Girdling the Earth are bands of deadly radiation, the Van Allen Belts. They form a prison, an eggshell that humanity can never pierce. Embittered, the human race turns inward. Psychic powers come to the fore. At first, the psychically endowed paranormals (“parries”) use their gifts for a lark or for profit. Over time, the world comes to hate these deviants, forcing them into ghettos and isolated towns.
All except for the rare few employed by Fishhook, an agency that has opened up the stars through other means. Fusing technology and innate power, the “Fishermen” project their minds across the light years and explore other worlds. They bring back wondrous gifts of technology, which are sold in Fishhook-owned centers called “Trading Posts.” The Fishermen encounter a riot of experiences: things of incomprehensible beauty, things of unspeakable evil. The most rigidly enforced rule is that the Fishermen must retain their humanity; any taint of alien, any hint of going native, and they are cloistered in a community that is, for all intents and purposes, a gilded cage.
All of which are just abstract concerns to Shepherd Blaine, a veteran Fisherman, tourist of a hundred worlds, until the day he encounters the pinkness: a sprawling, shabby, impossibly old creature who tells him, “Hi Pal. I trade with you my mind…”
Clifford Simak’s four-part serial, The Fisherman, just wrapped up in this month’s Analog. It is the chronicle of Blaine’s escape from Fishhook and his journey on the lam through the Dakotas as he attempts to reconcile his human self with the near-omniscient alien that has take up residence in his mind. Blaine gains an encyclopedic knowledge of the universe as well as some mastery of time, “the simplest thing” the pinkness assures him. All the while, he is pursued by antagonist forces. One side wants to integrate the parries into society; the other would see them destroyed.
If you’re a fan of Cliff’s, you know that he excels at writing these intensely personal stories, particularly when they have (as this one does) a rural tinge. The former Fisherman’s transformation into something more than human is fascinating. Blaine’s voyage of self-discovery and self-preservation is an intimate one, a slow journey with a growing and satisfying pay-off. The parallels with and satires of our current issues with racial inequality (with “parries” being the stand-in for Blacks, Latins, Communists, Beatniks, etc.) are poignant without being heavy-handed. The pace drags a little at times, and Simak adopts this strange habit of beginning a good many of his sentences with the auxiliary words “for” and “and,” which lends an inexorable, detached tone to the proceedings.
Still, it’s an unique book, one that I suspect will contend for a Hugo this year. It single-handedly kept Analog in three-star territory despite the relative poor quality of its short stories and science articles.
Four-and-a-quarter stars. Don’t miss it when it comes out in book form.