Why Call Them Back from Heaven?
By Clifford D. Simak
Published by American Printing House for the Blind
Read by Roy Avers
I was happy to find this science fiction classic in an audio format. As a writer, I have discovered that I have far less time to read than I used to. What used to be reading time is now filled with plotting, writing and proofing my own work. So, as I have explained in the past, the only time I have to read is while driving and since robot-driven cars still not really a thing for most of us, the only safe way to do that is to listen. That’s great for the newer, popular books, but sometimes the older novels get left behind that way and it’s a shame because so many of them have stood the test of time.
Why Call Them Back from Heaven was first published in 1967 and speculated on the nature of a society in which belief in “Science” has supplanted belief in religious values for most people. Now, in the world we live, this does not sound particularly believable especially with the emergence of the Religious Right combined with a host of cults that transcend the political spectrum but, in 1967, in the middle of the Space Race and other technological achievements in the headlines, Science was not as distrusted by as many people as today. Science truly was seen as a possible solution to many problems. For me, it still is, but Simak takes what looked like a trend at the time to its logical extreme.
In this case, the belief is that Science can, eventually, cure death and make us all young again. It would make all humans immortal. And who is going to do that? Why a super-large corporation called “Forever Center.” Forever Center stores the bodies of its clients (in cryogenic containers, I think) and holds their belongings in trust pending the day they can be resurrected to their eternal second life.
Anyone see the problem yet?
In preparation for this second life, most people are living in conditions of poverty while saving every penny they can. After all they are going to need all that money in their second life. Some people are choosing to die early, rather than spend down their savings. Most are looking for investments that will hopefully appreciate in value over the years; stamps, coins, artwork, you name it. What seems to be the safest investment are shares in Forever Center itself, but even there no one can really know what will be of value to a future society of immortals and there are conmen out there selling all sorts of investments that are likely to flop, but they make them sound good.
No, that’s only part of the problem, but if I go into the worst of the problems, I’ll be spilling more spoilers than usual.
Not everyone believes in Forever Center, however. There are the “Holies” who reject the offer of a second physical life in favor of an immortal spiritual life. There is also the problem of where to settle all the resurrected. Other planets? They all need thousands of years of expensive terraforming. In the past? Believe it or not that’s a strong possibility for Forever Center where it is speculated that time travel can transport people back one million years and when the world fills up then, a million years before that and so on. Keep in mind, it is 1967 and the fossil record back then had larger gaps than it does today and, I think Simak overlooked that to settle the past would mean that people would use up the natural resources like coal and oil, a million years ahead of time. It takes more than a million years to make enough petroleum for a civilization. Well, there are a lot of things like that overlooked and he used the same idea again in Mastodonia, except then he pushed human expansion much further into the past.
Into all that, we have Daniel Frost, an executive for Forever Center who truly believes in the good of Forever Center and its duty to Mankind. And then one night he wakes up in front of a judge and is told he has confessed to being a traitor to Mankind under a dubious procedure called a Narco-trial (trial by truth serum, basically). The Judge tells him that due to his confession, he has already been sentenced to Ostracism. An Ostracized person is no longer considered to be part of the human race and may have no business with another human. All their possessions are confiscated and they are given tattoos on their face to mark them as apart from human society. To be caught covering or removing those tattoos would remove their final right to be resurrected to a second life (and reinstated as human, although with no possessions). Ostracism is considered the second worst punishment; the worst being stripped of the right to a second life.
From that point on, the story gets a bit weak and the ending could have been better. Simak was a fantastic short-story writer, but some of his novels, like this one, sort of peter out or flag in the middle where all the action should be. The concepts he presents, however are thought-provoking and worth reading the book through to the end.
I really enjoyed Mister Aver’s reading of this book. He had a remarkably flexible voice that made each character sound completely different and yet, none of them are what I would call “Funny voices.” They all sound like real people, not second-grade cartoon characters. His reading style is a bit dated, but in a very good way. I’ve noticed that so many readers tackle books as they might read a play. Well, so many of them are actors, so I suppose that’s not too surprising, but Roy Avers’ approach is to read first and act second so he never actually gets in the way of the story, but, instead, facilitates the story, making him a partner with the author, rather than just a presenter. I looked up his obituary and am surprised I have not encountered his work before – over 1750 books in the Library of Congress! Well, I certainly hope to hear more of his work in the future.
So, the story is a bit dated. There is little mention of computers and no speculation as to how other tech gadgets might have become a staple of society. Then again, in this particular future world could anyone afford a cell phone? Would they buy a computer, or even a television, or just save every penny for their next life? One character mentions having a radio; hey, it’s an old book, sure, but TV’s were nearly everywhere in 1967, and Simak speculates that theatre and the cinema are dead for the same reasons as above – every cent will be needed for the next life so no one is wasting anything. So, the lack of technology not directly related to Forever Center is quite credible. All told, it is a believable situation in its own context even if it does not seem likely in today’s society and Mister Avers reading brought it all to life marvelously.