Monday, May 29, 2017

Good Night, Mr. James and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Eight

Another nearly perfect collection
This is the fourth book I’m reviewing from The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. So far I’ve read Volumes 1, 2, 7, and 8, because at one time or another they were all offered as Kindle Daily Deals. This eighth volume, published in 2016, features ten stories and novellas by Simak that were originally printed in science fiction magazines from 1938 to 1977. Overall, Volume 8 may fall a little bit shy of the extremely high mark of quality set by the other volumes I’ve read, but this is still an excellent, five-star collection of stories.

Simak was a highly celebrated Grand Master of Science Fiction who garnered many awards during his long and prolific career, but he also wrote several westerns and a few war stories. Hence, each volume in the series has at least one western, which usually serves as a pleasant change of pace amidst all the time travel, sentient robots, and alien intelligences. In Volume 8, however, the featured western, “The Gunsmoke Drummer Sells a War,” is a full-length novella, and while it is a perfectly fine example of the genre, there’s nothing really exceptional about it. Another lengthy entry, “Reunion on Ganymede,” is a comedic sci-fi piece from early in Simak’s career, and the humor tends to veer a little tiringly toward the slapstick. These two works, however, are minor speed bumps in what is otherwise a wonderful collection of science fiction.

In one of his insightful story introductions, editor David W. Wixon points out that Simak was often seen as the “pastoralist of science fiction.” Simak grew up in rural Wisconsin and went on to become a journalist in Minneapolis. His stories are often set in the areas in which he lived and feature ordinary Midwesterners as heroes. In Simak’s stories one often finds a heartfelt attention to nature that comes from a writer with a rural upbringing. The main character in the story “Brother,” for example, is a reclusive nature writer, like some future Thoreau. “Kindergarten” is a tale of alien visitation on a Wisconsin farm in Simak’s neck of the woods. “Galactic Chest” offers a lighthearted look at the daily grind of a struggling newspaper reporter. With such references to his own life, Simak grounds his visionary science fiction in our reality, while rendering his characters and settings with a naturalistic style that calls to mind great American writers like Willa Cather or John Steinbeck.

In brief vignettes like “Senior Citizen” and “Death Scene,” Simak shows he’s capable of conjuring up dismal dystopian visions of the future, which are always keenly cutting in their indictment of mankind’s faults. The title selection, “Good Night, Mr. James” is a scary and suspenseful thriller set in one such future. More often than not, however, Simak tempers his darker speculations with an earnest hopefulness for mankind’s ability to overcome our own self-destructive tendencies. “Census,” one of the stories that would later become part of Simak’s novel City, is one such tale of cautious optimism. Stories like “Kindergarten” and “Galactic Chest” find hope in the possibility of aid from a benevolent universe, as does “Auk House,” a surprising masterpiece that starts out like a Stephen King novel (it’s even set in New England), and ends up taking an unexpectedly bizarre turn into intelligently imaginative science fiction.

Although it’s possible to quibble about which volume or which story is better than another, I really don’t think there’s a bad book in this outstanding series. Simak was a phenomenal writer, and Wixon has really done a great job compiling these books.

Stories in this collection
Good Night, Mr. James 
Senior Citizen
The Gunsmoke Drummer Sells a War 
Reunion on Ganymede 
Galactic Chest
Death Scene 
Auk House

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