Friday, January 19, 2018

Hellhounds of the Cosmos by Cilfford D. Simak

Bizarre fantasy of interdimensional warfare
Hellhounds of the Cosmos, a science fiction novella by Clifford D. Simak, was originally published in the June 1932 issue of Astounding Stories magazine. It is among the few Simak works of which the copyright has passed into the public domain, making it available to download free of charge from sites like Amazon and Project Gutenberg. This novella is among the first handful of stories that Simak ever published. He would go on to enjoy a long and prolific writing career and receive much critical acclaim for his work. The quality of his writing is consistently excellent, but it did take him a little time to find his voice, so the stories from his early years are spotty at best. Hellhounds of the Cosmos is far from Simak’s best work, but it still exhibits enough inklings of his mature style to make it an enjoyable read.

Earth is being attacked by mysterious creatures collectively dubbed “The Horror.” Appearing spontaneously at various points around the globe, these beings assume a wide variety of monstrous appearances but are united by their tarry black color. Their sole purpose seems to be to kill humans and feast upon their bodies. Newspaper journalist Henry Woods is assigned to interview a scientist, Dr. Silas White, who claims to have information regarding The Horror. White’s theory is that the creatures are invaders from the fourth dimension, and he proposes to attack the problem at its source. Having developed a machine that will allow third-dimensional humans to travel into the fourth dimension, he organizes an expedition to fight the enemy on its home turf. Seeking the story of the century, Woods volunteers to go along.

I’ve read a lot of Simak’s fiction, and this is truly one of his most bizarre stories ever. He often pushes the envelope with his visionary sci-fi speculations, but this one often veers from scientific logic altogether and enters into a realm of fantasy, similar to the work of sci-fi pioneers William Hope Hodgson (The House on the Borderland) or David Lindsay (A Voyage to Arcturus). In the first half of the book, Simak lays a theoretical foundation for the story, but it’s a pretty preposterous construction. Dr. White proposes that the world we live in, ourselves included, is the result of a process of cosmic reverse evolution through which beings and objects progressively lose dimensions over the course of eons. Thus the third-dimensional world is descended from the fourth, the second from the third, and so on. In the latter half of the novella, when the humans travel to the fourth dimension, the book gets even more ridiculous, achieving epic levels of weirdness. Hellhounds is reminiscent of Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novel Flatland, which depicts an interaction between beings of the second and third dimensions, but when Simak broadens the idea to the fourth dimension, he abandons geometrical reasoning altogether and just lets his freakiest ideas run free.

Despite the conceptual absurdity of it all, Hellhounds of the Cosmos succeeds because of Simak’s talents as a storyteller. Unlike his story of the same year, “Mutiny on Mercury,” which comes across as an amateurish, pulp-fiction actionfest, Hellhounds is a very engaging read put together by a precociously skilled craftsman. Even if you can’t believe the science behind the narrative, you can’t help but admire Simak for his audacity, and you can’t wait to see where he’ll take the story next. Hellhounds of the Cosmos is not a story to be believed, but it is a story to be remembered.
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