Ring Around the Sun

Ring Around the Sun
Clifford Simak

I’ve spent a lot of time lately finding new authors, reading debut novels, and catching up on the hottest new books. After all the excitement of The New, it was time for something Old; Clifford Simak answered the call with some truly Golden Age stuff. Simak, despite winning a Hugo for Waystation, doesn’t really get talked about as much as many of his contemporaries. He may not be in the Asimov-Heinlein-Clarke pantheon, but I would rate him equal to Alfred Bester or Cordwainer Smith, both of whom seem to garner more frequent mention. Going out on a serious jazz nerd limb, I would call Simak the Hank Mobley of science fiction. Anyway, taking a break from my library raids, I pulled out Ring Around the Sun, an old paperback of which I purchased somewhere forgotten.

Ring is steeped in the 1950s, but some of its themes are eerily prescient. Mostly though, it’s the 1950s. The Cold War pervades all in a way unique to the age, something that younger readers will probably fail utterly to understand. It’s hard to explain to someone who grew up in the 90s how all-encompassing the Cold War was, or why the Soviets were such reliable bad guys. (It has been noted by many that the general reaction to Clarke’s 2001 or 2010 took as a given both spaceflight to Jupiter and the USSR still hanging around. Its sudden collapse in 1989 took everyone by surprise, inevitable though it may seem now, which is why so much SF at the time blithely assumed that the Soviets would be with us well into our expansion into the Solar System.) It is also difficult to replicate the undercurrent of dread that nuclear war engendered; vague fears of terrorism, the Rise of China, or environmental collapse lack the operatic finality of mutual assured destruction. Ring isn’t a John LeCarre novel and the Soviets aren’t really the bad guys, but the Cold War is lurking behind everything that takes place.

At the same time, Simak hints at some questions that would later appear books by writers like Iain M. Banks and Charles Stross. In the book’s future, the distant 1970s, stuff that doesn’t break is beginning to come to market. The Forever Car, which will run forever, razor blades that don’t dull, and other such objects are creeping into the national economy, wreaking subtle havoc. Oddly enough, the 70s were exactly the years when cars made by companies with names like Toyota, Honda, and Datsun entered the US market, cars that lasted years longer than their American counterparts and eventually crippled Detroit. While the Forever Car’s importance fades as the book wears on, its economic possibilities are both the most interesting part of the book and the factor that keeps it relevant now.

The Forever Car and its counterparts represent the post-scarcity economy that one hopes will eventually sweep away our current system. Simak’s characters are going through what contemporary writers would term an economic singularity, that brief, turbulent period when new technology completely upends a society. Simak ignores innovation and fashion, which have prevented our current, long-lasting stuff from swamping the new consumer goods market, but the response of the old guard is predictable: entrenchment, aggressive propaganda, nationalistic fervor, and finally violence. Lest this seem an exaggeration, think of Detroit’s tactics, both labor and capital, since Japanese cars, robotics, outsourcing, and fuel efficiency concerns developed. Clearly, this was my favorite part of the book, and the most surprising, considering its age.

But only part of the book is spent digging around an economic morass. (Probably just as well for 80-90% of the readership.) Much of the rest concerns itself with a trope that was popular at the time, but seems to have fallen into disuse: supermen and/or mutants among us slowly conquering the world. I wonder a bit about the rise and fall of these guys, since only the X-Men are carrying this particular torch at the moment. Regardless, Simak pairs his economic fun with the future leaders of mankind. (Note that I use “mankind” rather than “humanity” on purpose here, since it’s the 50s and white men are doing most of the talking.)

Mostly though, this is a Simak story, which means that sympathetic characters move at a stately pace towards a calm resolution. There are interesting ideas and plenty of action, but like most of the author’s books, Ring is about good people trying to do the right thing. Simak focuses on the Everyman behind each superman and villain, interested as much in the humanity of their stories as the gadgets and world building. This sets him apart from much of Golden Age SF and makes his books must read material. Ring Around the Sun is worth seeking out for a host of reasons: the near-prophetic bits about an economic singularity, the claustrophobia of the Cold War, Simak’s unique spin on SF, plus the whole “this is a good book” business. As an added bonus, my copy contained a vintage ad from the Science Fiction Book Club, advertising the hottest new books for just 10 cents. I wonder if they will still honor it?

Rating: Gerson, the underrated, far too obscure midfield mastermind behind Pele’s greatest Brazilian teams. I spent an inordinate amount of time looking this one up.

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