Clifford D. Simak’s 1982 Special Deliverance is a standalone SF novel.
When a student hands in an atypically good paper with citations unfamiliar to Professor Edward Lansing, Lansing summons the student to his office for questioning. The student admits he did not write the paper. No surprise. What is a surprise is the source of the paper: a slot machine in the basement of the Student Union Building1.
Of course, Lansing has to see this paper-writing slot machine for himself.
The machine is terribly insistent that it has to provide everyone who activates it with a boon. When the machine’s dirty joke fails to amuse, it provides Lansing with two keys and detailed instructions. Curiosity gets the better of Lansing. In short order he finds himself in very unfamiliar territory.
With him are several companions: the Brigadier, Mary Owen, the Parson, Sarah Carver, and Jurgens. All are human save for Jurgens, who is a robot of an advanced design no technology known to Lansing could construct. Although all six share a common language, conversation soon reveals that they come from different versions of Earth. The Brigadier’s world seems to be one devoted to war, while Mary’s is one dominated by vast, complacent colonial empires.
The Earth they are currently visiting is a seventh version, unfamiliar to them all. Nothing for it but to explore their surrounding in the hope of answers. This new world appears to be unoccupied, but an empty city proves that it once had inhabitants. Whatever civilization once called the world home has vanished. The relics it left behind prove that it had mastered technologies far beyond any familiar to any member of the group.
This world may be unoccupied but it is in no sense safe. One by one, the members of the party encounter temptations and traps for which they are not prepared. One by one, they vanish. As the party dwindles, it seems what waits for each of them is not answers but exile and death.
Simak is old-school enough that at least some of the questions raised in the book get answers. There is a purpose to the quest. The method in which that purpose is pursued is a callous one, but there’s a reason for that at well.
With the possible exception of Sarah’s world, each alternate Earth has its flaws. Lansing’s, for example, is one where a Cold War may end in nuclear doom. The Brigadier’s seems to feature endless war. The Parson’s epitomizes small town prejudice and Jurgens’ is one where Earth is populated by obsolete robots caring for the very dregs of the human gene pool. Mary’s might seem to a utopia to some. The empires of the 19th century have proved to be stable and long-lasting. Beneficent? The non-white races crushed under the imperial heels might beg to differ.
“The big power blocs have carved out their territories and finally, by and large, seem content with what they have. There are, of course, cries against imperialism, but no one pays attention.”
“India, of course, is starving.”
She shrugged. “India always starves. There are too many people.”
“And Africa exploited?”
“Edward, are you for me or against me?”
Mary may be fortunate that the party didn’t include an African or Indian character.
When I got this commission, I thought perhaps I could fit it into my Because My Tears Are Delicious To You series. No so! There are two reasons. One is because it was published after March 1981 (the month I stopped being a teenager), the cut-off month for Tears. The other reason: it turns out that I never read Special Deliverance. I think I’ve been confusing it with Simak’s The Visitors for almost forty years.
In fact, a close look at Simak’s ISFDB entry revealed that although I was in my time something of a Simak completist, there are at least three late Simak novels I do not recall buying or reading: Special Deliverance, Where Evil Dwells, and Highway of Eternity. This may have been due to the nature of Simak’s later works, which were quest-heavy and rather soft focus. Nothing I would have disdained (unlike works by many of his contemporaries,), but nothing that would have prompted me to buy a new Simak.
Special Deliverance is a reasonable example of Simak’s work towards the end of his career. Lansing is a pleasant enough fellow, with a few sharp edges but enough placid determination to follow the quest to its end. Several of his companions, the Brigadier and the Parson in particular are vaguely unlikable, embodying human foibles of which Simak disapproved. There are definitely dangers, characters do die (or arguably worse), but the tone is as oddly detached as Lansing himself.
1: I usher at campus orientation events, so I am privy to the draconian warnings that the University of Waterloo issues re plagiarism. Bad! Don’t! You will be punished! It seems that Lansing’s university takes academic fraud less seriously than UW does today. The student confesses; it’s clear that the machine would have been able to output the paper, but … Lansing seems convinced that there’s no point in trying to get the student punished.