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In the span of his fifty-five year career, Clifford Simak penned some of the most iconic science fiction ever written: over a hundred short stories paired with a fistful of award-winning novels like City, Why Call Them Back From Heaven?, and Way Station. Simak’s writing is defined by his themes—robots, immortality, cave men, time travel, all underlined by a rich feeling of pastoral life and small-town Americana. His writing is often thoughtful and subdued, whether they are flights of whimsy or sad reflections on humanity’s shortcomings. Despite his many awards, Simak is considered one of the genre’s more underrated masters; it’s been a while since many of his stories were reprinted, a situation thankfully being rectified via a nine-volume series collecting all of Simak’s short fiction. I’ve already read and reviewed the first volume, I Am Crying All InsideGrotto of the Dancing Deer is the fourth volume, released earlier this year.

Open Road Media - 2016.

Open Road Media – 2016.

The title story, “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” is a quiet tale that touches on many of Simak’s core themes. An archaeologist investigating a series of ancient cave paintings in France notices that his local laborer always seems to be in the right place to discover these pieces of art. He realizes that this laborer was the original painter, doomed to walk the earth as an immortal, but trapped by that secret in lonely isolation. Simak handles the subject with soft care and precision, and the story is rich in pastoral vibes tinged with loneliness. It won the Hugo and Nebula for best short story for a reason: it’s a powerful but subtle piece.

The earliest stories in this collection are pieces of pure pulp entertainment, a bit ragged and archaic compared to the author’s more refined works. “Hunger Death” deals with a newspaper journalist investigating a killer disease where the infected starve to death, who discovers that a backwater Venusian colony-city—mostly down on their luck Okie-types, drawn to the planet by false advertising—is the only place immune to the sickness. It foreshadows where Simak was going with its folksy characters saving the day, but it feels quite primitive, both in Simak’s early writing and in the focus on print journalism. “Mutiny on Mercury” is one of the author’s earliest tales, and it’s almost unrecognizable, reading more like a draft from Otis Adelbert Kline. The mining planet of Mercury finds itself under a slave revolt when the traitorous Martians lead the strong-but-stupid moon men on a revolt against humanity, against which our bravo hero Tom Clark fights back with sword and gun. The story has good adventure and some harrowing thrills, but I found the slavery element quite distasteful and crude in its execution.

The stories I liked best come from the period of Simak’s high-water mark, the works he produced for Galaxy during the 1950s and 1960s. “Crying Jag” is one of the most effective: a small-town drunk is visited by two aliens, who themselves get drunk—and become addicted to—humanity’s tales of woe and sorrow, sucking the sadness out of whoever they meet. It’s a strange tale, but a brilliant one told with pathos. The starship crew in “Jackpot” have searched many planets for untapped minerals, but finally strike it big when they discover alien relics—sort of an alien library—on an uninhabited world. But the men become conflicted on what to do with them, showing that Simak’s space exploiters could be humanists after all. And “Day of Truce” deals with an ongoing war between roving youth gangs and suburban adults who have fortified their house into an electrified stronghold. While this setup may seem hyperbolic, it’s handled very well as both a metaphor and a solid story.

This series collecting Simak’s work continues to be well worth your time and interest, though I wish they had been presented either chronologically—well, maybe not, given the quality of his ’30s fiction—or thematically. Or at least with Simak’s western stories devoted to a single volume, to make it easier on readers of that genre. Still, it’s hard to fault the series given that Simak’s work is of consistent high quality. Clifford Simak is one of those rare gems in the annals of science fiction history, a talented writer who penned thoughtful, deeply humane stories. I fear that Simak’s name is oft forgotten or overlooked because he didn’t write what many readers expect SF to look like—space opera, planetary adventure, hard science—so I hope that these volumes bring his works to a wider audience.

Contents List:

  • Over the River and Through the Woods (Amazing Stories, May 1965)
  • The Grotto of the Dancing Deer (The Marathon Photograph and Other Stories, 1980)
  • The Reformation of Hangman’s Gulch (Big-Book Western Magazine, Dec 1944)
  • The Civilization Game (Galaxy, Nov 1958)
  • Crying Jag (Galaxy, Feb 1960)
  • Hunger Death (Astounding Science Fiction, Oct 1938)
  • Mutiny on Mercury (Wonder Stories, Mar 1932)
  • Jackpot (Galaxy, Oct 1956)
  • Day of Truce (Galaxy, Feb 1963)
  • Unsilent Spring (Stellar #2, 1976)

Book Details
Title: Grotto of the Dancing Deer: And Other Stories (The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak Book 4)
Author: Clifford Simak
First Published Date: 1932 – 1980 (short stories in magazines and anthologies)
Release Date: 1 March 2016
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley and Open Road Media)
MSRP: $7.99 ebook