Sunday, August 2, 2009

Skirmish

A respected reader of the blog suggested that I was being perhaps too harsh on Clifford Simak with my review of The Goblin Reservation. He fursther suggested I read a collection of Simak short stories, for which he was willing to loan me his copy of Skirmish, subtitled The Great Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak. Recognizing that Simak has been awarded a Grand Master award and that my friend and I tend to agree on golden and silver age SF, I dove into the book.

There are some strong stories in the collection, including Simak's Hugo-award winning novelette, "The Big Front Yard." This story follows what feels like a fairly typical golden age plotline—enterprising human Hiram Taine discovers someone or something living in his house which in turn creates a gateway to another world before disappearing, and then Taine is left to deal with the consequences. Part of the strength of the story is the Taine is more developed than the protagonists in a number of other Simak stories. Taine is described as a Yankee trader, going out to the households near his home and trading for what his neighbors feel to be worthless junk which Taine is able to rehabilitate and sell for profit. We never really get to see Taine performing this skill but we get to see the results of it a number of times. In addition, we get to see that Taine is devoted to his dog, Towser; ironically, Towser is also more fully developed than a lot of the protagonists in the other stories. Simak gives Towser very human reactions to the stimulus around him and he and Taine are devoted to one another. Another character, Beasly, is also somewhat developed, but also serves as a plot device: as the story develops, it is apparent that although he is somewhat lazy and shiftless, he has the ability to communicate with animals, exemplified by the messages he passes to Taine from Towser. And when Taine and Towser come across the aliens inhabiting the world that suddenly appears outside his front yard, Beasly's gift allows him to serves a mode of communication between our ambassadors and the aliens. But others of the characters in "The Big Front Yard" are fairly flat, especially Henry and Abbie, Taine's neighbors who constantly strive to take advantage of Taine and everyone else they come in contact. They twist the truth, even to one another, and are generally the amicable Taine's foils in the action of the story, going so far as to antagonize the likable Beasly, further indicating their status outside the circle of "good people."

Another part of the strength of the story is that the aliens actually play a relatively minor part, ultimately becoming part of everyman Taine's overcoming the people around him who try to take advantage of his easy-going nature. While this could be seen as a weakness, it distills an important component of a lot of the best science fiction stories, that of describing human relationships. The fact that Taine finds aliens in his front yard isn't nearly so important as finding something that the people around him want to take advantage in the same way that they try to take advantage of Taine and Beasly. And then good instincts and honesty take over, helping the everyman to succeed when those socially or intellectually above them are struggling to cope with the huge changes about to overtake their world. This runs parallel to a relatively common idea in episodes of Twilight Zone: when aliens come to Earth, there is no guarantee that they will first run into the intellectual and economic upper class, and we may be better off in the long run if they deal with average humans first.

Perhaps my favorite story in Skirmish is "Desertion." Again, the main characters are developed nicely, especially Kent Fowler, a human officer at a planetary outpost on Jupiter. Fowler is tasked with exploring Jupiter via a tool that allows humans to take on the form of the dominant Jovian life form: people are refashioned to survive in the Jovian atmosphere without any machinery, but as a native life form. As the story opens, Fowler is sending out his fifth "volunteer" to explore; the previous two teams of two he has already sent out have never returned. When the fifth man does not return, his coworkers fear and despise Fowler for sending people out to their dooms, and the station nurse, Miss Stanley, typifies their reaction to him. For a good part of the story, it feels as if the conflict is going to be between Fowler's sense of duty to his employers and to the people he works with. Instead, Fowler resolves that conflict fairly easily by volunteering himself on the mission, undergoing the process. Part of the enjoyment of the story comes from Fowler's relationship with his dog (also named Towser) that he has had forever and who is in his waning years of a full life. When Fowler undergoes the process to become a Jovian life form, he puts Towser through it as well, giving Towser new life. And when they first meet up on the surface of Jupiter, Towser starts talking to him using the previously unknown communication senses the Jovians possess, so that the two best friends can explore together.

What they find, and the cause of the disappearance of the other explorers is fascinating. It doesn't matter that the tool Simak uses that allows Fowler and Towser to make their discovery is impossible. If a machine existed that could refashion humans and dogs so completely as the one in the story does, the scientists who run it should have an indication of what the explorers discover on their survey. The power of "Desertion" lies in the vision of the human place in the universe. Fowler discovers that Towser is a far better companion than he could ever imagine, hinting that humans are a special creature for the love they inspire in such devoted creatures as dogs. But immediately following that discovery, Fowler learns that humans are in fact very very small in the grand scale of things. It is this dual sense of wonder—that we barely know who we are in any dimension that delivers the power of the story; Simak feeds our sense of wonder for the universe at large and at what humans are capable of at the same time.

The weaker stories in Skirmish do not have this same development of character, and so I found myself less invested in the outcome of the story; typical of this is "The thing in the Stone." Frankly, I feel Simak has too much on his plate in this story. Pity poor Wallace Daniels: he has lost his family in a car accident and has bought land in rural Wisconsin to try to recuperate. During his recuperation, he discovers that the accident has affected his brain such that he finds himself often displaced in time, but only backwards, travelling into the past and seeing the various early ages of life and their effects on his property. As if that weren't enough, these travels cause him to discover that something is buried deep in the rocky caves near his home, but he cannot determine its exact nature. This seems a workable premise, but Simak takes another step further by giving Daniels a nasty neighbor, Ben Adams, who is both lazy and jealous of those who work and succeed. Adams first calls out the sheriff to accuse Daniels of being a chicken thief, and when the sheriff refuses to believe the complaint after talking to Daniels, Adams turns to a murderous plot to get rid of Daniels. However, Daniels is a cipher; he evokes the reader's sympathy with his tragic tale of losing his family and by having to deal with Adams's evil scheme, but ultimately we don't learn anything about Daniels. Unlike Taine and Fowler in the other stories, there is nothing to remark the protagonist beyond being caught up in extraordinary events. And the only other character who could really use development, Adams, is more of a plot device than anything else. He complains to the sheriff, which leads to the dialogue that is the introduction of Daniels to the reader. And then he tries to kill Daniels in a horribly ill-thought out fashion, which forces Daniels to confront the thing he has found in the caves. Then, worst of all (plotwise), Adams relents and calls the sheriff out to help him rescue Daniels, who he has stranded, which in turn provides Simak the opportunity to give his denouement. Granted, Daniels finds something while he is snared in Adams's trap, fortunately travelling back in time and wandering out of the area where his trap lay, but the nature of what he finds is so horribly ambiguous that it offers no satisfaction to the reader at its discovery. There are moments in "The Thing in the Stone" where Simak writes evocatively of the geography and ecology of his native Wisconsin; these are some of the strongest moments in the story. But those descriptions do nothing to advance the movement or them of the short story and thus are mostly wasted. And the result is a weak story with all of its infrastructure showing, such that I am not transported by the story at all but saddened at the creaky bits that try to move the story.

One of my biggest complains about The Goblin Reservation was the way that characters have long internal dialogues that lead to incredibly accurate extrapolations/interpolations of the events that surround them, which in turn provide impetus for the plot to move along. This technique is useful in short stories—characters make incredible leaps in logic to advance the plot, and since the format is shorter, the author doesn't have time to waste by having characters think about alternatives to their decisions, at least not at any length. The novel form does have the space to allow this, and some interesting storytelling opportunities are presented when the character intuits badly and acts on that intuition (this would seem especially useful for mysteries). The main character in The Goblin Reservation was never wrong, thus stretching my readerly credulity. There are stories in Skirmish that use the same device, with a little more success."Good night, Mr. James" is one such story, using this kind of narrative tool nearly exclusively; in fact, Henderson James, the protagonist, knows absolutely nothing when the story begins and talks to practically no one through the course of the story. As a result, James must reason out every detail that he discovers by talking to himself. Unfortunately, how he reaches the conclusions he does are incomprehensible though they are never wrong. As I read, I was frustrated by this repeated process, feeling the author stick his finger into the plot with very little disguise and stirring things up, rather than using better writers' tools. It was merely confusing the first couple of times it happened, but eventually it feels like the machina of a terribly intrusive deus and just becomes annoying. When James finally figures out who he is, it would be a shocking and satisfying conclusion to an unusual mystery if the reader could have been included in the logic of how everyone got there. But with such mechanical intrusion, I only felt relief that it was over and agitation that it could have been better. It's no surprise that this story was used in a TV anthology series along the line of The Outer Limits, but I have no idea how such heavy-handed internal decision-making could be carried over to TV effectively.

I'm glad I have gone on to read more Simak. He's horribly frustrating to me because it all feels horribly uneven. His strengths seems to lie with developing stories that deal with what it means to be human and stretching those boundaries. When he goes for the shock ending that is fairly typical of the golden age science fiction, he appears to give up all his storytelling skills in service to the big surprise. Those stories have their place as well, but they are also fairly common and are part of what has led to speculative fiction getting the reputation it has among critics. It's the other kind of story, the thoughtful and insightful mediations on bigger things, that prove that speculative fiction can reach beyond the clich├ęs that entrap it. Simak stands with one foot in both schools, making it a crap shoot for which kind of story you're going to get.

(A minor confession: I have read and own Simak's Hugo-Winning novel, Way Station. However, I have no recollection of it at all. I fear that it may have some of those same traits I didn't like in The Goblin Reservation, but I'll pull it out and go through it again, a vastly different reader than I was twenty years ago when I first read it.)

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