The Worlds of Clifford Simak: Twelve Science Fiction Stories: A Review

Clifford D. Simak was both an American journalist and a writer of science fiction novels and short stories. His stories are often set in the American Middle West, specifically in the state of Wisconsin, a landscape in his day mostly of small towns and small farms (much as it is down to the present day, inplaces), with streams for fishing and long country roads down which mystery and alien wonder could always lurk. 

The Worlds of Clifford Simak (Book Club Edition), Simon and Schuster, 1960

Short stories were often an early method to quickly get your work before the reading public, and with the proliferation of science fiction magazines from the 1930s through to Simak’s death in 1988, and their wide-ranging content, there was never a shortage of venues in which to publish, once a writer had begun to build a following. For some authors (Ray Bradbury comes to mind), short stories were a way to tell a series of stories in either the same setting, as in The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man, or in a variety of permutations, as in Dark Carnival or it’s pseudo-revised edition, The October Country. In Simak’s canon, similar analogues are present: City is a series of connected narratives, while more often, Simak’s stories filled volumes like the present collection, The Worlds of Clifford Simak, from 1960.

A good short story writer doesn’t always make a good novelist: Sherwood Anderson’s most enduring work is the connected narrative volume of Winesburg, Ohio, while his contemporary Sinclair Lewis favoured the long single narrative (sometimes with varying degrees of success), but could still turn out a fascinating short story when he set his mind to it (qv. I’m A Stranger Here Myself). So it is with Simak: in a way, his journalistic style seems to support a story of fifty or so pages much better than a novel of two hundred – somewhere along the way, Simak’s novels sometimes seem to just *end*, rather than to reach a resolution that doesn’t feel altogether too pat, too rushed. I’ve made this note to myself and on this blog more than once before, although ever time I pick up another novel that I have yet to read, I hope for it to go better.

There are recurring themes in Simak’s science fiction. For example, in Simak’s novels, the prototypical ‘quest’ story appears more than once, sometimes with a fantasy twist, others in more of a straight science fiction vein. Robots are also frequent characters, and sometimes even protagonists. And Simak was clearly fond of dogs – they also turn up a lot, in various roles.

Clifford D. Simak, circa 1960, pictured with Hugo, the rocket-shaped award for science fiction writing.

A collection of Simak’s short stories, therefore, might be expected to fare better on first reading than his novels, and are generally closer to his ideal form. And in The Worlds of Clifford Simak there are a couple that are quite compelling. Originally published between 1954 and 1958 in outlets like Astounding Science Fiction, Galaxy Magazine, and Infinity Science Fiction, these are stories, some of them long-form, which come from the hey-day of the monthly science fiction magazine, when the form was still in many ways fresh and new. There is some good fun here, and stories that only occasionally seem to go on too long. Twists sometimes occur when it feels like an idea is over-stretched, and nothing is ever really far from that sense of magical realism that Simak did so well. 

The collection opens with “Dusty Zebra”, in which a man finds a mysterious object on his desk and inadvertently begins an exchange of objects with an unknown intelligence. In “Honorable Opponent”, a human war with an extraterrestrial enemy comes to an unusual conclusion. “Carbon Copy” details the mother of all real estate schemes, if those schemes involved selling the same houses through a rotating series of dimensional doorways, with curious consequences. “Idiot’s Crusade” finds a man thought of as the ‘village idiot’ to have merged with an extraterrestrial intelligence which gives him extraordinary insight and surprising powers… powers which he will begin to put to use with alarming results. Based on my descriptions, which I’ve tried to leave spoiler-free, a pattern begins to emerge. The ‘hook’ of a Simak tale is often the story that is left untold, *after* the tale itself ends. 

In “The Big Front Yard”, Hiram Taine and his dog, Towser, inadvertently find that Taine’s house has been opened by mysterious alien builders as a portal into another another world, allowing him to pass into an alien landscape – this is generally considered to be one of Simak’s best stories, and it is certainly one of the best in the collection. “Operation Stinky” (Editor’s note: we all have words that we don’t like, for whatever reason, and ‘stink’ and its diminuitives is high on my list of all-time least favourites), an old derelict called Asa Bayles meets an unusual skunk-like creature, which seems to have powers over mechanical objects. As in “The Big Front Yard”, the military becomes involved, with unforseeable consequences. In “Jackpot”, the unsavoury crew of a salvage (or “scavenger”) starship encounter an alien university from which they intend to make obscene profits, only to fall foul of a simple course on ethics… In “Death Scene”, a secret weapon of sorts has been deployed which allows everyone to see 24 hours into the future, with the unintended side benefit that people are allowed 24 hours to prepare for their deaths… “Green Thumb”, on the other hand (pun? – ha!) tells something of the same tale as “Operation Stinky” (ugh, that word again), except this time substituting a sentient extraterrestrial plant with whom the protagonist communes. In “Lulu”, the dangers of “artificial intelligence” are explored decades before AI became a term, never mind the crux of a plot for countless “beware robot sentience” movies and knock-offs, and a full decade before the film of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lulu, the ship which keeps three human explorers safe from harm, controlled by a central computer, begins to develop feelings for the humans, but when spurned by them transfers her affections… elsewhere. The final tale of the collection, “Neighbor”, is also quite satisfying, a story of strangers who come to a remote town and integrate into the community, only for the locals to find that strangers who come to investigate the newcomers find themselves unable to leave… there are echoes, to my reading, of Simak’s 1972 novel A Choice of Gods in this one, although the parallels are obscure. 

What is striking about most the stories in The Worlds of Clifford Simak is how the common, the ordinary, always sets the stage as a prelude for something peculiar, extraordinary, or exciting. It is a tried and true method of storytelling, to take the reader from something comfortable and familiar, to lull them into agreement, and then, without so much as a by-your-leave, to turn the world on its head. This is a trick that Simak pulls time and again, and once you fall into the rhythm of his stories, it works nearly every time.

Simak’s stories combine certain themes familiar to science fiction writers of the 1950s and ’60s with his own curiously pastoral take on how a story should be written. I would say that it’s an unapologetic stance, but there never appears to be a conflict with regard to other modes of storytelling: Simak merely “did his own thing”, as the kids say. Despite my criticisms of his story structure, I enjoy his writing, and looks forward to getting through all of the novels that I haven’t read yet. If you want a tale that is a full about-turn from the cyber-enhanced, war-mongering urban/space hell-scape that seems to dominate popular science fiction presently, give Clifford Simak’s stories and novels a try. They won’t be to everyone’s taste, but they may help you to look at the commonplace and the everyday in a slightly different light, perhaps even as the gateway to something extraordinary. Four stars.

About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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