I’ve been on a little bit of a Clifford Simak kick lately, triggered by a chance reading of All Flesh is Grass, and I’ve been happy to revisit or discover more of his work. This collection of warm, friendly stories – the first in a projected dozen – kept me feeling that way.
While I tend to think of Simak in terms of small-town, Earth-bound stories, the short stories here are definite SF of the man meets alien variety. Plus a western. They’re all good, and they all show the everyday-man touch Simak was so good at. The stories are:
- Installment Plan – a nice story about robot-human cooperation. Not a logic-puzzle Asimov story, not evil robots; just coexistence.
- I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air – a clever story about man’s pretensions to superiority. Some great points, but the execution of the end is weak.
- Small Deer – what really happened to the dinosaurs? A thin story with no great surprises.
- Ogre – humans tangle with aliens over music. One of my favorites, with some sophisticated concepts under its pulp-incredible surface.
- Gleaners – the manager of a time-travel agency runs out of patience. It’s hard to do much that’s interesting with time travel. Simak pulls it off by focusing on the people involved, and not worrying too much about science.
- Madness from Mars – astronauts bring back a seemingly innocuous Martian creature. Another story where there’s real pathos beneath the pulpy plot.
- Gunsmoke Interlude – a gunslinger runs into a tough sheriff. I hadn’t actually known that Simak wrote westerns. This one is very good, up until a weak ending.
- I Am Crying All Inside – robots and humans left behind by emigration. The seeds of a really good story are here, but they don’t really come out.
- The Call From Beyond – a man looking for solitude finds humans in an unexpected place. A bit long, and the ending could have been stronger, but interesting despite it.
- All the Traps of Earth – a robot at the end of his lifecycle looks for purpose. One of the few stories I’d read before, and for good reason. The ending is a bit trite, but as with Installment Plan, Simak does a great job of treating robots as real characters rather than props.
The book is a decent size for quick consumption, though the dozen-volume plan seems ambitious, and I wonder why they didn’t choose fewer, bigger books. The stories have short, mildly interesting, but inoffensive forewords that provide a little context, from a long-time Simak associate. What’s missing is any explanation of the selection and ordering criteria. I couldn’t see any logic to it – not chronological, not thematic (that western). It’s a common problem in single-author collections (cf the Roger Zelazny 6 volume set), but an irritant nonetheless.
If you haven’t read much Simak, this is a good place to start – a short but solid set of SF stories about people, rather than gimmicks.