Time Is the Simplest Thing

By Clifford D. Simak

1,974 ratings - 3.93* vote

Without setting foot on another planet, people like Shep Blaine were reaching out to the stars with their minds, telepathically contacting strange beings on other worlds. But even Blaine was unprepared for what happened when he communed with the soul of an utterly alien being lightyears from Earth. After recovering from his experience, he becomes a dangerous man: not only Without setting foot on another planet, people like Shep Blaine were reaching out to the stars with their minds,

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Book details

Mass Market Paperback, 263 pages
November 1986 by Methuen

(first published 1961)

Original Title
Time Is the Simplest Thing
0413424200 (ISBN13: 9780413424204)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Kevin Kuhn

This is my second Clifford Simak book, my first being the seminal “Way Station”. I enjoyed this book, not nearly as much as “Way Station”, but it was a pleasant experience. It doesn’t have the clarity of plot, but I find his writing to be charming, engaging, and calming.

Simak first published “Time is the Simplest Thing” in May 1961. For context, Russia first launched Sputnik in 1957 and put the first man in space in April 1961. Mankind was just learning how difficult space travel was and had yet to determine if travel beyond an Earth orbit was possible. This question seems to be the guiding thought underneath this novel. In “Time is the Simplest Thing”, people have given up on manned space travel. Humans are found to be too fragile to withstand the rigors of space and exposure to radiation outside of Earth’s protection.

Instead, there are breakthroughs in psychic abilities. Humans develop a number of these abilities; telepathy, levitation, to name a few. With the help of technology, a star machine, humans develop the ability to visit the stars. Think astral projection combined with a rover that records the experience. The astral explorers bring back inventions and ideas that are processed by a shadowy corporation that decides what gets distributed to the population and what doesn’t. Interestingly, the failure of normal space travel is somewhat considered a failure of science and with the psychic abilities, a backlash from society occurs. Individuals with psychic abilities (called parries), are increasingly feared and tormented. All of this is wonderful, but the plot itself follows the main character (Shep Blaine), an astral projection space explorer who brings back a little more than bargained for. Blaine runs and we follow him as he attempts to escape the shadowy corporation and others that fear what he has brought back.

So, the backdrop is wonderful, but unfortunately, Blaine is somewhat motiveless for much of the story. This causes the plot to somewhat meander and it’s largely the interesting world building that carries us through the book. For me, it’s telling that despite this issue, I still enjoyed Simak’s writing. His love of nature shines though and anytime he describes a scene in nature his prose transforms from pedestrian to poetic! An example:

“The sky came down, pressing on the Earth, a hazy sky that stretched from bluff to bluff, roofing in the river and shutting out the sun so that the birds flew with uneasy twitterings in the willows, puzzled at the early fall of night.”

Simak explores prejudice and bigotry in this story, showing the alarming speed at which “parries” are outcast and persecuted. So while the plot has challenges, the writing, the worldbuilding, the theme, and Simak’s mid-western charm were enough for me to fully enjoy this tale – four stars.

Oleksandr Zholud

This is a soft SF novel, read as a Buddy Read in Hugo & Nebula Awards: Best Novels group. The book was Hugo award nominee in 1962.

The story starts with an interesting and quite rare premise: the space is deadly, there is no hope for interplanetary travel, even less for interstellar. Since this news, that shaken the world a century has passed and a new mode of travel emerges (here the soft part) – psychokinetic. No one believed in psy-powers but a company named Fishhook persisted and was finally successful. They send consciousness of psy-operators with marvelous machines many light years away.

The protagonist is one of such operators, Shepherd Blaine meets an alien intelligence in one of such travels and it states: “Hi, pal. I trade with you my mind.” Back to Earth, Blaine tries to run off for who can tell what Fishhook will do with such an invader.

The starting ideas are quite promising, but as story progresses I found it a bit too filled with coincidences and lucky strikes from the helping alien mind, which aren’t followed with investigation of these new great powers.

Jason Mills

Although the title suggests a time-travel tale, this is actually a story about persecuted paranormals, standing in a tradition with Stapledon's Odd John (1935) at one end and X-Men, The 4400 and Heroes at the other. Simak's 1961 novel has more in common with the former, in that it shares Stapledon's pessimism about the possibility of reconciliation between exceptional and ordinary people.

Our hero is the slyly-named telepath Shepherd Blaine. He works for Fishhook, a corporation that employs paranormals ("parries") to visit the stars remotely. The rigours of solar radiation have rendered it impossible for mankind to travel there physically:
And all the years were dead and all the dreams were futile and Man had finally ended up in a little planetary dead-end. For then the gods had toppled, and Man, in his secret mind, had known that after all the years of yearnings, he had achieved nothing more than gadgets.

Blaine encounters an alien who takes up squatting room in Blaine's mind. Former colleagues to whom this has happened have been abducted by Fishhook, so Blaine goes on the run. He travels through a little-changed small-town America (Simak's habitual terrain), looking for purpose, dodging not only his employer's pursuit but the blind prejudice and mob violence of ordinary people.

It's in this persecution that Simak's characteristic sadness about the human condition comes through. The attempts of Blaine and others to create understanding between the inevitably factionalised populations, parries and normals, are seen to come to naught: small-minded prejudice, ignorance and fear, Simak seems to suggest, are beyond the ability of reason and goodwill to defeat. Using the skills he inherits from the alien, Blaine has to make his own 'happy ending': it cannot encompass everyone.

Simak was a great SF writer, sadly neglected now, and unusual among the old US crop in infusing his folksy books not with indomitable optimism, but with a humane, clear-sighted melancholy. This is no classic of the genre, but it's intelligent, thoughtful and well-written.


Written s(i)mack-dab in the middle of the American Civil Rights Movement, Clifford D. Simak's "Time Is the Simplest Thing" utilizes the tools of science fiction to make poignant comments on the issues of the day. The novel, the author's sixth out of an eventual 29, was initially serialized in the May – July 1961 issues of "Analog" magazine with the equally appropriate title "The Fisherman," and went on to be nominated for that year's Hugo Award. (It lost, to Robert A. Heinlein's "Stranger In a Strange Land.") Later that year, it made its first book appearance as a Doubleday hardcover, the selfsame edition that this reader was fortunate enough to acquire at NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand. Simak, it should be mentioned, was actually only a part-time writer at this stage of his lengthy career. From 1939 – '76, the Wisconsin-born author held a full-time job on the "Minneapolis Star," where he worked as news editor from 1949 on. Nevertheless, by 1961, Simak had already written those five earlier novels, not to mention some 95 short stories, and had already copped his first Hugo (for 1959's Best Novelette, "The Big Front Yard"); he would go on to win two more Hugos and a Nebula, and be proclaimed sci-fi's third official Grand Master, before his career was through. "Time Is the Simplest Thing" was written when the author was 57, and finds him in very fine form, indeed. It is a fast-moving, imaginative tale, and one that had--as I mentioned--the added benefit of being socially relevant, as well.

In Simak's novel, mankind has finally admitted defeat, as far as ever traveling to the stars is concerned, that pesky Van Allen radiation belt seeming to be a practically unpassable obstacle. Thus, around 100 years from the present day, an organization known as Fishhook comes into being. Headquartered in northern Mexico, the group makes use of telepathically gifted individuals who can explore other worlds by projecting outward with their minds! And so, mankind can safely wander over the worlds of the galaxy while its "paranormals" lie safely in their "star machines" at Fishhook HQ. Shepherd Blaine is one such paranormal, one whose life is upended one day when he shares minds with a gigantic, pink, bloblike alien as he mentally explores a planet around 5,000 light-years distant. When he is revived at Fishhook, Blaine discovers that the alien mentality is still sharing part of his noggin, making him a suspected, infected target for the organization's security force. Shep thus takes it on the lam, along with sympathetic, telepathic newswoman Harriet Quimby.

The two manage to make it to the U.S., where Blaine is almost lynched in a small border town. The entire populace, it seems, is in great fear of all "parries," branding them witches and werewolves. Fortunately, as Blaine continues to flee across the country, hunted by the Fishhook people and the frightened populace, he discovers that he now possesses some unusual new abilities, thanks to that alien residue in his mind: the ability to speed up or slow down time, the ability to divine an object's history by merely staring at it (psychometry), and...one other crucial ability, that comes in very handy when he discovers that another Fishhook ex-employee, Lambert Finn, is planning a genocidal pogrom against all the parries in the world. But will even these godlike abilities be enough to quell worldwide discrimination and unrest?

As "Time Is the Simplest Thing" proceeds, it becomes evident that all these folks with paranormal abilities--be they telepaths or teleporters or psychokineticists--are stand-in symbols for all those folks who are discriminated against in modern-day, real-life society. Whether they are blacks, Jews, gays...or Muslims, Simak has this to say on the subject:

"…how much ability and genius might be lying barren, ability and genius that the world could use but would never know because of the intolerance and hate which was held against the very people who were least qualified as the targets of it."

And later in the book:

"Someday...the world would look back and wonder at the madness...at the blindness and the folly and the sheer intolerance. Someday there would be vindication. Someday sanity."

And later still:

"The darkness of the mind, the bleakness of the thought, the shallowness of purpose. These were the werewolves of the world."

For its right-on central message alone, regarding the evils of intolerance of those who are different, "Time Is the Simplest Thing" would get my heartiest recommendation. But the book offers the reader many other pleasures, as well.

As I said before, the book gallops along at a rapid pace, and Blaine's predicament is an interesting one. As Scottish critic David Pringle mentions in his "Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction," the novel is "a shade tougher than this sentimental/pastoral author's normal fare," and I suppose that this is true, with any number of violent confrontations, fistfights, murders, suicide and assorted mayhem on display. Simak was a wonderful writer, need I even mention, and adds pleasing, futuristic grace notes throughout his book, such as automobiles with air jets and nuclear engines, not to mention all the many wonders that Fishhook has managed to bring back to Earth (becoming at the same time more of a venal, capitalistic monopoly than a space exploration agency): the "Dimensino" entertainment program; the "transo" booth for instantaneous transportation; the Gobathian drug, used by an insect race to repair broken bodies; and that straitjacket-like robe, made from the striped skin of an alien creature.

Simak's writing style is simple, clean and compulsively readable, and yet still capable of delivering a choice line such as "a face that looked as if it were a place where chickens scratched in their search for grubs and worms." As had Alfred Bester in his 1953 masterpiece "The Demolished Man," Simak here utilizes different typefaces very effectively to convey spoken and telepathed conversations, often mixing the two in the same paragraph. He's not above coining his own words --such as "smuggery"--to suit his needs, and even seems to have beaten Patrick McGoohan's classic television program "The Prisoner" to the punch when he describes the idyllic Fishhook pleasure village by the sea, in which it holds captive those who attempt to escape the organization!

All of which is not to say that Simak's novel is a perfect affair. Indeed, this reader had two problems with "Time Is the Simplest Thing," one large and one small. The minor complaint is that it is a bit too dependent on (double) coincidence; I'll let you find out just where and when yourself. My main problem with Simak's story, however, is that we never learn precisely just how Fishhook has managed to bring back all those alien goods to Earth, when our explorers are only visiting those planets mentally. It is an aspect of the story that is hardly touched on, and yet one that plays a central role in Fishhook's position in Earth society. This reader wanted to know more, to put it mildly. Simak's book ends with matters not completely resolved, either, with the fate of many of the parries still very much in jeopardy, and with Blaine thinking that a lot of work remains to be done. Simak could easily have revisited this fascinating story line of his for a justifiable follow-up tale, but no; this was one author who never wrote a sequel to any of his 29 novels, preferring to always come up with something fresh and original.

Still, for what it is, "Time Is the Simplest Thing" remains a satisfying experience, and, as I say, a right-on one. It is a book whose central message--a plea for understanding and acceptance for those who are different--is more needed today than ever.

(By the way, this review initially appeared on the FanLit website at http://www.fantasyliterature.com/ ... a most excellent destination for all fans of Clifford D. Simak....)


Not my favorite Simak. Hotbeds of activity are over the border in Mexico, and then Pierre, South Dakota, really? And what does the man have against contractions (like won't instead of will not)? Still, interesting ideas, terrific exploration of human nature in regards to things we don't understand and to which we develop a fear.

"For it was authority that made men suspicious and stern-faced. Authority and responsibility which made them not themselves, but a sort of corporate body rather than a person."

Give me Simak over Heinlein any day.

Rachel (Kalanadi)

Wish I'd liked this one more than I did. There are clear parallels here between the persecution of paranormals ("parries") and the persecution of Jews, black people, etc. However, I'm not keen at all on the paranormal (a.k.a. ESP, psionics, etc.) in SF and found I cared little about most of the characters here.


Fifth Simak novel that I've read. I feel of those, this is his most aggressive in tone. He crams a lot in the plot and yet, sometimes it is still surprising. At times a little too esoteric. The ending (last couple of chapters) for example, is a struggle to get through. This is less about mental powers than the fear that humans have of the Other and the control that corporations exert. Human development story with social commentary. Add a little fugitive escape and evasion. Stir. Good for Simak fans and Vintage maniacs.

Dave Etherton

I got this book from my local libary when i devoured the SCI-FI section not long after i found how much i loved reading.