Monday, February 5, 2018

Earth for Inspiration and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Nine

Strong overall despite a few weaker entries
Earth for Inspiration and Other Stories, published in 2016, is the ninth volume in Open Road Media’s excellent series The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak. I’ve been reading these ebooks in a somewhat haphazard order, and this is the eighth volume I’ve completed thus far out of a planned 14 books in the series. Simak’s writing is typically outstanding and frequently superb, making each book definitely worth its purchase price. I feel it my job as a conscientious reviewer, however, to quibble over which volumes are better than others. The verdict on Volume 9 is that it is neither the best nor the worst book in the series, but falls about the middle of the pack, meaning it adheres to the consistently exceptional level of quality exemplified by this series.

Volume 9 sports an abundant eleven stories and novellas, but at times the content does feel a little sub-par compared to other collections in the series. As in all the other volumes, this one features one western, “Good Nesters are Dead Nesters!” It also contains a war story about World War II aerial combat, “Green Flight Out!” These are both pretty good entries in their respective genres, but nothing that would make you forget that Simak is primarily a science fiction author. The collection also includes two stories published very early in Simak’s career that seem a bit clunky and amateurish compared to his mature style. “Asteroid of Gold” is a belief-defying pulp fiction action piece, while the novella “Hellhounds of the Cosmos” is an absurd and illogical tale of interdimensional warfare that nevertheless manages to be bizarrely entertaining.

These less satisfying offerings are thankfully balanced by some truly remarkable selections. The 1944 story “Desertion” would eventually become one of the chapters of the 1952 novel City, perhaps Simak’s best-known work. Readers who have already read that novel, however, will find that familiarity does nothing to diminish the magnificence of “Desertion.” On its own it is one of Simak’s greatest stories and probably one of the best science fiction stories to come out of its decade. In a more humorous vein, “Carbon Copy” is another excellent selection that starts out as a mystery about a real estate scam before venturing far into sci-fi territory. Despite its slow build-up and reveal, it is consistently suspenseful from start to finish. “The Golden Bugs” also unveils its secrets slowly, revealing an ingeniously innovative vision of a unique alien life form. “Honorable Opponent” cleverly satirizes Cold War tensions with a surprisingly charming tale of interplanetary warfare.

In between the best and the worst, the collection is rounded out by three solid thought-provoking entries. “Earth for Inspiration” is about a future science fiction writer who returns to long-abandoned Earth looking for fuel for his stories. In “Idiot’s Crusade,” a mentally challenged man suddenly finds himself possessed of heightened senses and intelligence. Told in the first-person by this individual, the narrative has a delightfully dark and spooky atmosphere but doesn’t quite go far enough in the end. The volume’s final selection, “Full Cycle,” follows a recently laid-off history professor’s pilgrimage through a future post-urban America in which a “decentralization” of culture has brought about a return to nomadism, tribalism, and superstition.

I can’t say enough good things about The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak project as a whole. Though Volume 9 may not be quite as good as books 1, 2, 7, 8, or 10, it certainly upholds the high standard one has come to expect from this exceptional series.

Stories in this collection
Earth for Inspiration 
Idiot’s Crusade 
Hellhounds of the Cosmos
Honorable Opponent 
Green Flight Out! 
Carbon Copy 
Asteroid of Gold 
Good Nesters are Dead Nesters! 
The Golden Bugs 
Full Cycle

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