Wednesday, August 15, 2018

No Life of Their Own and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Five

A few weak entries, but excellent overall
No Life of Their Own and Other Stories, published in 2016, is the fifth volume in the projected 14-volume The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series from Open Road Media. This is the tenth book I’ve read in the series so far (I’m not reading them in order, since order doesn’t really matter), and Volume Five is neither the best nor the worst of those ten. Like every volume in this consistently outstanding series, this collection of stories and novellas is well worth the cover price and your reading time. Even so, the title cut, “No Life of Their Own,” is surprisingly disappointing. Set in a future world in which Earth is home to extraterrestrial immigrants, a farming community serves as a metaphor for the multiethnic American frontier. Though an interesting premise, the story is a bit goofy (perhaps intentionally) and veers too far away from science fiction into the realm of fantasy.

Simak’s first writings from the 1930s and early ‘40s tend to be somewhat formulaic and sensationalist compared to his later, more mature work. Often such stories begin as future tales of solar system colonization and mining and end up with a monster attack or laser-gun battle. “The Space-Beasts” from 1940, included here, is one example. Another, 1939’s “Message from Mars,” feels like a half-baked preliminary sketch of Simak’s 1965 novel All Flesh Is Grass. Though these early works usually stick to the conventions of pulp fiction adventure storytelling, they often contain inklings of great ideas. “The Loot of Time,” for instance, is an ingenious time travel tale that’s very entertaining, and its hokey pulpiness only contributes to the fun. In addition to the science fiction for which Simak is known, this volume, like others in the series, contains one western, “Cactus Colts,” which is pretty good, and also a World War II combat story, “A Hero Must Not Die,” easily the volume’s worst selection.

Three stories included here really stand out as exceptional and are among Simak’s best. 1944’s “Huddling Place” is one of the stories that would eventually end up as part of his 1952 novel City. It is an integral chapter to that epic narrative of man, dogs, robots, and Martians, but also an ingenious short story in its own right. In “Party Line,” a team of humans on Earth communicates telepathically with other intelligent beings throughout the universe in an attempt to gather scientific and philosophical knowledge for the benefit of mankind. This near-perfect story is so chock full of brilliant ideas it could easily have been expanded into a great novel. Another excellent selection, “The Whistling Well,” is about a writer who is commissioned by an elderly relative to research his family’s history. To do so, he must visit the family’s ancestral homestead, which sits on a patch of land shrouded in mystery and creepy rumors. Excellently paced and very subtle and patient in its building of suspense, the story begins as another one of Simak’s moving tributes to rural life, but then morphs into a chilling horror tale.

The remaining selections, “Spaceship in a Flask,” “To Walk a City’s Street,” and “Contraption,” are all strong stories too, but each Simak collection presents such an embarrassment of riches it is impossible to adequately praise them all. Volume Five collects 12 stories, which is the most that’s ever been packed into one of these volumes. High quantity allows for great variety, but at times you wish the shorter stories could have been longer because they are just so good. Volume Five proves once again that you really can’t go wrong with buying any of the volumes in this series.

Stories in this collection
No Life of Their Own 
Spaceship in a Flask 
The Loot of Time
Huddling Place 
To Walk a City’s Street 
Cactus Colts 
Message from Mars 
Party Line 
A Hero Must Not Die 
The Space-Beasts 
The Whistling Well

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1 comment:

  1. I totally hate Huddling Place, and I speak as someone who, without the proper medication, would never leave my home. I love it here (as Chili Palmer says about L.A. in Get Shorty). So if you could give me some reason to consider it a great story, I’d appreciate it. I never liked City, except for Desertion, which IMO is one of the most profound writings — of any length — on la condition humaine.