Clifford Simak’s A Choice of Gods is one of those science fiction books that dazzles with premise, not style. It also comes from a particular school of early 70s SF (and this is a nebulous designation to say the least) that, buoyed by the nascent environmentalism movement, thought of the future as a return to the past: by dint of an extraordinary phenomenon, humankind is brought back to its “roots,” in harmony with the Earth. What can we call this style? Maybe we take a page from Ernest Callenbach: “Ecotopianism.”
Ecotopianism is interesting but flawed: when man returns to the land in science fiction, regardless of the premise, he leaves science fiction behind. The genre is (and should be) dominated by a negation of biology, an almost nihilistic abstraction from the Earth, a desire to get the hell off the home planet. Science fiction is a movement outwards, not inwards: up, up, and away. We are not concerned with those left behind, we are concerned with all that is inherently unnatural or post-natural. This isn’t to say that science fiction can’t be ecological (or political); only that the morality of science fiction is best communicated through allegory, through an expression of radical difference that can’t be found on the present Earth.
In A Choice Of Gods, 99.9% of humanity disappears from Earth, leaving a handful of Native Americans, robots, and thoughtful white New-Englanders. The Left Behind develop a close relationship with the wounded planet, and evolve to become long-lived and parapsychic. The Native Americans, freed of the White Man, return to a nomadic lifestyle rich in mildly paranormal animism. The Robots, with no one left to serve, tend to the land and become students of surviving human religious texts. The rest, when not psychically journeying throughout the stars, consider themselves the caretakers of the planet. After 5,000 years have passed, the original “People” return from a mysterious corner of the galaxy, and the tender, Ecotopian humans realize the certain doom of the planet if the callous, technology-obsessed strain of ancient humanity (it’s us!) were ever allowed to recolonize. Humanity is split, in isolated strains representing the warring tendencies within ourselves, and it cannot be reconciled.
What do we learn? That humanity, en masse, is mutually exclusive to the healthy perpetuity of our planet? In the novel, the return of the People is implicitly stopped by the very same force which drew them away in the first place — a tinkering hyper-intelligence in the center of the galaxy. We are left to assume that “God” as we know It is really just the existence of an extraterrestrial intelligence to which we are microbial in comparison. Despite Simak’s gentle characters (and aliens: in a pivotal moment, an inscrutable tentacled alien gives succor to a human: “it moved closer to him, pressed hard against him, grew a tentacle and held him tight, broadcasting unheard comfort.”), his Universe is ruled by an unfeeling, perhaps robotic, intelligence, and we don’t deserve the Earth.
Is this, ultimately, the message of Ecotopianism? That the very notion of living in harmony with the planet is something so wildly improbable as to be straight-up science fiction?
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