As I mentioned in an earlier post, I declared The Summer of Simak, collected some materials, and then made very little progress. One problem was that I did not initially know where to start. Then when, how much reading, research and writing should I do in preparation. I could not blindly jump in, could I? I have read Simak all my reading life, but only touched a portion of his oeuvre. I only remember a much smaller subset that I could hope to cover without extensive rereading. After looking at what I have read, what I remember. I began to ask myself have I read critically enough to do Simak and any potential readers of my blog justice.
I considered doing, or claiming, to do a close reading of Simak whatever that means. So I looked up some online lesson plans on close reading, and two things occurred to me. I do not know enough about literary analysis to know if Simak’s works lend themselves to this approach or if I could do a credible job. It also reminded me of the sterility of the university English courses I took where the significance of the work paled when faced with the great amorphous mass of scholarship that already existed, even more importantly, what the professor thought of it. Eventually, I realized that the whole accretion of theory, existing criticism, literary schools, both political and sociological, and personal bias meant that reading the actual work and forming an impression of it would hinder me in the course. I did not want to travel that road yet again,
I chose Simak because I like his work, or lots of it and posting about it forces me to approach the work on a deeper level. A bit of research, some middling thought and an attempt to read more of his work systematically seem to be good enough goals for my advancing years. I am still reading Simak and science fiction, in general, to see different perspectives, to experience fictionally, different realities. I read it to participate in the author’s thought experiments about the future of technology and humankind in general. I also seek wonder and to be entertained. Possibly, occasionally, something I read may even change me or my opinions in some fleeting way. Reading and writing about the works of Clifford D. Simak will be, in my mind, a labour not of scholarship but love.
One step I took was to buy all 12 volumes of The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak. As the Black Gate website notes when discussing the first volumes.
"All three, like all six volumes announced so far, are edited by David W. Wixon, the Executor of Simak’s Literary Estate. Wixon, a close friend of Simak, contributes an introduction to each volume, and short intros to each story, providing a little background on its publishing history and other interesting tidbits."
"As a special treat the first volume, I Am Crying All Inside, includes the never-before-published “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air,” originally written in 1973 for Harlan Ellison’s famously unpublished anthology Last Dangerous Visions, and finally pried out of Ellison’s unrelenting grip after 42 very long years."
It appears there might be a couple more volumes in the future. I have found Wixon's introductions quite useful. The introduction to each volume looks at another aspect of Simak' s work, for example, his westerns, his non-fiction books, etc.
I think overall this project (like my stalled look back at Frank Herbert) will take much longer than intended. But let's get started. Despite planning this project for some time, I have chosen to begin with three stories that were not in my plans, none of which I had read previously. (I read them and they basically self selected) I had planned to start with his novel Cosmic Engineers. However, taken together, these stories do provide a good overview of trends and outliers within Simak's work. I will cover the first "Installment Plan" in this post. Discussions of "Worlds Without End" and "The World That Couldn't Be" will follow.
"Installment Plan" first appeared in Galaxy Magazine, February 1959. (cover by Emsh, interiors by Wallace Wood ) It also appears in I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories vol. 1 of the Complete Short fiction series.
Steve Sheridan is the supervisor of a crew of robots on a trade mission to Garson IV. Garson IV was first visited by staff from Central Trading 20 years ago. At that time they discovered a tuber with medicinal properties.
"From the podar, the tuber’s native designation, had been derived a drug which had been given a long and agonizing name and had turned out to be the almost perfect tranquilizer. It appeared to have no untoward side-effects; it was not lethal if taken in too enthusiastic dosage; it was slightly habit-forming, a most attractive feature for all who might be concerned with the sale of it. To a race vitally concerned with an increasing array of disorders traceable to tension, such a drug was a boon, indeed. For years, a search for such a tranquilizer had been carried on in the laboratories and here it suddenly was, a gift from a new-found planet."
A second expedition encouraged the Garsonians to raise podar and to store it, for some reason, in red New England style barns. Central Trading then spent years trying to synthesize the drug or raise podar on planets they control. They have been unsuccessful so Sheridan has been sent to trade for the crops that have been stored. However the expedition gets off to a rocky start. One of the cargo floaters crashes damaging a number of the robots. This accident introduces two elements. One is robot names in Simak's stories.
In Vol 6 New Folk's Home Wixon discusses how Simak often uses biblical names for his robots. "Two aspects of the names Cliff used will certainly be familiar to his readers. First, many—though not all—of his robots bore biblical names: Nicodemus, Ezekiel, Gideon, Abraham. "
Here we have a Hezekiah, Gideon Lemuel and Abraham etc. there is also Maximilian and Napoleon.
Also Sheridan has a number of transmogs which allows him to reprogram the skill sets of the robots, (their base personality does seem to remain the same). This become quite important when a cargo sled crashes damaging a number of the robots. To repair the damaged robots Sheridan equips three robots with roboticists transmogs. Other transmogs that we encounter or that are mentioned are spacehand, missionary, semantics, playwright, public speaker, auctioneer, lawyer, doctor etc. Indeed the robots handle most of the work including planning for the mission. However Sheridan notes robot crews have demonstrated in the past that they cannot operate successfully on their own without at least one human supervisor. That said robots are crucial to mankind's expansion into space.
"no ship that could carry more than a dribble of the merchandise needed for interstellar trade. For that purpose, there was the cargo sled. The sled, set in an orbit around the planet of its origin, was loaded by a fleet of floaters, shuttling back and forth. Loaded, the sled was manned by robots and given the start on its long journey by the expedition ship. By the dint of the engines on the sled itself and the power of the expedition ship, the speed built up and up. There was a tricky point when one reached the speed of light, but after that it became somewhat easier—although, for interstellar travel, there was need of speed many times in excess of the speed of light. And so the sled sped on, following close behind the expedition ship, which served as a pilot craft through that strange gray area where space and time were twisted into something other than normal space and time. Without robots, the cargo sleds would have been impossible; no human crew could ride a cargo ship and maintain the continuous routine of inspection that was necessary."
The real problems occur when Sheridan and his crew attempt to trade with the Garsonians. Despite the fact that there are fields of what appears to be podar the natives deny they grow it any longer. They also claim that the barns, which are sealed are empty. Crews on trade missions are forbidden to use any violence against native populations so breaking into one is not an option. Sheridan and the robots do note changes from the observations of previous expeditions. The native villages are unkempt, once described as happy go lucky the native seem stressed, tired and generally unhappy. They obviously want the items on offer but will not trade for them. The robots then come up with a number of strategies to attempt to change their minds including stand-up comedy and medicine shows but are unsuccessful. The mystery when solved is not a happy one.
This was a great place to start my review of Simak for a number of reasons. One there was more of a focus on an alien planet and culture that I normally associate with Simak whose stories often seem Earth based even when interstellar travel occurs. Also Simak treated us to a science fiction trope, the trader in space that is common in the work of other authors but not necessarily in his. In his introduction to the story Wixon notes that when it was submitted to Galaxy the editor Gold,
"sent it back for revisions, but he also suggested that Cliff make a series of it and pledged himself to buy the series. Cliff did revise the story, and then started plotting a second “robot team” story—at which point Gold returned “Installment Plan” for more revisions, which Cliff provided within a week. But Cliff’s notes give no hint that he ever again thought of returning to the second tale. I like this story quite a lot, and it puzzles me that Cliff apparently did not … but then, he was not one to indulge in sequels."
Intro to "Installment Plan", I Am Crying All Inside: And Other Stories
Given how popular stories of traders in space, see Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels or Poul Anderson's Nicholas van Rijn stories for two examples it is interesting that Simak did not pursue this opportunity.
We can also see how uninterested Simak is in detailing how technology like FTL travel is achieved. The description of the propulsion of the cargo sleds may actually be the longest explanation I can remember Simak providing in any work I have read.
The robots here simply seem to handle it was a normal part of their duties. I think this is important more because it demonstrates that while the robots Simak has created are often similar, domestic servants are common, I don't think their attributes are necessarily consistent from story to story.
At present I would say the robots in "Installment Plan" are the most human of any Simak presents. They actually argue with and tease Sheridan as human coworkers would. They gamble as a form of entertainment, something I want to look at in more detail in another post. Two are critical of what one would assume is the rather basic spacehound transmog, Ruben says tired he is of it, while Lemuel notes how limited it is. One thing that just occurred to me (sorry) is that all the robots I remember from his stories seem to be identified as male. So in future reading I will try to understand what role if any gender plays in Simak's robots.
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