By Bud Webster
City Slickers, Country Bumpkins, Ants, Robots and Mutants. I Think That's Everybody . . . Oh Yeah, There's Goblins,
to Say Nothing of the Banshee.
Not a word of that reads as though it was written by an old-fashioned,
mid-western newspaperman, but it was. It may not be poetry, exactly, but as
prose it's effective as hell. It's to-the-point without being terse; it paints a
clear, if other-worldly picture; and it sets up the concept of the novel with a
minimum of what my old junior high English teacher used to call "Who shot
John." So I guess it is the writing of an
old-fashioned, mid-western newspaperman after all: Clifford Simak, to be
exact. When I was young, oh so much younger than today, I read my first Simak book:
City, in its original Ace edition. I was bowled over—quietly, gently, but bowled over anyway. I had never before
read a story about characters with my name. That sold me on the book, but the stories paid for themselves. Once I got
over the shock of seeing "Webster" in a book that wasn't about Daniel or Noah, I
leaned forward and began listening to the story Simak was telling me, and I was
hooked. Here was wonder, but not the thrilling wonder of vast galactic empires,
technological super-science or mile-long spaceships. This was wonder that could
have happened next door to me. You can't imagine how cool that is when you're
twelve. The Universe is impressive as hell, but next door is real. Simak wasn't all that interested in exploring the Universe, see. What he was
interested in was exploring Man. Not extraordinary men, either, just your
average Joe Lunchpail with everyday problems, like hyper-intelligent mutants and
ants who build their own civilizations. Oh, and talking dogs. Of
such elements are the stories which comprise the City
sequence made. There's more than that, of course; for all the simplicity of the
prose, Simak's stories aren't at all simple. What they are is bucolic. Where many, if not most, sf authors at the time
concentrated on urban yarns, placed either here or on other planets, Simak took
a page from his youth in small-town Wisconsin and saw the potential for setting
his fantastica among . . . folks. Mountain men, country folk, old-timers, and
farmers, and not a rube or redneck in the lot, except where it served the tale
he was telling. He might include a bumpkin or a village idiot now and then, but
there was a reason for their presence, usually a pivotal one. It's interesting to compare one pastoral fantasist with another: Ray
Bradbury was also a small-town mid-westerner, another stfnal scrivener whose
stories didn't depend on intricate descriptions of hardware, but it's hard to
imagine two more disparate writers. Although the work of both men seems
deceptively uncomplicated, Bradbury's prose is that of a poet (he did write
poetry extensively, and lovely stuff it is, too); Simak's is, as I indicated
above, journalistic—right down to the lack of contractions. That used to drive
me nuts when I was younger. So why are they so different, text-wise? Leaving aside the crass and obvious
fact that they're two very different people, there's one detail that might have
had a clear effect. Bradbury's family moved to Los Angeles when he was a young
teenager; Simak stayed in the middle all his life. Of course, that's not the
whole story, not by a long chalk, but it's a salient point nevertheless. Clifford Donald Simak was born in Millville, Wisconsin in the late
summer of 1904. He matriculated at the Madison campus of the University
of Wisconsin, got married at the age of twenty-five, and at thirty-five
he hooked up with the Minneapolis Star (which later merged with
the Minneapolis Tribune to become The Star-Tribune) ,
where he stayed for the next thirty-seven years until he retired from
the newspaper business. He didn't stop writing, though, just because he
stopped yelling "HOLD THE FRONT PAGE, I GOT A SCOOP!" on a daily
basis. His last novel, Highway of Eternity (Del Rey, 1986) was
published just two years before his death in 1988. His first story, "The World of the Red Sun," appeared in the December 1931
issue of Wonder Stories (edited by Hugo
Gernsback); Simak not only "sold" the story (Gernsback was notorious for not
paying for stuff unless threatened by a lawsuit, so I'm unsure if he saw a
check), but actually made the cover. That's pretty rare for a newbie. The story was good enough for Isaac Asimov to reprint in his first Before the Golden Age anthology (Doubleday
1974), and in his head-note has this to say:
It was a place
without a single feature of the space-time matrix that he knew. It was a place
where nothing yet had happened—an utter emptiness. There was neither light nor
dark: there was nothing here but emptiness. There had never been anything in
this place, nor was anything ever intended to occupy this place. —Time is the
Simplest Thing, 1961
During 1931 . . . I began to retell the stories I had
read . . . I well remember sitting at the curb in front of the junior high
school with anywhere from two to ten youngsters listening attentively . . .
[a]nd the specific story that I most vividly recall telling was "The World of
the Red Sun," by Clifford D. Simak . . . .
City Slickers, Country Bumpkins, Ants, Robots and Mutants. I Think That's Everybody . . . Oh Yeah, There's Goblins, to Say Nothing of the Banshee.
Not a word of that reads as though it was written by an old-fashioned, mid-western newspaperman, but it was. It may not be poetry, exactly, but as prose it's effective as hell. It's to-the-point without being terse; it paints a clear, if other-worldly picture; and it sets up the concept of the novel with a minimum of what my old junior high English teacher used to call "Who shot John."
So I guess it is the writing of an old-fashioned, mid-western newspaperman after all: Clifford Simak, to be exact.
When I was young, oh so much younger than today, I read my first Simak book: City, in its original Ace edition. I was bowled over—quietly, gently, but bowled over anyway. I had never before read a story about characters with my name.
That sold me on the book, but the stories paid for themselves. Once I got over the shock of seeing "Webster" in a book that wasn't about Daniel or Noah, I leaned forward and began listening to the story Simak was telling me, and I was hooked.
Here was wonder, but not the thrilling wonder of vast galactic empires, technological super-science or mile-long spaceships. This was wonder that could have happened next door to me. You can't imagine how cool that is when you're twelve. The Universe is impressive as hell, but next door is real.
Simak wasn't all that interested in exploring the Universe, see. What he was interested in was exploring Man. Not extraordinary men, either, just your average Joe Lunchpail with everyday problems, like hyper-intelligent mutants and ants who build their own civilizations. Oh, and talking dogs.
Of such elements are the stories which comprise the City sequence made. There's more than that, of course; for all the simplicity of the prose, Simak's stories aren't at all simple.
What they are is bucolic. Where many, if not most, sf authors at the time concentrated on urban yarns, placed either here or on other planets, Simak took a page from his youth in small-town Wisconsin and saw the potential for setting his fantastica among . . . folks. Mountain men, country folk, old-timers, and farmers, and not a rube or redneck in the lot, except where it served the tale he was telling. He might include a bumpkin or a village idiot now and then, but there was a reason for their presence, usually a pivotal one.
It's interesting to compare one pastoral fantasist with another: Ray Bradbury was also a small-town mid-westerner, another stfnal scrivener whose stories didn't depend on intricate descriptions of hardware, but it's hard to imagine two more disparate writers. Although the work of both men seems deceptively uncomplicated, Bradbury's prose is that of a poet (he did write poetry extensively, and lovely stuff it is, too); Simak's is, as I indicated above, journalistic—right down to the lack of contractions. That used to drive me nuts when I was younger.
So why are they so different, text-wise? Leaving aside the crass and obvious fact that they're two very different people, there's one detail that might have had a clear effect. Bradbury's family moved to Los Angeles when he was a young teenager; Simak stayed in the middle all his life. Of course, that's not the whole story, not by a long chalk, but it's a salient point nevertheless.
Clifford Donald Simak was born in Millville, Wisconsin in the late summer of 1904. He matriculated at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin, got married at the age of twenty-five, and at thirty-five he hooked up with the Minneapolis Star (which later merged with the Minneapolis Tribune to become The Star-Tribune) , where he stayed for the next thirty-seven years until he retired from the newspaper business. He didn't stop writing, though, just because he stopped yelling "HOLD THE FRONT PAGE, I GOT A SCOOP!" on a daily basis. His last novel, Highway of Eternity (Del Rey, 1986) was published just two years before his death in 1988.
His first story, "The World of the Red Sun," appeared in the December 1931 issue of Wonder Stories (edited by Hugo Gernsback); Simak not only "sold" the story (Gernsback was notorious for not paying for stuff unless threatened by a lawsuit, so I'm unsure if he saw a check), but actually made the cover. That's pretty rare for a newbie.
The story was good enough for Isaac Asimov to reprint in his first Before the Golden Age anthology (Doubleday 1974), and in his head-note has this to say:
Considering the radio programs and movies around in the early '30s that Asimov could have been rapping to his peeps, that's pretty high praise.
Nevertheless, although this story was his first appearance, it was not the first one accepted. According to Sam Moskowitz in Seekers of Tomorrow (World Publishing, 1965) Simak's first story, "The Cubes of Ganymede," was submitted to T. O'Connor Sloane at Amazing. Sloane kept it for two years before accepting it (without payment); its subsequent publication was announced in the fan press, but another three years would pass without the story seeing print before Sloane ultimately rejected it, citing changes in sf trends. The story has never been published, and is assumed to be lost.
I looked into this as best I could with all the principals in the ground, and there's nothing to say that this isn't the gospel truth. Author, editor and all-around stfnally brilliant guy Robert Silverberg remarked:
Sloane was legendary for his slowness to read and then to publish and finally to pay for stories. The writers of the Thirties nicknamed him "T. Oh Come On Slow One." So the Simak tale is probably true . . .
And, of course, once I elicited a quote from the inestimable AgBerg, I find final confirmation from Simak himself in an interview with the equally inestimable Darrell Schweitzer published in the February, 1980 Amazing:
I sold my first story, but it was never published because Amazing sent it back after holding it for five years and said it was somewhat outdated.
So that, he said as he symbolically wiped the dust off his hands in clichéd dismissal, would seem to be that. Simak does sort of indicate above that he was paid, but he may just have been feeling kind.
Of course, the field is rife with horror stories about editors who hold on to stories without paying for, publishing or rejecting them, but Sloane was apparently their patron saint. So my money is on SaM this time around.
Traumatic as hell, and lesser man might have given up the whole thing as a bad job, never again writing for the vagaries of pulp editors. And, well, Simak did, at least for a few years. His only appearance between 1932's "The Asteroid of Gold" (November Wonder Stories) and 1938's "Rule 18" (his second sale to Astounding, for the July issue) was the publication of "The Creator," a novelette which ran in the September, 1935 Marvel Tales,[i] and that may have been sold a good deal earlier.
"The Creator" was a what-the-hell story, an item that Simak almost certainly intended as a "so long and thank you very little" gesture. The pulps hadn't been terribly good to him, let's face it, and by and large they weren't whatcha call yer great literature. A good deal of what was published by the editors was, frankly, filler. There might be a couple or three good yarns in any given issue, but a lot of the rest was cranked out by pro hacks in an afternoon, more or less. Editors had to fill pages to keep both their readers and their advertisers happy, and many of them (at the time, anyway) were convinced that their readers wouldn't know schlock from Shinola if it leapt up and gnawed them on the fundament.
This wasn't a very heartening prospect for a young and eager wordsmith determined to be a good writer, and so, secure in the knowledge that he had a day-job, Simak sat down and pounded out his stfnal fare-thee-well.
Only it didn't end up being that. This was the Thirties, see, and stories which questioned the very existence of the Judeo-Christian God were, shall we say, uncommon. It managed to blow a lot of minds (not to mention honking a lot of people off) even though Crawford's little semi-pro magazine didn't have a circulation above a few hundred. C'mon, this is a story that states categorically that the Universe wasn't created by God, but by Some Other Guy. A really big Some Other Guy, but not the old white man with the long flowing beard and robes that Michelangelo painted on that ceiling.
The story's influence wasn't just felt among the seated-on-the-subway readers, but also by a young fan who would make a name for himself (in more than one way), namely Lester del Rey[ii]. Moskowitz says:
. . . [I]n the efforts of his relatively more mature years no influence is as evident as that of Clifford D. Simak, who made an enduring impression on del Rey with "The Creator" . . . in which the universe is said to be the experiment of a creator of macrocosmic size rather than the handiwork of God.
No argument; if nothing else, that influence can be seen in one of del Rey's finest stories, "For I Am a Jealous People!", published in Pohl's Star Short Novels (Ballantine 1954), a good two decades after the daring Simak.
You may ask why I'm spending so much time and wordage on what is, after all, an early short story. There are a couple of reasons, aside from the fact that despite its place in the Simakian chronology it's still a pretty good read. The first is what I alluded to above when I called it "his stfnal fare-thee-well."
When someone creative is waving goodbye to an arena in which they'd hoped to work, especially after the experience Simak had, the temptation is to pull out all the stops and write a "Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor" instead of just another pedestrian prelude. In a very real way, this is what Simak did, throwing caution to the wind and tackling a subject nobody else had, at least not in the American pulps. It was so much a "dangerous vision," in fact, that fandom—both organized and casual—was still arguing about it ten years later. Not a lot, perhaps, but enough that Crawford was willing to issue that 500-copy chapbook.
The second reason is the clear indication that "The Creator" didn't just influence Lester Alvarez Et Cetera del Rey; it influenced Clifford Donald Simak as well. Religion is a theme he would return to a number of times in his career, always with the interest any good newsman would show an important and absorbing subject, but without the presumption that he knew The Answer. Frankly, I think his story-sense would have suffered from a strong commitment one way or the other, as it would have limited his ability to address more far-ranging religious concepts. Like our universe having been created by Some Other Guy.
It was also his first book—or, more technically, his first separate publication. Although it was a very short run, as things go, it was something other than a cheap pulp copy or tear-sheets for him to hold, and that means something.
So, why did Simak stay? Why didn't he, as planned, turn his writerly energies back to covering local/regional news for a large daily? Because something—and someone—very important happened around the time he was watching Science Fiction recede in his rear-view: John W. Campbell took over the reins of Street & Smith's stfnal flagship, Astounding, and all of a sudden not only was the door opened wider to newer and more controversial[iii] subject matter, but there was finally a sf pulp editor who cared how good the stories were as stories. That's why.
Of course, there had been editors around who wanted good, literate stories from their writers, and who knew that their readers wouldn't be satisfied with less. Donald Kennicott of Blue Book, for one, bought stories from such high-quality authors as Nelson Bond, Philip Wylie, Booth Tarkington, and some guy named Heinlein; Farnsworth Wright and Dorothy McIlwraith kept Weird Tales from descending into a third-rate Terror Tales; and over on the other side of the Big Drink, the tenures of Newman Flower and Clarence Winchester at the helm of the UK's Story-Teller saw the publication of such low-brows as Chesterton, Hodgson, Wells and Kipling.[iv]
However, periodicals, whether slick or pulp, were never intended to have permanence; as a rule, even the longer stories the pulpsters wrote ended up in their readers' trash cans (with a few exceptions, of course). The major houses flat out refused to believe that there was a market for science fiction between hard covers, and the mass market paperback was still a decade away. There were a few collections and anthologies, but book publication was almost the sole property of the fan-presses (Arkham House, most notably, although there were others) until the end of WWII.
Simak himself didn't see hardcover book publication until Gnome Press brought out Cosmic Engineers in its second year, 1950. Originally serialized in Campbell's Astounding in early 1939, it's . . . well, it's a product of its time, is what it is. Don't get me wrong, it's perfectly readable even today, but as is the case with a lot of pulp writing, the dialogue is a bit dated. Not on the level of "Say, what kind of mug are you, gettin' all sappy over some dame?", perhaps, but dated it is.
The story itself has echoes of Doc Smith and Edmond Hamilton; it seems that two universes—one of them ours—are on a collision course, and we have to work with some of the inhabitants of the other one to avoid said celestial fender-bender. It's a first novel, no doubt about it, and sentimental as I am about it, I wouldn't recommend it as a Simakian starting place. However, there was far better to come, and plenty of it.
Mr. Simak, I realize that you have done almost everything in newspaper work from printer's devil to publisher . . . but I know also that you have spent much of the past half century either on the beat, in the slot, or on the rim—then have gone home and written highly effective fiction that same day. How did you do it? —Robert Heinlein, in a letter congratulating Simak on being named SFWA's 1977 Grand Master
Heinlein goes on to say that the question is rhetorical: ". . . I would be incapable of understanding the answer and would continue to be amazed."
Simak was the third recipient of SFWA's Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, following after Jack Williamson in 1976 and Heinlein himself in '75. He won his share of other awards as well: the 1953 International Fantasy Award for City; Hugos in 1959 (for his novelette "The Big Front Yard"), 1964 (for his novel Way Station), and 1981 (for "Grotto of the Dancing Deer," which incidentally also won the Nebula, Locus and AnLab Awards for Best Short Story); and three or four other ones including the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award in '88 along with Fritz Leiber and Frank Belknap Long.
Think about that for a minute. The Horror Writers of America (HWA), who give out the Stokers, define the Lifetime award as "Presented periodically to an individual whose work has substantially influenced the horror genre." Note the other two recipients that year, Leiber and Long, both fine writers of fantasy, both dark and not. Simak, though?
It's not simple, as befits a deceptively intricate writer. Although Simak is known for his rural characters and settings, there's more there than meets the stfnal eye. Author, editor and critic Barry Malzberg (who penned the introduction for the Simak collection Physician to the Universe) says:
Simak had an odd, tormented streak; try "Second Childhood" . . . from early Galaxy. Why Call Them Back From Heaven? is a quasi-zombie novel. Simak is now mislabeled as a gentle pastoralist, the codgers' farmer in the dell, but take another look.
That's Simak's rep all right, and in the main it's accurate enough. Look, though, at just the titles of many of his novels and stories: They Walked Like Men, The Werewolf Principle, Cemetery World; "Hellhounds of the Cosmos," "Bathe Your Bearings in Blood!", "A Death in the House," "The Thing in the Stone." Any of those could have been titles written by one of the Lovecraft Circle.
As for the stories themselves, yeah, Simak had his dark side and no mistake. One of my favorites, an obscure little tale originally published in the March '41 Astounding as "Masquerade" and subsequently reprinted by Donald Wollheim as "Operation Mercury" in the Tales of Outer Space side of his only Ace Double double anthology[v] (if you'll excuse the necessary clumsiness), concerns two races alien to each other—humans and Mercurians—who would like to find a basis of cooperation, but can't. There's no great conflict, no hatred, but neither is there any foundation for friendship. The story, aside from a scene where the energy-based Mercurians dance wildly to the bluegrass fiddling of a human crewman called "Old Creepy," is melancholy, almost tragic. It might not seem so in the colder light of 2011, but seventy years ago this was pretty dark—especially for ASF[vi].
For that matter, read his 1951 story, "Good Night, Mr. James" (also published as "Night of the Puudly" in the UK and adapted—badly—as an episode of The Outer Limits titled "The Duplicate Man"). This is a profoundly human story, far darker and more layered than "Masquerade." It involves an illegal clone, a vicious and intelligent alien called a puudly, and a tragic case of mistaken identity. There's no Yankee trader ready to take advantage of vacationing out-of-towners here, no hillbillies, just the quiet devastation of a human life. Twice.
Even the darkness, though, is tinged with compassion. There is a scene in Goblin Reservation in which the viewpoint character, Peter Maxwell, makes an unpleasant choice based to a large degree on practicality, but also out of a sense of the right thing to do, the Human thing to do. One of the few banshees left in the world is dying, alone and despised. Out of duty, others are holding a wake, but no one but Maxwell will simply sit with it as it dies, company in its last moments:
He walked slowly across the intervening space and stopped a few feet from the tree. The black cloud moved restlessly, like a cloud of slowly roiling smoke.
"You are the Banshee?" Maxwell asked the tree.
"You've come too late," the Banshee said, "if you wish to talk with me."
"I did not come to talk," said Maxwell. "I came to sit with you."
"Sit then," the Banshee said. "It will not be for long. . . .The others did not come," the Banshee said. "I thought, at first, they might. For a moment I thought they might forget and come. There need be no distinction among us now. We stand as one, all beaten to the selfsame level. But the old conventions are not broken yet. The old-time customs hold."
"I talked with the goblins," Maxwell told him. "They hold a wake for you. The O'Toole is grieving and drinking to blunt the edge of grief."
"You are not of my people," the Banshee said. "You intrude upon me. Yet you say you come to sit with me. How does it happen that you do this?"
Maxwell lied. He could do nothing else. He could not, he told himself, tell this dying thing he had come for information.
It would have been perfectly easy for Maxwell to pretend to care for this dying entity, or to reflect its own abhorrence of the human race; it wouldn't have cared, and nobody else was around to see. But no, despite his primary reason for being there (read the book to find out, you will not regret it), he still could not bring himself to effectively slap the banshee across its face. That might be the human thing to do, but it wouldn't be Human.
Let me elaborate on that, with your kind indulgence. From a purely practical standpoint, Maxwell would be justified in asking the dying thing (it's an alien, not a Terran creature of the fantastic) what it knows about the novel's Mysteries, including how his Other Self had died. He goes there, in fact, with that intention in mind and is frustrated by the creature's unwillingness to give him the answers he needs. No one would have been angry; no one would have blamed him had he tried to somehow force the banshee to tell him.
He doesn't, though. Instead, he asks the entity if there's anything he can do to make its passing easier, and as it becomes more talkative, tells it "You should conserve your strength." There's no badgering, no harrying of the dying energy-being, not even anger until, with its last "breath," it becomes recalcitrant and refuses to tell him anything. Instead, he sits with it as any human might sit with a dying stranger; so that even the most inhuman, unlikeable life form, one with no emotional connection with (and nothing but a mild contempt for) Humanity would not have to die alone and ignored.
That simple gesture of compassion is a touchstone of Simak's perception of what Mankind means, and the scene one of his most eloquent expressions of how a good man responds to the Darkness surrounding him.
You know something? I'm almost 4000 words into a column that generally runs no more than 2200, and I am nowhere near being done talking about this writer. Not only that, but I have another seven pages of bibliography to present you.
You guys know me by now, and you know I can wax as loquacious as the next guy (assuming the next guy is as long-winded as I am), but Simak (not pronounced "SY-mak" as I said it as a kid, or even "Sih-mak" as I have since then, but "SIH-mik") was quite a significant influence on my own fiction, and I've read and enjoyed almost all of his books and stories. I hope I can pass along at least some of my enthusiasm to you, the readers, but in any case please bear with me; I'll take a look at a couple more of my favorites and then return you to your regular pursuits.
A million years ago there had been no river here and in a million years to come there might be no river—but in a million years from now there would be, if not Man, at least a caring thing. And that was the secret of the universe, Enoch told himself—a thing that went on caring. (From Way Station)
Not many writers are capable of summing up Humanity and its place in the cosmos. Many try throughout their careers to do so, devoting reams of paper to the task, always falling short. Poets, novelists, playwrights, essayists; all have done their level best to define the Human Condition, seeking and creating complexities, looking in the darkest corners of their souls to find the one identifying characteristic that separates Man from, say, Plant.
Clifford Simak did it in fewer than sixty words. That's what.
Way Station is Simak at his best, combining that pastoral gentility he's so well known for with a subtle, but deep-rooted melancholia that makes Ray Bradbury look a little like Ohio Express[vii] lyrics.
Enoch Wallace didn't die in the War Between the States. Instead, he was chosen by aliens to tend the Terran depot of an intergalactic transport system, which has remained hidden from prying Terran eyes until now, when the Gummint notices that he's still, y'know, alive, which makes them curious. This is made worse when the body of an alien is disinterred by a Gummint man. There were already plenty of questions being asked—you can't be 100+ years old and not attract some attention—and things get a little uncomfortable.
Wallace is something of a loner, as are many of Simak's people. Not entirely, but since he's more than a century old, that kinda precludes his palling around with the local bowling team. He does have some "human" companions, but are they ghosts? They may as well be, but actually they're projections of long-dead friends who eventually leave him. The locals are more protective of him than suspicious, but his loneliness is a necessary adjunct of his "job." His best friend, in fact, is Ulysses, the alien who recruited him to begin with. There is a girl though; mute, deaf, and possessed of certain . . . talents, she is the only one of her redneck family who wouldn't sell the other members for a jug o' moonshine.
The crisis (all good stories have some kind of crisis, or they ain't stories) comes when Wallace, an intelligent man with access to other-worldly science, determines irrefutably that Earth is headed for an unavoidable atomic conflagration. The ultimate outcome is . . . but no, that would be telling.
Artificial longevity, aliens, intergalactic teleportation, and there's even some virtual reality (a la Bradbury's "The Veldt") as well. Those are the science fictional elements, and most any of Simak's contemporaries could have woven a pretty good yarn from them. Hell, Asimov alone could have kicked it out of the park.
Trouble is that Asimov, however erudite and visionary, had a tendency to create thin, almost wooden characters. In a very real way, his people were there to handle the hardware, to hold it up in front of the reader and (in effect) say, "See? Isn't this cool?"?
Simak was never satisfied with just the technology. For him, that meant nothing without the human component. He was a rara avis in the world of Science Fiction, at least for his time—an author for whom Character was just as important as Idea. There are lots and lots of ideas out there to be marveled at, believe me: time dilation and relativity, artificial intelligence, alien-human compatibility, magic rings/swords/books, smart-alecky kids who do wizardry, and so on.
Good fiction, though, demands a story not just about hardware or weird beasties but how those concepts affect—and are affected by—humans. Just plain folks. That's what Simak excelled at. Don't get me wrong; you can't take the fantastical element out of his stories without losing the humanity, too.Way Station would fall apart without the artificial longevity, aliens, intergalactic teleportation and so on against which Simak cast his characters, no doubt about it, but at the same time without the people there would be little for the hardware to do.
This really is rarer than you might think. There are plenty of sf writers who are, as we say, idea driven, and more than a few who are character driven. Those who can do both at the same time, seamlessly, are exceptional. Simak leads that pack, in mine own (not-so-) humble opinion.
There's more to it, although for almost anyone else that would be plenty. Simak's stories, long- or short-form, are laced with wit. Not just humor, for all that there's plenty of it to be found (there's something really comical, if slightly surreal, about Mercurian energy beings frenetically square-dancing to Old Creepy's fiddlin'), but wit; i.e., skill at engaging the reader and giving his characters depth and breadth. He doesn't resort to giving them funny hats like so many others do, but instead creates richness and intensity that elevates him away from the level of mere pulp.
In Goblin Reservation (Putnam 1968), for example, he gives us a well-educated Neanderthal named Alley-Oop, alien bad guys who run around on wheels instead of feet, an android saber-tooth, William Shakespeare in the flesh, and a ghost (just called Ghost) with whom the late playwright pals around. Ghost knows he's a ghost, but doesn't remember just whom he is a ghost of. You get the idea. Well into the story, Ghost suddenly recalls that he is the spirit of . . . Willy the Shake, himself. Both of them are more than a little freaked out, understandably, and take off running and screaming.
It's not over yet, however. During the magnificent dénouement of this wonder-filled book, when superb chaos reigns and the truly magical egg is hatching, we see Shakespeare and his own ghost, reconciled and again friends, dancing together in a moment of pure enchantment. My god, what a book this is.
[W]hat I recall is meeting Cliff Simak [at Chicon II, the 1952 world convention] . . . There, sitting with him in a Chicago hotel room, sipping a little good whiskey and talking about ourselves and our worlds, I really got to know and love him. The writers of good science fiction are nearly always bright and interesting and likable, but Cliff has a genuine humanity, something calmly wise and warm that is all his own.
No less a stfnal personage than Jack Williamson wrote that about our subject in his memoir, Wonder's Child: My Life in Science Fiction (Bluejay 1984), and I think it sums up Simak's gift elegantly. "Calmly wise and warm" isn't just a richly-deserved paean but a goal, a challenge.
From a personal perspective, I can cite Clifford D. Simak as a major influence on my own writing. Without "The Big Front Yard" and "Idiot's Crusade" (among others) there would be no Gentleman Mechanic from Central Garage, Virginia, no hobos in space, and precious little else of a fictional nature from Yours Truly. One of the great disappointments of my life is that I was never able to find a copy of the first edition of City (which is, after all, a history of the Webster family) for him to sign.
Still, the legacy he left for me and countless other reader/writers in the field is for all practical purposes incalculable. One of the greatest compliments I've ever been paid as a bookseller was when a young college-aged customer returned to my table this past year at a local convention and said, "Last year you suggested I buy Way Station. I'll buy anything else you suggest." I take only a small part of the credit for that, much as it made me beam for a couple of hours. The calmly wise and warm Clifford Simak deserves it all. I'll give the last word to a critic and commentator far more articulate than I, Barry Malzberg, himself a humanist of great warmth and skill:
Simak's work is already buried, but he knew that was inevitable and all of it is informed by wonder in the face of oblivion. What a great writer and more importantly: what a good man.
[i] William Crawford, the editor of Marvel Tales, would reprint the story as a 500-copy chapbook in 1946. It would see another chapbook publication 35 years later when Simak was the guest of honor at the 39th World Science Fiction Convention in Denver, with appreciations by Heinlein, Asimov, Williamson and Pohl added.
[ii] For years, del Rey claimed that his name was "Ramon Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Harcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez del Rey y de los Uerdes" or some combination of the foregoing. His real name was, in fact, Leonard Knapp. Why did he insist on that long string, or even the short-form? The quick answer is "Wouldn't you?", but the reality has more to do with a young man's desire to stand out from all the other faans, a desire I can fully understand and with which I can certainly sympathize.
[iii] Leaving aside sexuality, of course, and allow me to dispel a myth of very long standing. It turns out that no matter how much Campbell may have blamed his assistant, Kay Tarrant, for his refusal to allow hubba-hubba references in Astounding, it has become clear that it was Campbell himself who was the "prude" and not Ms. Tarrant. That she was willing to accept the blame for his own puritanical predilections is an indication of how much respect and affection she had for the old (non)goat.
[iv] I've never cared much for Kipling, but to be honest I've never really Kippled that much. HAH! Oh, come on, you had to know I was going there.
[v] D-73, to be exact; the other side was Adventures in the Far Future. I've written about this little gem in detail in my "D-73—A (Sp)Ace Oddity" column, which is reprinted in the collection of those columns, Anthopology 101: Reflections, Inspections and Dissections of SF Anthologies, available from The Merry Blacksmith Press. Just so you'll know. Ahem.
[vi] Not all Astounding stories are upbeat adventures about human smart/tough-guys outsmarting hide-bound aliens, much as many people (including myself) tend to believe so. Campbell responded to darkness as well, as he proved only too well with Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" among others. A good story is a good story, regardless of tone.
[vii] They recorded "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" back in 1968, the same year Frank Zappa released his Sgt. Pepper parody, We're Only In It for the Money. Rock 'n' roll is funny.
(As usual, the bibliography below is as complete as I can make it, and I welcome additions and corrections. For Novels and Collections, "hc" designates hardcover and "pb", paperback. UK editions are listed in a similar fashion. My thanks to Phil Stephensen-Payne and Scott Henderson for their expert help in compiling this monster.)
In addition to the two listings just above, there have been multiple publications of those few Simak stories which have fallen into the public domain, too numerous to mention here. Regardless of the quality of the various bindings and cover designs, the material remains well above average and the reader should not reject those publications out of hand. After all, one eats the sandwich, not the wrapper.
Fiction and Non-Fiction Anthologies