Visions of Paradise

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Clifford D. Simak

When I discovered science fiction through Worlds of IF and Galaxy magazines, the first author I really loved was Clifford D. Simak. His short story “The Shipshape Miracle” was the highlight of the first issue of Worlds of IF I read on Christmas Day, 1962, and the first few issues of Galaxy featured his novelette “Day of Truce” and his serial Here Gather the Stars, which was his finest novel, eventually winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel of 1963. If you have never heard of that novel, it is because the title was lost forever when its book publication bore the name Way Station.

Traditionally science fiction has taken the entire history of time and place as settings for its stories. Genre writers have explored prehistoric times, the far-future of planet Earth, distant galaxies, and alternate timelines. They have dealt with intergalactic wars, alien races of every conceivably shape and ancestry, other worlds ranging from super-heavy giants to immense rings to worlds that do not even consist of solid planets.

In spite of this vast potential field of exploration, or perhaps as a reaction to it, Clifford D. Simak has set many of his finest stories in rural Wisconsin in the middle of the twentieth century. While he emphasized traditional Midwestern values, his stories also contained much thought-provoking ideas about such philosophical concepts as the nature of humanity.

Simak started publishing in the early 1930s when the science fiction field was dominated by Hugo Gernsback's science-oriented Wonder Stories and Harry Bates' Astounding Stories. Disagreeing with the editorial philosophy of those magazines, Simak wrote a half-dozen undistinguished stories before retiring in 1932.

When John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding Stories in 1938, Simak resumed writing for him. He became one of the stalwarts of the “Golden Age,” reaching his peak with the cycle of “City” stories, a warm, gentle series about the future of human civilization.

In the 1950s, as Campbell's Astounding became moribund, Simak began writing regularly for H.L. Gold's Galaxy. His novel Time and Again (serialized as Time Quarry) is considered one of the prime reason's for the magazine's successful debut. Two years later Galaxy serialized his parallel-worlds novel Ring Around the Sun. In the 1960s appeared Here Gather the Stars and his playful 1968 Hugo nominee Goblin Reservation.

Although Simak published over two dozen stories in Galaxy in the 1950s, his most successful story of that decade was the Hugo-winning "The Big Front Yard", which was published in Astounding. It was one of the best Simak tales of rural folks encountering an alien world.

After 1959 Simak devoted more time to writing, producing less short fiction but approximately a novel a year. Unlike some writers who repeated themselves as they aged, Simak continued to produce major works in his latter years. The Goblin Reservation was a science fictional romp involving fantasy and mythological characters. A Choice of Gods was similar to City in its depiction of a depopulated future Earth, but it raised important philosophical questions, as did Project Pope and A Heritage of Stars, two major successes in the midst of a period when he also produced many light fantasy quest novels.

One of my personal fannish highlights, perhaps the highlight, was the 1971 Boston Worldcon where I was fortunate enough to meet and chat with Simak. He was every bit as warm and gentle and thoughtful in person as he was in his fiction.

It is a sad commentary on the state of contemporary publishing that none of Simak’s masterful novels, nor any collection of his short fiction, are currently available by major publishers. Recently Old Earth Books has published small-press editions of both Way Station and City. Any f&sf fan who has missed either of these works are strongly encouraged to buy both of them.


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