Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Out of Their Minds by Clifford D. Simak

Possibly Simak’s worst
I’m in the process of reading my way through Clifford D. Simak’s complete works. With only a handful of novels left, I come to Out of Their Minds, published in 1970. Though I consider myself a diehard Simak fan, I found little to like in this book. In fact, thinking back over the course of his body of work, I can’t recall another book of his that I liked less than this one. From Chapter 1, I found the story boring and silly, and it never improved over the entire length of the novel.

The narrator, Horton Smith, is a minor celebrity due to his career as a radio and television personality. He is taking a break from that career, however, in order to author a book. In hopes of finding the peace and quiet to devote himself to writing, Smith returns to his hometown of Pilot Knob after a long time away. Like many a small town in Simak’s works, Pilot Knob is a slice of rural Americana inhabited by salt-of-the-earth people with conservative family values. Smith expects the town will have changed some during his years of absence, but he is unprepared for what he encounters when he arrives. On a country road outside of town, his car is run off the road by a charging triceratops. Though some farmers residing nearby welcome him into their home, offering him food and shelter, he inexplicably wakes up in a cave full of rattlesnakes. This is but the beginning of a chain of strange phenomena and dangerous situations that seem to arise out of nowhere to threaten Smith’s life.

The title has a double meaning. The phrase Out of Their Minds could refer to persons who are insane, but in this case it primarily pertains to characters and events from people’s imaginations that manifest themselves in physical reality, literally arising out of their minds. Smith believes there is a parallel world of beings who have sprung from mankind’s imagination and developed independent consciousness and sentience. Usually these beings remain hidden in the shadows, leaving their existence a matter of speculation. When a real-world human finds out that they actually exist, however, as Smith does when tipped off by a dying colleague, these beings from the world of imagination try to kill the aware individual in order to protect their concealment.

That sounds like a whimsical premise that might offer ample opportunity for some fantastical Twilight Zone plots, but Simak tries to justify these beings of pure thought using Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is a poorly thought-out and ridiculous excuse for the author to indulge in whatever strikes his fancy. Anything goes in Out of Their Minds—cartoon characters, the aforementioned dinosaur, and beings from mythical, religious, and historical folklore all come to life. The lack of rules makes for a nonsensical and meandering story that despite the no-holds-barred abandonment of reality is nonetheless quite boring. There is a Civil War scene in this novel for no other reason than Simak seems to have thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a Civil War scene?” Perhaps, but not in this novel, where it clearly doesn’t belong in the same story with gnomes, demons, and dinosaurs.

Simak was a talented and visionary writer in both science fiction and fantasy literature, and he received critical acclaim and awards for his writing in both genres. In my opinion, however, his sci-fi is far superior to his fantasy, and Out of Their Minds isn’t even good fantasy. Though I haven’t quite finished all his books, when all is read and done I suspect that this novel will probably end up being my least favorite of his works.
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