Shakespeare’s Planet by Clifford D. Simak
Price I paid: $1
After a thousand years in space, the earth vessel lands on a remote planet capable of supporting human life. Inside the explorer ship an almost inaudible hum fills the silence; computer lights blink softly, signaling the awakening of the cryogenically preserved crew.
But only one crew member awakens from his artificial sleep. A systems malfunction has killed the others. Carter Horton is alone.
Horton learns almost immediately that the planet is inhabited by a bizarre creature who calls himself Carnivore. And the creature addresses him in English, the language he had learned from an earlier traveler who called himself Shakespeare. Now, Shakespeare is dead, and Horton soon learns that he and Carnivore, too, face certain peril unless they can get away from this strange planet.
Leaving is no simple affair. Carnivore, and before him, Shakespeare, had come to this planet via an inner-space tunnel, one of many such tunnels that exist throughout the galaxy. But this tunnel has broken down and works only one way―the wrong way―and there is no exit. And Horton’s explorer ship is a thousand years obsolete―incapable of returning them to civilization.
The creature called Carnivore and the earthman, Horton, are marooned on a planet of mysterious ruins bespeaking a catastrophic end to a once-grand civilization. The portentous signs they begin to encounter intimate some dire, ominous happening will soon befall them―unless they can repair the inner-space tunnel and leave Shakespeare’s Planet.
Paul Lehr, you make good book covers. High five. This one doesn’t have a dome that looks like a head like so many others do, but I like it. It does look a lot like a brain and that’s good enough for me.
Golly, there’s a lot to unpack in this book. Right off the bat, I’ll say that I liked it. This is my first Simak novel. He’s been on my list for a long time as somebody whose works I’ve meant to explore, but I’d never gotten around to him. Case in point, I’ve had this book for a long time, just sitting around. I bought it in 2007 or 2008, long before I even dreamed of starting a book blog.
I’m not even sure what prompted me to buy it back then. The title? It’s a great title. There’s a chance that someone mentioned Simak to me, most likely some other author. I was deep into Spider Robinson’s stuff back then, and he has no problems at all gushing about his favorite other writers, so that’s a good possibility. Either way, it sat on a shelf for almost a decade until I was digging around a few weeks ago and realized I need to read this thing. I’m glad I did, and I wish I’d done it earlier.
Like I said, there’s a lot going on in this book. There are like, five ideas floating around here and each one of them would have made a competent short story. While all of these big ideas didn’t mesh together completely, they did a good job of setting the tone for the book. I’ll get back to that.
The first thing we learn about is Carter Horton. He’s an astronaut, launched from Earth on a sublight ship a thousand years ago. He was part of a crew of four people, but something went wrong along the way and his crewmates died. Now all he has is a robot pal named Nicodemus and the ship he came in on, named Ship.
I’m not sure if Carter is aware of this, but the ship is controlled by three brains, referred to in the text as the Scientist, the Monk, and the Grande Dame. They were meant to mesh together and become one mind, but that hasn’t happened yet. Their story is told in italics at the beginnings of chapters as they converse. I’m…not sure what the point of them was. They never impacted the story. Again, they’re mostly there to set the tone and get Simak’s message across, as I understand it.
Ship lands on an unexplored earthlike planet and wakes Carter up. He staggers around a bit, getting his bearings, and meets an alien. The alien goes by the name Carnivore, and surprisingly, it speaks English. I never quite got a good mental image of what Carnivore looks like (my fault, not the book’s; I have a terrible visual imagination) but the one thing that stands out are that his arms end in tentacles instead of hands. I think he also had a tiger head or something like it.
Despite his fearsome look and his “primitive” nature, Carnivore is a good dude. He’s trapped on this planet. He hates it here. A while back, he had a companion, a human who called himself Shakespeare. They both showed up on the planet in the same way: a tunnel through space.
There’s a network of these tunnels all throughout the galaxy. Possibly even further out than that. Nobody knows who made them or when or even how they work. They’re just there, a part of the landscape. Now, normally these tunnels are two-way, but the one on this planet is not. There’s no way to go back. You step through it and you get thrown back whence you came. This is bad.
So the tunnels are another part of the tapestry of this book, although much more important than the brain-Ship-thing.
Carnivore tells Horton about this Shakespeare guy. Shakespeare only called himself that, it turns out, as a sort of joke. One of his few possessions that he brought with him was the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He scribbled in the margins a lot as a sort of diary. Carnivore doesn’t understand the concept of writing and considers it a form of magic. Horton is able to puzzle out a few of Shakespeare’s diary entries, and it turns out that he’s kind of a paranoid dick who doesn’t like Carnivore at all, despite Carnivore considering Shakespeare a beloved friend. Horton doesn’t tell Carnivore all that.
Yet another thing about this planet is that once a day there occurs something that Carnivore calls the “god-hour.” It happens on a regular cycle, but it’s offset from the planet’s rotation so it seems that it comes from elsewhere in space. Basically, once a day, your brain gets scrambled. It’s a painful experience, sort of a stripping away of personality and memory. It only lasts about fifteen minutes, but it feels like forever. Carnivore absolutely hates it. Carter learns to deal with it and finds out that it’s easier if he doesn’t try to fight it.
So all these things, and a few more coming, all contribute to what I suppose is the point of this book. At its heart, it’s the story of a person caught up in some stuff that’s way too big for him. Carter doesn’t do much to move the plot along, but it’s okay, because he’s just there to observe that there are things that he’s not capable of understanding or even grasping. Ship also ties into this message―that the universe is not only weirder than we do imagine, but that we can imagine―being that it’s three brains trying to work together as one, and it doesn’t understand what’s going on either. The book hints that maybe when the three brains mesh into one consciousness it will be one step closer to understanding the universe, but that’s a long ways away.
A human lady named Elayne shows up about midway through the book. She exploring the tunnels, part of a group effort to map them. Now she’s stuck too. She gives us some exposition on what humanity has been able to do in the time since Carter left Earth. There’s a lot of it.
Together, Carter and Elayne explore some ruins that lie near the tunnel. Inside the largest building they discover a gigantic cube that contains a huge humanoid inside of it. They wonder if this planet was meant to imprison this thing, and that the one-way tunnel exists to keep it from getting away.
More weird stuff happens. It turns out that a nearby pond is a sentient creature they call Pond. It communicates with Carter via some kind of telepathy and makes it known that it wishes to leave the planet too, although in a different way from Carnivore. Pond is part of a sort of gestalt mind from a planet that is covered entirely in this liquid creature. Pond wants Carter to put part of it into a bottle and take it with him. Pond seems like a good enough dude, so Carter agrees.
The story comes to a climax when Carter and his pals are awakened during the night by Pond screaming. Once again, something insane is going on. There’s a hill somewhere nearby and it’s starting to move. A horrifying black shape emerges from it, a shape from which everybody can sense pure evil emanating. Soon after, a figure emerges from the building with the cube in it. It’s a beautiful winged white figure that Elayne deems a dragon. It flaps its wings one mighty time and then plummets to the ground, dead before it can even start to fight.
Carnivore attacks the evil blob creature and manages to kill it, although he dies in the attempt.
Some theories are advanced, but no one ever figures out exactly what the hell is going on. There’s just some mysterious, huge, insane crap going on. Again, too big for our human characters to even begin to understand.
On the plus side, though, all this opens up the tunnel. Well, specifically some sluglike creatures show up and open the tunnel. Elayne says that she needs to get back to her job of exploring and leaves. Carter, Nicodemus, and Ship head back out into the cosmos, and the book ends.
Normally I’d be annoyed by this type of book. It really did seem like a couple of short story ideas crammed together into a novel with little to no resolution to any of them. It worked, though. Simak captured a definite tone, one of mystery and grandeur and things beyond mortal ken. I’ve come to understand that this is a theme he likes to revisit.
I can’t find anything that tells me Simak was influenced by Lovecraft and his crew, but you can sort of see the similarities. Both authors dealt with cosmic powers that gave little-to-no craps about humanity, the insects crawling underfoot. However, unlike Lovecraft painting this as a horrific idea, Simak imparts a certain wonder to it, along with the possibility that perhaps, one day, we will grow enough to finally understand.
Now, I’m told that Simak also wrote some straight-up horror, so perhaps some of that is cosmic horror of the Lovecraft vein. I hope to find out soon.
There’s a lot going on in this novel, and plenty I didn’t get around to covering. It’s worth checking out for yourself if it sounds like your thing. I wish I hadn’t waited ten years to finally read it.