A psychic astronaut hits the road in Clifford Simak’s 1961 novel ‘Time is the Simplest Thing’

February 2, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 2, 2019

Shortly after the opening of Time is the Simplest Thing, the 1961 Clifford D. Simak novel, protagonist Shepherd Blaine realizes that the machine he is telekinetically operating has entered an artificial structure in a desert on a faraway planet. The open-aired dwelling is occupied by a sprawling pink blob about 12 feet high with a base 20 feet in diameter.

“Hi pal,” the Pinkness tells the probe, “I trade with you my mind.” In that instant, the alien creature swaps a slice of its consciousness with part of Blaine’s… and in the next, Blaine’s mind is recalled to his sleeping body at the Fishhook complex in Northern Mexico.

It emerges that Blaine — and yes, his first name is capital-S Symbolic — is a sort of psychic astronatut who works for an organization called Fishhook. Over a century or so beginning around the end of the 1900s, Fishhook has harnessed psychic powers to explore outer space, a task to which human bodies and ordinary technology proved ill suited. As soon as Blaine awakens, he realizes that in a matter of minutes, the scientists at his organization will review recordings from the probe he’s been using and discover that he has been compromised.

Prompted in part by an abrupt phone call he received three years earlier from a fellow explorer, Blaine slips away from his colleagues and goes on the lam with the cooperation of a journalist. The escape involves Blaine somehow speeding up his movement with the aid of the alien thought patterns:

Blaine stepped out of the door and moved along the flagstone walk that led to the long stone stairway that went slanting down across the great cliff face. 

A man was lounging at the head of the stairs and he began to straighten slowly as Blaine raced down the walk toward him. 

The light from one of the upstairs windows shone across the face of the straightening man, and Blaine saw the lines of outraged surprise, as if they were sculptured lines in a graven face. 

“Sorry, pal,” said Blaine. 

He shot his arm out, stiff from the shoulder, with the palm spread flat and caught the graven face. 

The man reeled backward slowly, step by cautious step, tilting farther and farther backward with each step. In another little while he’d fall flat upon his back. 

Blaine didn’t wait to see. He went running down the stairs. Beyond the dark lines of parked vehicles stood a single car, with its taillights gleaming and its motor humming softly. 

It was Harriet’s car, Blaine told himself, but it was headed the wrong way — not down the road toward the canyon’s mouth, but into the canyon’s maw. And that was wrong, he knew, because the road pinched out a mile or two beyond. 

He reached the bottom of the steps and threaded his way among the cars out into the road. 

Harriet sat waiting in the car, and he walked around it and opened the door. He slid into the seat. 

Weariness hit him, a terrible, bone-aching weariness, as if he had been runnings, [sic] as if he’d run too far. He sank into the seat and looked at his hands lying in his lap and saw that they were trembling. 

Harriet turned to look at him. “It didn’t take you long,” she said. 

“I got a break,” said Blaine. “I hurried.” 

She put the car in gear and it floated up the road, its airjets thrumming and the canyon walls picking up the thrumming to fling it back and forth.

Time is the Simplest Thing gradually expands its portrait of contemporary North American society with each chapter as Blaine and a small group of companions attempt to spirit the protagonist to safety. Fishhook’s explorers have brought back invaluable extraterrestrial goods and new scientific principles, the hovercar presumably being one product thereof. However, the organization is bitterly envied and feared by most of the rest of the world, not simply because it holds a monopoly over all things off-world but also because that monopoly gives it the potential to upend established business and industries almost effortlessly.

(Think of how publishing has been disrupted by technology over the past three decades, sometimes but hardly always for the better, and then imagine the impact of meat-spawning plants, one of many revolutionary commodities that Fishhook has introduced.)

Simak, a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America grand master, posits a 21st- or 22nd-century Earth where science is distrusted and superstition and hostility to anything unfamiliar runs rampant. Those possessing psychic abilities — parakinetics, also called PKs or “parries” — are especially loathed. Blaine finds himself threatened by the various locals he encounters as well as Fishhook, which fears what stunts their contaminated rogue former employee might pull.

‘Time is the Simplest Thing’ (1961) by Clifford D. Simak

Time is the Simplest Thing has an engaging story, but the book is hampered by what I’ve come to think of as Blank Template Syndrome. Like many science fiction protagonists, Blaine is as bland as they come, having no distinguishing characteristics at the start of the story other than his ability to use his mind to transport and operate robots on distant planets. The only thing that’s ever revealed about Blaine’s pre-Fishhook past comes in the form of a few short sentences about a Halloween prank he and a boyhood pal once pulled.

I think I understand the logic behind Blank Template Syndrome: Authors evidently hoped that by making their heroes seem universal, it would be easier for readers to identify with them. Alas, the ultimate effect is that 1960s and ’70s science-fiction stories are populated by a legion of generic, utterly forgettable characters.

That said, it’s satisfying to see Blaine address the various obstacles he faces, and Simak spins an amusing if insubstantial adventure. The story wraps up on an upbeat note, which would have worked better for me if it didn’t involve an evidently sheltered beautiful teenage girl falling in love with the protagonist after having spent basically no time alone with him. (This strikes me as another cheap ploy writers used to try to engage readers’ sympathies.)

Genre enthusiasts will probably enjoy Time is the Simplest Thing, but I wouldn’t classify it as a must-read.

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