Friday, January 4, 2019

The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Twelve

Maybe the best volume yet
The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is the twelfth book in The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series, which is projected to be 14 volumes in all. I’ve read all the volumes published thus far, and Volume Twelve is clearly one of the best books in this consistently excellent series.

The title selection, “The Thing in the Stone,” reads like a master’s thesis on Simak literature. After the death of his wife, a man isolates himself on a farm in rural southwestern Wisconsin, the setting of so many Simak stories, where he begins to have visions of prehistoric life in earlier geologic periods of time. The story calls to mind Simak’s novel Mastodonia until it veers off into unexpected but not entirely unfamiliar directions. This masterpiece beautifully captures Simak’s skill at depicting rural life, his visionary inventiveness, and his faith in humanity’s virtues.

Other outstanding stories include “Univac: 2200,” an amazingly prescient story from 1973 that depicts a future with artificially intelligent personal assistants, virtual reality, and an environmentally degraded planet. In “Hunch,” a future high-ranking government official uncovers a solar system-wide conspiracy threatening mankind’s existence. “Aesop” is one of the stories that would later go to make up Simak’s novel City. It is a great piece of that marvelous puzzle, though those unfamiliar with the broader scope of the City epic may find themselves a little disoriented. All three stories are complex tales replete with big ideas that transcend their sci-fi storylines. “The Spaceman’s Van Gogh” is Simak at his most contemplative and literary, while “Construction Shack” is a wonderful example of an outlandish premise well-told.

Often Simak’s earliest stories come across as mediocre pulp fiction, but his first published story from 1931, “The World of the Red Sun,” is a surprisingly entertaining time travel yarn. Throughout the series, editor David W. Wixon has been trumpeting the virtues of another 1930s story called “The Creator,” but now that it finally appears in Volume Twelve it is a bit disappointing. “Skirmish” is another entry that feels a little half-baked. To be honest, however, even the disappointments in this volume are far better than the average sci-fi offerings from this time period. This volume’s western story (each book in the series has one) is also a pretty good entry in its genre: “The Hangnoose Army Rides to Town!” is a satisfying cowboy murder mystery that is refreshingly judicious in its gunplay until its violent finale.

The Thing in the Stone might very well be the best volume in the Complete Short Fiction series. Though not every story is a masterpiece, at least a few of them are, and this collection really captures the variety in style and subject matter of Simak’s writing while touching on quintessential settings, themes, and concepts that reoccurred in his work throughout his career. If I had to recommend one volume to someone looking for a favorable introduction to Simak, this would be it. I have enjoyed all the volumes in the series thus far and look forward to volumes 13 and 14, but the way Open Road Media has been dragging their feet on those last two books makes me wonder if they will ever see the light of day. Here’s hoping the Complete Short Fiction will one day be complete!

Stories in this collection
The Thing in the Stone 
The World of the Red Sun 
The Hangnoose Army Rides to Town! 
Univac: 2200 
The Creator
The Spaceman’s Van Gogh 
Construction Shack

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