Clifford D. Simak was an earlier writer in the sf/f field that I’d heard about for years but somehow managed to avoid reading at a time when I was reading just about everything I could get my hands on. I didn’t plan it that way, but somehow it happened, so I made a conscious effort to correct this oversight, starting with Shakespeare’s Planet.
The consensus is that this is not one of Clifford D. Simak’s better works. Good thing I decided to read it before I found out what the consensus was. The premise may have been a little fresher when the book was written, but probably not by a lot: humans go into space in disembodied human brain controlled, slower-than-light ships, with the crews kept in coldsleep while the ships themselves look for earth-like planets for potential colonizing. Naturally, with that long a mission time it turns out that earth finds quicker and easier paths to the stars, and by the time one particular ship finds a habitable planet, a thousand years have gone by and humanity is already scattered across the galaxy and the original ships’ mission is only remembered as a legend. And yes, it turns out that humanity has already reached this particular planet.
Carter Horton, the only surviving crewmember of the ship (coldsleep accident, the usual), finds the mortal remains of a half-crazed old man who called himself Shakespeare after the only book he had, and his long-time companion, a creature who calls himself Carnivore, because that’s what he is. It turns out Carnivore, like Shakespeare, was marooned on this planet. Most intelligent species now use a series of interstellar “tunnels” built by an ancient, unknown race to travel around the galaxy, the problem is, no one knows where any particular tunnel leads. They all lead to habitable planets, but when you leave, you have no idea where you’re going, so the tunnels are mostly used by the desperate and those who simply don’t care where they’re going, so long as it’s “somewhere else.” The tunnel to this particular planet has a quirk: you can arrive safely, but you can never leave. Nor is this a breakdown in the system—the tunnel controls were deliberately removed. Shakespeare’s Planet was designed to be a one-way trip. Why?
Horton, Carnivore, and the ship’s robot crewmember, Nicodemus, attempt to repair the tunnel with no success, hampered by the fact that none of them know how it works in the first place. They are soon joined by Elayne, a woman from one of the human colonies now scattered through the galaxy who is one of many on a mission to travel the tunnels and attempt to map their destinations, a work that may take many generations and many millions of years. Only now she, too, is marooned on Shakespeare’s planet.
Spoiler(Sort of) Alert: All this, you have realized by now, is the setup and basic situation. It says nothing about the plot. So here’s what happens: the three minds that control ship are trying to meld into one great consciousness. They discuss this at length, wondering why it is so difficult. Horton contemplates the irony of his situation and does some exploring. Nicodemus works on self-inprovement through a series of extra brains for specialized tasks. Carnivore fusses at everyone to hurry and fix the tunnel so he can leave this boring place. Elayne does pretty much the same things Horton does. They (sort of) discover the reason that the planet had been quarantined. Carnivore discovers his destiny. Events are triggered, apparently by accident, or an accident of timing, and now everyone is free to leave the planet by the methods they choose.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? It really isn’t. Now, I completely agree with those who say the cast never comes together. It’s true, but then you realize that Simak isn’t making characters, he’s making points of view that will be used to express those views. They’re not so much characters as walking, talking narrative vehicles, and some of their responses–Horton’s reaction on first meeting Elayne, for example–don’t make sense to me at any level. And I really didn’t mind. Simak was obviously a bright guy, and it’s not the story, the characters, or even the situation that made this book interesting to me. It was the contemplation of that situation, the nature of humanity, and yes, even Shakespeare’s insightful and yet completely wacko speculations recorded in the margins of his future edition of the complete works of his namesake.
Shakespeare’s Planet isn’t a page turner. It’s a page digester. A page savorer. It’s either a fun book or the most boring thing you’re likely to not finish, even at a mere 151 pages. That all depends on the reader. It worked for me. I also find it interesting to recall that a sf/f book that was really just a long novella could get published by a mainline publisher in Simak’s time. You want to do that now, and you’re going straight to the ebook edition. And you’re probably doing it on your own. The field has changed, sure, but a story worth reading is still a story worth reading. Glad there was a venue then, just as there is now.