Thursday, August 13, 2009

Clifford D. Simak

I've finished a collection of ten Clifford D. Simak short stories that I picked up at a local used bookstore. Simak was a science fiction author of approximately the same era as Asimov and Heinlein. He never quite broke into the top echelon of popular SF writers, but he's still reasonably well-known among fans of the genre, at least those who read widely. I'd never read him before picking up this collection, but his name was familiar to me.

On the cover of the paperback there is a beautiful painting of a spaceship landing in an alien desert. An immense rock formation rises in the background, topped with a futuristic metallic city of spires. It's a gorgeous scene, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with any of the short stories, most of which take place in Wisconsin.

"Madness from Mars" was published in 1939 and deals with the aftereffects of the first Earth spaceship to return from Mars (there were three previous ships to Mars, but they never came back). We learn in the third paragraph that it's a scientific impossibility to communicate by radio over interplanetary distances; this is treated as the same sort of obvious immutable physical fact as there being no air in space.

So it's only natural that people on Earth are mighty interested in what they're going to learn when the spaceship makes its triumphal landing in a Midwestern field. As he waits nervously, we hear Dr. Stephen Gilmer, director of the Interplanetary Communications Research Commission, exclaim between puffs on his cigar: "I hope they found something. This trip cost us a million bucks."

Wow. Sending a five-man spaceship to Mars and bringing it back to Earth costs one million dollars. Mr. Gilmer is right to be worried about his commission's enormous investment.

As it turns out, the five-man crew has murdered each other on the way back to Earth, and the only life form remaining on the ship is a captured Martian who resembles a large Tribble. Scientists converge to study the fluffy beast. Bloody carnage ensues.

Despite the opportunities for making snarky comments, I have to say the story's reasonably well-written, especially considering 1930s science fiction didn't exactly set the highest bar for literary excellence. The reveal of why horrific acts of violence follow the big furball around is well done and weirdly moving.

Despite the spaceship to Mars and the references to spaceflight between the Earth and the Moon having been routine for many decades, I got the distinct feeling that the story actually took place in 1939. Not some vague future as imagined from 1939, but 1939 itself. As if the first man on the moon in the story's internal chronology was a Victorian-era explorer who flew there in a Jules Verne-designed spacecraft in 1880.

"The Sitters" is the third story in the collection, and right there on page 57, for the first time in the book, a woman has a line of dialogue.

Now, I can't say this is entirely Mr. Simak's fault; in his genre, in that era, writers consistently forgot that humanity actually consists of two sexes. Most male SF writers of that era (which is almost synonymous with "most SF writers of that era") got better about it as the 20th century wore on. It's quite charming to read the original Foundation stories today and see the young Isaac Asimov very gradually come to realize he could write female characters, too.

That said, I feel like I ought to point out that I can't find a single compelling female character anywhere in the ten stories that make up this collection. Most Simak protagonists are fiercely independent male loners who keep even their closest acquaintances at a respectful distance. Women float in and out of their lives, but are essentially irrelevant.

"A Death in the House" is the quintessential Simak story, if this collection is a good representative sample of the man's career as a whole. An alien crashes its spaceship on the property of a crusty old Wisconsin farmer. The farmer attempts to nurse it back to health, but its injuries are too great; the alien dies. Determined to give it a proper burial, the farmer tries to have the alien corpse interred in a human cemetery, but he is rebuffed. So he gives the alien a simple burial on his own property. Word gets around, and curious folk start turning up asking questions; the farmer chases them off with a shotgun. A bizarre plant grows where the alien had been buried; a pod grows big, bursts open, and the alien pops out, fully regenerated. Farmer and alien, although they do not speak each others' language, work together to rebuild the spaceship; the farmer sacrifices greatly to help his new friend, and the alien repays him before leaving Earth behind forever.

"Final Gentleman" strikes me as two stories in one, somewhat uneasily combined. A well-known writer approaches retirement, and becomes aware that certain aspects of his life have been a delusion forced upon him in order that he may be the influential writer that the Powers That Be feel he must be, so as to set the proper societal ripples in motion. The Powers That Be turn out to be a massively powerful AI, and the creature that maintains it while disguised as an ordinary human.

I was attracted to the idea of a writer who had unconsciously reinvented himself so thoroughly that large swathes of his life story were utterly false. But the deception seemed unnecessarily elaborate. It's meant to be significant that the fancy car the protagonist drives is actually somewhat shabby, the fine restaurant where he usually dines is actually a run-down diner, and his upper-class apartment is actually rather run-down. But he really is a well-known and well-respected writer, and he really does count a powerful U.S. Senator as one of his close friends and confidants. Our hero could if he wanted to drive a genuinely luxurious car and live in fine comfort. Wouldn't it be easier for his manipulators to have him live in high style in Real Life, so less deception would be needed?

And when it's implied that the reason for the whole charade is so that a line our hero writes convinces the Senator that he should, indeed, take the job of Secretary of State at this critical moment in history... well, it seems like quite the Rube Goldberg plan.

"Day of Truce": Gangs of mischievous suburban children have become such a nuisance to property owners who want the damn kids off their lawn that there's been an arms race between the two sides that has led to self-respecting suburban homes becoming fortresses protected by electrified fences, moats, and lethal booby traps. The kids, for their part, employ catapults and bombs to break down the defenses. Deaths are common.

I was mildly surprised to see this story was published in 1963, which I always thought of as the waning end of the innocent "Leave it to Beaver" era of American suburbia. I need to learn to overcome such false impressions.

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