Shadows of Simak

In a recent thread on the many-threaded blog of James Nicoll, someone expressed surprise that Clifford Simak received the Grandmaster Award from SFWA.

This didn’t surprise me much (although I enjoy Simak). The Zeitgeist of the 1970s could not have been more friendly to Simak, “the bucolic poet of science fiction”, but the tenor of the 2000s couldn’t be more hostile. Simak is not especially literary in his conception or his delivery; his characterization is sketchy; his plots do not hinge on issues of hard science; his poker-faced quirkiness may not play well in an age when the boundary of quirk has moved very far from where it was at any point in Simak’s life. He was fond of dogs, goblins, comic strips, robots, androids, psychics and time travel, and it is hard to think of any theme more unfashionable nowadays than these, except for the countryside of the upper Midwest in autumn, which Simak was also very fond of.

But there are three reasons why I think Simak deserved his Grandmaster Award. One is simply time served: he was one of the few writers whose careers predated Campbell’s tenure at Astounding who were still steadily producing work in the 1970s (and continued to do so until they died). The only similar example I can think of is Jack Williamson, who was Grandmaster the year before Simak.

Another is his dogged willingness to pursue an idea to its limits, no matter if it ran counter to generally accepted notions. What if dogs ruled the Earth? (City.) What if peace and understanding are bad things? (“Paradise”, published in the burst of idealism that followed WWII.) What if space travel is impossible? (Time Is the Simplest Thing, published in 1961 as the Mercury Program was getting underway.) What if runaway capitalism destroys our culture? (This the theme of a couple novels written smack in the middle of the Cold War, Ring Around the Sun and They Walked Like Men.)

The last reason is that Simak seems to have had a lot of influence on writers who are better-remembered than he is. This occurred to me tonight as I was reading through Time and Again. I can’t say this is Simak’s best work: it takes itself a little too seriously for my tastes. (Although there is an amusing bit in the middle where an aged Simak appears and bores the hero by maundering on about a story he once wrote which is obviously Time and Again). But one thing that particularly struck me about the book is a sequence where the hero goes back in time to fulfill his destiny and he is befriended by a man named John Sutton. When Heinlein finally wrote a time travel novel (six or seven years after Time & Again was published), his hero goes back in time to fulfill his destiny and he is befriended by a man named John Sutton. The similarities are too close to be accidental; in fact, it looks like a deliberate tip of the hat by Heinlein.

Time and Again also involves a transtemporal war over the shape of the future. This looks a lot like Leiber’s Changewar stories, which would begin to appear some years later. The precursor of the Changewar stories is generally held to be Leiber’s own Destiny Times Three, which obviously influenced Time and Again. I may be completely wrong (tracing influences among contemporaries is tricky business), but it looks like Simak picks up the idea of a transtemporal war from Leiber, who takes it up again in response to Simak. The development of the idea is less like a monologue (Leiber talking to Leiber) than a conversation (Leiber talking with Simak) and maybe other voices should be added (e.g. Asimov’s End of Eternity).

Ursula LeGuin somewhere compares sf in the 40s and 50s to classical music in the 18th C., when Mozart and Haydn and that crowd were swapping musical ideas and forms to create a style of music that transcended any one composer’s creativity. If the comparison is valid (and I don’t know enough about music or sf to say for sure), Simak is one of the players in that orchestra.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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2 Responses to Shadows of Simak

  1. james_nicoll says:

    In a recent thread on the many-threaded blog of James Nicoll’s, someone expressed surprise that Clifford Simak received the Grandmaster Award from SFWA.

    Not me, though. I’m a big Simak fan.

    You know that Darkside Press is doing a 12 volume series that will collect all of Simak’s short fiction?

    • JE says:

      You know that Darkside Press is doing a 12 volume series that will collect all of Simak’s short fiction?

      No, I didn’t. Thanks for the emotionally uplifting (if economically depressing) news. I see they’re doing Cleve Cartmill’s stories, too.

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