Friday, November 3, 2017

The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Ten

More nuggets of genius from a master storyteller
After becoming addicted to the Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series, I have come to expect great things from Simak. Volume Ten, The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories, is the seventh book in the series that I have read (I’m not going in order), and I am continually blown away by Simak’s profound speculative imagination and prodigious talents as a writer. Volume Ten proves to be another exceptional collection. This volume contains only nine stories, as opposed to the usual ten to twelve, but that actually works in its favor because almost all the selections are substantial, fully realized works of fiction. The title selection is the shortest entry in the book and the only story that feels like it could have benefited from a little more development. Though Simak is famous for his science fiction, like all volumes in the series, this one contains a western, and this time it’s a full-length novella. “The Gravestone Rebels Ride by Night!,” is a great western mystery thriller with tense action scenes reminiscent of some of Randolph Scott’s better films.

Moving on to the sci-fi, another excellent entry is “Paradise,” which is one of the short stories that would later form part of Simak’s 1952 novel City. It depicts a future in which mankind explores Jupiter by assuming the non-humanoid form of the planet’s native inhabitants. This is a complicated piece in an intricate puzzle, and may require some prior knowledge of the grander City narrative to fully appreciate. “The Money Tree” is exactly what it sounds, a story about a tree that grows money. As he always does so well, Simak builds upon this simple premise and takes it to unexpected places. “Shotgun Cure” employs a familiar Simak motif: benevolent alien “missionaries” who come to solve Earth’s problems. In this variation they offer to cure all illness and disease, one should be wary of strangers bearing gifts. In “How-2,” machinery has replaced so much human labor, providing such an excess of free time, that people have become ridiculously obsessed with do-it-yourself projects. Simak artfully lampoons the DIY movement, while entering into a thoughtful debate about the humanity of robots. In “Eternity Lost,” mankind has developed the ability to prolong life for centuries, but it is a privilege reserved only for a select few. Here Simak conducts an insightful examination into the ethical issues raised by immortality.

There really are no weak links here. “The Shipshape Miracle,” about a sentient spacecraft, is a little too brief to fully satisfy, but it’s still a strong concept. “Rim of the Deep,” a story about future undersea colonization, is an early work of Simak’s, published in 1940. It feels a bit like an early work, but it entertains with its flavor of good old-fashioned pulp fiction adventure.

The final selection in the book, “Immigrant,” may be the longest novella I have encountered in this series, but it is well worth the extra reading time. After years of diligent study, one lucky man is selected among the elite earthlings allowed to immigrate to the planet Kimon, home to an alien culture more advanced than humankind. Previous immigrants have described Kimon as a paradise, but what is the Kimonians’ motive for courting settlement? It is a thoughtful mystery, spooky at times, but Simak doesn’t settle for easy answers. It is a perfect way to cap off an excellent collection. Having read half of the Complete Short Fiction series so far, I’ve found that even the worst volumes are very good, and the better ones, like this one, are outstanding.

Stories in this collection
The Money Tree 
Shotgun Cure 
The Gravestone Rebels Ride by Night! 
The Shipshape Miracle 
Rim of the Deep 
Eternity Lost 

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