroyed in the hopes they can survive and be the ones to control and structure the new, baby universe born out of the destruction.

Typical of both Simak and his times, the characters are rather one-dimensional and the plot and setting are the focus.  The plot is actually pretty complex and well-designed.  The setting is pretty interesting although I would have appreciated a bit more color and description.  Over all, it is a good sample of the genre of the period but not really illustrative of the real Simak.  That came later. ~~ Catherine Book

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