aka Highway to Eternity
Novel, first published: Del Rey/Ballantine 1986
Jay Corcoran has summoned his friend, Tom Boone, who has an uncanny ability "to step around corners", to investigate a room-sized box stuck somehow to the outside of a hotel suite occupied by one of Corcoran's clients, Martin who mysteriously vanished. Corcoran also has a talent, an ability to visualize what ordinary people cannot see which has made him wealthy. In the pressure of the moment - the hotel is being torn down while they are investigating the room - Boone does "step around a corner" into the box, taking Corcoran with him.
The box turns out to be a traveler, a machine that can traverse time and space. Boone and Corcoran are transported instantly back to a time bubble in 1745 in Shropshire, England, where they meet a strange family of refugees - from a million years in the future. The family has fled to the past to escape the Infinites, intelligences from the galactic center who are busy converting corporeal humans into incorporeal entities, part of a plan by the Infinites to preserve a corpus of intelligence from all races. Timothy, the scholar of the family, has been studying human history to find out where the race went wrong, a familiar Simakian dirge. A brother, Henry, has been converted into a ghost - he was rejected by the Infinites halfway through his conversion. Henry is a scout for the group, for he can travel in space and time outside the bubble without a traveler. The rest of the family consists of David, who does not do much but tramp around the estate with a playful alien nicknamed Spike; his beautiful sister Enid, the "thinker" who prophesies that trees will succeed man; and his older sister and brother-in-law, Emma and Horace. Corcoran's missing client turns out to be their twentieth-century contact, Martin, whom David distrusts.
The refugees are scattered by the appearance of a "monster," a robot assassin in the form of a spider web twelve feet across pulsing with dangerous energy. Unable to operate the traveler, Enid and Boone end up in southwestern North America of 50,000 B.C. When the monster catches up with them, Enid is able to escape in the traveler, but Boone remains. An angry bison shatters the monster except for its braincase. Befriended by a wolf, Boone sets out to find water. He has been dreaming of a figure with a hat, who speaks to him about the "brotherhood of life." Boone catches his leg in a crevice and cannot free himself. Simak loved to write about this prehistoric time period, and this section contains some of the best writing in the novel - especially the descriptions of the landscape and the animals and the gripping action scenes.
Meanwhile, Enid lands on a planet where she meets Horseface, an alien with whom she melds minds to construct a net that can travel anywhere in time and space. Suddenly, Horseface and Enid are translated to a Disneyworld planet with purple grass and pink trees. Enid scares off some aliens having a picnic and picks up what looks like a television set but with extraordinary powers - whatever anyone thinks appears on the screen. Horseface returns, carrying a chest, pursued by a purple alien with tentacles. They narrowly escape the alien on the net, but just before they do, Enid sees Boone on the television screen.
Corcoran and David travel forward to 975,000 A.D., a future Simak frequently predicted with robots caring for humans in a pastoral Utopia where all humans have to do is sit around, think, and philosophize; "a horrible way for the human race to end" (Chapter 8). Corcoran has one of his "visions," a colossal tree stretching up to the sky, with a staircase winding around its trunk. Henry returns, telling them where Boone is but that Enid has disappeared. They go back to find Boone, but he, too, is gone. Horribly, David is attacked and devoured by a saber tooth cat. The braincase of the monster pleads with Corcoran to take it with him, but he refuses.
Boone finally frees himself by "stepping around a corner" and takes Wolf with him. He finds himself on a dull gray planet, where he sees a trolley track. Boone and Wolf hop on a car that halts at a building with tables and chairs, where they are served by a robot chef. (Simak's characters always seem to eat well on their quests, even among bizarre surroundings.) At one of the tables is the Hat, who explains that they are on the Highway of Eternity, and then collapses into a bundle of clothes. Enid and Horseface appear and everybody exchanges adventures.
Horseface opens the chest, and a doughy mass flows out, forming a huge map of the galaxy, several miles in diameter and in its center runs a white line, representing a highway among the stars. They enter the map and spot a yellow star with a precise X on it.
The rest of the family - Timothy, Horace, Emma, and the alien Spike - land fifty-thousand years beyond the time they fled in the past near one of the monasteries built by the lnfinites. All that is left of the human race is a sparkling and twinkling on the hills. They meet some wild robots and see a killer monster, but Spike drives it off. With the robots for protection, they enter the monastery, and while Spike and the monster are engaged in combat, the entire company is translated to another planet. They travel for days, and come upon a junkyard. The monster attacks Timothy, but Spike sends it over a cliff. A flier picks up Timothy and takes him to a city that turns out to be a Galactic Center, where thinkers and investigators from all over the galaxy pool theories and discoveries. Spike recruited the family for the Center - he is a talent scout who also hunts down killer robots. The panel at Galactic Central informs Timothy that the Infinites have been quarantined on their planet for their arrogance, and their Enforcers, the killer robots, have been hunted down.
Events begin to happen with a confusing suddenness worthy of A. E. van Vogt. Corcoran has returned to the place where he saw the tree. He now sees the tree and begins climbing. About four mIles up, he falls and is precipitated into the Highway land. He boards the trolley, meets up with Boone, Enid, and Horseface, and breaks the tragic news of David's death. Enid's traveler appears, with Martin and three Infinites, who claim to be refugees themselves. The Hat returns, suggesting a new destination, the Rainbow People, and they all leave on the net, except for Martin. They land on a crystal planet where the Hat tells them the Infinites will be judged for their wreckage of the human race by the Rainbow People, the most ancient race in the Universe. After the Rainbow People render judgment, Boone, Enid, and Wolf are suddenly translated to another planet where Enid is battered with a "wind" of information - my mind is full to bursting" (Chapter 14). Then Horseface and the net pick them up, and they travel to the planet marked with an X on the map.
Meanwhile, Henry, lonely and depressed without his family, travels to the end of the world, a bloated red sun reminiscent of Wells's The Time Machine. The trees have inherited the Earth but are not aware of their dominance. Henry talks to one of the trees, and although it can think and talk, the tree is senile and forgetful, another failure of evolution.
The star with the X is, of course, the Galactic Center where the family is reunited except for Henry. Corcoran will return to the twentieth century, and Boone will stay with Enid. Martin was dumped on Earth in the twenty-third century without a traveler, where the world is in a state of economic collapse, reverting to an agrarian life-style very similar to the Earth in City. Martin stumbles on the braincase of the killer robot and uses it to start a new religion that preaches finding one's true self and rejecting technology and materialistic progress, the attitude that eventually undermined the human race. At the Center, Timothy unearthed a copy of a document that mentions the formation of just such a religion founded on a "mysterious artifact."
All the crazy events and coincidences are the plans of the aliens Horseface and the Hat. Horseface, the last surviving member of his race, is a busybody who must meddle in the lives of other races, trying to help them develop their intelligence to their fullest capacities. He had preserved the family by letting them think they stole the secret of time travel from the Infinites. He manipulated events so that Boone would meet the family, for Boone's ability is the answer to the problems of the human race, an entirely new psychic talent. Perhaps the union of Enid and Boone will produce a new and tougher race, another giant step in human evolution. All the loose ends are tied up - except for returning Henry to the family and leaving the Hat to keep an eye on them.
Ewald, Robert J.: When the Fires Burn High and the Wind is from the North, p.127-131