Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Goblin Reservation

Sometimes, stretching outside your comfort zone can be a good thing. A lot of the new books being released I pick up based on the recommendation of a couple of trusted Web sites or the suggestion of friends or trusted readers. This has led to some wonderful finds that later turned into big deals, like China Mieville and Charles Stross.

And then sometimes, you find out there's a reason it's called a "comfort zone."

Clifford Simak's The Goblin Reservation has, at its core, a really wonderful idea that plays havoc with the idea of genre. What if all the legendary creatures of Earth—goblins and dragons and trolls—really exist? And further, what if they were colonizers of an ancient civilization that found a foothold on Earth but never got very far once human rose to dominance? It seems such an obvious idea that I'm sure someone else has carried it out more fully, but it's the first time I can remember encountering it in a novel. It also is just one of the many ideas that inform The Goblin Reservation: instantaneous matter transmission, time travel, and social ghosts. Any of these could make for a solid book if treated somewhat seriously. Instead, these ideas merely form a setting for the action of the novel and are never explored with any depth. And on the rare attempt by Simak to describe the social ramifications of these ideas, his extrapolation doesn't make a whole lot of sense—time travel is a failure because it doesn't lead to any income for the institutions that control it. Despite having rescued the scrolls at Alexandria before the library burnt, there is apparently not enough interest in them to recoup the cost of getting them. A museum of rescued artifacts has no visitors and the time travelers have to resort to stunts like plucking William Shakespeare out of the timestream and giving lectures on how he passed off the greatest literary fraud of all time. While I can't understand the logic behind assuming such discoveries would not pull in large audiences and numbers of researchers, it is a fascinating idea that I would like to see expanded. But it resides only in the background of a story that is nowhere near as interesting or compelling.

Peter Maxwell, a professor of the Supernatural, has returned from a trip to another planet and discovered that his doppelganger returned some weeks ago and has since died. While his friends are happy at his apparent resurrection, they and the authorities are puzzled by how the seemingly uncopyable matter transmitter waves have been duplicated. Slowly, as the story goes on, Simak reveals where Maxwell had been during his time off of Earth, and we are led into a conspiracy the parts of which are not really clear, especially since Maxwell is missing crucial information as well. So, for the course of most of the novel, Maxwell appears to wander fairly freely through the hills of Wisconsin as he tries to solve his problem…which rapidly becomes trying to complete his mission. But Maxwell has no personality, especially in comparison to the characters he is surrounded by—a Neanderthal who has been brought to the present and has become a lifelong student, a Ghost who cannot remember who he is the ghost of, and a young woman who while fairly normal has a pet saber-tooth tiger na whom she has named Sylvester (she even calls him her "putty cat"). It is pretty clear early on that these friends would do anything for Maxwell, and yet he never really confides in them about his adventures while off-planet.

Into this mix Simak adds a fairly hostile race of individuals made up of a hive mind and the container that holds each hive, a painter who has apparently travelled in time for the subjects of his art, and an impenetrable Artifact that the time institute has brought back from the Jurassic. Simak stirs all these ingredients into a mishmash that ends up being accidentally and coincidentally related, and in no way that the reader can figure out from the clues given in the story (some metafictional thought makes it obvious what the relationships are going to have to be—Simak must have introduced character A for some reason and the only place he fits in is that plot hole…). Oddly Maxwell can figure them out in leaps of intuition and logic that come very close to deus ex machina; his acting on those leaps is what propels the story forward. It reaches the state of a screwball comedy when all of the principle characters are gathered together in a single office, each telling their little bits of the over-arching conspiracy that drives the whole novel.

Perhaps that is the way to approach The Goblin Reservation after all, to forget about any sort of plot that holds it all together and instead concentrate on the goofy characters that inhabit the world, with Peter Maxwell as the Cary Grant straight man, trying to make sense of it all. If that's the case, it turns out that screwball comedies are better done in cinema than in novel form.

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