1939, 1944, 1950, 1952, 1959, 1960, 1963, 1969, 2010s, 2015, anthology/collection, Astounding Science Fiction, Clifford Simak, Galaxy Science Fiction, If: Worlds of Science Fiction, Open Road Media, robots!, science fiction, short fiction, Super Science Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Thrilling Wonder Stories, time travel
By the time he was named the third Science Fiction Grand Master in 1977, Clifford D. Simak had already been writing in the genre for well over four decades. Well-known for his pastoral take on SF in novels like Way Station, Time is the Simplest Thing, City, and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?, Simak was also quite prolific at writing short fiction, which ran the gamut from space adventures (in the 1930s), to heartland SF (in the ’50s and ’60s), to works which echoed the New Wave of science fiction (in the late ’60s and ’70s). And while he’s known for those novels and pastoral, bittersweet approach, Simak wrote a range of short fiction—even dipping into other genres, like westerns and adventure stories, to pay the bills. The Simak estate has signed off on a new series to collect all the author’s work, and this promises to be the first of fourteen volumes.
Installment Plan – Galaxy, Feb 1959
Steve Sheridan and his robot crew are sent forth by Central Trading to Garson IV to take advantage of a forgotten trade agreement: they will bring the valuables of Earth to trade for podars, potato-like root vegetables which will give humanity the mildly addicting tranquilizer it’s long sought. The problem? The locals are resistant to trade, and no matter what method Steve throws at them, they refuse to acknowledge their trade deal. So what’s got them so trade-averse?
A well-written story that starts off with a bang, though quaintly old-fashioned in plot and setup. It reminds me of other, similar stories, where plucky humans leverage Earth-bred know-how and good old capitalism to get what they need from some random aliens. There’s also no real explanation why only one human and his pack of a half-dozen robots is sent on this mission, though I guess it’s because it’s easier to maintain one human and have his robots swap “transmog” skill-discs, so they can function as the space crew up until they need to be physicists or salesmen or something. While it’s an entertaining curio from its era, it feels like the first story in a series or serial that never materialized—somewhat insubstantial, and left on an unanswered question.
I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up In The Air – The Last Dangerous Visions (previously unpublished)
A planetary prospector has finally got it made: a planet rich in resources for the taking, with a populace of primitive natives ready for exploitation. But before he can enact his dreams of greed and wealth, he’s crushed to death in a landslide—or is he? When he wakes, he finds himself transformed into the chitinous body of a native, strange lobster-like creatures with eye-stalks and caterpillar-legs and, worst of all, no hands.
This story was originally slated for publication in the (yet unpublished) third Dangerous Visions anthology, so while it starts off with a fairly standard 1950s-style “space explorer exploiting space natives” plot, it quickly turns into more of ’70s piece. There’s a notably shift when it becomes a psychological drama as the protagonist is killed, then reformed in an alien body, and forced to comprehend both his current plight and his future: a thousand years to himself to contemplate revenge. The finale is a neat twist, one that acts as a capstone to the story’s commentary on human greed and vengeance. Not a great story, but a good and interesting one.
Small Deer – Galaxy, Oct 1963
A shorter epistolary piece, where the protagonist writes to inform a paleontologist at the local university about his remarkable discovery. You see, the protagonist and a friend—savants both—managed to build a time machine, and having been fascinated with dinosaurs as a child, the protagonist heads 65 million years into the past to discover what killed them. The real reason, it turns out, is a strange and grisly prospect that ought to keep you up at night with its terrifying implications.
Ogre – Astounding, Jan 1944
Set on a planet inhabited by sentient plant-life, human colonists from the local trading company hatch an on-the-fly get-rich scheme, gaining inspiration from a competitor. But as their plans start coming to fruition, the plant-life begin to make some shocking discoveries about how humans have traditionally treated plants. Another story that touches on one of Simak’s recurring themes: in the face of advanced/alien intelligence, its innate failings can make humanity look like nothing more than a race of primitive ogres. Delightfully old-school in its setting, “Ogre” is more of a typical Astounding piece that Simak has imbued with a shot of social commentary. Coming from the same time period as the bittersweet novel City, itself influenced by the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, I can’t say that I blame him.
Gleaners – If, Mar 1960
This is the only piece from the collection I’ve read/reviewed before—it’s a behind-the-scenes look at a time travel company, “gleaning” secrets from the past right before their destruction. The Library of Alexandria, for example—the reason nobody’s ever found a piece of it is because it was snatched away moments before its destruction. It hints at the toll taken by Time, Inc.’s workers, as bureaucrat Hallock Spencer is overworked and tired of dealing with constant issues. But maybe that’s what was intended for him? A bit overtly capitalistic in its ending as Spencer is driven by conniving self-interest, and the writing is more workmanlike and unpolished, but a fascinating concept with a decent execution.
Madness from Mars – Thrilling Wonder Stories, Apr 1939
The first manned mission to Mars returns; as the spaceship circles Earth for its final landing, reporters speculate on what the brave explorers have found. When the door opens, the haggard pilot stumbles out alone—the other crew are found dead, killed by their own hands. The only sample from Mars is a small, rodent-like creature nicknamed Fuzzball—but what harm can he be? Well—a lot, but it’s not intentional. How’s that for a first-contact story, where the alien intelligence is nothing but a scared animal trying to communicate? I’m fascinated to find that Simak considered this one of his worst stories; it certainly feels like some good ideas landing a hair off-target, though Simak imbues his alien threat with a lot of heart-felt sympathy. A mixed bag, but Simak tried hard enough that I’d give it a passing grade.
Gunsmoke Interlude – 10 Story Western, Oct 1952
Like many other writers at the time, Simak wrote westerns and war stories to help pay the bills… though he never stooped to writing a cliche cowboys-and-indians tale. This story, Simak’s final western, is more reflective. Gunslinger Clay rides into a dusty border town; he has a price on his head and John Trent aims to take it, staying hot on Clay’s heels. The young sheriff pushes him to check his guns—a more common practice in the “wild” west than you’d think—which Clay refuses, wanting to be ready when John Trent rides in gunning for him. But a discovery Clay makes may lead to a kind of redemption, aiming to pass his torch to another. A quiet and contemplative story, it sticks out by virtue of being the only non-SF tale in the collection.
I Am Crying All Inside – Galaxy, Aug 1969
People work, folk play—that is the way it’s always been. All people need is a job to do and a blacksmith to fix them up when they break down, and so that’s what life has been for generations. Sam is one of the people, and he begins to question how his world devolved into naught but reveling hillbillies and robots. The death of one of the folk acts as a catalyst, and the deceased’s father reveals the truth. One of the best stories in the collection, one that impressed me with its depth and thought, having a lot of Simak’s sentimentality. The prose is unique, as Sam is only just learning to write and is forcing a roughened English into written words. And the history of this world is a neat secret and excellent idea—not the expected future, but then again, Simak rarely dreamed up futures that matched the average SF predictions.
The Call from Beyond – Super Science Stories, May 1950
Frederick West wasn’t expecting to find life on Pluto, much less when the lifeforms are all that remains of a survey mission thought lost. The scientists and explorers have all gone insane, he thinks, as they’ve hatched a nefarious plot on the far planet. Without missing a beat, West begins to investigate, possibly to get in on the action, possibly to stop it before it goes too far… A weird and complex story that is part homage to, and part fever dream of, H.P. Lovecraft. The prose and structure is all Simak, very simple and clean; the homage comes from the uses of various themes that make up this somewhat confused story—madness, Pluto, unsavory creatures oozing froth from their mouths, unsettling discoveries found through scientific exploration. It’s a unique story in Simak’s bibliography, though not what I’d call his best—while the story is a bit choppy, it’s fascinating to see Simak tackle such odd and creative ideas.
All the Traps of Earth – F&SF, Mar 1960
Richard Daniel is lost, without goal or purpose. His existence has been to serve the Barrington family, and with the end of their family line, he’s left in a meditative state trying to figure what to do with himself. He also finds himself against the law, with a mandate that no robot could exist for more than a hundred years—no robot should outlive a human—yet here he is, an antiquated robot some six centuries old. To avoid the law, he leaves Earth for one of the many colony worlds… but while he can escape all the traps of Earth, there’s one thing he can’t escape from: his nature.
The story’s pacing is a bit odd, which may be why two editors passed on buying it until Mills of Fantasy & Science Fiction picked it up: it starts off as a contemplative look at robotic servitude, becomes an escape through space on the back of a rocket ship, and then becomes more contemplative and introspective again by the end. What salvages the story is Richard Daniel as a character: a humanized and sympathetic robot running from an unjust law, who (through blind luck and determination) stumbles through events which give him a new lease on life. Despite some technical flaws, this is Simak at his finest: jaded but full of hope, an excellent vision that touches the reader at an emotional level.
The Bottom Line
Oddly enough, few of these stories have the same pastoral themes as Simak’s novels, a combination of bittersweet nostalgia and mournful utopian bliss. Instead, they deal with some other common themes Simak would return to time and time again: capitalism and planetary exploitation, time travel, humanized robots, dehumanized humans. This collection ranges from quite good to average, ten stories written over a forty year period (1939 to the mid-’70s). Some of them are throwbacks to Golden Age SF, dealing with themes and an unbridled optimism for space exploration (exploitation?) that hasn’t really existed since the ’90s; others are still resonant today, full of depth and insight in how Simak presents his ideas and characters.
“I Am Crying All Inside” and “All the Traps of Earth” are some of Simak’s artier pieces and very poignant stories, each delivering a good deal of emotional resonance thanks to how Simak handled their robot protagonists. “Small Deer” is a sharp little story that fits with the best of the Galaxy style. Despite their similarities and old-fashioned feel, “Gleaners” and “Installment Plan” have some Golden Age charm and make good use of their ideas. “I Had No Head…” is an interesting switch and inverts those earlier stories’ focus—a bit blunt in its commentary, though not at all didactic—though, “Ogre” did that just as well a few decades earlier.
Simak is an odd author compared to many of his Golden Age contemporaries; he could be quite bitter about human failings, yet he also wrote stories full of hope for the future, and could instill character and emotion in his robot characters. This collection begins what promises to be a long journey through his stories, with several fine tales represented here; it should work as a good introduction to his work, though it’s less a “greatest hits” collection and more of a core sample of Simak’s bibliography. All in all, this is a well-rounded collection that should interest any fan of Simak—or any reader of classic SF who needs more exposure to one of the genre’s great authors.
Title: I Am Crying All Inside and other stories – The Complete Clifford Simak, Volume 1
Author: Clifford Simak
Release Date: 2015
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (eARC via Netgalley)
ISBN/ASIN: 1504012674 / B010EMZW06
First published: 1939 – 1969 (short stories in pulps and digest magazines)