Friday, August 3, 2018

Some of Clifford Simak's Short Fiction

Eternity Lost: The Collected Stories of Clifford D. Simak, Volume I, by Clifford D. Simak (Darkside Press, 0-9740589-4-7, $40, 3302pp, hc) 2005.

Clifford D. Simak was the third person named a Grand Master by SFWA, in 1976. He won Hugos for "The Big Front Yard" (1958), Way Station (1963), and "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" (1980) as well as a Nebula for "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" and an International Fantasy Award for City. So his credentials as a revered writer in the field are unchallengeable, and it can't be said that he was not acknowledged during his lifetime. But it seems to me that, as with some other writers of his generation, he is in danger of slowly drifting out of the consciousness of SF readers, especially newer readers. In particular his short fiction is difficult to find – the current marketplace being so strongly biased towards novels, in contrast to the situation for the first couple of decades of Simak's career.

Thus Darkside Press's project to bring Simak's short fiction into print is particularly welcome. (It should be noted that the same house has published or is planning collections of work by other, generally less prominent, writers of roughly the same generation: Cleve Cartmill, John Wyndham, and Daniel F. Galouye among others.) The Simak books are edited by SF bibliographer extraordinaire Phil Stephenson-Payne, with introductions by John Pelan and brief story notes by Stephenson-Payne. These books are limited edition hardcovers, nicely produced with black and white artwork by Allen Koszowski – a bit pricy, perhaps, but fine products. (Alas, the Simak project stopped after the second volume.)

Unusually, the Simak volumes do not present the stories in chronological order, nor in any particular thematic organization. Rather, each volume will apparently be a representative selection of his short stories from throughout his career. In Eternity Lost the earliest story is "Sunspot Purge" from 1940, while the latest is "The Observer" from 1972. There is even a Western, "Way for the Hangtown Rebel!", from 1945. That said, the bulk of the collection is from the 50s (7 of 12 stories) and from one magazine, Galaxy (6 stories).

Simak is known most of all as SF's leading pastoralist – he loved the countryside, and many of his best known works (including the award winners City, Way Station, and "The Big Front Yard") were to a considerable extent set in the country, at the same time unequivocally SF. In this collection only a few stories really fit that template – including the first three. "How-2" is a satirical piece about a future overtaken by the "do-it-yourself" spirit, which is then undermined when a "do-it-yourselfer" builds an experimental robot. "Founding Father" is a spooky story of an immortal's long journey to another star system, and the surprise awaiting him after his arrival. The setup is powerful and evocative, and the creepy ending is truly effective. In "Kindergarten", a man who has retired to a farm waiting his death from cancer finds a strange device on his land that seems to give everyone exactly what they want. Surely this is an alien device – but what do the aliens want in return? The answer is gently humanistic in the purest Simakian sense.

But there are some strikingly different stories. "Way for the Hangtown Rebel!" is one, of course, being a Western – not terribly interesting to my mind, though, as it seemed routine pulp Western work. "Sunspot Purge", the earliest story, is rather dated too in style of telling – a wisecracking journalist being the narrator. (To be sure, Simak was a newspaperman.) The story is distinguished mainly be the unexpectedly dark ending – it opens simply enough with a rash of suicides, possibly linked to the sunspot cycle, but it takes a different turn when the newspaperman is sent forward in time. "The Call From Beyond" is another very pulpy story, with the protagonist coming to an implausible Pluto, where he finds the remants of a research team thought dead, and the dangerous discovery they have made.

The most recent stories are "Buckets of Diamonds" (1969) and "The Observer" (1972). The first is another story told in a somewhat folksy idiom, with a small-town lawyer defending his wife's raffish Uncle after he is found with a pail of diamonds and an unaccountably valuable painting on his person. Of course these treasures are a hint to something SFnal going on – and again Simak's resolution is a bit unexpected. "The Observer" is a quiet story of the very far future – not particulary original but effective in its Simakian tone.

The other stories are a mixed bag. "The Answers" is another far future story, with an mixed species expedition encountering a long lost remnant of humanity that seems perhaps to have found "the answers" to the hard questions of existence. I admit I found the ending banal. "Jackpot" seems almost an inversion of "Kindergarten", as a ship of explorers looking for a big find on an alien planet comes across something quite remarkable – an alien installation, library or school. Can they make a profit on this? And is it good for humanity? "Carbon Copy" is another satiric piece, with an interesting central idea: a real estate agent is approached to lease houses at absurdly low prices. The gimmick is really pretty clever, though the resolution doesn't quite realize the idea's potential. And finally the title story, possibly the best story here (unless that is "Founding Father"), is a sharp tale of a Senator who has had his life extended for centuries. Life extension is sharply restricted, and he faces the loss of this privilege as his Party seems to have decided he is no longer electable. His reaction is a curious combination of desperation and unexpected moral courage – with a rather ironic result. I found the story quite thought-provoking, if not always believable.

Simak's Grand Master status was thoroughly deserved. This collection is a bit unexpected for an opening collection, however – it doesn't really feature any of his very best stories. It does display a strong writer working mostly at the middle of his range – the stories are quite enjoyable, thoughtful, often taking unexpected turns. Thus – a book much worth reading, and in a way it's refreshing to think that even better stories await.

1 comment:

  1. Luckily, the Open Road Media collections of Simak's stories came out. However, they've only published 10 of the 12 planned books. I've been able to snap up 7 of the 10 as bargain ebooks.