City Slickers, Country Bumpkins, Ants, Robots and Mutants. I Thi nk That’s Everybody . . . Oh Yeah, There’s Goblins, to Say Nothing of the Banshee.
It was a place without a single feature of the space-time matrix that he knew. It was a place where nothing yet had happened—an utter emptiness. There was neither light nor dark: there was nothing here but emptiness. There had never been anything in this place, nor was anything ever intended to occupy this place. —Time is the Simplest Thing, 1961
Not a word of that reads as though it was written by an old-fashioned, mid-western newspaperman, but it was. It may not be poetry, exactly, but as prose it’s effective as hell. It’s to-the-point without being terse; it paints a clear, if other-worldly picture; and it sets up the concept of the novel with a minimum of what my old junior high English teacher used to call “Who shot John.”
So I guess it is the writing of an old-fashioned, mid-western newspaperman after all: Clifford Simak, to be exact.
When I was young, oh so much younger than today, I read my first Simak book: City, in its original Ace edition. I was bowled over—quietly, gently, but bowled over anyway. I had never before read a story about characters with my name.
That sold me on the book, but the stories paid for themselves. Once I got over the shock of seeing “Webster” in a book that wasn’t about Daniel or Noah, I leaned forward and began listening to the story Simak was telling me, and I was hooked.
Here was wonder, but not the thrilling wonder of vast galactic empires, technological super-science or mile-long spaceships. This was wonder that could have happened next door to me. You can’t imagine how cool that is when you’re twelve. The Universe is impressive as hell, but next door is real.
Simak wasn’t all that interested in exploring the Universe, see. What he was interested in was exploring Man. Not extraordinary men, either, just your average Joe Lunchpail with everyday problems, like hyper-intelligent mutants and ants who build their own civilizations. Oh, and talking dogs.
Of such elements are the stories which comprise the City sequence made. There’s more than that, of course; for all the simplicity of the prose, Simak’s stories aren’t at all simple.
What they are is bucolic. Where many, if not most, sf authors at the time concentrated on urban yarns, placed either here or on other planets, Simak took a page from his youth in small-town Wisconsin and saw the potential for setting his fantastica among . . . folks. Mountain men, country folk, old-timers, and farmers, and not a rube or redneck in the lot, except where it served the tale he was telling. He might include a bumpkin or a village idiot now and then, but there was a reason for their presence, usually a pivotal one.
It’s interesting to compare one pastoral fantasist with another: Ray Bradbury was also a small-town mid-westerner, another stfnal scrivener whose stories didn’t depend on intricate descriptions of hardware, but it’s hard to imagine two more disparate writers. Although the work of both men seems deceptively uncomplicated, Bradbury’s prose is that of a poet (he did write poetry extensively, and lovely stuff it is, too); Simak’s is, as I indicated above, journalistic—right down to the lack of contractions. That used to drive me nuts when I was younger.
So why are they so different, text-wise? Leaving aside the crass and obvious fact that they’re two very different people, there’s one detail that might have had a clear effect. Bradbury’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was a young teenager; Simak stayed in the middle all his life. Of course, that’s not the whole story, not by a long chalk, but it’s a salient point nevertheless.
Clifford Donald Simak was born in Millville, Wisconsin in the late summer of 1904. He matriculated at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin, got married at the age of twenty-five, and at thirty-five he hooked up with the Minneapolis Star (which later merged with the Minneapolis Tribune to become The Star-Tribune), where he stayed for the next thirty-seven years until he retired from the newspaper business. He didn’t stop writing, though, just because he stopped yelling “HOLD THE FRONT PAGE, I GOT A SCOOP!” on a daily basis. His last novel, Highway of Eternity (Del Rey, 1986) was published just two years before his death in 1988.
His first story, “The World of the Red Sun,” appeared in the December 1931 issue of Wonder Stories (edited by Hugo Gernsback); Simak not only “sold” the story (Gernsback was notorious for not paying for stuff unless threatened by a lawsuit, so I’m unsure if he saw a check), but actually made the cover. That’s pretty rare for a newbie.
The story was good enough for Isaac Asimov to reprint in his first Before the Golden Age anthology (Doubleday 1974), and in his head-note has this to say:
During 1931 . . . I began to retell the stories I had read . . . I well remember sitting at the curb in front of the junior high school with anywhere from two to ten youngsters listening attentively . . . [a]nd the specific story that I most vividly recall telling was “The World of the Red Sun,” by Clifford D. Simak . . . .
Considering the radio programs and movies around in the early ’30s that Asimov could have been rapping to his peeps, that’s pretty high praise.
Nevertheless, although this story was his first appearance, it was not the first one accepted. According to Sam Moskowitz in Seekers of Tomorrow (World Publishing, 1965) Simak’s first story, “The Cubes of Ganymede,” was submitted to T. O’Connor Sloane at Amazing. Sloane kept it for two years before accepting it (without payment); its subsequent publication was announced in the fan press, but another three years would pass without the story seeing print before Sloane ultimately rejected it, citing changes in sf trends. The story has never been published, and is assumed to be lost.
I looked into this as best I could with all the principals in the ground, and there’s nothing to say that this isn’t the gospel truth. Author, editor and all-around stfnally brilliant guy Robert Silverberg remarked:
Sloane was legendary for his slowness to read and then to publish and finally to pay for stories. The writers of the Thirties nicknamed him “T. Oh Come On Slow One.” So the Simak tale is probably true . . .
And, of course, once I elicited a quote from the inestimable AgBerg, I find final confirmation from Simak himself in an interview with the equally inestimable Darrell Schweitzer published in the February, 1980 Amazing:
I sold my first story, but it was never published because Amazing sent it back after holding it for five years and said it was somewhat outdated.
So that, he said as he symbolically wiped the dust off his hands in clichéd dismissal, would seem to be that. Simak does sort of indicate above that he was paid, but he may just have been feeling kind.
Of course, the field is rife with horror stories about editors who hold on to stories without paying for, publishing or rejecting them, but Sloane was apparently their patron saint. So my money is on SaM this time around.
Traumatic as hell, and lesser man might have given up the whole thing as a bad job, never again writing for the vagaries of pulp editors. And, well, Simak did, at least for a few years. His only appearance between 1932’s “The Asteroid of Gold” (November Wonder Stories) and 1938’s “Rule 18” (his second sale to Astounding, for the July issue) was the publication of “The Creator,” a novelette which ran in the September, 1935 Marvel Tales,[i] and that may have been sold a good deal earlier.
“The Creator” was a what-the-hell story, an item that Simak almost certainly intended as a “so long and thank you very little” gesture. The pulps hadn’t been terribly good to him, let’s face it, and by and large they weren’t whatcha call yer great literature. A good deal of what was published by the editors was, frankly, filler. There might be a couple or three good yarns in any given issue, but a lot of the rest was cranked out by pro hacks in an afternoon, more or less. Editors had to fill pages to keep both their readers and their advertisers happy, and many of them (at the time, anyway) were convinced that their readers wouldn’t know schlock from Shinola if it leapt up and gnawed them on the fundament.
This wasn’t a very heartening prospect for a young and eager wordsmith determined to be a good writer, and so, secure in the knowledge that he had a day-job, Simak sat down and pounded out his stfnal fare-thee-well.
Only it didn’t end up being that. This was the Thirties, see, and stories which questioned the very existence of the Judeo-Christian God were, shall we say, uncommon. It managed to blow a lot of minds (not to mention honking a lot of people off) even though Crawford’s little semi-pro magazine didn’t have a circulation above a few hundred. C’mon, this is a story that states categorically that the Universe wasn’t created by God, but by Some Other Guy. A really big Some Other Guy, but not the old white man with the long flowing beard and robes that Michelangelo painted on that ceiling.
The story’s influence wasn’t just felt among the seated-on-the-subway readers, but also by a young fan who would make a name for himself (in more than one way), namely Lester del Rey[ii]. Moskowitz says:
. . . [I]n the efforts of his relatively more mature years no influence is as evident as that of Clifford D. Simak, who made an enduring impression on del Rey with “The Creator” . . . in which the universe is said to be the experiment of a creator of macrocosmic size rather than the handiwork of God.
No argument; if nothing else, that influence can be seen in one of del Rey’s finest stories, “For I Am a Jealous People!”, published in Pohl’s Star Short Novels (Ballantine 1954), a good two decades after the daring Simak.
You may ask why I’m spending so much time and wordage on what is, after all, an early short story. There are a couple of reasons, aside from the fact that despite its place in the Simakian chronology it’s still a pretty good read. The first is what I alluded to above when I called it “his stfnal fare-thee-well.”
When someone creative is waving goodbye to an arena in which they’d hoped to work, especially after the experience Simak had, the temptation is to pull out all the stops and write a “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor” instead of just another pedestrian prelude. In a very real way, this is what Simak did, throwing caution to the wind and tackling a subject nobody else had, at least not in the American pulps. It was so much a “dangerous vision,” in fact, that fandom—both organized and casual—was still arguing about it ten years later. Not a lot, perhaps, but enough that Crawford was willing to issue that 500-copy chapbook.
The second reason is the clear indication that “The Creator” didn’t just influence Lester Alvarez Et Cetera del Rey; it influenced Clifford Donald Simak as well. Religion is a theme he would return to a number of times in his career, always with the interest any good newsman would show an important and absorbing subject, but without the presumption that he knew The Answer. Frankly, I think his story-sense would have suffered from a strong commitment one way or the other, as it would have limited his ability to address more far-ranging religious concepts. Like our universe having been created by Some Other Guy.
It was also his first book—or, more technically, his first separate publication. Although it was a very short run, as things go, it was something other than a cheap pulp copy or tear-sheets for him to hold, and that means something.
So, why did Simak stay? Why didn’t he, as planned, turn his writerly energies back to covering local/regional news for a large daily? Because something—and someone—very important happened around the time he was watching Science Fiction recede in his rear-view: John W. Campbell took over the reins of Street & Smith’s stfnal flagship, Astounding, and all of a sudden not only was the door opened wider to newer and more controversial[iii] subject matter, but there was finally a sf pulp editor who cared how good the stories were as stories. That’s why.
Of course, there had been editors around who wanted good, literate stories from their writers, and who knew that their readers wouldn’t be satisfied with less. Donald Kennicott of Blue Book, for one, bought stories from such high-quality authors as Nelson Bond, Philip Wylie, Booth Tarkington, and some guy named Heinlein; Farnsworth Wright and Dorothy McIlwraith kept Weird Tales from descending into a third-rate Terror Tales; and over on the other side of the Big Drink, the tenures of Newman Flower and Clarence Winchester at the helm of the UK’s Story-Teller saw the publication of such low-brows as Chesterton, Hodgson, Wells and Kipling.[iv]
However, periodicals, whether slick or pulp, were never intended to have permanence; as a rule, even the longer stories the pulpsters wrote ended up in their readers’ trash cans (with a few exceptions, of course). The major houses flat out refused to believe that there was a market for science fiction between hard covers, and the mass market paperback was still a decade away. There were a few collections and anthologies, but book publication was almost the sole property of the fan-presses (Arkham House, most notably, although there were others) until the end of WWII.
Simak himself didn’t see hardcover book publication until Gnome Press brought out Cosmic Engineers in its second year, 1950. Originally serialized in Campbell’s Astounding in early 1939, it’s . . . well, it’s a product of its time, is what it is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly readable even today, but as is the case with a lot of pulp writing, the dialogue is a bit dated. Not on the level of “Say, what kind of mug are you, gettin’ all sappy over some dame?”, perhaps, but dated it is.
The story itself has echoes of Doc Smith and Edmond Hamilton; it seems that two universes—one of them ours—are on a collision course, and we have to work with some of the inhabitants of the other one to avoid said celestial fender-bender. It’s a first novel, no doubt about it, and sentimental as I am about it, I wouldn’t recommend it as a Simakian starting place. However, there was far better to come, and plenty of it.
**** Editor’s Note: Due to length, this column has been split over Grantville Gazette, Volumes 38 and 39
[i] William Crawford, the editor of Marvel Tales, would reprint the story as a 500-copy chapbook in 1946. It would see another chapbook publication 35 years later when Simak was the guest of honor at the 39th World Science Fiction Convention in Denver, with appreciations by Heinlein, Asimov, Williamson and Pohl added.
[ii] For years, del Rey claimed that his name was “Ramon Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Harcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez del Rey y de los Uerdes” or some combination of the foregoing. His real name was, in fact, Leonard Knapp. Why did he insist on that long string, or even the short-form? The quick answer is “Wouldn’t you?”, but the reality has more to do with a young man’s desire to stand out from all the other faans, a desire I can fully understand and with which I can certainly sympathize.
[iii] Leaving aside sexuality, of course, and allow me to dispel a myth of very long standing. It turns out that no matter how much Campbell may have blamed his assistant, Kay Tarrant, for his refusal to allow hubba-hubba references in Astounding, it has become clear that it was Campbell himself who was the “prude” and not Ms. Tarrant. That she was willing to accept the blame for his own puritanical predilections is an indication of how much respect and affection she had for the old (non)goat.
[iv] I’ve never cared much for Kipling, but to be honest I’ve never really Kippled that much. HAH! Oh, come on, you had to know I was going there.