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.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Postscripts is an interesting semi-annual prozine by PS Publishing, who are better-known for the series of novellas they have released the past several years. The Summer 2005 issue (#4 overall) contains several strong stories:

> “Zima Blue,” by Alastair Reynolds, a far-future story of a famous artist seemingly obsessed with blank spaces of the color zima blue;

> “Beyond Mao,” a collaboration between Barry Malzberg & Paul DiFilippo about a Chinese expedition to Mars;

> “Master Lao and the Flying Horror,” a fantasy by Lawrence Person set in an alternate historical China;

> “The Cell,” a typically-weird Twilight Zonish story by Zoren Zivkovic, the first of a series of four novellas to be published in Postscripts.

This is a fine prozine, competitive in quality with Fantasy & Science Fiction, which is probably the best prozine currently being published regularly. The fact that Postscripts is only published twice-yearly makes it easier for me to keep up with than a nearly-monthly magazine such as F&SF, which I would like to subscribe to, since I like Gordon Van Gelder’s taste better than that of his predecessor Kristine Kathryn Rusch, but I cannot justify the huge time allotment involved. So I am very thankful for Postscripts, which I recommend highly.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Gorgon in the Cupboard

In some ways, my personal feelings to some of the different areas of the f&sf genre can be summarized by my reaction to two 2004 novellas, “The Concrete Jungle,” by Charles Stross, and “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” by Patricia McKillip. The former story was a fast-paced thriller involving crime, action, lots of techno-babble, and mostly unlikeable people barking at one another constantly. I really tried to read it–after all, it is the recent Hugo-winner–but I just have no interest in either technology or thrillers. The latter story is much gentler and slower-paced, without any crime or threats to anybody’s life. It intertwines two stories. One is about a struggling artist who has never “broken through,” partly because the painting which he felt would be his masterwork was never finished when its subject mysteriously ran away several years ago. The other story is about that former subject who is now a desperate runaway, alone and poor after her return to the city following the death of her family. One glorious scene of her and her fellow vagrants gathered beneath a butcher’s awning during a rainstorm was worth the entire story.

“Gorgon” was not a perfect story. I loved Jo, the poverty-stricken subject more than Harry, who often seemed more dilettante than true artist. And the story’s fantasy element, the “gorgon in the cupboard,” occasionally seemed more a distraction than a focal point of the story. But overall, this story contained people I was able to relate to, and feel empathy for, rather than Stross’ characters who seemed little more than spear-carriers for thrills and spills. Admittedly, this is largely my personal bias, but presumably I am not the only sf fan who prefers the gentler, thought-provoking corner of f&sf to the faster-paced “thrill a minute” corner of the field.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fictional Romance

Anthropological science fiction is one of my favorite sub-genres, and the creation of alien worlds by such writers as Ursula K Le Guin, C.J. Cherryh and early Michael Bishop includes some of my favorite sf ever. Another outstanding writer in this area is Eleanor Arneson, whose novels A Woman of the Iron People and Ring of Swords and her novelette from a few years ago “The Potter of Bones” were excellent examples of anthropological sf. “The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fictional Romance” is part of her ongoing examination of the Hwarhath people, furry, non-violent aliens whose men live primarily in space defending the planet from attack from humans with whom they have engaged in a long war, while the females stay behind and build the society. “The Garden” is the story of Akuin who is a gentle soul devoted to gardening and rejecting the male soldier society. The story is mostly filled with discussion more than action, much of it theoretical physics. In other hands this might have been boring or tedious, but Arneson makes it all interesting reading as it builds our knowledge of both the hwarhath people and their society. This story is recommended for those who enjoy slow, thoughtful culture-building.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

On The Lighter Side

Recently I received a handful of jokes that were sent to me by E.B. Frohvet, a reader of the print version of Visions of Paradise. Some of these jokes will eventually see print in the magazine’s humor page “On the Lighter Side.” Enjoy.

Two scientists are discussing their research into behavior modification.
“We’ve started something new,” says the first scientist. “For some of our more dangerous experiments, we’ve started using lawyers.”
“Lawyers?” says the second scientist. “We’ve always used rats before.”
“Well, you know how it is,” says the first scientist. “You get so attached to rats.”

Question: What is the difference between a dead snake lying in the road and a dead lawyer lying in the road?
Answer: There are skid marks in front of the snake.

Question: How can you tell when an elephant is getting ready to charge?
Answer: He takes out his credit card.

A tourist on safari in the Sahara Desert takes a wrong turn and becomes lost. After a long morning in the hot sun, he sees a man riding toward him on a donkey.
“Please help me!” the tourist says. “I’m dying of thirst.”
“I’m sorry,” says the stranger, “All I have are neckties.”
“Neckties?” cries the tourist. “I need water!”
“You seem like a nice man,” says the peddler ,“and because you’re suffering I’ll make you a special deal. I normally get $15.00 each for these ties, but I’ll let you have two for $25.”
The tourist walks away in disgust. Three hours later, staggering with exhaustion and dehydration, he sees an oasis. When he finally staggers there, he finds a man wearing a tuxedo standing under a palm tree.
“Please,” he asks, “Do you have any water?”
“Of course, sir,” the man in the tuxedo replies. “We have plenty of water.”
“Thank God! Where do I go to get some?” the tourist asks.
“The restaurant is right over there between those two trees, sir. Unfortunately, I can’t let you in without a tie.”

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sergeant Chip

The first story I read in Jonathan Strahan’s Science Fiction Book Club anthology Best Short Novels 2005 (which actually contained stories published in 2004) was perhaps the most acclaimed novella of the past year, Bradley Denton’s “Sergeant Chip.” That widespread acclaim raises high expectations in a reader’s head, especially since Denton has already had one of my selections for book-of-the-year in 1991 for Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede. And, let’s face it, how could I resist a story told from the point of view of a dog?

“Sergeant Chip” is a military k-9 involved in a mysterious war with his master to whom he is totally loyal. Denton does a good job of showing the personality and emotions of a dog as most people see them on a regular basis: loyal to his master, friendly whenever possible, but devoted to completing every assigned task as well as possible, cheered by kind words (such as good dog) and friendly pats on the head. We watch Chip train with his master, fight a very confusing war alongside him, and ultimately obey his master’s dying wishes to save and protect a family of innocent civilians.

My only problem with the story is that at heart it is a war story which really does not go beyond that very much. A great story must examine the human heart in some depth, or raise some important philosophical speculation, or have an important moral. “Sergeant Chip” examines the canine heart, but not greatly in-depth since even a trained dog is relatively simple-minded by human standards. It does not raise any important philosophical speculations or have any moral beyond showing that a good dog is always loyal to its master. So this is not the best novella of the year–even if no other novella is better, since a story must rise to a certain level to be considered great–but I really enjoyed reading it.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

New Folks' Home

Once the school year begins in September, my reading fades from its usual summertime torrent almost to a drizzle. As a result, I abandon novels entirely since it would take me too long reading them to really do them justice. Instead I read short fiction from a variety of sources, since I can at least hope to finish one story in a single sitting.

So for the next few weeks, I will discuss in this blog some of the short fiction I have read recently. Some of it is relatively new from such pages as Best Short Novels 2005, which actually contains novellas published in 2004, the latest issues of Postscripts and Paradox. But I will also discuss several stories from older collections and prozines on my shelf.

A few months ago in the pages of FAPA, Fred Lerner made the comment that “New Folks’ Home” is his favorite Clifford D. Simak story. I love Simak’s fiction, and have done so since I first discovered him in the pages of Worlds of IF and Galaxy Magazine forty years ago! In fact, he was my first favorite science fiction writer a few years before the onset of the “New Wave” brought with it the likes of Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, and Samuel R. Delany, which forever altered my reading taste. But I never lost my love for Simak’s pastoral sf, and my collection currently contains 18 Simak novels and 4 collections.

After Fred made his comment, I searched through the collections and found “New Folks’ Home” in The Best Science Fiction Stories of Clifford D. Simak, so I immediately read it.

“New Folks’ Home” is a story which might not have moved me as much when I first read it twenty years ago for personal reasons. Then I was in my thirties, both my sons were infants, and most of my life lay ahead of me. Now I am in my late fifties, my sons are both in college, and retirement is a definitely likelihood three-to-five years down the line. So this story of old age and death has much more personal resonance than it had when I first read it.

Two longtime friends have grown old. One is dying, while the other is taking what seems likely to be his last canoeing/fishing trip in a wilderness area they consider almost their private reserve. On the trip the protagonist spots a new house which was definitely not there during their last trip a few months earlier. When he sprains his ankle on a slippery section of the river, and a driving rain arises almost simultaneously, he cannot walk at all, and realizes he cannot possibly reach his car or drive to safety. So he crawls to the strange house seeking shelter.

Nobody is home, so he spends the night in what seems a suspiciously welcoming atmosphere. What follows is a mystery as he tries to determine who inhabits the house and why he seems so welcome there. This is typical Simak, so you understand halfway through the story that the ending is going to be both happy and thought-provoking, while all the events are a gentle rebuke to all those thriller/violent/action sf stories which sometimes seem to dominate a genre which deserves better. Long live Clifford D. Simak!