I’ll state right up front and for the record that Clifford D. Simak is one of my personal favorite science-fiction writers. He is often associated with the idea of “pastoral” sci-fi, and it is true that he typically brings an understated and relaxed tone to a good majority of his works. Simak often focused on the personal and psychological tribulations of his characters instead of relying strictly on the science to propel his tales along. Which is not to say that he was weak on the scientific aspects in his writing. Indeed, Simak had a vivid imagination and was always careful to keep his stories well-grounded in valid technological and theoretical concepts. Mostly, though, I love Simak because the man could flat out WRITE. He had a dedication to the ideas that plot and story and characterization were of the utmost importance to the craft of the written word, something that was a bit of a rarity among his contemporaries back in the day. I could easily go on with my fanboy rant here, but I’ll just link you to Simak’s Wiki page and you can read more on your own if you are so inclined to do so. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliffor...
“The Goblin Reservation” was first published in 1968 and was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1969, but was beaten out for the statue by John Brunner’s acknowledged classic, “Stand on Zanzibar.” Less pastoral and more comedic in nature, the book is a bit of an anomaly for Simak, with the focus square on breakneck pacing and adventure as opposed to one of Simak’s more subdued character studies.
The book follows the story of one Peter Maxwell, a Professor of Supernatural Studies at an unnamed Wisconsin university set several hundred years in the future, when mankind has spread to the stars and the Earth has been largely transformed into a planetary network of schools and museums dedicated to universal learning and research. Time University has mastered the art of time travel, and has used its ability to bring people and artifacts forward to display and interact with. A Neanderthal man named Alley Oop has been rescued from cannibalism in the past and transplanted to the current time and educated in the proper fashion. Oop plays a comic foil for Maxwell and has an integral part in the book. Maxwell also has a friend named Ghost, who just happens to be an actual ghost, and a love interest named Carol who has a biomechanical saber tooth tiger named Sylvester who takes an immediate liking to Maxwell.
Future Earth has also discovered that beings of mythology actually exist, such as trolls, banshees, goblins, and faeries. These creatures have shared the planet with humans since time immemorial, and they have been placed safely on reservations where they may be studied and live comfortably and free in environs that match their traditional origin territories. The Goblin Reservation is ruled by a good-natured lummox named O’Toole, who certainly does enjoy hefting a mug or three of sweet October Ale.
Peter’s adventures begin when he is transported back to Earth after a visit to another planet to look for a reported dragon. We first encounter him while he is being interrogated by a security officer. It seems that Pete Maxwell is truly himself a man out of time, as he apparently reappeared back on Earth several weeks ago and was then killed in an unfortunate “accident.” The second Maxwell thusly gets embroiled in a whirlwind caper that combines elements of mystery and comedy and intrigue, all wrapped up in a satisfying science-fiction and fantasy story that constantly threatens to careen out of control in the most enjoyable ways. Along the way there is betrayal, romance, aliens on wheels, an unfortunate bowl of gravy in the face, and a visit to the present-day future by William Shakespeare himself, even if it turns out that he DIDN’T write all those bloody plays after all. Simak manages to set an awful lot of plot devices to work in “The Goblin Reservation,” and it is a testament to his skill as a writer that he is able to wrap everything up in a tight conclusion after only 192 pages.
Simak’s big strength as a writer is his strong characterizations, and his cast here is universally believable and likeable. I particularly enjoyed Simak’s take on Alley Oop, as he manages to make his caveman foil charming and modern even as he struggles to fit into a society that is truly alien to him. I also liked how Simak handled the budding romance between Maxwell and Carol Hampton, a young and pretty new faculty member who moved into Maxwell’s old apartment after his doppelganger died prior to his second coming. Ms. Hampton is anything but a frail femme fatale, and she takes a full bodied part in the main action as it unfolds. Ghost certainly makes a perfectly good ghost, and of course there are many other characters who add spice and diversity to the proceedings as a whole. I also enjoyed Simak’s usage of popular ‘60s comic names vis a vis the aforementioned Alley Oop and the mischievous saber tooth puddy tat Sylvester. “The Goblin Reservation” literally revels in 1960s cultural references, and so much the better for it.
As with all of Simak’s work, there is a vaguely British feel to the whole thing. I know that Simak is a Wisconsin-bred American, but I have always felt as if he is frequently stylistically English in the way that he presents his stories. I found myself slipping into a faux mental British accent on more than one occasion as I was reading. This feeling was compounded by the fact that all of Simak’s creatures of myth have a Eurocentric origin…..banshees…..gnomes…..trolls….dragons…..the fey…..none of them are native to the Americas, and the one time that Amerindian spirits are mentioned is only in passing.
There is also a feeling that “The Goblin Reservation” is a spiritual sequel of sorts to “Way Station,” Simak’s 1963 science-fiction novel that won the 1964 Hugo Award. Now “Way Station” was a VERY different sort of novel, heavy on the pastoral elements that Simak specialized in, and it was just a more serious work all the way around. But it is not a stretch to think that “The Goblin Reservation” might at least be a product of the same world building that made “Way Station” so successful. The idea of using “transporter nodes” for faster than light interplanetary travel rather than spaceships is one of the central plot points of “Way Station,” as is the concept of Earth as a nascent member of the greater galactic community. It is almost as if this is indeed the world of “Way Station” taken 500 or so years into a glorious future for mankind.
I can certainly understand why “The Goblin Reservation” didn’t win the Hugo in 1969, especially in light of the heavy competition for the award. There is absolutely no shame in losing out to John Brunner and his all-time classic. The sheep were definitely looking up for Brunner at that moment in time. That said, this is still a stellar work that I would highly recommend. The humorous elements were a welcome addition to the Simak arsenal, and the good-natured rapport between the characters makes for an enjoyable and light-hearted novel that seems to go by way to fast. I’m pretty sure that “The Goblin Reservation” will hold up well on subsequent rereadings, though I have an awful lot of unread Simak that I still need to work my way through. The guy IS a Grand Master, after all, and you really can’t go wrong with picking up any of Simak’s work.