Grotto of the Dancing Deer, by Clifford D. Simak*****

grottoofthedancing This is the second time I’ve been fortunate enough to get a DRC of Clifford D Simak’s short stories, courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media. (The last collection was titled We Install and Other Stories; I have reviewed it also.) Simak’s short stories are my kind of science fiction, the old school variety where there are no clever double entendres intended for–oh, for example–programmers that write obscure, difficult types of code. No, this is the stuff that is born of a fertile imagination and an excellent facility with words, and I enjoyed it start to finish, skimming nothing. And it’s for sale now, so you can get your own copy.

There’s an introduction by David W. Wixon that is probably intended to bring readers of the present up to date in understanding Simak, who wrote from 1930 until around 1980. I have to admit I don’t care for the tone of the introduction, although I have no doubt that Wixon is fond of Simak’s work. The irritation I experience in reading it is that it seems he is apologizing for Simak–this bit of dialogue is bad, for example, because Simak was so new at it–and I don’t think anyone needs to apologize for this writer, a hugely creative, intelligent man whose prose can stand up for itself. Get onto another page and check the list of awards Simak garnered over his lengthy career; it isn’t my imagination. He’s a terrific writer, and I cringe that anyone would be so supercilious as to apologize for his old friend as if Simak weren’t quite on his game.

But enough of that.

Time travel is always great fare for a short sci fi tale, and it’s used abundantly here. I think deep in his heart Simak must have also wanted to write some historical fiction, because time travel isn’t usually between the present time, even allowing for the fact that his present time when he was writing was quite some time before the present present time. He takes people from the future back to covered wagons, or to changed planets that have the habits of early American pioneers, particularly those of the wild west. And his characters are so tangible and so believable that they make the science fiction aspect of the story approachable to the reader whose science knowledge is limited. This inclination makes humanities-grounded individuals like myself so stinking happy, I can’t begin to tell you how much it pleases me. I never like to have some aspect of literature cut off from me because I am not sharp enough to handle it, but when sci fi becomes hugely technical, there’s nothing to do but to close the book and (if it isn’t a DRC) pass it on to someone more scientifically proficient than I am.

But Simak is accessible, all the time. His work isn’t dumbed down, but it is friendly and approachable. Anyone that has the ability to read at the level of a high school senior should be able to read this riveting collection without more than perhaps one or two Google searches, and those will likely be historical questions rather than technical ones.

I really enjoyed the title story, but my personal favorite of the lot is Crying Jag. In this tale, a local man has taken to drowning his sorrows in hooch, and then when he is sloppy drunk, he sits down and cries. Aliens land and are able to take the tears and the sorrow on tap, but with similar results; they get drunk from the sad stories and the tears. I laughed out loud through this one and frankly wondered what kind of creativity it would take to dream up something like this. I just loved it.

Such whimsy!

A more philosophical tale involves reaching an alien society that has labored for a long time to be able to bridge interplanetary culture and understanding; they have the perfect library for the use of the entire galaxy, absolutely free. Earth men that land here immediately begin scheming of ways to turn the “free” library into a private library for profit; hey, who’s to be the wiser? And in the end, I was bemused to see how it worked out.

I am always a little surprised that not more people read short stories. Time for most people is limited. When you finish a short story, you can give yourself permission to turn out the light and go to sleep. And Simak’s are of top caliber; the only writer whose short science fiction I enjoyed more might be Stephen Donaldson, and his vocabulary and prose is far less accessible.

High school teachers looking for good short science fiction for the classroom should look no further. The stories are varied in length and I would say they would be rated PG 13 if they were a movie instead of text; in other words, just fine for teenagers in the classroom, with a wealth of potential for discussion.

Highly recommended to all that enjoy old school science fiction.

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