Clifford D. Simak

Time and Again

time and again aceToday is Clifford D. Simak’s birthday (1904 – 1988).  It is a happy coincidence that I am writing this review today, after having finished reading his 1951 novel Time and Again.  I read the Ace 1983 edition with cover by Romas Kukalis.  I also own the 1976 Ace edition with cover by Michael Whelan. I like the Whelan cover more so I read the 1983 one.

This is the fourth Simak novel I have read.  It took awhile to get through this one – and I managed to polish off other novels during the time I was also reading this one. I admit, I got stuck on page 90 for a couple of weeks and the book sat abandoned.

 I got stuck at page 90 on June 15th. (Today is August 3.)  So, the book sat there because I did believe this might be a book I have to abandon. And abandoning a book mid-read is not really something I do, unless there is a very good reason. The novel starts all right, gets ridiculously awful – disjointed, confusing, and random – and then suddenly most of it straightens out and things make sense. The ending continues on too long and gets a little out of hand, honestly.

I am impressed that Simak pulled this one together. Still, there is no excuse for the nonsense and total random that goes on early in the book. It is REALLY tough to read through – literally, I was just reading words and they were not stringing together to make a coherent plot or even any basic sense. I could not have told you what this book was about for anything. I forced myself to keep reading (weeks later) – and then Simak pulled some threads together and the writing improved by leaps and bounds.

The story has less to do with time travel and more to do with Simak’s views on quasi-religion (destiny/life). The questions revolving around destiny and life are juxtaposed against the natures of humans and androids. (Simak’s androids are different than Asimov’s.) Finally, over all of this, to make this a science fiction story, rather than a pondering, there is a “war” of sorts that is fought by far-future humans and robots. All of this makes for a confused book. I see what Simak was doing, and its not a bad idea, but the execution got muddied. He sorts it out – mostly, but there are some rough sections that are really tough to get through.

The middle and middle-end part of the book is quite good. You really could not read it without the beginning and actual end, though. So readers are stuck with that murky front end with the total chaos.  Still, when Simak is “on” the writing is great.

And he didn’t say it because he was interested at the moment in war, whether in three or four dimensions, but because he felt that it was his turn to talk, his turn to keep this Mad Hare tea chatter at its proper place.

For that was what it was, he told himself… an utterly illogical situation, a madcap, slightly psychopathic interlude that might have its purpose, but a hidden, tangled purpose. -pg. 145  Chapter XXIV

I really liked this quote and I feel that I can relate to the character’s feelings here. Haven’t you been in a conversation where it seems you are talking around something and everyone seems smiley and fake and bizarre, but everyone plays along? Anyway, the next lines are quotes from Carroll, so Simak’s usage of the Mad Hare (as opposed to Mad Hatter) is clearly deliberate. Similarly, this is somewhat of the feeling you get when you read the early chunk of the novel:  we are all talking about something illogical, random, but we sense a hidden and tangled plot in there somewhere.

At the end of the day, the basic concept of the novel is that of Destiny. Or destiny. I do not believe Simak is a theist, so I do not think that is a euphemism for a deity, but there is definitely a pseudo-Tao concept being played with here. I am not suggesting that it is totally worked out in an academic way, but it is a solid concept for a 1950s novel.

Destiny, not fatalism.

Destiny, not foreordination.

Destiny, the way of men and races and of worlds.

Destiny, the way you made your life, the way you shaped your living. . . the way it was meant to be, the way that it would be if you listened to the still, small voice that talked to you at the many turning points and crossroads.

But if you did not listen. . . why, then, you did not listen and you did not hear.  And there was no power that could make you listen.  There was no penalty if you did not listen except the penalty of having gone against your destiny. – pg. 175 Chapter XXIX

This page sums up what Simak is playing with in this novel. I am not sure it is clear for most of the book, but this page lays it out plain as can be – or, as plain as the concept of destiny can be, anyway. And the action and characters and storyline are all accidental, it seems, to this discussion, which does not even occur until late in the novel. Its fairly interesting, but the reader will suffer getting to that point. Depends on if it is their destiny or not, right?

time and again ace whiteNow, there is a bit of time travel – but its not very much like time travel stories we know and “love.”  This time travel is juxtaposed with the concept of destiny, so it kind of applies. And in the last quarter of the novel, the main character ends up in the year 2000 or so in Wisconsin. On a farm near a river in Wisconsin. (Simak students will know this is Simak’s home of which he had a great fondness for and often plays a part in his novels.) Simak really likes Wisconsin, because when he writes about it, it is descriptive and meandering and he draws it out and praises everything about it.  Its so dang rural. And farmy. It kills me when Simak does this. I do not doubt his sentiments and I understand his love for the location, but my word do I suffer reading about grass and hay!

Lastly, Simak had me grinning in chapter XXXIII, when Sutton (the main character) first arrives in Wisconsin in 2000. Sutton meets a resident of the time just fishing and smoking a pipe…a fellow named “Old Cliff.”

This is a difficult, but relatively rewarding read. Definitely for Simak fans. Those with interest in 1950s robots/androids could find interesting bits here, too. And, of course, readers curious about Simak’s concept of destiny would enjoy this. The first half of the book, however, will require a bit of effort from all.

3 stars

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Way Station

Way Station

Way Station – C. D. Simak; Del Rey, 1986

Way Station by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) is the third novel by the author that I have read. It was published in 1963 and won the 1964 Hugo Award for best novel.  Off the bat, I have to say that this is the most polished of the three novels by Simak that I have read. Nevertheless, I admit that this was not an easy read for me to get through. The setting and the tone really caused the big slowdown with my reading of this novel.

In my comments on my previous Simak reads (Cosmic Engineers and They Walked Like Men), I take the stance that Simak has great ideas for novels, but his plotlines seem to meander around, get lost, or flop apart.  His actual writing seems perfectly functional – I would not call it anything better than solid writing. In Way Station, Simak writes a completed, polished work that – based on its themes – was obviously an easy pick for the Hugo Awards.  [In 1964, other nominations included Andre Norton’s Witch World and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.]

I say “easy pick” because this novel includes a couple of elements that lend to its selection. For one thing, it is a first contact novel. It is 1963 – a time when all of the golden age science fiction stylists have to reckon with the real life developments in the fields of spaceflight and cosmological exploration. This novel may be one of the better first contact novels I have read. A second element to resonate with the readers in 1963/1964 is that the story is told while there is a worldwide threat of war hovering just beyond the proximate setting. The 1960s, of course, are raw with Vietnam War scenarios and this novel does allow human warring to have an influence on the story.  In regard to both spaceflight and warfare, the novel takes a hopeful position. I do not say optimistic. Simak did not write of a humanity destined to ruin and destruction, but one that wrestled with its own warring tendencies.

The novel was tough for me to get through because the actual setting is a rural/rustic community.  Millville, Wisconsin, to be precise. This is the setting for a couple of Simak’s novels – probably because it is also his birthplace.  Simak has a definite familiarity with the location.  The first hundred pages or so have a lot of meandering descriptions and sunsets and trees…. and………. I am not good with rustic/rural things. I think I’ve only been to Wisconsin once. That was enough.  The woodsy/farming setting is like a sleeping potion on me. I can understand many people loving this scene and finding it wholesome and relaxing and I do not begrudge them their rural sentiments.

However, due to this emphasis on the setting, the pacing seems really off. I really think the first chunk of the book could be edited and reduced. The big “event” in the novel does not happen until page 129 (chapter nineteen) and from then on, events move faster. (Still not New York pace….)  A lot of threads get tied together and it all works out neatly in the end. Simak is not a cynical, snide bastard whatsoever. It says on his Wikipedia page that he was “well liked” and that much is obvious just from reading his novels. This is not a bitter, snarling chap; Simak likes the stories to end well. Anyway, the pacing feels off-kilter.

As mentioned above, there is a thread in the story that the Earth is on the cusp of worldwide war.  The reader is led to believe it is not quite at the active war stage, but the war that is coming looms large and destructive – like a boosted WWII+ situation.  This, of course, is juxtaposed with the sluggish, stolid Millville existence. This atmosphere carries a weight of melancholy to it. And the main character Enoch Wallace is a character full of melancholy.  In all actuality, the novel is a melancholy-weighted thing that definitely shows a move away from any form of space opera/action-thriller. As a first contact novel, Simak writes thoughtful, advanced aliens that are not infallible.  The aliens are also not goofy or ridiculous.  Simak lets his main character wrestle with the alienation [sic] of Wallace from his own people/species and his inclusion in the oneness of the Galactic Central peoples.

This is a good novel – it has some good concepts in it. The ideas are thoughtful and relevant. There is a hefty dose of “reflection” and “introspection” available, too. Wallace’s decisions and his woes are understandable and the reader should empathize. The writing is solid from page one to two hundred thirty-six. However, the melancholy added to the rustic setting was too much for me. At some points, I just did not want to read any more. There are some predictable events, but as a whole this is a good novel. A galactic waystation on the Earth is not a unique idea, but Simak does a very good job with the concept.

3 stars

Star Science Fiction 1

Star Science Fiction 1 - ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 – ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 is the first book in the anthology series, Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl.  It was first published in 1953 by Ballantine Books and reprinted in 1972.  The book is especially notable because it contains the first appearance of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Nine Billion Names of God.  I read the 1972 edition with the John Berkey cover. I picked up my copy on a clearance display for $1. Editor Pohl provides a little opinion paragraph on the start page for each story. These little comments are interesting, but sometimes a little obnoxious.

My overall impression is that Pohl worked hard to select and present stories that would appeal to science fiction fans as well as to a more general readership.  Many of these stories emphasize or highlight some aspect of humanity or human relationships.  These are not simply “laser gun/alien” stories.  And the science is very minimal.  This is a decent collection of strong stories, but I did not feel that the stories were outstandingly awesome. Nothing here wow-ed me – maybe Pohl was playing it safe.  These are solid stories to be enjoyed, but maybe not to be all that excited about. The table of contents reads like a hall of fame inductee list.

  • Country Doctor • by William Morrison – 2 stars
  • Dominoes •  by C. M. Kornbluth – 2 stars
  • Idealist • by Lester del Rey – 3 stars
  • The Night He Cried • by Fritz Leiber – 1 star
  • Contraption • by Clifford D. Simak – 3 stars
  • The Chronoclasm • by John Wyndham – 3 stars
  • The Deserter • by William Tenn – 3 stars
  • The Man with English • by H. L. Gold – 3 stars
  • So Proudly We Hail • by Judith Merril – 2 stars
  • A Scent of Sarsaparilla • by Ray Bradbury – 2 stars
  • “Nobody Here But …”  • by Isaac Asimov – 3 stars
  • The Last Weapon •  by Robert Sheckley – 4 stars
  • A Wild Surmise • by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore – 3 stars
  • The Journey •  by Murray Leinster – 1 star
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • by Arthur C. Clarke – 4 stars

The majority of stories in this collection focus on the effect science fiction situations and scenarios have on humans.  In some cases, there is an exploration of emotions.  In other cases, authors consider humanity’s common traits.  It seems odd to say it, but the stories are more about humanity than about science fiction.  And maybe that is why my ratings seem a tad bit lower – I tend to prefer my science fiction to be strongly science fiction.

The stories by Leiber, Merril, and Bradbury were not as good as the rest.  These three were let-downs and were rather poor. I have read so much better by both Bradbury and Leiber.  This is the first writing that I read by Merril, but I can see why Pohl selected it – it fits the theme of this collection nicely.  Leinster’s was pretty weak, in my opinion; a big fat “who cares!” for the plot. My favorite story of the bunch is by Sheckley.  Hands down it is a good story that matches the theme of this collection without turning sappy or overdramatic.  It maintained the “science fiction” aspect very well.

I guess the big take-away for this collection is something along the lines of:  science, the future, space exploration, etc. do not happen in a vacuum. Such things do not happen without humans. Without a doubt, it is necessary to consider humanity as the main delta in the equation.  Humans are not pure machines with perfectly predictable actions and reactions.  They are susceptible to a variety of traits and tendencies – but they remain unique and spontaneous.  Many times humans respond with their emotions rather than with pure calculated rationality.  Therefore, any vision of the future or of science [science fiction], must not ignore the humanity that drives it along. These stories work diligently to present a multitude of situations in which the humanity of the characters is the main focal point.

All of these stories are definitely classic stories. They are ones that science fiction readers ought to read because they are early 1950s stories that present a deep and relevant understanding of what science (and, therefore, science fiction) is about and how it reflects upon humans.  The majority of science fiction tends to focus on how mankind changes his universe.  These stories investigate how the universe (and the advancement of science) changes mankind – mostly on an individual/personal level.

I am probably too Russian or too autistic to really appreciate some of these stories. Or, I understand them, but I am just not excited about them.  However, this does not mean that they will not appeal to other readers. In fact, I think these stories will actually have a vast appeal because they are so personal-centric.  The characters are all realistic people who seem to react in realistic ways.  And these characters have a relationship with their kin – marriages, families, society at large.  These stories explore those relationships and that basically is one of the interests of all the readers that I know!

A few comments on the actual stories:

As soon as I began reading the Asimov story, it seemed a higher calibre than some of the others. Asimov was a good writer, regardless of how people criticize some of his stuff. This story, whether you like the plot or not, is very well-written.

Similarly, John Wyndam’s entry is well-written and stylish. It is certainly levels above almost all of the current day short story offerings.  It is unique and fun and if it was about anything but time travel, I would have given it five stars. But time travel is a train wreck for writers – its siren song pulls them in, but philosophy beats down all their exciting ideas.

“Contraption” by Simak was heart-breaking in parts. It is an emotion-filled tale, from which even I could not remain distant.  I would suggest reading this one and Sheckley’s if you only have time for two stories.

Fifteen stories – all very classic and classy.  Definitely worth the $1 I paid for this volume. Definitely worth recommending to other science fiction (even more so to non-science-fiction) fans.

3 stars

They Walked Like Men

They Walked Like Men - Clifford D. Simak; MacFadden, 1963.  Cover: Richard Powers

They Walked Like Men – Clifford D. Simak; MacFadden, 1963. Cover: Richard Powers

They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was first published in 1962.  I read the 1963 MacFadden paperback edition – the one with the Richard Powers artwork on the cover.  The first edition hardback by Doubleday has artwork by Lawrence Ratzkin.  Generally, I really like Powers’ work, but on this cover the pink hues are too aggravating. Or, mainly, it just looks dingy.  I do not usually discuss the cover art – I’m not qualified to discuss art, really – but the Doubleday is worth mentioning because it really works with the story and keeps the cover simple and interesting.  It is one of those covers that I would have no complaints about if it were expanded into a small poster and slapped on one of the walls in my house.

This is the second Simak novel that I have read; I still own a bunch of others to work through.  Similar to my thoughts on the other novel of his that I read, I think that They Walked Like Men has a whole lot going for it, but also a lot that just seems too lame and too simplistic.  However, regardless of how grumbly and critical we readers might be, Simak is a good author and should not be ignored or dismissed.  Simak is an above-average wordsmith and is capable of coming up with at least one solidly fascinating idea each novel.

The opening chapter introduces the main character – who will also be our first-person narrator – named Parker Graves. I really appreciate the interesting manner in which we meet Parker:  he is half-drunk and standing outside of his apartment door struggling with his keys.  This section is really well written and I really enjoyed reading it. It immediately brought the setting and characters to life. Simak presents a situation with such skill that most readers will read further just to find out what the heck is going on.

Somewhere in the tangled depths of the half-dark newsroom a copyboy was whistling – one of those high-pitched, jerky tunes that are no tunes at all.  I shuddered at the sound of it.  There was something that was almost obscene about someone whistling at this hour of the morning. – pg. 15

To my mind, this novel has two sections.  The first quarter of the novel is full of eerie, scary suspense and tension. It has a heap of bone-chilling, heart-racing stuff that builds on the mysterious and unknown.  That’s the best horror stuff in my opinion:  the unknown.  (I’ve mentioned before that I am only a rookie regarding anything in the horror genre.)  Anyway, as I read that first chunk of the book, I really was surprised at how scary it was.  I think writing effectively frightening prose must be super difficult.  How can one make words transmit something terrifying?  Matter-of-fact style won’t work.  Purposely being obtuse won’t work.  So, I have to praise Simak’s work here. And I decided maybe I had read enough for one night to suffer plenty of nightmares….

I gave him the intersection just beyond the McCandless Bulding.

The light changed and the cab edged along.

“Have you noticed, mister,” said the cabby, by way of starting a conversation, “how the world has gone to hell?”   – pg. 45

What I think of as the “second section,” is really the rest of novel. Here is where Simak actually displays his hand, so to speak.  We learn what his “big idea” for the novel is and the creepy horror stuff is over as the novel takes a turn toward the action-esque side of things.  Light-action, if you please; there’s no Mack Bolan running around here. Also, the novel utilizes some ridiculous elements to tell the story.  I think if you took Simak’s “big idea” and then gave it to a far more serious and dark minded writer that the story would go one of two ways:  very, very droll and boring or it would retain a lot of the creepiness of the early part of the novel.

The “big idea,” by the way, is that the rather bizarre aliens are using economic pressure to control the planet (eradicate the humans).  Lacking in this is a lot of motive, or relationship of aliens to anything in the universe, etc. Without Simak’s writing skill, we really do have a novel about economics. Not too many folk will be racing to read that story!

Let me be honest, I do not hate the sort of ridiculousness that Simak then writes.  I am generally a magnet for the absurd and the ridiculous (sometimes to my chagrin). But I really disliked the transition between being horrifying and then just ridiculous.  I do not want to spoil anything, but I should probably share that there is a talking-alien-dog that helps the main character.

That is one of Simak’s big failures – he never fully and completely fleshes out elements of his story.  Things just are and even though they are extremely ridiculous – he doesn’t give us any causes for them. No reasons or answers. Now, maybe things are so ridiculous that to speak on them would make it all worse. On the other hand, the lack of explanation sometimes makes the story feel loose and that perhaps some of these elements are really extraneous and should have been edited out.

Finally, I really liked the supporting character.  Joy Kane is a co-worker of Graves.  She is also his sweetheart.  Unlike the majority of female characters in books dating from before 1970, Joy is quite awesome.  She is smart, sharp, witty, kind, stubborn, and realistic.  The novel is over and I do not care if I run into Graves again, but I am going to miss Joy Kane.

3 stars

Cosmic Engineers

Cosmic Engineers - Clifford D. Simak; 1970, Paperback Library

Cosmic Engineers – Clifford D. Simak; 1970, Paperback Library

Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was published in 1950.  It was originally published as a shorter version in Astounding Magazine. I read a 1970 Paperback Library edition that I paid $1.00 for.  This is the first item that I have read by Simak, though I own a three or four other books with his name on their spines. This was a quick read, without any major brain drain.

The most important thing that I think you should know about this novel is that it is not at all like the contemporary science fiction that is pumped out.  This is not a dystopia. There are no zombies. And there is no anti-hero. Just because of these facts, I was tempted to give this novel four stars.  However, that is not really playing fair.  Anyway, what this novel does contain is big ideas; not great ideas, not specific ideas.  The ideas in this novel are epic. I would say they are universe-spanning, but that is actually understating the setting of this novel.

The writing is passable, nothing standout or odd for the time period it was written. However there are no beautiful, poetic flowers to quote.  Eighteen chapters of functional writing tell us a story taking place in the year 6948.  Time is a difficult thing to write about, I think. So, sure, even though it is the far-away future, many elements seem like the 1990s at their maximum.  For example, the mindset of the humans, the speech, a few societal items, etc. all retain that 1950s sort of flavor.

The novel begins by jumping onboard the space ship “Space Pup” with newsmen Gary Nelson and Herb Harper.  Their ship is nearing Pluto.  They have been sent by their circulation-driven boss to go through the galaxy giving accounts of life in space.  Here are a few of those temporal discrepancies.  In 6948 should newspaper circulation really be this important? And by this year are we really sure the readership would still be paying to read accounts of space?  Anyway, the two newsmen are bickering and grumpy.  At once the reader discovers that Simak’s characters will be very face-value, one-dimensional things.  Herb is treated as a happy-go-lucky goofball.  Gary is a bit cantankerous and a bit more intelligent than Herb.  The characters retain these qualities throughout and do not develop beyond this state.

Soon, the “Space Pup” locates a small, drifting older ship.  Gary, who is bored and grumpy, immediately decides to put on his spacesuit and investigate. This part is sort of eerie and is probably one of the more interesting segments of this novel. Upon breaching the ship, Gary discovers there is little of interest except for a large tank in one of the rooms. In this tank is a floating woman.  There are one-liner “instructions” here and there on the ship, which of course Gary follows.  The woman is released from her suspended animation and we learn her name is Caroline Martin.  She has been in this tank on this ship for 1,000 years!

Here is one of the first problems with Simak’s conceptual work in this novel. Caroline’s big “thing” is that she was physically in “suspended animation” while in the tank.  She had reduced her metabolism and physical functioning.  But she says she made one “mistake.”  Caroline’s brain kept working.  So, even though her body was powered down, she was not just asleep. Basically, she has just been contemplating for 1,000 years.  Obvious issues with this include:  brains require energy to operate (being in a near-dead coma-like suspended state wouldn’t let the brain work).  And this brings us to the epistemological “not her brain, per se, but perhaps her mind” sort of scenario.  Insert discussion on immateriality, etc. Also, compare with Ibn Sina’s “floating man” concept.

Anyway, by this point in the novel (chapter three) the reader should realize that he will have to be forgiving, suspend disbelief, and have a big imagination. I can understand that really empirical folk might dislike this novel, but this is an entertainment, not a textbook.  Nevertheless, this book still has a whole pile of outrageous big ideas to throw at us.  So, Gary, Herb, and Caroline land on Pluto, as they continue the newsmens’ “mission.”  Here they find some scientist-innovators who are planning to travel to the edge of the universe in a fancy spaceship.  Instead, they share that they are receiving odd communications that arrive via strange method. Of course, Caroline can understand them using her pseudo-telepathic skills.

These mental communications translated by Caroline are from the Cosmic Engineers.  They are sentient beings calling for help.  These beings request that the humans come to them and they are prepared to assist the humans in making devices that will allow them to travel to the farthest edge of the universe.  The whole reason is that there is great danger to the whole universe and the Engineers need the humans help to save the universe.

The reason the universe is in danger is that another universe is about to crash into it.

We know this is about to happen because beings in the other universe told the Engineers about it.

The solution involves going to the far-future (millions of years) Earth and seeking answers there. But this far-future Earth (on which lives only one elderly gentleman) is only a shadow Earth. Merely possible.  On the way back from there, the humans get waylaid by another species – a disembodied, senile mind.

So, I mention these things to let you be advised:  there are some wildly huge ideas here.  And even though this all seems ridiculously far-fetched and absurd (and it is!), there is a joy to reading science fiction that is on the far end of the spectrum of imagination.  I read so many novels where humans are challenged even just building a spaceship.  Or where a small segment of people putters around a planet dealing with “the same old stuff” that humans have dealt with for thousands of years:  food, clothing, shelter.  And I am tired of specific human stories, wherein we meet Bob and he earns redemption, or his bravery saves the day, or something similar.  Reading about the year 6948, wherein universes are about to collide is refreshing in its own way.  There is something wide-open about this novel that is endearing.

Critics might mutter under their breath about finally having a female character who is a brilliant and awesome – but being told it is the year 6948 before such a dame shows up on the human timeline. Others will howl at the ridiculous convolutions that Simak takes while playing in a multiverse.  Overall, though, I think it is important to look at this novel as one that at least tries to tackle a really, really huge playing field. Sure, at times it feels like a fix-up novel, but at least it can boast it has a huge panorama.

3 stars