Book Review – Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak
Clifford Simak is a name that few people these days have heard, whether they profess to be readers of SF or not. This is sad. I know about Simak because I’ve spent a lot of time studying the history of the genre. Briefly, Simak was an American writer of gentle, pastoral SF (if that sounds confusing, try one of his books – they aren’t confusing at all). Best remembered for two books, “City” and “Way Station,” Simak is mostly out of print these days, as are most but not all of the popular writers of his era (roughly from the forties through the sixties). Sad to say, I hadn’t read a Simak novel before I picked up “Ring Around the Sun,” which has been sitting on my bookshelf for perhaps five years.
Firstly, Simak writes in an appealingly straightforward fashion, both in terms of his sentences and the plot of his novel. This is clear writing, easy to digest. And the plot is straightforward almost to the point of childishness, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. In addition to the transparent writing, Simak’s chapters are very short (51 of them in a 200 page novel), and there’s rarely a difficult or boring passage. This is important, because I tend to get bored easily when reading, especially when the story itself isn’t amazingly interesting as such. But what “Ring Around the Sun” lacks in action, it makes up for in descriptive passages and the general good-naturedness of everything here.
Jay Vickers is a lonely man with a vague sense of dis-ease. He doesn’t have any close friends except for a kindly neighbour by the name of Horton Flanders. And something odd is happening: the market is being flooding with some exceptional and unique items: razors that never need replacing, light bulbs that never go out, a Forever car to replace all normal vehicles. Something is afoot, but Jay doesn’t know what it is. Consequently, the first half of the book is a gentle mystery, in which Vickers tries to find out what is happening around him. The pace is sedate but not slow, and characters are warmly drawn.
Horton Flanders disppears suddenly and Jay is blamed for the murder. A lynch mob forces him to leave town, but not before he gets a note from Flanders telling him to ‘rediscover his roots.’ This note leads Jay back to his hometown, where he discovers that the whole area is laying fallow (I have neglected to mention that super carbohydrates have virtually solved the need to grow crops). He goes back to his old house, where he finds a spinning top in an old barn. I kid you not-this spinning top becomes the pivot around which the novel turns. It’s even featured on the front cover of the edition I bought. And that’s a first for me in years of reading SF: a spinning top as a major plot device.
There isn’t a plot so much as a series of intuitive gropings on Jay Vickers’ part. I say ‘intuitive’ because the concept of intuition becomes extremely important in “Ring Around the Sun.” It turns out that intuition is in fact a kind of higher thinking ability that only a handful of people possess. I found this stimulating as it deals with one of the key questions for secular thinkers such as myself: how to explain intuition, premonitions etc? In response, Simak gives us telepathy, mutants, androids, and alternate Earths. And that’s where “Ring Around the Sun” began to lose its shine, for this reader at least.
I won’t explain too much of the plot of the second half. I did read it, but not with great interest. It transpires that there are perhaps millions of alternate Earths, most of which are apparently devoid of human life. And travelling to these other Earths is as simple as looking at the spinning top and wondering where the colours go…it’s a nice fantasy, to think that there might be enough Earths for us all to live like kings, but it’s a wish fulfillment fantasy par excellence. I am deliberately ignoring much of the plot here, which deals with the shenanigans of a man named Crawford, who represents big government on our own Earth. There is a conflict brewing between the mutant world-hoppers and the Earth-bound government men. All right. It works out in the end.
While “Ring Around the Sun” didn’t exactly hit the spot for me, I was interested enough to keep reading. Simak reminds me a little of Philip K Dick without the paranoia and wild inventiveness. I will read “City” next and see if I like that better.