Ring Around the Sun

Clifford D. Simak
Ring Around the Sun Cover

Ring Around the Sun: Quintessential Simak

Scott Laz

Clifford D. Simak's stories embody contradictions. Like Ray Bradbury, his writing looks back longingly to an idyllic rural Midwestern childhood. As John Clute and David Pringle put it in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Simak "reigned as the finest pastoral elegist of his genre" from the Golden Age through the 1980s. Unlike Bradbury, though, Simak stuck with science fiction, rather than drifting into realism, and his books have always struck me as a strange combination of futuristic SF ideas and a criticism of the technological, social and economic trends that make the manifestation of those ideas possible. The main theme of Ring Around the Sun (1953), one of his most acclaimed novels, and the one that may come closest to crystallizing the themes that run throughout his career, is that humanity's biological and social evolution hasn't kept up with its technological capabilities, resulting in the inevitability that humanity will destroy itself.

In 1987, Earth is still threatened by Cold War superpower rivalries, with war seemingly always around the corner, while the ennui of modern life has led people to retreat into a movement called Pretentionism. Clubs have formed in which people get together to share their hobby of historical role-playing, retreating into an imagined past that implies a psychological rejection of the contemporary world. Jay Vickers is an introverted writer who disdains the Pretentionists, but realizes that his own retreat from the world into writing is just another symptom of the same social malaise. As the novel begins, Vickers has been having memory flashbacks of a half-remembered adolescence, living on his parents' farm and walking in an enchanted pastoral valley with a girl he had loved, but whom he had lost. At the same time, Vickers begins to wonder about the recent appearance in shops of several supposedly indestructible products--a razor that never dulls, a lighter that never needs refueling, a "Forever Car" that never needs maintenance. His agent convinces him to meet with the representative of a group of industrialists who want him to write a book about this phenomenon, and help convince the public that, as attractive as these everlasting goods might seem, they are bringing on the destruction of the world economy. The industrialist cabal has a point, as firms in the affected industries begin to go under, their workers laid off. And no one can determine where these goods are being manufactured. Vickers, without quite understanding why, nevertheless has a strong hunch that he should not get involved, and refuses to write the book.

As the story progresses, however, Vickers will realize that he is already involved, and that the industrialists have sought him ought in particular, for a reason. Through a series of plot twists, it is revealed that the everlasting products were created by a small group of mutants--the next evolutionary step for humanity, consisting of individuals with various advanced powers, including hyper-intelligence, telepathy, and, most importantly, a "time sense" that allows some of them to travel to alternate earths that exist in the same space, but are separated by moments in time:

"There might be more worlds than one, and there might be a world a second ahead of ours and world a second behind ours and another a second behind that and still another and another and another, a long string of worlds whirling one behind the other, like men walking in the snow, one man putting his foot into the other's track and the one behind him putting his foot in the same track and so on down the line. An endless chain of worlds, one behind the other. A ring around the Sun."

The mutants have decided that that Earth's end is near, and that, thought their numbers remain small, they can no longer remain hiding in the background of society, waiting for the rest of humanity to catch up. From their perspective:

"We are not freaks, you understand, but human beings, the next step in evolution. We're just a day or two ahead, a step or two ahead of all the rest of them. To survive, Man had to change, had to mutate, had to become something more than what he was. We are only the first forerunners of that mutation of survival. And because we are the first, we must fight a delaying action. We must fight for the time that it will take for the rest of them to catch up with us."

As the industrialists had feared, the mutants have been using their "forever" products (manufactured on one of the alternate earths) to deliberately disrupt the economy. At first, they help the unemployed with free food, but ultimately hope to convince them to emigrate to the alternate earths, none of which are populated, allowing humanity to return to an idyllic rural existence, believing that, in a few generations, the mutations will spread through the human race, and the next stage in human evolution can go forward. The industrialists convince the "normals" to resist this interference, setting the stage for a potential conflict that Vickers can't avoid being in the middle of.

The thrust of the novel's development then involves Vicker's dilemma, as he comes to better understand the stakes of the situation he has been drawn into. Should be help or resist the mutants? Is their attempt to save the future misguided, or needed? And even if the mutants are benevolent and correct in their assessment of humanity's fate, do they have the right to interfere with the social development of the normals, even if it is to try and save them? And why are both the mutants and the industrialists so interested in Vickers himself?

When Vickers, despite his misgivings about having been manipulated by the mutants, and having discovered the answer to that last question, decides that it is the mutants who must prevail, he becomes, I think, a mouthpiece for Simak's own sentiments:

"And it was then that he fully understood that even here, in the heartland of the nation, in the farms and little villages, in the roadside eating places there was a boiling hate. That, he told himself, was the measure of the culture that had been built upon the earth--a culture founded on a hatred and a terrible pride and a suspicion of everyone who did not talk the same language or eat the same food or dress the same as you did. It was a lop-sided mechanical culture of clanking machines, a technological world that could provide creature comfort, but not human justice nor security. It was a culture that had worked in metals, that had delved into the atom, that had mastered chemicals and had built a complicated and dangerous gadgetry. It had concentrated upon the technological and had ignored the sociological so that a man might punch a button and destroy a distant city without knowing, or even caring, about the lives and habits, the thoughts and hopes and beliefs of the people that he killed.... To survive Man must mutate and the survival mutation must win before the storm of hate could break."

The plot twists multiply as Vickers sets his plans in motion, crisscrossing the country, and moving back and forth between universes, while trying to avoid the henchmen of the industrialists, who have been working to eliminate the mutant threat. Always in the back of his mind is the idea that somehow he can get back to that pastoral meadow, where he remembers walking with a girl he had been in love with, but for some reason only half remembers...

Simak, in his themes, may have influenced Bradbury, but his writing style (or lack thereof) would influence Isaac Asimov. Plain and straightforward, it moves the story along, while the dialogue and Vickers' introspection are mainly in the service of exposition. The prose never distracts from the plot and the ideas Simak wants to advance. Ring Around the Sun was originally serialized in Galaxy magazine, and is a good example of the "social" SF editor H. L. Gold was championing. Like a prior Galaxy serial, Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, it's action-oriented plot overlays an underlying criticism of the commercial capitalism and social values of 1950s America. In The Space Merchants, the answer was to begin society anew on Venus. Simak's escape valve is the alternate, pastoral Earths. Both provide examples of how, by the early 1950s, science fiction had become capable of questioning some aspects of what earlier SF would have looked at optimistically as social and technological progress. Ring Around the Sun remains interesting and entertaining, especially for readers interested in the historical and social context of the development of the science fiction genre.And for anyone interested in trying Simak's work for the first time, though not as well known as City or Way Station, it is a quintessential example of both his appeal and his limitations.