Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Big Front Yard and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Two

Even better than Volume One
I was only slightly familiar with Clifford D. Simak’s work when I purchased a copy of I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume One. I was so impressed by the excellent stories in that first volume, I became instantly hooked. The Big Front Yard and Other Stories is the second collection of Simak’s short stories and novellas in what publisher Open Road Media projects will be a 14-volume series. Although I was thrilled with Volume One, I am pleasantly surprised to report that Volume Two manages to surpass it.

The series is edited by David W. Wixon, Simak’s literary executor and a close personal friend of the author. In this volume, Wixon provides a biographical introduction on Simak’s youth and early years as a writer. He also supplies a brief publication history for each entry in the book. The contents of each volume seem to be a grab bag, with no apparent chronological or thematic rhyme or reason to the selections. Simak mostly wrote science fiction, but he also penned western tales as well. Volume Two includes “Trail City’s Hot-Lead Crusaders,” a very good offering that would have made a great movie back in Jimmy Stewart’s western heyday.

The real attraction here, however, is the science fiction for which Simak is famous. Volume Two opens with the title selection, “The Big Front Yard.” A small-town antiques dealer and fix-it man discovers that the broken objects in his workshop have started fixing themselves. From that simple incongruity, the story escalates, gradually building up to more and more fantastic and mind-blowing phenomena. In “The Observer,” a near perfect story, a being wakes up on a foreign world, with no memory of its past. Simak takes us through the mind of this entity as it gradually gains awareness of itself and its reason for being. In “Junkyard,” an expeditionary force from Earth explores a newly discovered distant planet. When the crew finds a dumping ground of what appear to be alien engine parts, the narrative evolves into a baffling mystery in space. Yet another excellent entry, “So Bright the Vision,” depicts Earth in the 26th century, when our planet’s main interstellar export has become our fiction. Providing entertainment to alien races all over the galaxy, writers ply their trade by mechanically manipulating authorial machines called yarners. Simak not only speculates on the future of literature, he also wryly criticizes the publishing industry of his day, all while managing to craft a fun, engaging, and intelligent sci-fi tale. The three remaining stories, “Mr. Meek - Musketeer,” “Neighbor,” and “Shadow World,” are also very good examples of Simak’s masterful sci-fi skills.

Although the works included here were originally published from 1944 to 1972, they’re not the least bit antiquated. When Simak writes about everyday objects—cars, radios, tractors—you can tell that these stories were written decades ago. Nevertheless, his marvelous visions and ingenious concepts, grounded in science but limitless in imagination, are fresher than much of what passes for science fiction in today’s popular culture. His best stories have great psychological and philosophical depth and attain a level of literary quality that belies genre labels. The stories included here are like the best episodes of the old Twilight Zone TV series—not the kitschy ones, but the ones that have held up incredibly well over time. Needless to say, I will be tuning in for the next installment. Bring on Volume Three!

Stories in this collection
The Big Front Yard 
The Observer 
Trail City’s Hot-Lead Crusaders 
Mr. Meek - Musketeer 
Shadow World 
So Bright the Vision

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