Visions of Paradise

Friday, April 02, 2010

Strangers in the Universe

My first favorite science fiction author was Clifford D. Simak. I discovered him on Christmas morning, 1963, in the January issue of Worlds of IF with a short story “The Shipshape Miracle.” The next day when I ran to the candy store to buy the February issue of Galaxy, he also had a novelette “Day of Truce.” A few months later Galaxy serialized his classic novel Way Station (under the title Here Gather the Stars).

Later that year I bought my first sf collection, Simak’s Strangers in the Universe, a brief book containing 7 stories which I have recalled fondly for nearly 50 years. As I mentioned last time, I recently decided to devote the next month or so to reading books by my favorite authors, so this was the first book I selected. It is not always wise to reread something which made such an impression on me when I was a teenager, but happily this book well-rewarded my rereading of it.

I love Simak’s approach to storytelling. Not a lot of action or violence, mostly people trying to figure out a mystery logically. Often the mystery is philosophical in nature. “Retrograde Evolution” is concerned with why an intelligent race of aliens deliberately abandoned their level 10 culture to regress to a level 14 culture. “Beachhead” deals with first contact with aliens who calmly tell the humans they will never leave that planet, but take no action to deter them.

Simak’s fiction has its share of villains, such as the two guides in “Mirage” who abandon an archaeologist in a brutal Martian desert to seek out ancient treasure. Some villains are merely misguided, as in “Target Generation,” when inhabitants of a generation ship have forgotten all about their centuries-long mission, and consider one man’s attempts to land the ship pure blasphemy which they fear will destroy them all.

The stories are always fascinating, usually gentle–Simak’s trademark–and invariably thought-provoking. They generally contain a satisfying resolution, even if it is not always a pleasant one. I cannot think of another sf author who so consistently combines speculation, thoughtfulness, and an overriding philosophy that goodness will generally overcome evil in the long run. If only the world was more of a Simakian one.

I can’t wait to start reading another of his anthologies.