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Five thousand years ago, the Earth was humming with machines, robots, technology. Money was being made, resources were being spent, and Man was content in his wealth and power over all obstacles, natural or human. Then, suddenly, overnight, everyone disappeared except a handful of Indians, a Manor house and its attendants, and every robot that had ever been built on the Earth. Oh, there were scatterings of humans around, but soon there was no technology to connect them and society rolled back to its primitive, agrarian history. Cities crumbled, books deteriorated, all the great machinery that ran the world rusted to dust. There were guns without bullets; cars without petrol. It was all noted by those who remained because they miraculously lived thousands of years.
The robots sans masters had nothing to do. Some preserved the old religion Man had discarded centuries before. Others focused their purpose into building the last, great machine—a computer known as The Project that quietly grew to the size of a multi-storied building.
The Indians returned to the old ways before the European invasion. Since robots tended the crops, the Manor people tried to preserve as much knowledge as they could store in books, art, and artifacts. Gradually, they discovered they possessed the abilities of telepathy and teleportation. A few decided to wander among the stars, locating the three planets Humanity had been disposed onto. Psychic scuttlebutt had it that Man wanted to return to Earth as soon as he found it. And that frightened the remaining Earthlings out of their minds.
Simak's wonderful pastoral vision is Earth without ownership. Instead, it is living with agreement. He sprinkles his relaxing prose with social and political zingers and they feel natural, not forced, from his characters' mouths. For instance, Red Cloud, the last remaining Indian chief says,
A machine does something to a man. It brutalizes him. It serves as a buffer between himself and his environment and he is the worst for it. It arouses an opportunistic instinct and makes possible a greed that makes a man inhuman.
-- Putnam , NY ; SFBC, 1972, p.160
Commentary can easily get preachy, but Simak ingests plenty of sly humor to make it tasty. Like the alien who looks like a can of worms searching Earth for a soul, or, the imported, musical trees' nightly concert turning decidedly off-key. Ultimately, it becomes an embracement of a higher, alien intelligence and its ability to pilot human destiny. As for Free Will, well, like “the soul, [it] may be [just] a state of mind” (ibid, p.185).