It’s been more than a handful or two of years since I read any of Simak’s work. I’ve loved his stories since high school, now only dimly remembered… As I remember them, he particularly loved ‘first contact’ type stories.
This story, as many of his, has a varied cast of characters cast into a journey not of their choosing. Our hero, Professor Edward Lansing, is a university professor who was tricked and trapped by a slot machine. A mysterious slot-machine in the Student Union building was apparently giving out term papers so Edward went to investigate. The first machine gave him two keys, two coins and instructions that would “benefit” him, and a kick in the ankle. The second machine gave him a vast wealth and the third one took him away to another world.
On that world, he met a small group of people in an inn; a group that was obviously designed to work together towards a goal - a goal that no one can tell them and they cannot discern. As with other Simak’s stories, the group is cast of stereotypes: our scholarly Professor, a narrow-minded Pastor, a rigid General, a female Engineer (of which Simak was woefully unprepared to characterize), a Poetess and a robot. The idea is, they suspect, to populate the group with a variety of different skills in the hopes their group can achieve the goal. Because, as they discover later, there have been many, many such groups over an unimaginable period of time. And no way to know if any of them achieved the goal.
Each person behaves fairly true to their stereotype: the Parson rails against the lack of faith, the General orders everyone about, the Professor wishes to think and examine every detail, the Poetess bemoans the lack of beauty and art. The Engineer does little to characterize herself as an engineer although it is she who finally finds some answers. Simak, as a product of his times, never did have a handle on his few female characters; I suspect he included a female in response to the 1980s. The robot is probably the most interesting character of the troupe. Simak used robots frequently to good effect.
This was an unfortunate choice of mine when I chose to dive back into my Simak collection; I know there are other, more satisfying, stories. I felt Simak was constrained by the number of pages perhaps dictated by his publisher and the story would have benefitted from a more indepth exploration of each character’s skills and contribution to the journey. It was most superficial and, therefore, ultimately unsatisfying in conclusion.
Reading early Simak will prove (if I remember rightly) that he had some very interesting insights into human behaviors. Watch for my other reviews of Simak titles; I believe I will pick a much older title for the next review. ~~ Catherine Book