Hollywood is responsible for ruining possibilities. When those immortal words were spoken, it forever influenced storytelling: There’s no place like home. It wasn’t Baum, he never wrote those words; it was all Hollywood. How many stories have you read where, no matter how exotic or bizarre the adventures of the characters, they always return home “older but wiser?” They always return home. Sometimes they’ve changed a little sometimes the reader achieves an original thought. Sometimes they achieve their heart’s desire…but they always return. If it is a cautionary tale, they may not be able to return…but they wish they could. How much storytelling has been nipped in the bud by that longing to find that place we can call home? When did that become the ultimate goal? I’ll tell you…when those screenwriters wrote those words down and Judy Garland spoke them. But Simak was able to see past that.
In this story, Simak’s usual motley collection of characters come together: a brute of a spaceship captain hired by the rich heiress to find a legendary hero, an idiot-savant who functions as a dowser, and the religious cleric-type who speaks for true believers (but characterized more as a simple, misguided soul by Simak.) Along the way they pick up the requisite (standard for Simak) non-human characters. And they make a pilgrimage also a Simak standard.
Mike Ross is a down-on-his-luck spaceship pilot when he gets a job offer from the rich eccentric huntress Sara. She wants to find a legendary traveler called The Knight who was on a quest for something important. The Knight reportedly traveled with a very special robot…a telepathic robot. And the idiot-savant appears to hear a voice in his head that may very well be that same robot and seems to be able to divine where the voice is he is their navigator, so to speak. The cleric is there to care for the idiot and be the voice of conscience. So off they go on their quest to a singular planet with more mysteries than answers. They are immediately met by one of the most peculiar creatures I’ve read of in print a sentient rocking horse. And it really does move! It just gets weirder from there, typical Simak-style. The story is a journey of discovery; they believe their journey is to find the Knight and his quest but it ends up being a journey of personal discovery. This journey does have a satisfying resolution for some of the group but is a terrible trial to Mike who has a great difficulty in sympathizing with those he identifies as weak. I enjoyed his gradual acceptance of things he couldn’t change or control without feeling any pity for his character.
Simak always focuses on plot; a typical SF story. His characters are, by today’s standards, rather shallow. We have almost nothing of their history or backstory, we don’t get any of their internal thoughts and their personal interactions are simplistic. But none of those should deter a reader from enjoying these classics. Simak’s stories have often been characterized as “pastoral” for reasons of which I don’t entirely agree. I have found that while some stories do use a Midwestern type of setting, many of them, including this book, cast the characters into unfamiliar and dangerous territory. He uses a motley group of characters to provide the conflict; any external conflicts are secondary to the group’s dynamics. His plots frequently involve first contact and a mystery. And many of them have a deep concept that is the pot of gold for the patient reader. Which brings me back to Dorothy’s infamous line: Simak challenges the idea that people will be satisfied with just returning to their roots, a little older and wiser for the experience. He rails against that and poses the question “What if there’s something better?”
I don’t usually philosophize over a story nor do I work real hard at finding the ‘hidden meanings’ but this book had such an effect on me. Every thinking human being spends time thinking about they want, what they desire, and how to get it. But not everyone really knows what they want or desire. The more important question is: what do you need? And the masses will embrace a mantra that will spell it out for them. That’s what Hollywood did to storytellers taking everyone home (giving them what they think they want) is the lazy way to end a story. Giving them what they need is usually more complex and not always a happy ending. Simak could do this brilliantly. ~~ Catherine Book