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Clifford D. Simak: His Life and Works

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted October 20, 2001, with later edits

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The third author to have been honored as a Nebula Grand Master, Simak was born in rural Wisconsin in which he set a great deal of his fiction, although he lived most of his adult life in Minnesota. After a short period of time as a teacher he became a journalist, working on various newspapers in several states over a long career, culminating in the positions of news and science editor for the Minneapolis Star. Even though his first SF story appeared in 1931 he did not begin his fiction career in earnest until 1938 (at the urging of Astounding editor John W. Campbell) and did not pursue it full-time until his retirement from his newspaper career in 1976.

"Without Simak, science fiction would have been without its most humane element, its most humane spokesman for the wisdom of the ordinary person and the value of life lived close to the land. James Gunn

It is somewhat ironic that his best and most prolific period was the 1950s and early '60s, well before his retirement. He excelled at short stories and novellas, whereas his novels, with just a few exceptions, usually suffered from a lack of cohesive structure and satisfactory conclusions. Most of his later books also repeated many of the plots and themes he had already dealt with so well in his earlier work. While the rest of the SF world explored galaxy-spanning narratives and revolutionary new technologies, Simak focused on the plight of common, rural folk confronted with uncommon occurrences. Very few of his stories featured space travel; instead he wrote of alternate worlds and time travel. The movement of aliens and time travelers through his scenarios did not usually rely on mechanistic means, but rather was accomplished through mysterious - and sometimes accidentally discovered - portals.

Prior to 1938 Simak had very few stories published, his first being a time travel tale, "The World of the Red Sun," in Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories in 1931 (Isaac Asimov honored this story by including it in his 1974 anthology, Before the Golden Age). Another, the novelette "The Creator," appeared in 1935 in Marvel Tales, and could possibly have been his last SF story. He became discouraged by the low quality of the pulp markets and the low expectations of their editors, that is until John Campbell assumed the editorship of Astounding Stories in 1937. The following year saw the publication of two of his stories in the renamed Astounding Science Fiction, and his first novel, Cosmic Engineers, was serialized in the magazine in 1939. I'm sure I have never read this novel, and it could be one of the few in which he dealt with spaceships, since The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes it as an epic similar to the work of E. E. "Doc" Smith and Edmond Hamilton.

Throughout the '40s he continued to develop his craft, producing a body of work identifiably his own, emotional rather than scientific, nostalgic rather than forward-looking. Many of his characters were simple folk, farmers and craftsman of the rural Wisconsin landscape in which he had come of age. Dogs are featured prominently in many of his stories, in fact they sometimes even tell the stories. This occurs in perhaps his best known work, City, a collection of short stories which began in 1944. The first appeared under that title, and it was followed that same year by "Huddling Place" and "Census." Along with several others (the contents varies with different editions) they would be collected in 1952, winning Simak an International Fantasy Award. This series depicted a near future in which man abandons the cities for a return to a pastoral existence, aided by robots and other benign technologies. As the stories progressed, Earth itself is abandoned by most humans, leaving the planet's destiny in the hands of the robots who oversee the forced evolution of intelligent dogs. Simak's unique view of time and potential alternate worlds parallel to our own was developed very well in this book, and it is a subject to which he would return many times in later works.

In the early '50s he found a new market better suited to his wry humor and sociological outlook on the future, and he would serialize three novels in Galaxy Science Fiction - Empire, Time and Again (original serialization title "Time Quarry"), and Ring Around the Sun. The first title I had never heard of until I began researching for this article, but I have read the other two. Time and Again, while featuring space travel to a limited degree, mainly concerns the time-travelling paradoxes of Asher Sutton, who is compelled to discover the origin of a mysterious book from the future which bears his name as the author. It is a powerfully told tale that resonates with questions verging on the religious, and it could also be argued that Simak's depiction of the plight of androids was a possible metaphor on the civil rights struggle. Ring Around the Sun is one of his most complex plots, with a style and humor that prefigured much of the work of Philip K. Dick. The basic premise involves alternate Earths, from which a group of mutants work toward the destruction of our economic base by introducing superior products, engineered to last virtually forever.

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The rest of the '50s was devoted to shorter works, published in quite a few different periodicals, and collected in several volumes which sometimes duplicated entries. The best of these are Strangers in the Universe (including "The Answers," "Mirage," "Retrograde Evolution," and "Skirmish"), The Worlds of Clifford Simak (with the Hugo-winning "The Big Front Yard," along with "Carbon Copy," "Founding Father," "Honorable Opponent," and "Neighbor"), and All the Traps of Earth (the title story, as well as "Crying Jag," "Good Night, Mr. James" [adapted for the original Outer Limits as "The Duplicate Man"] and "Project Mastodon" [later expanded into Mastadonia]). Although he would continue to produce a wide variety of short stories and novellas throught the remainder of his career, he devoted more time to novels beginning in the early '60s, producing roughly one a year until shortly before his death in 1988.

Although published separately in book form in 1961, The Trouble With Tycho is closer to being a novella by my estimated word count (less than 30,000). It is a very straight-forward adventure narrative, quite unlike most of Simak's other metaphorical work. Written from the first-person perspective of a pioneering miner on the Moon, it is as much a mystery story as it is science fiction. In They Walked Like Men (1962) he returned to his midwestern roots with a tale narrated by newspaperman Parker Graves, who discovers a surreptitious invasion of alien beings. Their initial appearance is somewhat like furry bowling balls, but they quickly prove to be able to morph themselves into the semblance of human beings. As they begin to acquire property and businesses, the unsuspecting humans are thrown out of work and become homeless wanderers. This is a story that closely resembles a lot of '50s "paranoid" SF, such as Heinlein's The Puppet Masters and Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both of which were thinly-veiled looks at communist infiltration of America. Simak's version was slightly different however, with the role of capitalism being the basic means utilized to bring about our destruction.

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1962 also saw the publication of the novel Time Is the Simplest Thing, although it had been serialized in Analog the previous year as "The Fisherman." Telepathy is the focus of this story, since it has been discovered that the harsh radiations of space preclude humans from venturing off planet. Instead, human operatives employed by the Fishhook Corporation are mentally linked to android probes in an effort to explore alien worlds and bring back usable technologies. The hero this time is Shepherd Blaine, who returns from one of his parapsychological forays with the suspicion he has retained the personality of an alien being from his last encounter. Realizing that the organization will regard him as a "contaminated" threat to their security, Blaine goes on the run, and has to remain clear of both the corporation's detectives and the population at large, which considers all of the telepaths to be a threat.

The June-August, 1963 issues of Galaxy saw another of his novels serialized. Originally titled "Here Gather the Stars," it was later issued in book form as Way Station, and it won the Hugo award as best novel in 1964. This remains one of the finest novels the genre has ever produced, full of meaningful insights into humanity's potential place in the universe. Enoch Wallace, a simple farmer, has seemingly been granted the boon of immortality in exchange for his services as caretaker of an intergalactic spatial portal. He is visited by countless alien travelers, who leave him with a house cluttered with strange and wonderful treasures that he can hardly begin to contemplate. His neighbors are ignorant not only of his true age (he is a veteran of the Civil War), but also of the knowledge of what is transpiring within the walls of his home, and what it will all eventually mean to the future of Earth. [Click here for a full review of this novel.]

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All Flesh Is Grass from 1965, while retaining some of the benefits of his other pastoral works, suffers from an abrupt and unconvincing conclusion. But up until that time, he entertains us with another of his whimsical glimpses of small town life disrupted by mysterious circumstances. The enigma this time is an invisible force-field dome surrounding Millville (Simak's birthplace in Wisconsin). One of the weirder aspects of the story is the discovery that a strange new species of flower blooming beside the roadways proves to be a means of communication between the humans and the aliens responsible for the force-field. There are a couple of others from this period for which I have little to contribute. If I'm not mistaken I never finished reading Why Call Them Back From Heaven (1967). I was unimpressed both with the weak characters and the plotline which seemed too derivative. Another, The Werewolf Principle, is one I have not read, and I am even sure I've never seen a copy of it, although several things I have read about it makes me think it would be a worthwhile book to find. It concerns an astronaut returned to Earth, who perhaps is possessed with a wolf-like alien spirit.

The Goblin Reservation (1968) was a little uneven but still well worth the time, a whimsical synthesis of science fiction and fantasy, with a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. There are too many elements to this tale to relate convincingly - a synopsis would just confuse you. Suffice it to say that the characters include more mysterious aliens, dragons, faeries, and other mythical beasts, along with a ghost who cannot recall who he was in life, and a time-transported William Shakespeare who explains that he did not write any of the plays attributed to him. Simak's next novel, Out of Their Minds (1970) would also prove to be primarily comical, with the main character's discovery that all things are possible, with mythical and fictional figures coming to life at the merest thought of their existence. I have always wondered if this could possibly have been an inspiration for Heinlein's The Number of the Beast? I know Heinlein had a high regard for Simak, for he once said "to read science fiction is to read Simak."

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The first of Simak's novels that I read was 1971's A Choice of Gods, and it remains one of my favorites. It contains elements previously dealt with in City, and some that would resurface in the later Project Pope. The novel opens in the year 2135, following the mysterious disappearance of the majority of mankind from the face of the Earth. After the introductory chapter the action is advanced more than five thousand years to show us what has become of the few remaining on the planet. In true Simakian fashion, a simple, rural existence has been maintained, with robots aiding the remnants of humanity to both prolong their lifespans and develop new abilities, including telepathy and teleportation. The main characters are Jason Whitney and his wife Martha, several groups of robots, and a group of Native Americans who have chosen to return to their traditional roots. One set of the mechanical men have established a monastery with the purpose of studying and carrying on the precepts of Christianity. The remaining humans have lost all interest in religion, perhaps in reaction to the idea that religion has abandoned them. Over the years several people, including Jason's brother John, have utilized their teleportation abilities to transport themselves to other planets, mainly with the intention of discovering the whereabouts of their vanished ancestors. John returns to report his discovery of the rest of mankind on three planets near the galaxy's core, and of their planned expedition to return to Earth. Jason learns of their advanced technologies, and he worries of the threat this will pose for his simple and peaceful lifestyle.

Following this novel, I read many of the earlier ones I have mentioned, and enjoyed most of them as well, but I was not as impressed with much of Simak's work that followed. Not that they are bad, in fact quite a few of them are very enjoyable, it's just that most of the themes had already been presented in better form in the previous stories. The majority of these introduced many elements more suited to the fantasy genre rather than the sociological SF Simak had perfected. I would venture a guess that if someone not familiar with his work were to first read some of these later novels they would be impressed with the lyrical prose and the intricate plots. However, it would not take more than two or three of them to realize that the same ideas were being presented essentially unchanged from novel to novel. I welcome anyone else's opinion on this period of his career, but for me it was anti-climactic in the extreme.

I'm not going to bother with synopses of any of these later books, but will simply list them in their order of publication, although I may return to this in the future if I ever reread them and change my opinion. Following A Choice of Gods, Simak produced thirteen other novels, most a blend of SF and fantasy, three of them being totally fantasies. They are Destiny Doll (1971), Cemetery World (1973), Our Children's Children (1973), Enchanted Pilgrimage (1975), Shakespeare's Planet (1976), A Heritage of Stars (1977), Mastadonia (1978), The Fellowship of the Talisman (1978), The Visitors (1979), Project Pope (1981), Special Deliverance (1982), Where the Evil Dwells (1982), and Highway of Eternity (1986).

As I said earlier, he also continued to produce some shorter works throughout his career, with many collections being printed over the years. In 1977, Skirmish: The Great Short Fiction of Clifford Simak appeared, but it included no story which had not already been collected previously. Others would be printed in the late '80s, including six titles following his death. It is unfortunate that all of them are currently out of print, but hopefully you will be able to find some of them used. Perhaps the easiest to find would be the last two, both of which include a representation of work throughout his long career. Over the River and Through the Woods (1996) includes the title story, along with "The Big Front Yard," "Good Night, Mr. James," "Neighbor," and the Hugo and Nebula award-winning "Grotto of the Dancing Dear." The Civilization Game (1997) was the last title published with a Simak byline, and in addition to the title story it also featured "Hermit of Mars," "Masquerade," "Horrible Example," and again "The Big Front Yard."

It is highly possible that Clifford Simak is a relatively unknown name to the majority of recent SF readers, and that of course would be a shame if it is true. Considering only two of his titles are listed at amazon as being in print at this time, I am sure that is the case. His career spanned more than fifty years, producing more than twenty-five novels and upwards of two hundred shorter works. He is the only author who has won a Hugo, a Nebula, and an International Fantasy Award. I know his work influenced many others who followed. His prose is just as poetic as Bradbury's and his humanistic sensitivities are second to none, stressing the midwestern values of individualism, compassion, and hard work. Compared to much of today's SF, Simak may at first glance appear old-fashioned, but perhaps his vision should rather be considered to be refreshingly charming.

"I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space. I have been concerned with where we, as a race, may be going and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme - if we have a purpose. In general, I believe we do, and perhaps an important one." Clifford D. Simak

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Related Links:
My review of Way Station
Simak's Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com


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August 3, 1904
Millville, Wisconsin

April 25, 1988

Fan Website

3 Hugos
1 Nebula
1 International Fantasy
SFWA Grand Master (1977)
Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement 1988