The Worlds of Clifford Simak by Clifford D. Simak science fiction book reviewsThe Worlds of Clifford Simak by Clifford D. Simak science fiction book reviewsThe Worlds of Clifford Simak by Clifford D. Simak

A recent perusal of Clifford D. Simak’s wonderful collection All the Traps of Earth (from 1962) served to remind this reader of how very excellent the beloved Wisconsin-born novelist could be with the shorter form, and I resolved to read more of his stories in the near future. Thus, when I spotted a rather beat-up copy of his collection The Worlds of Clifford Simak (no middle initial here, for some odd reason) in a NYC bookstore, I bought it on the spot, despite not knowing some pertinent facts about the book; facts that might have given me pause had I known. To wit:

The Worlds of Clifford Simak was originally released in 1960 as a $3.75 Simon & Schuster hardcover. The book ran to almost 400 pages, contained 12 stories, and featured a dust jacket by one Saul Lambert. The following year, Avon would reprint the book as a 50-cent, 191-page paperback, boasting still another distinctive cover by the great Richard Powers, but with only six of the original 12 stories. Yes, this was indeed the edition that I wound up with, and my initial disappointment was only tempered when I later learned that the missing six stories did appear in Avon’s follow-up companion volume, Other Worlds of Clifford Simak, in 1962, and with another wonderful Powers cover. (This was not the first time that this sort of thing had happened to me, by the way. When I purchased the Panther edition of Frank Belknap Long’s classic horror collection of 1946, The Hounds of Tindalos, I soon realized that the book had been split in two by that British publisher, and then had to purchase the second volume, The Black Druid.) In 1961, The Worlds of Clifford Simak (the six-story version, that is) was also reprinted by the German publisher Goldmann, under the new title Das Tor Zur Anderen Welt (The Gate to the Other World), in simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions. And that, my friends, is the short but nevertheless somewhat confusing history of this charming collection. I hope to be picking up Other Worlds… very shortly, but let’s focus on this six-story initial gathering first. Spanning the five-year period 1954 – ’58, this Avon edition brings together one short story and five novelettes, and – no great surprise – provides top entertainment value for the sci-fi buff. Simak, by the year 1960, had already come out with four novels (out of an eventual 30 or so) and some 75 short stories (out of what would one day be approximately 110), and the collection in question finds him in tip-top form, indeed.

The Worlds of Clifford Simak by Clifford D. Simak science fiction book reviewsUnfortunately – and unlike All the Traps of Earth, which kicked off with one of its strongest tales – this particular collection opens with what was, for me, its weakest entry. In the short story “Honorable Opponent” (which originally appeared in the August 1956 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, in the month Simak turned 52), Earth has been at war with a race known as the Fivers for some time. The Fivers (no explanation is ever vouchsafed by the author regarding their unusual name), roly-poly, smiling and tentacled, possess a weapon than can instantaneously make any combatant ship simply vanish, and now Earth is being forced into an armistice of some kind. It is only after delegations from both sides meet on a barren, neutral planet that the Terran representatives are finally able to learn what the Fivers are all about. This story, slight as it is, yet features some very real suspense, an interesting alien people (the manner in which the Fivers speak is most amusing), and a surprising windup. It is actually a pretty fine sci-fi story, but only pales in comparison with the stories that follow.

The collection bounces back in a very big way with its next offering, the novelette-length classic “The Big Front Yard” (which originally appeared in the October 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and with some remarkably faithful cover art for the Simak story by the great Kelly Freas). This truly wondrous tale introduces the reader to an archetypical Simak character: a loner who lives in a rural setting and who becomes involved in some mind-boggling galactic mishegas. In this case, it is Hiram Taine, who resides in the small town of Willow Bend with his dog Towser and works as a general repairman and antiques dealer. Hiram’s placid existence is given a big shake-up one day when some remarkable occurrences transpire in and around his house. The basement suddenly sports a ceiling made of some unknown, impenetrable substance. His broken radio and stove begin to function properly, a B&W TV that he had been repairing suddenly becomes a color set, and Towser digs up something in the woods that very much resembles a flying saucer! And before long, part of Hiram’s house disappears, 16 ratlike beings with human faces make themselves known, and the front door of his family abode opens on to a desert landscape … on another planet! And this is just the beginning of Hiram’s adventures. “The Big Front Yard” is an absolutely charming story that manages to induce a sense of cosmic awe in the reader, and perhaps never more so than when Hiram explores that desert outside his door and finds another house, leading to still another world! While reading this, I couldn’t help thinking that this really is some award-worthy piece of work, and sure enough, a little research revealed that Simak did indeed win his first of three Hugos for this story, which was proclaimed Best Novelette of the Year in 1959.

Another aging loner coot is to be found in the collection’s next story, “Operation Stinky” (a novelette that first appeared in the April 1957 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction). Here, hard-drinking Asa Bayles befriends a skunk that approaches his country shack. The skunk is unusual in that it purrs and wags its tail … oh, and because it just happens to transform Asa’s old jalopy into a self-driving, perfectly functioning automobile that is even capable of flight! But when Betsy, the erstwhile jalopy, collides with a jet from a nearby Air Force base, that’s when the authorities get wind of the miracle-working skunk. Naturally, the brass hats there decide to let the animal loose in one of their latest fighter jets, hoping for the same manner of improvements as had been worked on Betsy. And before long, the extraterrestrial mammal, perhaps inevitably nicknamed Stinky, does indeed begin to work miraculous adaptations. But who would ever suspect that Stinky might have an agenda of his own? This wildly whimsical tale, highly improbable as it is, is yet another surefire crowd-pleaser, although its final paragraph propels matters from the realm of the unlikely to that of sheer fantasy.

The collection’s next entry, “Jackpot,” originally appeared in something of a landmark issue of Galaxy Science Fiction; the October 1956 issue, in which Part 1 of the four-part serial The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester, also appeared. I am not the only one, I believe, to deem that Bester work the single greatest sci-fi novel of all time. But that is by the way. Simak’s novelette in that issue is narrated by the captain of a broken-down tramp starship, whose mercenary crew roams the galaxy in search of loot and a big payday. And, it seems, they might have finally hit the titular jackpot, when a 15-mile-wide silo is discovered on an apparently empty, Earth-like planet. Upon inspection, rooms of machinery are found, as well as thousands of tubes of what look like dynamite sticks. Ultimately, however, the alien owners of the silo warehouse make themselves known, and it is learned that the tubes and machinery are actually a means of imparting knowledge, and that the silo is actually a galactic university; a sort of free lending library. Our money-hungry captain thinks a fortune can be made from all that cached material, but the drunken ship’s doctor, a man of conscience, has other ideas. This story gives us five nicely differentiated lead characters – the captain, Doc, first engineer Hutch, first mate Frost, and ship’s cook Pancake – and features a well-done twist ending that few readers will see coming.

Other Worlds of Clifford Simak by Clifford D. Simak science fiction book reviewsAnother group of men on another Earth-like planet is encountered in “Lulu” (a novelette from the June 1957 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction). Here, the three-man crew of the Lulu – a sentient starship whose central computer is every bit as aware as HAL would be 11 years later in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey – runs into major-league trouble when Lulu, following a visit to a rather ribald world, decides that it is in love with the trio. The ship then overrides all manual controls and sets a course for uncharted space, so as to be alone with its three paramours. But when the men reject Lulu’s amorous declarations, and begin to purposely act lazy and unworthy, the disappointed vessel lands itself on an empty world and refuses to budge … effectively marooning our three desperate heroes. And what a planet Lulu has decided to plant herself on in a huff: a world filled with the relics of a dead civilization, those remnants guarded by a rhinoceros-sized, metallic, still-quite-living beetle thing, which attacks the men on sight. And so, the story’s central conundrum: how to get the miffed computer to help the men escape … a dilemma that grows even more problematic when Lulu and that metallic contraption discover feelings for one another! Again, our leading characters here are nicely differentiated: Jimmy, the communications man fond of writing mushy poems; Ben, a tough guy and robotic troubleshooter; and our narrator, some kind of interpreter who functions as the novelette’s everyman. It is at once a suspenseful and a humorous story, and the Earth-like planet on which it largely transpires is convincingly depicted. Another winner for the future sci-fi Grand Master!

This collection closes with yet another of Clifford Simak’s gentle, pastoral (folks always seem to use those two words to describe much of his fiction, and for good reason) tales, “Neighbor,” a novelette that originally appeared in the June 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Our narrator, Calvin, here tells us of the small town of Coon Valley, which one day receives a new family into its midst. But Reginald Heath is no ordinary dirt farmer, like those around him. His tractor is self-propelled and, upon a surreptitious examination on Calvin’s part, is revealed to run not on gasoline, but via some kind of “shiny cube” the likes of which nobody has seen before. The vegetables that Heath grows are also of completely unknown varieties, and at times, rain only seems to fall on his property. The newcomer would also seem to be a miraculous healer of the sick, and is able to turn around his run-down property in an astoundingly short amount of time. As more miraculous events transpire in Coon Valley over the course of the next decade, the reader slowly begins to wonder whether or not Reginald Heath might be from another planet … a suspicion that is only strengthened when we learn of his fascination with one particular blue star. Simak never confirms our suspicions here, but he really doesn’t have to; the clues only lead us in one unavoidable direction. Ultimately, the reader is left wishing that he/she could have a neighbor just like Reginald Heath, as this abridged Avon collection is brought to a close.

I really can’t imagine any reader of these six finely wrought tales not wanting to lay hands on the companion volume, Other Worlds of Clifford Simak. As for me, I was able to easily track down a copy of that second volume online, and am now eagerly awaiting its arrival. So yes, I hope to be able to report back to you on that one shortly. So stay tuned, and remember: The next skunk you encounter in the wild might very well be a visitor from the stars!


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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