In the 178-page photobook The Faces of Science Fiction (St. Martin’s Press, 1984), now on Archive.org, I was pleased to see Clifford D. Simak. This Patti Perret portrait is exactly how I would have expected Simak to look, sans blue denim overalls and Casey Jones railroader cap, and is so much better than than the usual grimacing Wikipedia image…
When photographed he was likely working on his late dark fantasy novel Where Evil Dwells (1982), in which the Roman Empire “never quite fell” but humanity got side-swiped instead by the arrival of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods. The Elder Gods being only slightly disguised, to avoid The Wrath of Derleth. One suspects he’d got the general idea for that while reading the 1976 paperback of Lovecraft: A Biography. At this point Simak had about 125 sci-fi stories and 26 sci-fi and fantasy novels, not to mention a whole sack-full of awards (and that was back when an award meant something).
I’m pleased to see that Simak’s short stories have become available since 2015 as a series of Kindle ebooks, the Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series, from Open Road. Amazon UK lists 12 volumes, with the most recent three released in summer 2017.
False Ducks runs a completist website which documents the stories and where they’ve been published, and I note that many stories are still not listed there as collected by the Open Road series, even though the site is up-to-date. This makes me think that the original announcement by Open Road of 14 books for the series may have been correct, and that we may yet have two (or more) to come sometime in 2018/19. Note that False Ducks complains that Open Road’s Complete Short Fiction series is “wildly jumbled up” as regards publication date and themes. Their #12 includes his first published story from 1931 and a couple of the 1940s westerns, which appears to bear out such comments. Still, it’s nice they’re now so easily and cheaply available.
As a result of the “jumble” the purchaser of the Open Road 12-volume set may think they want to try reading through in publication date order. But doing that would mean that one would first have to plod through the very mediocre 1930s sci-fi, then some western and war stories in the 1940s. That doesn’t seem like a good way to start on Simak.
A better initial introduction to Simak’s stories is probably the audiobook for Over the River & Through the Woods: The Best Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, and then the audiobook of the fix-up stories-novel City. Then ‘fill in’ by dipping into the 12 volumes of ebooks of the stories, guided firstly by the contents-lists of his other four or five ‘best stories of…’ collections such as Skirmish. Then finally go looking for remaining rarities among the pulp scans and anthologies, with the help of the lists on False Ducks. One good thing about Simak is that he’s so unfashionable that you can currently pick up many of his print volumes for pennies, so filling in the gaps should be fairly painless — so long as you’ve willing and able to read from cramped 1970s paperback type (there wuz a world paper shortage, don’cha-know…) or buy an automated sheet-feed scanner and slice the spines off the books.
Most of Simak’s novels were published in ebook, between about 2011 and 2014, under the ‘Gollancz yellow-covers’ of the Gateway ebook imprint. I count about 20 such budget-priced ebooks on Amazon UK, of his output of around 27 novels, including the famous Way Station. (Note that the Gateway ebooks I’ve tried — not by Simak, admittedly, as I already have him in other forms — usually have their share of uncorrected OCR errors, having seemingly been scanned from the print books and not proofread). Three of the novels are currently available as unabridged recently-recorded audiobooks on Audible, including the fix-up City, but older crackly cassette-tape versions of many novels can also be had on YouTube. It’s probably important for new readers of Simak to know that after about 1967 (The Goblin Reservation) he started to veer strongly toward writing more whacky / humourous science-fiction novels and, while these obviously appealed to and entertained the surrealism-inclined hippies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, they are not well regarded today.
Due to his immense popularity, from about 1960s until the mid 1980s, there are also vast numbers of foreign translations of his work, and non-English readers should find translations fairly easily.
So far as I can tell there was never a Starmont Reader’s Guide for Simak, with chapters briskly and comprehensively surveying his various themes, settings and ideas. But we do have something very similar and more up-to-date, the book-length survey and bibliography When the Fires Burn High and The Wind is From the North: The Pastoral Science Fiction of Clifford D. Simak (2006, Borgo Press). Talking of plot summaries, beware the writers of Simak’s introductions, back-cover blurbs and short reviews — all of which appear to delight in giving the reader plot-spoilers.
See also the discussion of his crude stereotyping as a rustic-conservative and his consequent neglect by sniffy academics in recent decades, in: “The Pastoral Complexities of Clifford Simak: The Land Ethic and Pulp Lyricism in Time and Again“, in the journal Extrapolation in 2014. A similar point about his misrepresented reputation was made by Robert Silverberg’s short appreciation of City in “Rereading Simak”, Asimov’s magazine, August 2013. Thomas Clareson’s 1976 essay collection Voices for the Future also had a sensitive essay on City, specifically on what changed from the stories to the fix-up novel. A year earlier in 1975 there was an interview. [BEWARE: there are huge plot spoilers in all these!]
His best work could be a natural follow-on for readers of this blog who enjoy the summer travel sections of H. P. Lovecraft’s Letters. And who sometimes wonder what rustic science-fiction could have been home-grown from those hard-working back-road towns — “if only…”. Perhaps if a well-fed HPL had settled down with Mrs. Miniter, who might have then inherited from Mrs. Beebe and so started a rural writers’ colony with HPL, including the loving couple formed of the regionalist Derleth and the ethnographic Barlow. Then, in the 1950s, they might have succeeded in nurturing a regionalist science-fiction from the rural grassroots. A whimsical idea, of course, but the results might have looked something like Simak’s work and also the small-town work of Bradbury. In Simak’s concerns about land, ecological balance and science-fiction set in the context of organic communities, I would hazard a guess that he may — in future decades — come to appeal to both ends of the political spectrum from neo-hippie solarpunkers to conservative localists.
Plot-spoilers abound in these! In date order.
* Sam Moskowitz, “The Saintly Heresy of Clifford D. Simak”, Amazing Stories, June 1962. An excellent long biographical profile by the leading SF historian of the time. This also discusses his work to 1952 — Simak had only started writing really impressive SF stories from circa 1942/43. Reprinted in Moskowitz’s Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction (1967).
* “An Interview with Clifford D. Simak”, Tangent No. 2, May 1975.
* Thomas Clareson’s 1976 essay collection Voices for the Future had a sensitive essay on the famous City, specifically on what changed from the original stories to the fix-up novel.
* Muriel Becker, Clifford D. Simak, a primary and secondary bibliography (Masters of science fiction and fantasy series), 1980. 149 pages. Well regarded, though now superseded as a reader’s guide by later efforts. The 1980 review in Extrapolation states that it was only annotated in terms of the scholarly and critical works it listed. It has an interview with Simak and a short life chronology, and listed his adaptations for radio. It also lists the more substantial and thoughtful reviews of his books, to circa 1979.
* Darrell Schweitzer, “An Interview with Clifford D. Simak”, Amazing Stories Vol. 27, No. 6, February 1980.
* Thomas P. Linkfield, “Aliens invade the Midwest”, Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature Newsletter, 1981. Surveys some of the then-recent fiction by the likes of Bradbury, Simak and Tom Reamy. Reamy was obviously going to be a match for both Simak and Bradbury in the field of ‘small town SF’, in time — but he died before his great promise could be fulfilled, leaving only a novel and a short-story collection. The article talks about back-road midwest towns in a rather negative and stereotyping manner.
* The expensive essay anthology Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction (2000) had a 10-page essay by Michael Cassutt. His “Way Station – the Motion Picture: a possibly premature progress report”… “laments studio reluctance to do an authentic film of Clifford Simak’s Way Station (1963).”
* M.J. DeMarr, “Clifford D. Simak’s Use of the Midwest in Science Fiction”, MidAmerica, 1995. Substantial but appears to have been unknown to Ewald (2006).
* Robert J. Ewald, When the Fires Burn High and The Wind is From the North: The Pastoral Science Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, 2006, Borgo Press. Excellent book-length survey which lists many more secondary sources than I can here.
* Hardy Kettlitz, Clifford D. Simak: pastorale Harmonien, Shayol Verlag, 2012. A German bibliography in 148 pages, part of the SF Personality series.
* Robert Silverberg, “Rereading Simak”, Asimov’s magazine, August 2013.
* “The Pastoral Complexities of Clifford Simak: The Land Ethic and Pulp Lyricism in Time and Again“, Extrapolation, 2014.
* Meine and Keeley, The Driftless Reader, University of Wisconsin Press, 2018. A wide-ranging anthology of the region in which Simak set many of his tales, a bio-region “spanning parts of southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois.” Includes some Simak excerpts.
There has been some recent interest in Simak re: the post-human, mostly from Europe following initial forays from Americans.
* J. Gordon, “Talking (for, with) Dogs: Science Fiction Breaks a Species Barrier”, Science Fiction Studies, 2010.
* G. Canavan, “After Humanity: Science Fiction after Extinction in Kurt Vonnegut and Clifford D. Simak”, Paradoxa, 2016.
* Juliette Feyel, “Present retrospectif et detour post-humain chez Clifford Simak et Michel Houellebecq”, Res.Futurae, No. 7, 2016. (Trans: ‘The post-human detour in Simak and Houellebecq’. Finds Simak more interesting than Houellebecq, re: ideas on the post-human).
* Francesco Nieddu, L’apertura all’alieno e la difficile palingenesi umana in Way Station di Clifford D. Simak, Medea, Vol. 4, No. 1, Summer 2018. (Under Creative Commons Attribution, if anyone wants to translate it. Title roughly translates as “Openess to the alien and the difficulties of the post-human in Clifford D. Simak’s Way station“).
Possible links with Lovecraft:
My first pass at noting down some strands that may be worth exploring, without as yet a full re-reading of Simak…
Simak has at least one direct Lovecraft pastiche story, some macabre horror stories, and the late novel Where Evil Dwells which has strong Lovecraft elements.
Concern with the quiet American pastoral landscapes and vistas which Lovecraft so loved and often visited re: his visits to the homes of various Amateurs, and his summer travels.
Simak’s work preserves the emotional and life-world textures of the rural back-roads America that Lovecraft and the Amateurs knew in the mid 1920s, and does so in an imaginative form palatable to those who enjoy reading Lovecraft’s Letters.
Is concerned with the psychic resonance of regionalist landscapes, their invasion by the alien other, and the post-human on cosmic time-scales.
Concerned with civilisation-scale loss and preservation. Like Lovecraft, similarly despised and slighted by leftists for his conservatism.