Review: Cosmic Engineers

Clifford D. Simak
1950

Clifford D. Simak’s novel City has the reputation of being one of the classic SF tales, and being in the Gnome Press stable, I’m looking forward to picking it up sometime (it’s one of the big ticket books, so I’ll have to save for while…).  As a result, I had high expectations of Cosmic Engineers.  Expectations which were sadly left unfulfilled.

Clifford D. Simak, according to Wikipedia began writing in the Space Opera but later developed his style to be more ‘pastoral’, which I guess means more considered, sensitive and sedate.  City (from what little I have read about it) appears to fall under the pastoral label, but Cosmic Engineers most definitely does not.

All Space Opera is ridiculous to a certain extent, that’s the nature of the beast and serious SF readers know this, can accept it and enjoy these tales for what they are.  A skill especially important for today’s reader when taking in tales from the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  Sadly though, it’s a skill that I suspect is dying out as the ‘pool’ of people who really understand the literary significance and cultural context of this period’s stories gets smaller and smaller.  I like to consider myself part of that pool despite being two generations  removed from that period – I’m thankful I spent my formative reading years (in the mid-late 1970s) enjoying books of that ilk.

Getting back to the book at hand, Cosmic Engineers is Space Opera of the particularly hard to stomach kind, even with reference to what I just talked about.  But before I lambast it too much, what was there to appreciate and enjoy??  I guess the biggest thing was the pace of the book.  Like most Space Opera the pace is rapid, and as I mentioned in the Review of Pattern for Conquest (a better book though with similar issues), I enjoy never having a dull moment.  Another positive was the start.  A newsman and photographer(!) doing the rounds of the solar system, diverted out to Pluto for a breaking story, encountering a derelict ship with a beautiful young woman in suspended animation.  Despite being in this state for about a thousand years, when they awaken her she tells them her brain has been active the whole time.  She’s been thinking for a millennium and in partial communication with some unknown intelligence.

Ok, great so far.  Sounds intriguing, where’s this tale going??

Our band of three make it to Pluto where they engage the assistance of  a genius scientist and a gung-ho spaceman.  Contact is established with the mysterious message-senders and our party finishes up at the edge of the universe where the ‘cosmic engineers’ enlist their help to stop two universes colliding. Which of course they do thereby saving each from total annihilation.

I liken reading this story to a discovering train wreck from the caboose end.  While walking down the tracks we find the end of a train.  The final carriage is nice, it looks good.  However, the further up the tracks we walk the less organized things become – paint flaking off here, a wheel dislodged there – until eventually the devastation we encounter is truly alarming.  The front of the train is smashed beyond redemption and the machinery of the business end is strewn all over the place.

So maybe I’m being a little dramatic and perhaps it’s not quite that bad, but you get the picture.  We’re talking time travel, universes in collision, using ultra advanced mathematics to break off mini-universe ‘sand-boxes’ (to use a modern expression), fourth and fifth dimensions, the mysterious area between universes…  It’s all just so mind-bogglingly bizarre, outlandish and 224 pages is hopelessly inadequate for stuff of this magnitude and it’s all just given cursory treatment besides.  Wow, I am being a bit rough.

I always have rose-tinted glasses on when I read Gnome Press books and I really, really wanted to enjoy this story.  I tried, and tried hard too.  Unfortunately my effort remained unrewarded.

Great cover though.

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