Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dusty Zebra and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Eleven

An outstanding series, but not the best volume
This is the ninth book I’ve read of The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, a series which will eventually amount to 14 volumes. (I’m not reading them in numerical order.) Overall, the series so far has just been spectacular. I had very little prior experience with Simak before I stumbled upon Volume One, but I immediately became hooked on this series. Volume Eleven, Dusty Zebra and Other Stories, is another great collection of short fiction, but by no means the best book in the series.

Each volume contains at least one example of Simak’s non-sci-fi writing. The longest work in this book is a western novella called “Way for the Hangtown Rebel!” It’s a constant stream of action scenes that might make a decent B-movie but adds up to one pretty formulaic story. Also included in this collection is a tale of World War II combat, “Guns on Guadalcanal,” which has little literary merit and suffers from the expected anti-Japanese racism of its era.

The good news is that the rest of the volume consists of seven science fiction stories. The book opens with its delightfully funny title selection, in which an opportunistic family man stumbles upon a way of communicating with an alien intelligence through the universal language of commerce. Next up is “Hobbies,” which is one of the stories that would eventually make up Simak’s 1952 novel City, but this ingenious and unpredictable vision of the future of mankind, caninekind, and robotkind is excellent even on its own. Another fine selection is “Courtesy,” about an interplanetary expedition party who, when faced with imminent death, must turn to the local aborigines to find a cure. The plot drags at times, but the story imparts a valuable moral lesson.

In his 1955 novella “Project Mastodon,” also included here, Simak gives a lot of creative thought to the political, economic, and military ramifications of time travel, but he has a pretty cavalier attitude toward how actions in the past, such as resource extraction and settlement, would effect the course of history. This story has a great premise which Simak would eventually develop into the excellent 1978 novel Mastodonia, but here the idea feels a little half-baked, and the ending is a disappointment. The 1932 story “Voice in the Void” is about two adventurers stealing a Martian religious relic. Though this early effort is not on a par with Simak’s mature writing, it makes for pretty good pulp fiction. “Final Gentleman” is a Twilight-Zonish piece of conspiracy sci-fi in which a writer finds the life he has known was just a sham and he merely a puppet. It has a good suspenseful buildup, but gets a little too trippy and suffers from a lack of clarity at the end. In “Retrograde Evolution,” another tale of interplanetary contact, Simak comes up with an interesting theory on war, peace, and culture, but he expresses it too obtusely, to the point where the story begins to bore.

Like all the books in the Complete Short Fiction series, I enjoyed Volume Eleven, enough to give it a four-star rating, but that’s actually a weak showing compared to five-star volumes like numbers One, Two, Seven, Eight, and Ten. The whole series, as I’ve seen so far, is well worth reading, but if you’re only going to pick a few of the books to read, this one should not be among them. If you read City (as you should), you’ve already got “Hobbies” covered, and “Project Mastodon” is in the public domain so you can download it for free.

Stories in this collection
Dusty Zebra 
Guns on Guadalcanal 
Voice in the Void 
Retrograde Evolution 
Way for the Hangtown Rebel! 
Final Gentleman 
Project Mastodon

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