Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Guest Post | Clifford D Simak: The Beginnings of a Master

By GW Thomas

Clifford D Simak (1904-1988) had a writing career that ran for fifty-five years. He was one of the early SF writers who could adapt to changes brought about by John W Campbell at Astounding. The stories listed here are his early works before this transformation. Usually I lament the Campbell revolution (or at least oppose the snobbery that came of it), but in the case of Simak, I would agree that these early stories are not even close to what he would achieve later. These 1931-32 stories include four stories for Hugo Gernsback at Wonder and one for Harry Bates at the Clayton Astounding. After 1932, Cliff took a three year break, writing one tale for the short-lived semi-prozine Marvel Tales before taking another three year break. The new Simak emerges with this last tale that tackles religion head-on. When he returned in 1938, it was with "Rule 18" for John W Campbell. The old Simak was gone forever.

"The World of the Red Sun" (Wonder Stories, December 1931) was Simak's debut as one of Hugo Gernsback's growing stable of new writers. The story takes two time travelers, Harl Swanson and Bill Kressman, to Denver millions of years in the future. There they find the human race reduced to savages by a weird being calling himself Golan-Kirt. This entity from Out of the Cosmos can kill men with his mind. In an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style arena scene, the travelers take on Golan-Kirt armed only with their .45s and the knowledge that he kills with illusions. (The creature claims to be from space, but the travelers figure it is actually a mutated scientist from a scenario like that in Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved" [Wonder Stories, April 1931]). The humans win the mental battle by ridiculing the monster; laughing at him (shades of Star Trek!). What might have been a happy Burroughsian ending turns sour though when the men try to return to their own time. Isaac Asimov noted the story in his anthology Before the Golden Age, because Simak wrote in a plain workman-like style, differing from many of the others in Gernsback's magazines, and because of the downer ending: one still mimicked in the final moments of films like The Planet of the Apes decades later.

"The Voice in the Void" (Wonder Stories Quarterly, Spring 1932) has Simak poking at religion for the first time, a theme he would tackle again and again in stories like "The Creator" (mentioned below) and in novels like Project Pope (1981). Two adventurers, Ashby and Smith, take on the Holy of Martian Holies when they steal the bones of Kell-Rabin. The Martians hunt the fugitives down and even place Smith's brain in a tube, a form of immortality. Ashby escapes with the tube as well as another - containing a Martian priest - and hides in the desert. There the three (one man and two tubes) discover an ancient pyramid from a religion that predated Kell-Rabin. Inside, Ashby finds an immense treasure and the means to exact his revenge: a vengeance that gives the story its title. Simak once again ends on a sour, ironic note, but does reveal the mystery that drives the entire story: What is in the coffin of Kell-Rabin?

Stories using amputated brains began as early as MH Hasta's "The Talking Brain" in Amazing Stories, August 1926, but really take off after Edmond Hamilton's "The Comet Doom" (Amazing Stories, January 1928), inspiring HP Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness" (Weird Tales, August 1931), Hawk Carse's disembodied scientists in "The Affair of the Brains" (Astounding, March 1932) by Anthony Gilmore, Eando Binder's oft-reprinted "Enslaved Brains" (Wonder Stories, July-September 1934), and the classic novel Donovan's Brain (1942) by Curt Siodmak.

"Mutiny on Mercury" (Wonder Stories, March 1932) is the high-point of the early Simak. In this story, he describes a Martian rebellion from the point of view of an Earthman in a domed space station on Mercury. Besides writing a good action adventure, Simak describes the dangerous existence on the first planet along the strip between the hot and dark side: the only place living things can survive. When the Martians and their Moon Men stooges destroy the airlock on one of the domed stations, the author gets to tell what losing an atmosphere from a spaceport would be like. Simak does a great job of creating a Solar System of varied humanoids, like Leigh Brackett would do later in her Interplanetary mythos. Simak finishes the story with a space-flyer battle worthy of Edmond Hamilton. The only criticism I have of the story is its out-of-date (even for 1932) Imperialism. The Martians and other aliens are presented as inferior and conniving, but it is hard to identify with a race of men who would subjugate such people.

"Hellhounds of the Cosmos" (Astounding, June 1932) almost feels like a regression after "Mutiny on Mercury." Some of this may be the fact that Simak was writing for Harry Bates instead of Hugo Gernsback. The tale begins like so many others at the Clayton Astounding: a world under attack by alien invaders. Here Simak deviates from the usual story of a brave young scientist who saves the world (and a pretty girl) with an invention. His hero is a newspaperman, Henry Woods, who visits a scientist, Dr. Silas White, and discovers that the black terrors that have been attacking the world are creatures from the fourth dimension. Simak gives a rather convoluted explanation for how these creatures are actually less evolved than the beings in our three dimensional world. All goobley-gook aside, Dr White invents a machine that will translate humans into the fourth dimension to strike back at the invaders. Ninety-nine men go into the weird light, including our newspaper reporter, to find that in the other dimension they form a singular creature, named Mal Shaff. This weird brute has a knock-down fight with another monster named Ouglat, amidst a world of steel cliffs and red skies. Mal Shaff begins to lose because Ouglat is growing bigger. The invaders have been recalled from Earth and grow Ouglat to mammoth size. Dr. White saves Mal Shaff by sending in the Marines, allowing Mal Shaff to destroy his opponent. Once victorious, other fourth dimensional creatures invite Mal Shaff to stay and none of the men who went across ever come back. Simak, master of the downer ending, strikes again! How un-Astounding!

What I found most interesting about this story was comparing it to the horror fiction of Frank Belknap Long. His province of other-dimensional monsters can be seen in stories like "The Space Eaters" (Weird Tales, July 1928), "The Horror From the Hills" (Weird Tales, January-March1931), and especially "The Hounds of Tindalos" (Weird Tales, March 1929). Long's Cthulhu Mythos horror fiction centers on weird other-dimensions, attempting to create a Lovecraftian frisson of terror. Simak (who was probably familiar with Long's work) tries for something more SF and less horror, but it is certainly his closest to a horror tale in these early stories.

"Asteroid of Gold" (Wonder Stories, November 1932) has the Drake brothers mining a gold-rich asteroid when space pirates capture them. The leader of the pirates, the notorious Max Robinson, devises a cruel torture for the two. He places their ship on the twin of the asteroid, another rock revolving just out of reach, and leaves the two men only three air bottles. Max glories in the idea of the two close brothers fighting for that last canister of air. The Drakes settle down to die with dignity, but chance intervenes. A meteor hits the Twin, causing it to fly towards the asteroid. A desperate race begins, with the men leaping from rock to rock (seen in the illo) in an attempt to avoid being crushed. The plot almost feels like a Campbell puzzle story (like Asimov's "Marooned Off Vesta"), where the two men would have used the third tank to propel them through space to the Twin. This doesn't happen, but some Age of Wonder action and excitement does instead. If Simak had written this ten years later, it would have been a much different ending.

"The Creator" (Marvel Tales, March-April 1935) marks the final days of Simak's first apprenticeship. As F Lyall points out in The Creator and Other Stories (1993):
CDS was not always serene in his attitude to such questions [religious matters]. "The Creator" is very different. In its time it was notorious. CDS wrote it in 1933 or '34 after he had more or less decided that his dalliance with sf was over. The editor WL Crawford persuaded him to write one more... And, though it bears the stamp of its era, and though it is a product of a young writer, it stands as a stimulus to thought even today.
The plot of "The Creator" has two scientists, Scott Marston and Peter Sands, discover time- and space-travel through a combination of machinery, mediation, and dreams. One vision in particular is of a vast laboratory. When they finally transfer their physical bodies there, they meet the Creator, a being of glowing light. The Creator introduces them to three other time travelers from other worlds. He also shows them our universe, a mushy grey thing that the Creator made, then injected with life. When the men discover that the Creator is working on a method of destroying all matter and eradicate our universe completely, they join up with the other aliens and defy their master. Using a machine constructed by one of the other travelers (an alien that looks something like a stick bug), the time travelers flee with the universe in a bubble of purple force field. The Creator tries to destroy them, but is himself destroyed. The creatures from the universe have killed their god. When Marston and Sands return to Earth, something goes wrong and they end up lost in time.

Looking at the story, we can see that Simak has rewritten "The World of the Red Sun." He spends more time in explaining the time machine and its creation, but ultimately it is the same tale. Instead of Golan-Kirt, we have the Creator; instead of two men defeating him, we have five time travelers of different races. Again, there's the suggestion that the Creator is himself a lab experiment from some other, higher being, and finally, there's the unhappy ending with the humans lost in time. If Simak was leaving SF for good, perhaps he felt that repeating himself, enlarging on and improving his first effort, was not a bad way to finish off where he had begun.

The early parts of the story are quite Lovecraftian, similar in idea to HPL's "Beyond the Walls of Sleep," but like with "Hellhounds of the Cosmos," Simak doesn't use the device to produce creepy thrills. Instead, it's an SF means to tell his story. He would later in his career give a nod to Lovecraft in “The Call From Beyond” and in the episodic fantasy novel Where the Evil Dwells (1982), when the adventurers enter a temple inhabited by other dimensional monsters right out of Arkham. Perhaps in 1934, he had contemplated joining the Weirdies in Mythos-building and remembered that time fondly fifty years later.

All the stories mentioned above are worthy of reading, but when I look at them critically I see that most could be changed to ordinary adventure stories quite easily. "The Voice in the Void" could be a desert adventure with Arabs, "Mutiny on Mercury": an airplane adventure; "Asteroid of Gold": a pirate yarn. Despite these connections to other forms of pulp writing, Simak does play with some big SF ideas. His time travel story "The World of the Red Sun" throws off big ideas a little too quickly, never really developing some of them. Here was a young writer excited about all the possible stories to tell. But by 1935, Simak was dissatisfied with the field. As Lyall wrote, he "more or less decided that his dalliance with sf was over" and he was moving on. It took John W Campbell and Astounding Science Fiction to change Cliff's mind. With SF going in a new direction, Simak joined the ranks of Asimov, Heinlein, de Camp, and others in pushing SF forward. A necessary evolution, I suppose, but I have a fondness for these early stories. They spark with the possibilities of what is to come. Clifford D Simak was one of those early torchbearers and we can only thank him for all the great stories he wrote.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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