Dusty Zebra and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak***

Dusty ZebraClifford Simak was a prolific writer of short stories, mostly science fiction starting in the 1930s when the genre was new, and initially the stories were sold individually to magazines. They have been curated and released digitally by his friend, David W. Wixon, who provides a forward and brief, interesting notes before each one. My thanks go to Open Road Media and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received in 2016 in exchange for this very tardy but honest review.

Open Road offers the entire Simak collection in a series, and as a fan of old school science fiction–the sort that doesn’t make inside jokes for programmers and code writers–I have been snapping them up. I read #1, #4, and #7-10 and loved them all, and so I settled happily down to read this one. The introduction by Wixon is perhaps the best of the notes I have seen so far, and the first story, Dusty Zebra, is uproarious. I loved it. After that, not so much.

In addition to having written a ton of science fiction and a few westerns, which were hugely popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, Simak also wrote a few World War II stories, primarily during and shortly after the war. These are not stories that have aged well. There are a whole raft of ugly racist terms used in them that were horrifyingly common among Caucasian Americans during that time period. We are better people now, most of us, and so reading this sort of thing puts my teeth on edge. I skipped around in the collection some, but even those that contained none of this crap somehow failed to hold my attention. I moved to the last story, since short stories are often bookended with the strongest selections, and I didn’t care for it either; it wasn’t offensive, but it also wasn’t interesting. Simak sometimes struggled with dialogue, and so dialogue-heavy selections are usually not his best work.

Open Road doesn’t post on Net Galley anymore, but I still have one more of their Simak collections, #12, and I intend to read it and review it. With 6 excellent collections and 1 mostly lousy one, I like my odds. But for fans of wonderful science fiction, I recommend turning to one of the others noted above, all of which I have reviewed. Simak’s work is great more often than not, and I still encourage you to read it; in fact, since it’s selling cheaply, you could even buy this one for the title story if you have a mind to. But you’ll get more bang for your buck by turning to the others first.

Good Night, Mr. James: and Other Stories by Clifford D. Simak*****

goodnightmrjamesSimak was a prodigious writer of science fiction during the middle of the twentieth century; he was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and won numerous other awards, among them the Nebula and multiple Hugo Awards. His short stories are being republished digitally, and as fast as Open Road Integrated Media can publish them, I snap them up, having already read two volumes; this is volume eight. Thanks go to ORIM and to Net Galley, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

There’s a special sort of satisfaction that comes from reading science fiction written during the era that followed World War II, and in seeing what technology science fiction writers imagined might be around the corner. Many times we read stories of passenger flights to other planets and galaxies, stories of mind control, and yet nobody ever imagined that one day we would each have a small telephone in our pocket that would double as a camera, wristwatch and telegram service. But the musings and imaginings of old school science fiction are just plain fun, and they don’t require the technical proficiency that some of today’s writers often require in order to read, understand, and enjoy the stories they produce.  Sometimes a bit of philosophy and world view sneaks into these stories, and we may find kindred spirits in the most unlikely places.

The title story used to open this collection is a fun one, and the tension that accompanies Mr. James as he approaches the enclosure where he believes he’ll find the ‘puudly’, a creature from another world unwisely snuck into the present one, is almost unbearable.  What follows on his journey home is absorbing as well. But this wasn’t my favorite story. There are two others I found even better, but first, let’s get this other news out of the way.

The bad news is that there is just a trace of the racist stereotyping common to white folk of this time period, but it’s limited to one story, and it’s scarce. If you read my reviews often, you know that if I see it, I call it out, and my tolerance level is much lower than that of most reviewers. It’s in one story which isn’t all that good anyway, and it pertains to Asians that are featured briefly. The story is “The Gunsmoke Drummer Sells a War”, and it’s a cowboy tale of the sort that was popular in the USA during the 1950’s. A man of Chinese origin is referred to as ‘The Chinaman’, and during his short tenure in the story, he is untrustworthy.  He speaks in a “sing song” cadence. This story cost the book half a star, but it’s my view that you could buy this collection, skip this story, which is overlong and contains some less than stellar dialogue, and you’d still get your money’s worth. That’s all the bad news there is here.

“Reunion on Ganymede” made me tremble with mirth, nearly causing me to wake Mr. Computer, who slumbered peacefully beside me. In this story Gramps is dying to go to the reunion of veterans of a war that took place between the “Marshies” (Martians) and the “Earthies” .  His family is trying to dissuade him from taking his flame gun with him. They tell him the weapon is too old to be trusted, but clearly it isn’t the gun, but rather the owner that they’re worried about. As developments take an unexpected turn, it becomes obvious that there are some things for which one just can’t plan. Eventually we see that Gramps and other characters unforeseen by his kinfolk are on a collision course, and what follows is pure poetry.

However, my very favorite story is “Kindergarten”. A man has bought a cabin and retreated to it; he’s been told he has a short time to live, and so he’s determined to do it in pastoral solitude. Imagine his surprise when he goes for a stroll one day and finds the mysterious machine on his property! It’s certainly not a saucer, yet it’s also not from Earth. It couldn’t be. And the whole thing unspools in a way I interpret as being subversive and delicious. Please note that the entire collection is edited and introduced by a close friend of the author’s, the latter having died in 1988. The editor’s spin on this story is completely different from my own, and yet knowing this didn’t make me enjoy it any less.

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading the We Install story collection, or Grotto of the Dancing Deer collection, you know what kind of prose Simak spins, and if you like old school science fiction, you almost have to like most or all of his. If you haven’t dipped a toe in the water yet, hop on in. Between this collection and at least nine others, there’s plenty to keep you reading happily for quite some time.

As a last note to teachers looking for suitable classroom stories, there’s no sex or foul language here, but be prepared to discuss or explain some of the slang of the period in question.

Highly recommended and available to the public now.

I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak*****

iamcryingallinsideClifford D. Simak is a science fiction legend. Before his 55-year career was done, he earned 3 Hugo Awards, the Nebula Award, and was named Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I scored big when Open Road Media and Net Galley invited me to read and review this wonderful collection. It is available for purchase digitally now, and will be released October 20.
The fact is, I miss old-school science fiction writing, the fun stuff that is the product of a fertile imagination but requires no knowledge of programming code or other technological wizardry. What’s more, the quality offered in this collection is not only excellent, but evenly so. Common themes tend toward robots with complex feelings, sentient plants, and time travel, but there is no sense of sameness otherwise. Sometimes we are on a far-flung planet; sometimes we are back on planet Earth after it’s been wrecked to where anyone with any gumption has up and left, with only sorry-ass losers remaining. The common factor among all of these stories, in fact, is Simak’s ability to engage the reader.
Given the strangeness of the worlds science fiction and fantasy writers create, one would expect to feel intellectually curious about what the writer has cooked up, but what astonishes me every time I read really strong science fiction is the way the writer manages to work our emotions, causing a lump to form in one’s throat over something that could not possibly happen. By creating an alien setting in which a human, or human-like thought and emotion is present, a sneaking affection is created, and before you know it, there you are practically weeping over the poignant scenario that’s before you. The hook isn’t sentimental or maudlin, and that is why it is so successful. The subtlety is powerful, and we are connected to characters that not only don’t exist, but could never exist in the way the author has laid it out. And so, if Stephen King is drawn to things that go bump in the dark and binds our emotions to oddities in that genre, so has Simak laid our feelings bare using distant, fictional moons in solar systems that don’t exist. It’s a hell of a gift.
Every time I read a short story and decided that I had a new favorite, I looked back over the earlier ones—they were all so strong!—and then read on, and found myself uncharacteristically unable to choose one over the others. There isn’t a weak one in the batch; all are outstanding.
At one point I was ready to knock half a star off over the one-time use of the “N” word in one short story written in the first half of the twentieth century, but then there were all sorts of references to racial purity within the context of the story (alien races) that convinced me that he had an agenda when he did so, and not necessarily a bad one. If it were up to me, I’d leave the word out, but given its purpose here, one could argue for its inclusion.
But it’s worth being warned that it’s there. Nobody likes that kind of surprise.
The only other bad news here is that Simak is dead.
The good news is that over his prodigious career, he wrote enough material to fill 13 more collections beside this one, and if permitted, I will read and review every single one of them.
Highly recommended to anyone that loves old school sci fi.