If sometimes great writers crank out garbage, other times they crank out okayness. Project Pope is just such an okay book by Clifford Simak.
Like Heinlein’s garbage book reviewed last week, Simak’s book has all the potential to be a great text. It has an interesting plot (will the robots, people, and native life forms of the planet “End of Nothing” work well with the equation beings to find heaven? Will the wrath of heaven descend as a result? and who killed Decker and why?), great themes (is there a God and can a robot computer find Him? What is the intersection of humanity and machine anyway? Where do other life forms fit in?), and compelling characters.
In other words, all the elements for a great story are here.
And yet, Simak doesn’t manage to pull it all together. Unlike some of his earlier works (City is a masterpiece, for example), Simak doesn’t quite leave us with a tale that holds together well. Obviously some of that will be inevitable given the big themes and the short page count, but even in those limitations Simak doesn’t land anywhere solid. The robots just kind of wander around, and the various species the human encounter are fascinating but no real work is done to develop them.
The biggest gap here is the robot “pope.” The robots in this book have created themselves a machine that is designed to find out theological truths. This of course should be deeply interesting to Christians and non-Christians alike, and yet Simak doesn’t really do anything with it. Maybe that’s the point, even robots with phenomenal calculating abilities are going to end up using them to settle petty disputes between factions of robots bickering over theology and the job of the church. Yet that isn’t really the tone the book sets. Instead, we’re left with the sense that Simak himself doesn’t have the answers. Which, hey, fair enough. Authors are allowed not to know. But it’s one thing to struggle with a question and another to let that struggle affect the quality of the book.
Still, a mediocre Simak is still a good book and one that is interesting enough in the questions it asks as well as in the plot it develops. So this is one to grab at the used book store if you come across it and have it under your belt if you have the time.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast an Amazon Associate (which is linked in this blog), and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO