All the Traps of Earth by Clifford D. Simak
Looking back, it strikes me with some surprise that, up until very recently, I had not read any of sci-fi Grand Master Clifford D. Simak’s shorter work in over 40 years. Oh, I had read any number of the author’s novels during those four decades, but since reading his 1968 collection So Bright the Vision back in 1981, none of his work of a shorter length. Coming to my rescue in this regard was the Wisconsin-born writer’s All the Traps of Earth, which had been sitting here at home on a shelf, unread, for ages now. And as it turns out, the collection is an absolutely splendid one, with nary a clinker in the bunch.
All the Traps of Earth gathers together nine of Simak’s stories from the 10-year period 1951 – 1960 – one short story, six novelettes, and two novellas – most of them drawn from the sci-fi digest magazine Galaxy. The collection was initially released as a $3.95 Doubleday hardcover in 1962, with cover art by one Lawrence Ratzkin. At least half a dozen different publishers would come out with their own editions over the next decade and a half; the one that I was fortunate enough to acquire somewhere, somewhen is the $2.25 paperback from Avon, released in 1979 with a wonderfully faithful cover by Jan Esteves. I believe that the book’s most recent iteration is also from Avon; the 1988 paperback with another faithful cover illustration, this time by Jim Warren. At the time of the collection’s initial release, Simak was pushing 60 years old and had already had eight novels and almost 100 stories published, although Way Station, for which he’d win one of his three Hugo Awards, was still a year away. This collection, thus, reveals the author for the seasoned pro that he assuredly was at this stage in his career, and its nine tales cover a wide range of subject matter while providing top-notch entertainment value. Personally, I just loved every single one of them. Even Scottish critic David Pringle, a much stricter judge than myself, says of the collection, in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, “Nine limpidly written and very enjoyable stories.” Even if you don’t believe me, you can always trust Pringle!
Now, as to the nine wonders in the book itself, the collection kicks off in a big way with its title piece, “All the Traps of Earth” (a novelette that originally appeared in the January 1960 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction). In this one, 600-year-old domestic robot Richard Daniel desperately tries to leave Earth after the last member of the Barrington family, for which it had served all those centuries, passes away. Earth, it seems, has a law forbidding the existence of any robots over 100 years old, unless they undergo a complete personality wipe. Richard Daniel, thus, desirous of remaining who it has long been, attaches itself to the outside of a space-bound star cruiser and later undergoes some pretty psychedelic experiences when the ship goes into hyperspace. And Richard Daniel’s subsequent adventures on a planet being worked largely by fellow robots, as a stowaway on a tramp spaceship, and on the idyllic planet Arcadia soon reveal that being so directly exposed to hyperspace has done something to its brain; the robot can now see mechanical objects and human beings as diagrams, and move things telekinetically with its mind… This warm, wonderful and winning story gets the collection off to a terrific start, and is followed by three more really superlative tales.
In “Good Night, Mr. James” (a novelette from the March 1951 Galaxy Science Fiction magazine), the titular Henderson James, a 36-year-old alien psychologist, makes the mistake of his life when he brings an alien puudly back to Earth for study – despite its importation being highly illegal. And when the psychotically violent and very pregnant puudly escapes from confinement, James has no other choice but to venture out and attempt to kill it … before it can reproduce! Simak gives the reader no fewer than three big surprises before this hugely suspenseful wringer of a tale draws to its downbeat and memorable close. “Good Night, Mr. James,” I should add, served as the source material for the second season Outer Limits episode “The Duplicate Man,” which first aired on December 19, 1964. The teleplay by Robert C. Dennis changed the puudly to an alien called a Megasoid (a much more intimidating-sounding creature, to be sure) and gave Henderson a wife but remains a very fine adaptation of this classic Simak tale, nevertheless.
In the fittingly titled “Drop Dead” (a novelette from the July 1956 Galaxy Science Fiction), a team of six scientists touches down on a previously unexplored planet to make an agricultural survey. They are soon stunned to discover that this world is essentially one giant grassland, its only fauna being a bovinelike creature that is part beef, part fowl, part fish, part fruit and part vegetable; a creature that accommodatingly does indeed drop dead whenever one of the men needs to dissect and study it! The mission seems to go well until the ship’s food supply is damaged and the men must perforce chow down on these hybrids, which they refer to as the “critters.” And as it turns out, this new food source is both delicious and life sustaining … until, of course, problems arise. Simak again reserves several memorable surprises for his readers in this nicely atmospheric and pleasingly downbeat tale.
The absolutely charming novella “No Life of Their Own” (from the August 1959 Galaxy magazine; editor Horace L. Gold had dropped the words “Science Fiction” from the magazine’s title as of the September 1958 issue, feeling those words might scare off potential customers!) shows us what happens to a small American town faced with integration … not by people of other races, but by otherworldly aliens! The tale is narrated by a young boy named Steve, who tells us of the alien kids he likes to pal around with, all of whose actual names are unpronounceable. There’s Fancy Pants, who can levitate himself about; Nature Boy, who can befriend any animal; and the new kid on the block, a small, owl-faced lad whom they nickname Butch. And it is Butch who starts the action going in this story when he discerns “halflings” loitering about; strange beings who occupy another dimension than ours and who can seemingly bring good luck to those on whom they take a fancy. And when Nature Boy becomes interdimensionally trapped, that’s when Steve and his pals – as well as the distraught Earthling and alien adults – get embroiled, too. This is a thoroughly wonderful tale – kind of like what Tom Sawyer’s story might have been like had Huck Finn and some of their cronies been aliens blessed with superpowers – that might have made for a top-notch novel, or even a series of books. Alas.
“The Sitters” (a novelette from the April 1958 Galaxy Science Fiction) finds elderly school superintendent Johnson Dean a very confused man. The kids at Millville High are evincing little interest in sports, their grades have been remarkably high, and they are more mature and levelheaded than most kids their age. Could it possibly have something to do with the titular Sitters – the three alien entities who had baby-sat many of them and opened up a nursery school in the town? What would you think? This is another warmhearted, gentle story from Simak, who did these kinds of tales so well. In parts an ode to loneliness, a moving fantasy and a character study, the tale succeeds on all three fronts. If “Good Night, Mr. James” had been perfect fodder for The Outer Limits, “The Sitters,” it strikes me, might have been adapted as a moving episode of The Twilight Zone. Again, alas.
“Crying Jag” (a novelette from the February 1960 Galaxy) can be seen as a companion piece of sorts to “The Sitters,” as it also transpires in the town of Millville. Here, a drunken sanatorium janitor named Sam tells the story of how he had been approached by an alien and his robot while peacefully drinking on his front stoop one Saturday evening. The alien told Sam his unpronounceable name but then added that he could just be called Wilbur; the robot bore the imposing name of, uh, Lester. Wilbur, as it turns out, thrived on hearing other people’s sad stories; he got positively inebriated by listening to them, while the confessor found that he/she felt immediately better as a result. Soon enough, everyone in town was lining up to tell Wilbur their sorry stories, Sam’s employer tried to convince the alien to work in his sanatorium, and beings from Wilbur’s home planet arrived to arrest him, in this consistently funny and hugely entertaining romp.
“Installment Plan,” the longest story in this collection (a novelette from the February 1959 Galaxy), introduces the reader to Steve Sheridan, who works for Central Trading. Steve and his crew of around a dozen wisecracking robots are the third delegation to visit planet Garson IV. Its mission: to trade all sorts of wares with the gnomelike inhabitants there for the podar plants that Earth desperately needs. This trade agreement had been arranged by the second delegation 15 years earlier, after it was discovered that the tuberlike plants yielded a perfect tranquilizer drug. But now, the Garsonians are receiving Steve and his robots in stony silence, and refusing to cooperate. Thus, the central dilemmas: What has changed the Garsonians’ minds, and how to make them agreeable again? For this reader, those humanlike robots really managed to make this story a delight, and the wonderful, brotherly rapport that they have with one another, as well as with Sheridan, is really something. And the so-called specialized “transmogs” that Sheridan can slip into his robots’ noggins to turn them into experts in any given field is an ingenious conceit. Need a salesman? Stick a salesman transmog into one of the robots and voila! Some neat surprises and unexpected plot twists are the cappers to this expertly crafted tale; again, a story that could well have served as the springboard for a whole raft of Sheridan and the robots stories. Oh, well.
This collection’s briefest piece, “Condition of Employment” (a short story from the April 1960 Galaxy), comes next. Here, Anson Cooper, engineer first class with a black mark on his record, is stuck on a planet that he thoroughly detests: Earth. Cooper, you see, had been born and raised on Mars, and would give anything to find a position on a ship going to the Red Planet. And then one day, Cooper gets his wish, when the captain of a shabby, run-down vessel hires him on, with one catch: The ship is powered by the notoriously cranky Morrison engines, which require round-the-clock looking after. So does Cooper manage to safely bring the old tub back to his home world? Let’s just say that another marvelous Simakian twist ending comes as a stunning surprise in this well-written tale.
And this collection is brought to a close by still another masterwork, “Project Mastodon” (a novelette from the March 1955 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction). In this one, three men, old pals from boyhood, manage to successfully build a handheld time-travel device, purchase a helicopter to use in conjunction with it, and land in the southwestern corner of Wisconsin (an area of the country that Simak knew well) … of 150,000 years ago! While the machine’s actual inventor, Wesley Adams, and his associate John Cooper remain in the past, the third man, Chuck Hudson, comes back to modern-day Washington, D.C. and tries to arrange for the U.S. government to recognize their new country of Mastodonia, preparatory to a trade agreement. Naturally, Hudson is taken to be some kind of a crank, and so he returns to the two others in the past. But major-league trouble arises when a battling mastodon and saber-tooth wreck the trio’s helicopter and damage the time-travel gizmo, effectively stranding them in the past! The story then neatly alternates between time periods, as a Washington general tries to convince his associates of Hudson’s veracity in the present, while we also witness our time travelers’ dilemmas in the past. It is a wonderful story, and the precursor to Simak’s 1978 novel Mastodonia, which I’d really like to read now…
So there you have it … nine expertly crafted stories from a beloved sci-fi Grand Master, each of which is sure to entertain, startle and amuse. It is a generously sized volume, and yet I still found myself wishing for more as I turned the 278th and final page. But I can tell you this: I’m not going to let another 40 years go by before seeking out another Clifford D. Simak collection! More than highly recommended!
Oopsie…I made a booboo. “Installment Plan” is a novella, not a novelette. My bad, and all that….
I wondered if “All the Traps of Earth” was the basis for a Robin Williams movie called Centennial Man–but apparent not. The first review I read said it came from a Bob Silverberg novel instead.
I believe “The Centennial Man” was written by Asimov and later expanded to novel length in collaboration with Silverberg. Still haven’t read the story in either form, however….
I haven’t either, and probably won’t, the general plot seemed similar, though.