Although not well known today (a phrase variations of which will come up over and over in the prefaces to this series), before his death in 1988 Clifford Simak was considered one of the great names of science fiction. Known for his pastoral SF, he often eschewed the easy narrative tool of violence. Any reader looking for a story in which human and alien manage to bridge the vast gulf between them, possibly while sharing a sunset on the back porch of the human’s home, should consider Simak.
“Desertion” is the fourth story in Simak’s collection City, which won the 1952 International Fantasy Award, is an oddly melancholy collection. Written as a reaction to the horrors of World War Two, City depicts the long, inexorable extinction of humanity, not because of war but due to a series of unfortunate decisions, each made for what seemed like good reasons at the time. “Desertion” is arguably the moment when humanity’s doom was sealed.
City is still in print , 64 years after its first publication.
I am fond of City … but I was born just nine years after the collection was first published. It was timely for me. What will my younger readers make of it?
We’re on old solar system Jupiter. A planet that bears little resemblance to present Jupiter, having far too little metallic hydrogen and far too much solid surface. But if I imagine it is another planet somewhere else I can suspend my disbelief for the story. Simak spends a lot of timeexplaining how humans deal with the pressure and storms and exotic chemistry on the surface, but never explains how they survive the gravity without being mashed into the floor grates.
This story clearly did not predict the rise of telepresence and the real world advance of sensors and probes.
The frontier mentality of just sending explorer after explorer to what everyone assumes is a quick and fruitless death is pretty foreign these days. I recognize the mentality from stories of the early space race and early nuclear research. People were apparently much more comfortable with being the first to die in new and interesting ways back then. And the administrators were more prone to let people die or disappear without requiring lengthy and inconvenient progress-impeding inquiries.
I spent some time trying to figure out Miss Stanley’s position. She’s a highly sought-after machine operator but not counted among the biologists. Otherwise why introduce ‘the biologists’ if Miss Stanley is right there to carry on the conversation? She doesn’t have either the will or the power to stop what she clearly believes is a death sentence?
I enjoyed the description of being in an alien body. Gave me an animorphs vibe, right down to the free telepathy with the transformation. The change in how the environment was experienced with new senses was really interesting. Side note: had nobody else tried transforming a dog into a speaking creature before? Just out of curiosity about how a dog’s mind works? Speaking of which, is this converter an immortality machine? It made Towser young again, could you convert an old human to a young human?
I became progressively angrier and the story neared the end because nobody out of the seven explorers sent out could be bothered to even send a message back to base about what was going on. They knew how important this was. It would take minutes, maybe a couple hours at most. Didn’t they at least want to share this newly discovered world with their friends, tell them about how they could shed their old busted bodies for new super intelligent psychic ones? I guess Jovians have even less impulse control than humans.
Depending on what radius ground level was at, Jupiter could have a truly immense area to explore, enough to fill lifetimes without ever going back to revisit anything. I can’t decide if it’s a good trade, giving up the open possibilities of all of space for the huge but still bounded surface of Jupiter.
Looking back at how much I’ve written about it, this was a good story. I’m going to go look up some more stories by Clifford Simak.
I read this story on vacation. I wasn’t looking forward to reading this story on vacation, I was worried that it would have too many characters, they’d debate issues that were extremely dense and difficult to parse (and didn’t even make sense), and that it would be hard to find something to say about the story. I was pleasantly surprised.
The story was easy to follow but still interesting. Some of the ideas and themes explored (sending minions out into danger from behind the safety of a shield) were very much topical to 1944 and still (unfortunately) apply today.
The worst part about including Desertion in this project is that I don’thave more to say about the story that won’t ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it already. .….So this is probably a good place to stop.
Has it aged well?
Yes. The basic sci-fi premise has aged well. We haven’t explored Jupiter much, so it did not strike me as wildly inaccurate – just fantastical. Another basic idea that hasn’t changed: humans not living up to their full potential.
Because the story was published in 1944, I couldn’t help thinking about WWII desertion of soldiers. Is it moral to send people on suicide missions? Is your own happiness and freedom more important than others’?
And now the obligatory look at female characters. Not quite as bad as other stories but still problematic:
- There’s only one female character…
- But she’s a strong female character!
- And this disturbs the protagonist… “Those sharp blue eyes saw too much, her hands looked far too competent. She should be somebody’s Aunt sitting in a rocking chair with her knitting needles.” Ick, gendered roles.
- But the two of them argue with logic! And he (kind of) listens to her! And she totally interrupts him and he backs down during their argument!
It reminds me of…
The communication with the dog reminds me of The Golden Compass. Who wouldn’t want to speak telepathically with their pet? It also reminds me of the Acorna series with the enhanced senses and condescension towards non-telepaths.
When Fowler discovers the wonders of being a Loper, there’s the familiar (false) idea that we’re not using all of our brains “down to the last hidden corner”. I also had an ominous feeling that things were going to go downhill in some kind of Algernon-Gordon effect, but they didn’t. [Side note: Flowers for Algernon is older than I thought. It was recommended in high school as YA fiction. But it counts as sci-fi, too. Neat.]
Why can’t Fowler go back and give a brief report? He can tell them it’s safe, and then go out again transformed. No one’s going to stop him. He’s in charge, right?
Interesting, solid. Less interesting to re-read.
If I accept the ideas that there are aliens on Jupiter, and that humans have developed the technology from the Animorphs, I still have issues with this story.
But really, if the painstaking explanation of how the shape shifting works is only serving to remind me of a series of books I haven’t read since grade six, that’s not a good sign.
These people have robots and cameras. Why aren’t they monitoring their test shapeshifters? There are better ways of doing things than sending off random people in the hopes that eventually someone will come back. Use your technology, people!
I’m also concerned that this author has a severe misunderstanding of the differences between knowledge and intelligence. It’s an interesting idea, that the aliens have a greater mental capacity than humans (or dogs), butincreased intelligence/brain power does not confer knowledge. The sudden realizations they make aren’t building on prior knowledge. There’s no evidence that Fowler was a chemist working on the metal who suddenly had a breakthrough because he had more processing power. Intelligence does not replace education.
It was nice to see that the technician role was filled by a woman. It would have been nicer if Miss Stanley did something other than act as Fowler’s conscience and be disapproving. She does get a bit more personality than any other character but Fowler and his dog, so I guess that’s something.
It felt like there were religious undertones in the idea of transcending humanity and discovering how limited it was. The writing seemed to embrace the idea that the limitations of humanity had been put there intentionally, forcing them to do things the hard way. While I like the idea of humans not automatically being the most amazing species on any given planet, the moral/religious overtones made me uncomfortable.
The pace of the story really drags, despite it being fairly short. I just can’t get myself invested in some guy sending a bunch of people (presumably) to their deaths, feeling bad about it at the prompting of the disapproving woman, and then sacrificing himself and reaching enlightenment, plus some random technical stuff. I just don’t care.