Simak, Clifford D

Tagged: Author

(1904-1988) US writer whose primary occupation 1929-1976 was newspaper work, and who worked full-time for the Minneapolis Star from 1939 until his retirement, when he became a full-time writer of sf, some years past his early prime. He was in fact a prolific and increasingly popular sf figure – after some stories in the early 1930s – from the true beginning of his career in 1938, remaining prolific from that date until his death. His first published stories, beginning with "The World of the Red Sun" for Wonder Stories in December 1931, were less individual than his later work; significantly, however, that first tale deals with Time Travel, which became his favourite sf device for the importation of Aliens into rural Wisconsin, always his favourite venue. Other early work of interest included "The Voice in the Void" (Spring 1932 Wonder Stories Quarterly), about the desecration of a sacred tomb on Mars which possibly contains the relics of a Messiah from Earth; "Hellhounds of the Cosmos" (June 1932 Astounding), in which defenders of Earth who, in order to fight a Monster in another Dimension, combine into a gestalt; and The Creator (March/April 1935 Marvel Tales; 1946 chap; exp with critical commentaries 1981 chap), in which humans and other races travel by Time Machine in order to combat the creator of the universe, who has become bored with his/her handiwork.

In 1938, inspired by John W Campbell Jr's editorial policy at Astounding Science-Fiction, Simak began to produce such stories as "Rule 18" (July 1938 Astounding) and "Reunion on Ganymede" (November 1938 Astounding). He swiftly followed with his first full-length novel, Cosmic Engineers (February-April 1939 Astounding; rev 1950), a Galaxy-spanning epic in the vein of E E Smith and Edmond Hamilton. While continuing to write steadily for Campbell, his work gradually became identifiably Simakian – constrained, intensely emotional beneath a calmly competent Genre SF surface; tales deeply Pastoral in the sense that his idylls, his Edens, were almost inevitably supported by some superior civilization, sometimes urban (though his distaste for the City marred his efforts at verisimilitude), sometimes Alien. Two circumstances may be noted: Millville, Wisconsin, where he was born, could be described as a Polder [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], occupying as it does a valley that, almost magically, escaped the last Ice Age; over and above the fact of this paradisal exemption, the nostalgic overkill of his vision of rural Wisconsin is typically exilic in that he spent most of his adult life in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a large city almost 200 miles away.

Stories like "Rim of the Deep" (May 1940 Astounding), "Tools" (July 1942 Astounding) and "Hunch" (July 1943 Astounding) were signs of his development, though the full Simak did not "arrive" until the appearance of "City" (May 1944 Astounding) and its sequel, "Huddling Place" (July 1944 Astounding), the first two segments of City (May 1944-December 1947 Astounding, January 1951 Fantastic Adventures; coll of linked stories/fixup 1952; exp 1981), which deals initially with the Near-Future exodus of mankind from the Cities and the return to a Pastoral existence aided by a benign Technology. As the tale progresses, Earth is abandoned by all humans, who escape the Arrested Development inherent in the physical nature of Homo sapiens, and find Transcendence on Jupiter. They leave behind a Keep in Geneva, where a few humans remain in Suspended Animation; some mysterious Mutants; and Jenkins, an excellently depicted Robot (though his behaviour in earlier sections is uncomfortably Stepin-Fetchit-like), who is left to monitor the forced Evolution of the intelligent Dogs (> Uplift) destined to inherit the Earth. Gathered into Club Story format as a set of tales the Dogs tell each other around the campfire, City won an International Fantasy Award. It remains Simak's best known work.

In 1950 he found another market in the new magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, which serialized his novel Time and Again (October-December 1950 Galaxy as "Time Quarry"; 1951; vt First He Died 1953). A trickily plotted Time-Travel story, with a Changewar on the verge of transforming reality, and a sympathetic Android, it proved to be very popular – though ominously prefiguring some of his over-plotted works of the late 1970s. After the less compelling Empire: A Powerful Novel of Intrigue and Action in the Not-So-Distant Future (1951), a tale of Near Future intrigue involving a new Power Source, he published a second Galaxy serial, Ring Around the Sun (December 1952-February 1953 Galaxy; 1953), which involves the discovery of a chain of Parallel Worlds and the machinations of a secret society of Mutants who are plotting to subvert the world's economy by producing everlasting goods. Its anti-urban and pro-agrarian sentiments were by now a standard part of Simak's work; in stories like "Neighbor" (June 1954 Astounding) he became sf's leading spokesman for rural, Midwestern values. His stories in general contain little violence and much folk humour, and stress the value of individualism tempered by compassion – "good neighbourliness", in short. Throughout the 1950s, he produced dozens of competent short stories, many assembled in Strangers in the Universe (coll 1956; with four stories cut 1957; with four different stories cut 1958), The Worlds of Clifford Simak (coll 1960; with six stories cut 1961; with three stories cut, vt Aliens for Neighbours 1961; text restored 2vols, vt The Worlds of Clifford Simak 1961 US and Other Worlds of Clifford Simak 1962) and All the Traps of Earth (coll 1962; with three stories cut 1963; text restored 2vols, vt All the Traps of Earth 1964 UK and The Night of the Puudly 1964). Two highpoints were the stories "The Big Front Yard" (October 1958 Astounding), which won a 1959 Hugo, and "A Death in the House" (October 1959 Galaxy). Many of these tales appear in the retrospective Skirmish: The Great Short Fiction (coll 1977), in various retrospective volumes published after his death [see Checklist], and in the first two volumes of a projected Collected Stories: The Collected Stories 1: Eternity Lost (coll 2004) and The Collected Stories 2: Physician to the Universe (coll 2006).

After 1960 Simak began to produce novels at the rate of roughly one a year. Time is the Simplest Thing (April-July 1961 Analog as "The Fisherman"; 1961) and They Walked Like Men (1962) are workmanlike and entertaining, but Way Station (June-August 1963 Galaxy as "Here Gather the Stars"; 1963), which won the 1964 Hugo, impressively focuses on his favourite kind of protagonist and venue: a lonely but wise Wisconsin farmer has been given Immortality in return for his services as a galactic station-master, his house having been, long before the tale begins, transformed into a way-station (> Stargates) for Aliens who travel from star to star via Matter Transmission. Its warmth, imaginative detail and finely rendered, almost Edenic scenes make this probably Simak's best novel. All Flesh is Grass (1965), Why Call them Back from Heaven? (1967) (> Cryonics) and The Werewolf Principle (1967) (> Shapeshifters; Werewolves) are enjoyable, if essentially repetitive. The Goblin Reservation (April-June 1968 Galaxy; 1968) seemed at first glance to be innovative, striking out into new territory; but in fact turned out to be a Wisconsin-valley fantasy in a new and whimsical guise. Simak had always wrestled with such whimsy – notoriously paired with nostalgia in many authors of his emotional bent – and by the start of the 1970s whimsy seemed to be winning. Its triumph may have derived from the fact that the venues for which he felt genuine emotion were now forty years past (and, as noted above, elsewhere), and the world had irrevocably repudiated and scummed over the rural clarities dear to his memories: but although the temptation to dodge change and Decadence by sidestepping them seemed increasingly sentimental. Novels like Destiny Doll (1971), Cemetery World (November 1972-January 1973 Analog; cut 1973; text restored 1983), Enchanted Pilgrimage (1975), Shakespeare's Planet (1976), Mastodonia (1978; vt Catface 1978), Special Deliverance (1982) and Highway of Eternity (1986; vt Highway to Eternity 1987), his last novel, contain only flashes of the old talent, mingled with a good deal of sheer silliness.

There were exceptions, however. A Choice of Gods (1972) is a much more explicit (and more honestly moving) elegiac tale in which Simak reiterated the plainsong of his favourite themes: the depopulated world, the sage old man, the liberated Robots, the "haunted" house, Teleportation to the stars, etc. A Heritage of Stars (1977), a quest novel set in a post-technological society, is another compendium of Simak's old material, but cagily expressed. Though he seemed generally to need the relative discipline of sf to achieve his best effects, The Fellowship of the Talisman (1978) is a reasonably effective Fantasy; another, somewhat weaker fantasy is Where the Evil Dwells (1982). The Visitors (October-December 1979 Analog; 1980), in which Aliens once again visit Earth bearing enigmatic gifts, may be his finest late novel, for a vein of irony is allowed some play. The strengths of Project Pope (1981), about the devising of an AI to serve as the ultimate pope (> Religion), are somewhat vitiated by Simak's visible reluctance to understand Computers.

Simak's late short stories are less variable, and the tales like "The Ghost of a Model T" (in Epoch, anth 1975, edited by Roger Elwood and Robert Silverberg), or the Hugo- and Nebula-winning "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" (April 1980 Analog), retain all the skill and much of the resilience of his prime. He was a man of strong moral convictions and little real concern for ideas, and perhaps surprisingly for a man of such professional attainments he rarely tended to stray outside his natural bailiwick. Wisconsin in about 1925 – or any extraterrestrial venue demonstrating the same rooted virtues – was that true home, and when he was in residence there Simak reigned as the finest pastoral elegist of his genre. He received the SFWA Grand Master Award in 1977. [JC/DP]

see also: Arts; Asteroids; Colonization of Other Worlds; Drugs; Ecology; Economics; Eschatology; Fermi Paradox; First Contact; Galactic Empires; Games and Sports; Generation Starships; Gods and Demons; Golden Age of SF; Identity; Life on Other Worlds; Longevity (in Writers and Publications); Machines; Matter Duplication; Mercury; Money; Moon; Mythology; Optimism and Pessimism; Outer Planets; Parasitism and Symbiosis; Pollution; Psionics; Retro Hugo; Shakespeare; Sociology; Space Opera; Spaceships; Sun; Supernatural Creatures; Telepathy; Time Distortion; Venus.

Clifford Donald Simak

born Millville, Wisconsin: 3 August 1904

died Minneapolis, Minnesota: 25 April 1988

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