Saturday, June 16, 2007

Mastodonia by Clifford D. Simak (1978)

Hardback cover blurb


Time-traveling turns into big business and big trouble when a causal walk down a farm path in a quiet Wisconsin town leads an archeologist into the Pleistocene era and he uncovers an interstellar mystery from before recorded time…

Asa Steel is unprepared for the incredible events that begin to unfold when Rila Elliot – a woman he loved two decades before – steps out of the past and his faithful dog Bowser starts loping into it through time trails he’s discovered in his own backyard.

Rila’s appearance is mere coincidence, but Bowser’s retrieval of fresh dinosaur bones is as inexplicable as is the curious crater in Asa’s backyard that seems to have been made by a spaceship from the stars.

And that’s only the beginning.

Soon Asa himself trips in time, led into prehistoric eras by an enigmatic cat-faced creature. Unable to communicate with his alien guide except though a local simpleton named Hiram, Asa attempts to understand the meaning and the purpose of these time trails. Meanwhile, Rila, always looking toward the future, arranges to turn them into one of the biggest money-making travel ventures of all time.

In short order, the time trails in the quiet town of Willow Bend become the focus of global attention, government scrutiny and the target for an unprecedented solution to overpopulation.

But from the moment the first modern men begin trekking back in time, there’s more danger, excitement and trouble than any of them would have ever bargained for.

My thoughts

Mastodonia, in my opinion, is a novel with an interesting idea that doesn’t have a story to realize its potential. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, because it will keep you entertained for the two or three evenings it takes to read through its short 200-or-so pages. But the author never quite figures out to do with the time travel device -- or, in this case, time-traveling alien -- he gives his protagonists.

The novel is narrated by Asa, who stumbles across a mystery in his own backyard when his dog starts hauling in fresh dinosaur bones. Once the mystery is solved, which happens about a third of the way through the novel, the rest of the story is about how Asa and his lover Rila exploit the discovery of time travel for their own personal gain. That’s what turned me off most about this work: Here we have two protagonists who make the greatest discovery in the history of mankind, yet they use it for their own selfish reasons and we, as readers, are supposed to be rooting for them. Perhaps I wasn’t feeling capitalist enough when I read it. Anyway, one of their first actions is to establish a nation in the prehistoric past called Mastodonia, mostly as a way to avoid paying taxes. The secret is soon out, and the couple starts offering trips to prehistory, but only for the super rich. We peasants must settle for the occasional photograph of a dinosaur or a sabertooth cat.

Mastodonia has some good moments, such as a couple trips back to the Mesozoic era, and it is light-hearted in tone, but there is really no direction to the story. Once the opening mystery is solved, Simak seems to be making it up as he goes, and the ending isn’t so much of an ending as a point to stop writing. Some people may appreciate this. After all, real life leaves loose ends and it doesn’t have tidy conclusions. But real life doesn’t have you discovering living mastodons in your backyard either. Mastodonia feels very much like a book rushed to meet a deadline.



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C said...

Mastodonia, in my opinion, is a novel with an interesting idea that doesn’t have a story to realize its potential.

This is so true, for this and most other Simak stories!

He was unbelievably gifted at cooking up unique ideas and clever scenarios. But the structure of many of his books make me wish he had worked with editors or co-authors who had a better sense of how to make a story work (or end).

william of york said...

Did you read this book?What I mean is did you READ the whole book to the end?I did this week for the first time and I have been thinking about it ever since.Your review sucks in so many ways.All I can say is I feel sorry for you!!!! This is one of the most thought provoking books I have read in the last 20 years.