Our field of study is the technological civilizations, none of which seem to be viable for any length of time. They carry within themselves the seeds of their destruction.A year ago I mentioned my fond memories of Clifford D. Simak's A Heritage of Stars, and since then I have been hoping to find it in a used bookstore. These hopes have not been realized, but, when a Jeremy M. Beaver pointed out on twitter recently that he was reading the 1977 novel, I was spurred to look for it at the internet archive. And, sure enough, a scan of a Book Club Edition owned by a library in Colorado was soon available, and so today we reread this book from my youth!
In the 25th century the populace rose up a against the high tech world man had created for himself, destroying the millions of robots and all the machines, burning all the technical books and even tearing out from books that were not primarily about technology those pages bearing technical knowledge. Human society collapsed into primitivism, people living as small subsistence farmers or in nomadic tribes, leaving the cities to fall into ruins. Simak gets us readers up to speed on his setting by including long excerpts from a book written, by hand, in 2952 by one Hiram Wilson, who reconstructed a picture of the fall of civilization as best he could from folklore, rumor and the meager surviving records. Wilson was a resident of the University of Minnesota, a fortified community on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River and one of the few places where people know how to read, and his handwritten book sits in the university library for centuries.
The protagonist of A Heritage of Stars is one Thomas Cushing, a guy who reads Wilson's hand scrawled history like a thousand years later, in the 40th century. As a child, Cushing lived with his family on a small independent farm safely hidden away from bandits in the woods, but by the time he was sixteen he was alone, his family having been wiped out by disease, old age, or unexplained mishaps (his father went hunting one day and didn't come back.) So, after finding some people to take on responsibility for his farm animals, he struck out on his own. After a few years wandering alone and as part of a band consisting of only a handful of men, he decided to join the University of Minnesota community, where he grew potatoes and learned to read. He read Wilson's book, and, by chance, even found some old hand written notes Wilson had left behind but never incorporated into his history. These notes are about rumors to the effect that, before the destruction of technology, man had built star ships and launched them from a facility port somewhere out west. Cushing, after five years at the University, decides to go investigate these rumors. His experience as a farmer and a nomad, and his book learning, make him the perfect guy to go on such an expedition!
A Heritage of Stars is sort of a traditional quest narrative. Cushing travels along, making friends and overcoming challenges (in Cushing's case there are lots of friends and very few challenges.) Early in his journey he meets an old woman with psychic powers, Meg, and one of the last "living" robots, Rollo. Rollo is one of those robots we encounter sometimes in SF, a robot who has developed a personality and can overcome its programming. (We just met such a robot in Damon Knight's 1956 story "Stranger Station.") Robots were programmed to be nonviolent, but when Rollo needed grease to protect himself from rust he was able to reprogram himself to kill animals to get the needed fats. Rollo feels loneliness, and tells how, though he doesn't like humans, because we are violent and so on, he would feel a need to hear conversation, and so would sneak up on nomad tribes to listen, unnoticed, to their talk around campfires. Thanks to all this eavesdropping and a single human friend over the course of 15 centuries, Rollo has a lot of information; for example, he knows the name of the site of "The Place of Going to the Stars": Thunder Butte. As luck would have it, shortly after learning this from Rollo, Cushing by chance stumbles upon a topographical map with "THUNDER BUTTE" labelled on it.
(In a lot of novels, to find plot coupons like this map the protagonist would have to kill a monster or crack a code or seduce a girl or climb a mountain or something, but Cushing just finds the people and items he needs to complete his quest laying around.)
On their way to Thunder Butte, Cushing, Meg, Rollo, and Meg's horse Andy are joined by an old man and his granddaughter. This old dude, Ezra, can talk to plants--plants, he claims, have a consciousness, an intelligence in some ways superior to human intelligence! The flowers have told him of some plants to the west that are even smarter than the flowers and trees he commonly converses with. We readers already know what these super plants are all about, because Simak has already spent a short chapter on the intelligent, semi-mobile Trees (with a capital T) that protect Thunder Butte.
Ezra's granddaughter, Elayne, has a permanent blank look on her face, and Ezra claims that she "lives in another place." Cushing is warned not to pity her even if she has a look on her face like that of a mental case or what I would have called in my youth "a retard"--Elayne is happier than all of us and by rights she should pity us who are stuck in this crummy world, living as she does in a better world. Cushing and Rollo have already told us that they prefer to keep away from people because the human race stinks, and Elayne is another example, an extreme one, of the misanthropic hermits we are expected to admire in this book. (Meg comes right out and says Elayne, who almost never talks and does nothing productive but instead stares into space constantly, is better than most people.)
In the second half of the book the party reaches Thunder Butte, which has various guardians, including the capital-T Trees. These guardians are easily persuaded to allow the party onto the Butte, though Simak keeps it ambiguous whether they are responding to Elayne's innocence, Ezra's ability to talk to plants, Meg's psychic powers, or the results of a scan of Cushing's brain. On the way up the butte our heroes meet a bunch of flying robots, Earth space probes, who babble semi-coherently about the surreal scenes they witnessed on alien planets. And then they meet some alien scientists, people who look like big bubbles. The bubbles say they have been to many planets and have observed that all technological societies collapse onto barbarism, as Earth's has.
Atop the butte is a spare unadorned walled city, like one colossal building. Meg's psychic powers eventually afford them entry. Inside they meet an old robot, a more sophisticated model than Rollo, who manages the city and is apparently the city's sole Earthborn inhabitant. Simak calls the facility "the City" with a capital C, I guess to make it evocative (City is the title of an important series of stories by Simak, and Simak's dislike of cities is an important theme in his body of work--he has a nonfiction essay in the 1973 anthology Future City) , but it doesn't really behave as a city--there are no crowds or businesses or factories or whatever, it is just a big building with one robot guy and a bunch of uncommunicative little flying aliens and babbling little flying robots in it.)
This super robot, who goes by the name "The Ancient and Revered," explains that human exploration beyond the solar system was cost-prohibitive, so a multitude of robot probes were sent instead. The City has a huge data bank, full of the info those robot probes collected from many alien planets--this data was wiped from the probes after it was uploaded to the City, so any data the probes themselves currently retain is fragmentary and useless--that is why they babble unproductively. Many of the planets explored by the probes were home to nontechnological societies, and, maybe if all that data could be accessed, human civilization could be rebuilt on nontechnological lines. Unfortunately, the computers that could access the data bank are busted.
In the final chapter we are assured that Cushing and his friends, protected from superstitious tribesmen by the many shadowy or sparkly aliens, will make it to the university of Minnesota where people will be eager to join the campaign of accessing the data from other worlds and setting the human race on a path that will lift mankind out of barbarism without resorting to technology. Also, each of the robot brain cases will eventually be teamed up with a psychic who can be its friend and ease the torture of living without any sensory input.
I'm not hip to Simak's attitude, what his supporters call "pastoralism" and I am inclined to think of as "Luddite misanthropy." The history written by Hiram Wilson talks about the "arrogance" of the physical sciences and technological thinking and how that arrogance must have stifled the development of psychic abilities. Simak romanticizes animals and plants and even robots, even though he denounces technology. Similarly, Simak is sympathetic to mysticism and talks about souls, but dismisses religious people as fanatics who have devoted their lives to a dumb mistake.
Maybe we should see A Heritage of Stars as a pioneering text of wokeness. Second class citizens (robots) are better than their creators and masters (humans.) Women are better than men. Animals (and even plants!!) are better than humans. And aliens whose civilizations are not based on technology are better than Earthlings. Simak attacks people who are afraid of new ideas, while he himself is obviously afraid of new ideas if they involve technology. Simak's thinking is not logical but emotional; there is no suggestion of what a non-technological civilization might look like, or even what exactly is wrong with technology, why people rebelled against it--that crack from the tribesmen about preferring a life of hunting and gathering to one of regular work is the closest we get to an explanation of why people rebelled against technological life.
If I find Simak's ideology silly and A Heritage of Stars is lacking in thrills, what did I like about it as a kid, and why am I giving it a moderate recommendation now? I like Rollo, the robot who hunts grizzly bears for their fat; it is obvious that Rollo could use fat from some lesser creature to make the grease that has kept him rust-free for fifteen centuries, but his sense of dignity permits him to only use the fat of huge dangerous grizzlies--Rollo is what I have remembered of the novel over three decades. The idea and the image of piled up robot brain cases, feared or revered by the primitive descendants of those who built the robots in the first place, each one inhabited by a living consciousness, is a powerful one. And I like that Simak doesn't give us aliens who are lizardmen and catgirls--so many SF writers just use aliens to represent human societies, or base their aliens on Earth animals to facilitate working on our emotions, that it is nice to see Simak make the effort to depict aliens that are actually alien.
Simak's writing style is also smooth and comfortable, so even when little is happening, reading A Heritage of Stars isn't boring or irritating.
I can't recommend A Heritage of Stars with great enthusiasm, but I liked it and I certainly enjoyed revisiting a book from my past, and people on Simak's wavelength may get more satisfaction out of it than I did.