Monday, September 25, 2017

Grotto of the Dancing Deer and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Four

A good volume in a great series
I can’t say enough good things about The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. This is the sixth volume I’ve finished in the series, having previously read and reviewed volumes One, Two, Three, Seven, and Eight. (Rather than reading them in order, I’m just buying whichever volumes pop up as Kindle Daily Deals.) The stories and novellas reprinted in these volumes are frequently excellent, and even the worst selections are usually quite good. The breadth and depth of Simak’s speculative imagination and literary talent is just amazing. Having said all that, I must regretfully admit that Grotto of the Dancing Deer (Volume Four) is my least favorite of the volumes I’ve read thus far.

The title selection is certainly not the problem. “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” about a scientist studying prehistoric cave paintings, is a brilliant archaeo-sci-fi tale that manages to be both astounding and moving. Another excellent selection, in a more humorous vein, is “Crying Jag,” which features an alien who gets drunk on human sadness. “Hunger Death,” an exciting medical mystery that takes place on Venus, is also a strong entry, as is “Jackpot,” about a band of interplanetary thieves who stumble upon an enormous storehouse of goods that may or may not be priceless. Even this volume’s western novella (Simak wrote more than just science fiction), “The Reformation of Hangman’s Gulch,” is one of the author’s better efforts in that genre.

The collection falters on a few fronts, beginning with “Mutiny on Mercury.” Originally published in 1931, editor David W. Wixon surmises that this is probably the first story Simak ever wrote for professional publication. Though it presents an interesting vision of what life might be like at a mining colony on Mercury, it is heavy with the mindless violence of the pulp-fiction era and displays little promise of the author’s mature literary style. Clearly, he had some growing to do when he wrote this one, but thankfully he would later go on to greatness.

About half of the stories in the collection don’t really live up to their full potential. Simak establishes an interesting vision of the future or of another planet, but the story he builds upon that foundation just doesn’t do justice to the premise. The aforementioned “Jackpot,” which gets a little weak towards the end, is the best of such cases. “Day of Truce” would be the worst. In this story, Simak establishes a dystopian, militaristic vision of suburbia, then squanders the social commentary on a MacGyver-esque tactical scenario. “The Civilization Game” likewise tries to make insightful points about humanity’s future, but those points feel a bit overstretched in its wargames plotline. “Over the River and Through the Woods” is a short-short entry that feels like a preliminary sketch for other better Simak stories. “Unsilent Spring,” which Simak cowrote with his son Richard S. Simak, a chemist, is another medical mystery like “Hunger Death,” but it takes place on Earth. Resembling an episode of the television programs Quincy or House, it has a strong theoretical foundation, but once the problem is diagnosed the plot just fizzles to an end.

I’ve come to expect great things from Simak, so I’m being nitpicky here. With the exception of “Mutiny on Mercury” and “Day of Truce,” these are all four-star stories or better. You really can’t go wrong with this series, but if I had to recommend a single volume this would not be it. Volumes One, Two, Seven, and Eight are all closer to perfection than this one.

Stories in this collection
Over the River and Through the Woods 
Grotto of the Dancing Deer 
The Reformation of Hangman’s Gulch
The Civilization Game 
Crying Jag 
Hunger Death 
Mutiny on Mercury 
Day of Truce 
Unsilent Spring

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