A handful of humans and a multitude of robots create a new society on a mysteriously abandoned Earth in this breathtaking science fiction classic from one of the genre’s acknowledged mastersWhat if you woke up one morning on Earth . . . and no one else was there? That is the reality that greeted a handful of humans, including Jason Whitney, his wife Martha, and the remnants of a tribe of Native Americans in the year 2135. Their inexplicable abandonment had unexpected benefits: the eventual development of mental telepathy and other extrasensory powers, inner peace, and best of all, near-immortality. Now, five thousand years later, most of the remaining humans live a tranquil, pastoral life, leaving technological and religious exploration to the masses of robot servants who no longer have humans to serve. But the unexpected reappearance of Jason’s brother, who had teleported to the stars many years before, threatens to change everything yet again—for John Whitney is the bearer of startling information about where Earth’s population went and why—and the most disturbing news of all: They may finally be coming home again. Nominated for the Hugo Award when it first appeared in print more than forty years ago, Clifford D. Simak’s brilliant and thought-provoking A Choice of Gods has lost nothing of its power to astonish and intrigue. A masterwork of speculative fiction, intelligent and ingenious, it is classic Simak, standing tall among the very best science fiction that has ever been written.
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About the Author
During his fifty-five-year career, Clifford D. Simak produced some of the most iconic science fiction stories ever written. Born in 1904 on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin, Simak got a job at a small-town newspaper in 1929 and eventually became news editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, writing fiction in his spare time. Simak was best known for the book City, a reaction to the horrors of World War II, and for his novel Way Station. In 1953 City was awarded the International Fantasy Award, and in following years, Simak won three Hugo Awards and a Nebula Award. In 1977 he became the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and before his death in 1988, he was named one of three inaugural winners of the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement.
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A Choice of Gods
By Clifford D. Simak
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Clifford D. Simak
All rights reserved.
Aug. 1, 2185: So we begin again. Actually, we began again fifty years ago, but did not know it then. There was hope, for a time, that there were more people left and that we could pick up where we had left off. We thought, somehow, that we could hang onto what we had, once the shock was over and we could think more clearly and plan more cleverly. By the end of the first year we should have known that it was impossible; by the end of five we should have been willing to admit it, but we weren't. At first we refused to face the fact and once we had to face it we became stubborn with a senseless sort of faith. The old way of life could not be revived; there were too few of us and none with special knowledge and the old technology was gone beyond all restoration. The technology had been too complex and too specialized and too regimented to be picked up and carried on without a large work force equipped with appropriate skills and knowledge that were necessary not only to operate the technology itself, but to produce the energy that went into it. We are now no more than scavengers feeding on the carcass of the past and some day we'll be down to the bare bones of it and will be finally on our own. But over the years we have been recovering or rediscovering, whichever it may be, some of the older and more basic technology geared to a simpler way of life and these basic rudimentary skills should keep us from sinking into utter savagery.
There is no one who knows what really happened, which does not, of course, deter some of us from formulating theories that might explain it all. The trouble is that all the theories boil down to simple guesses, in which all kinds of metaphysical misconceptions play a part. There are no facts other than two very simple facts and the first of these is that fifty years ago last month the greater fraction of the human race either went somewhere or was taken somewhere. Out of more than eight billion of us, which was certainly far too many of us, there are now, at most, a few hundred left. In this house in which I sit to write these words, there are sixty-seven humans, and only that many because on the night it happened we had invited some young guests to help us celebrate the coming of age of our twin grandsons, John and Jason Whitney. Of the Leech Lake Indians there may be as many as three hundred, although we now see little of them, for they have taken up again, quite happily and to their great advantage, or so it would seem to me, their old tribal wanderings. At times rumors reach us of other little pockets of humanity still surviving (the rumors chiefly brought by some loose-footed robot), but when we've gone to hunt for them, they are never there, nor is there anything to indicate they ever had been there. This, of course, proves nothing. It stands to reason that elsewhere on the Earth there must be others left, although we have no idea where. We hunt for them no longer, even when the rumors come, for it seems to us that we no longer have any need of them. In the intervening years we have become content, settling down into the routine of a bucolic life.
The robots still are with us and we have no idea how many there may be. All the robots that were ever in existence must still remain. They did not go or were not taken as was the human race. Over the years a number of them have come to settle in with us, doing all the work and chores necessary for our comfortable existence, becoming, in all truth, a part of our community. Some of them at times may leave and go elsewhere for a while and there are occasions when new ones float in and stay, either for good or for varying periods. It might seem to someone unacquainted with the situation that in the robots we had the labor force we needed to keep at least a small sector of the more vital parts of the old technology alive. It is possible the robots could have been taught the necessary skills, but the rub here is that we had no one who was equipped to teach them. Even if we'd had, I have some well-founded doubt that it would have worked. The robots are not technologically minded. They were not built to be. They were built to bolster human vanity and pride, to meet a strange longing that seems to be built into the human ego — the need to have other humans (or a reasonable facsimile of other humans) to minister to our wants and needs, human slaves to be dominated, human beings over which a man or woman (or a child) can assert authority, thus building up a false feeling of superiority. They were built to serve as cooks, gardeners, butlers, maids, footmen (I have never got quite straight in mind what a footman is) — servants of all kinds. They were the flunkeys and the inferior companions, the yea-sayers, the slaves. In a manner of speaking, in their services to us, I suppose they still are slaves. Although I doubt the robots think of it as slavery; their values, while supplied by human agency, are not entirely human values. They serve us most willingly; thankful of a chance to serve, they press their services upon us, apparently glad to find new masters to replace the old. This is the situation as it applies to us; with the Indians it is different. The robots do not feel at ease with the Indians and the Indians, in turn, regard them with an emotion that borders upon loathing. They are a part of the white man's culture and are readily acceptable to us upon the basis of our onetime preoccupation with machines. To the Indians they are unclean, something that is repulsively foul and alien. They will have no part of them. Any robot stumbling into an Indian camp is summarily hustled off. A few of the robots serve us. There must be many thousands more. Those that are not with us we have fallen into the habit of calling wild robots, although I doubt they, in any sense, are wild. Often, from our windows or while sitting on the patio, or while out walking, we see bands of wild robots hurrying along as if they had an urgent destination or were involved in some great purpose. We have never been able to determine where the destination or what might be the purpose. There are certain stories of them that we hear at times, but nothing more than stories and with no evidence, and not worth repeating here.
I said there were two facts and then got lost in the telling of the first. This is the second fact: Our lives are much longer now. In some strange way which no one pretends to understand, the process of aging, if not halted, has been slowed. I have not seemed to age at all, nor have any of the others, in these last fifty years. If there are a few more white hairs I cannot detect them; if I walk a little slower after fifty years I am not aware of it. I was sixty then and I still am sixty. The youngsters develop to maturity in the usual manner and the normal course of time, but once they reach maturity, the aging seems to stop. Our twin grandsons, whose twenty-first birthday we observed fifty years ago, still are twenty-one. They are, to all physical appearances, the same age as their sons and their oldest grandsons and at times this becomes somewhat disconcerting to someone like myself, who has lived his entire life with aging, and with the expectation of it. But disconcerting as it may be, I do not quibble with it, for with the inhibition of aging has come, as well, unbelievable good health. That was something that had worried us to start with — with all the people gone, what would we do for doctors or hospital care if we should happen to fall ill? Luckily, perhaps, the chronological years during which a woman remains capable of bearing children are about the same as they were before the span of life was lengthened. The female reproductive system apparently exhausts its supply of potential egg cells within some thirty years or so, as it did before.
There can be little doubt that the disappearance of the human race and the inhibiting of aging must somehow be connected. And while none of us can help but be grateful for this longer life and, perhaps as well, for the lifting of the social pressure which came with the overpopulation of the planet, the more thoughtful of us sometimes worry about the implications which may lie behind it all. In the dark of night we lie unsleeping in our beds and think of it and although the shock has faded with the years, we are sometimes frightened.
So on this August morning near the end of the twenty-second century since the birth of Jesus, I begin this record in which I shall set down, in detail, my remembrance of what has happened. It is a job that someone should do and, as the oldest member of this house, in my hundred and tenth chronological year, it seems only mete and proper that mine should be the hand to put down the words. Without a record of this sort, inscribed while human memory serves with some faithfulness, what happened to the race would become, in time, a myth ...CHAPTER 2
He could not forget that last bear but, strangely, could not remember exactly what had happened. Trying to remember, trying to be sure, had occupied his thoughts for the last few days and he was no nearer to an answer than he had ever been. The beast, rearing up from a deep-cut stream bed, had caught him off his guard and there had been no chance to run, for the bear was far too close. The arrow had not killed it, he was sure of that, for there was little time to shoot and the shaft had been badly placed. Yet the bear had died, lunging forward to skid almost to his feet. And in that fractured moment before the bear had died, something had happened and it was this something that had happened that he could not remember. It was, he was certain, something he had done, but there was no clue to what it might have been. There had been times when the answer had welled almost to awareness and then been driven back, deep into his mind, as if it were something he was not supposed to know, or that he would be better off not knowing, something that his inner, hidden mind would not let him know.
He dropped his pack beside him and leaned the bow against it. Staring out across the wide expanse of bluff-rimmed, autumn-painted valley where the two great rivers met, he saw that it was exactly as he had been told it would be by the buffalo-hunting band he'd met in the great high plains almost a moon before. He smiled to himself as he thought of them, for they had been pleasant people. They had asked him to stay and he very nearly had. There had been a girl who had laughed with him, the laughter deep inside her throat, and a young man who had laid his hand upon his arm with the touch of brotherhood. But in the end he could not stay.
The sun was coming up and the maples along the rim of the farther bluff, caught in its rays, flamed with sudden red and gold. And there, on the rocky headland that reared above the river's junction, stood the huge block of masonry that they had told him of, with its many chimneys pointing stubby fingers at the sky.
The young man lifted a pair of binoculars off his chest and set them to his eyes. Disturbed by the movement of the strap, the bear claws of his necklace clicked together.
Jason Whitney came to the end of his morning walk and it had been, he told himself, the best walk he'd ever had — although he recalled that he always thought that each morning as he came up the slight slope toward the patio, with the smell of frying bacon and of morning eggs wafting from the kitchen, where Thatcher made them ready. But this morning had been good, he insisted to himself. It had been so fresh, with just a nip of chill until the rising sun dispelled it, and the leaves, he thought — the leaves were at their best. He had stood out on the point of rocks and had watched the rivers and they had been (perhaps to complement the autumn colors through which they flowed) a deeper blue than usual. A flock of ducks had been flying across the bottom land, close above the treetops, and in one of the little ponds which dotted the flood plain a moose had stood knee-deep, putting his head down into the water to feed upon the lilies, the water cascading off his mighty antlers when he raised his head. Even from where he stood, Jason had imagined he could hear that sound of cascading water, although he knew it was too far to hear.
The two dogs that had gone with him had hurried on ahead and now were waiting on the patio, not for him, although he would have liked to think so, but for their plates of food. Bowser, full of many years, had walked heavily and sedately beside him as they'd gone down across the land, while Rover, the foolish pup, had treed an early-foraging squirrel in the walnut grove and had flushed a covey of quail out of the corn shocks and pumpkins of an autumn field.
The door opened on the patio and Martha came out, carrying plates for the two dogs. She stooped and set them on the stones, while the dogs waited, respectfully and politely, with their tails swinging slowly and their ears pricked forward. Straightening, she came off the patio and down the slope to meet him. She gave him her morning kiss and linked her arm in his.
"While you were on your walk," she said, "I had a talk with Nancy."
He knitted his brow, trying to remember. "Nancy?" he asked.
"Why, of course," she said. "You know. She is Geoffrey's oldest child. It has been so long since I have talked with her."
He knitted his brow, trying to remember. "Nancy?" he asked.
"Out Polaris way," said Martha. "They moved just recently. They're on the nicest planet ..."
Evening Star, crouched in the lodge, put the finishing touches to the talismanic doll. She had worked hard on it to make it nice and this was the day she'd take it as an offering to the oak. It was a good day for it, she told herself — fair and soft and warm. These were the kind of days that one must treasure, close against the heart, for the painted days were few. Soon would come the dreary days, with the cold mist slanting ghostily through the naked trees and after that the frigid sweep of northern winds and snow. Outside she heard the camp come to morning life — the ring of ax on wood, the clatter of the cooking pots, the call of friend to friend, the happy barking of a dog. Later in the day the work of clearing the old fields would take up again, grubbing out the brush, clearing away the stones heaved up by the frosts of other years, the raking and burning of the weeds, leaving the ground bare and ready for the springtime plowing and the planting. Everyone would be busy (as she herself would be expected to be) and it would be easy for her to leave the camp unnoticed and to get back again before anyone should remark her absence.
She must let no one know, she reminded herself — not her father or mother and least of all Red Cloud, the first chieftain of the band and her own grandfather, many times removed. For it was not proper that a woman should have a guardian spirit. Except that to her it seemed entirely right. On that day seven years ago the signs of guardianship had been too plain to doubt. The tree had spoken to her and she had spoken to the tree and it was as if a father and a daughter had bespoken one another. It was not, she thought, as if she had sought the relationship. It had been the last thing in her mind. But when a tree speaks to one, what is one to do?
On this day, she wondered, would the tree speak to her again? After so long an absence, would this tree remember?
Hezekiah sat on the marble bench beneath the drooping branches of the ancient willow tree and pulled the coarse brown robe close about his metal frame — and this was pretense and pride, he thought, and unworthy of him, for he did not need to sit and he did not need the robe. A yellow leaf fluttered down from overhead and settled in his lap, a clear, almost transparent yellow against the brownness of the robe. He moved to brush it off and then he let it stay. For who am I, he thought, to interfere with or dispute even such a simple thing as the falling of a leaf.
He lifted his eyes from the leaf and over there, a mile or so away, beyond the monastery walls, the great house of stone stood solid on the rocky battlement that rose above the rivers — a mighty, sprawling house with its windows winking in the morning sun, the chimney's pleading hands lifted up to God.
Excerpted from A Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak. Copyright © 1972 Clifford D. Simak. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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