" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Wednesday, October 30, 2019


De Plancy’s Dictionnaire infernal respectively characterizes these demons, in the words of an unknown translator, as “the one who glistens horribly like a rainbow of insects; the one who quivers in a horrible manner; and the one who moves with a particular creeping motion.” 

Songs of a Dead Dreamer
Thomas Ligotti

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Installment Plan by Clifford Simak

  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 EngineersHowever, 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." 

"Installment Plan"

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." 

"Installment Plan"


 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.

Also we get a very robot focused story. Given the significance of robots in Simak's work I was really interested in how they were presented in this story. My plan is to discuss robots in Simak's work in a series of general posts on topic. As this post is running long I will only make some general observations. In the first post on this blog I discussed Simak's "All the Traps of Earth" (1960) in this story the robot Richard Daniel develops special powers as the result of traveling through space on the outside of a space ship.

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.  

Saturday, October 12, 2019

James Blaylock's Thirteen Phantasms: escapism and nostalgia in science fiction

  Last week I was sitting in my room surrounded by my science fiction collection, wondering what to suggest to Doug as part of our reading project. Doug's taste sometimes differs from mine, as one would expect, but I have made some fairly accurate guesses in the past. A James Blaylock short story sprang to mind. I knew it involved the discovery of a collection of science fiction magazines. A quick search and I had not just the title "Thirteen Phantasms" but a link to its appearance in Omni.

My wife and I are huge fans of the work of James Blaylock and Tim Powers. They are close friends and coauthor stories and share characters like the poet William Ashbless. They appear side by side in John Clute's Science Fiction The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Clute says, " Some think Blaylock has only a remote connection with SF, and should be treated as a weaver of misty myths for New Age readers who like their truths soft, their music ethereal, and their sewage plants on the other side of the tracks. Others think he has a real science fiction understanding of the world. " (203) I would suggest his work comes out the Weird Tales tradition of science fiction that also nurtured writers like C.L. Moore, Ray Bradbury and Fritz Lieber. 

While I had the story in hardcover, I initially read the Omni version. As followers of this blog might guess, the illustration by Robert K. J. Killheffer also enthralled me. 

My version

"Thirteen Phantasms" alternates storylines — the first concerns the main character Landers who is living in a rented house in Southern California. He mentions a wife, Janet, who is no present. I assume she has died. Blaylock's characters often seem to single widowers, which infuses the story with a certain melancholy or bachelors. Either way, this allows them to indulge their pension for kaleidoscopes, stuffed axolotl and spontaneous road trips. He seems to be at loose ends; he does not, for example, seem to work. While speaking to his landlady, he learns that her late husband kept a collection of magazines in the attic. " against the north wall, lay four dust-covered cardboard cartons — full of “junk magazines,” or so Mrs. Cummings herself had told Landers this morning. "The cartons were tied with twine, pulled tight and knotted, all the cartons the same. The word Astounding was written on the side with a felt marker in neat, draftsmanlike letters. Landers wryly wondered what sort of things Mr. Cummings might have considered astounding, and after a moment he decided that the man had been fortunate to find enough of it in one lifetime to fill four good-sized boxes.

Landers himself had come up empty in that regard, at least lately. For years he’d had a picture in his mind of himself whistling a cheerful out-of-key tune, walking along a country road, his hands in his pockets and with no particular destination, sunlight streaming through the trees and the limitless afternoon stretching toward the horizon. Somehow that picture had lost its focus in the past year or so, and, as with an old friend separated by time and distance, he had nearly given up on seeing it again. "

The first issue Landers pulls out is for Dec. 1947, which features one of Simak's City stories, "Aesop", on the cover. 

Blaylock alternates Landers' story with that of a group of science fiction fans, the Newtonian Society, living in Glendale Califonia in the late 1940s. Russell Latzarel is the president, and the group meets at the home of Roycroft Squires. Squires is a bookseller and small press publisher, and it is the small press publications that will link the story of Landers with that of the Newtonian Society. 

"There were book ads at the back of the magazine, including one from something called the Squires Press: an edition of Clark Ashton Smith’s Thirteen Phantasms, printed with hand-set type in three volumes on Winnebago Eggshell paper and limited to a hundred copies. “Remit one dollar in seven days,” the ad said, “and one dollar monthly until six dollars is paid.”"

These magazines have an almost talismanic effect on Landers. After reading “Rain Check” by Lewis Padgett, he goes to the liquor store for the ingredients for the Highball described in the story. He also indulges in a bit of magic thinking mailing a dollar to Squires Press for a copy of Thirteen Phantasms. Later in the story, he will make the one hour trip to Glendale to visit Squires' former home. 

I have attached the link, and I would encourage you to read the story before reading further. Roycroft or Ray A, Squires was an actual fan, bookseller and small press publisher. He was born in 1920 and died in 1988. He was a friend of Ray Bradbury publishing the first edition of Bradbury's story "The Aqueduct" as well as other stories and poems by Bradbury, Fritz Lieber and Clark Ashton Smith. Squires was the literary executor for the estate of Clark Ashton Smith. I think he appears in other stories by Blaylock, but I am my relying on my increasingly faulty memory. I suspect he was a friend of both Blaylock and Powers. The epigraph at the beginning of Power's novel The Stress of Her Regard is from Smith's poem "Sphinx and Medusa". According to ISFDB, this poem only seems to have been published by Squires. While there are lots of Medusa mentioned, I could not find it in Smith's Selected Poems

On rereading it I enjoyed the story. However, the section dealing with the road trip to Glendale and Landers' attempt to get directions at the convenience store struck me. The passages perfectly capture his unhappiness with his life and a certain disconnect almost paranoia when confronted with life in Southern California at the present day. But for me, rereading the story in 2019 drove home both the power but also the danger of nostalgia. As a fictional character, Landers' longing for, in his mind, a more uncomplicated or more comfortable society inhabited by people he will find congenial is harmless. But Canada is currently undergoing a Federal election and many issues I thought we had resolved, topics like race, the environment, indigenous and LGBT rights and the rights of women are suddenly flash-points. Many people seem attracted by rhetoric about returning Canada to some (non-existent) golden age. It is hard for me to read Blaylock's story and not reflect on this. I would suggest that a careful reader can be aware of potential problems with a work without ignoring its' merit. I also do not think authors of fiction are writing autobiography and their work should not always be read as such. I do participate in the world of today, I vote and support causes, I think, are important. But like Landers I also find a bit of refuge in a room filled with science fiction and weird tales, both old and new, warts and all. 

Publisher: Roy A. Squires items published by year.



Thirteen Phantasms by Design Bryan Cholfin Ill. Greg Spalenka


"Aesop" by Alejandro

"The Roads Must Roll" by Hubert Rogers

"Exploration Team" by Emesh

"The Big Front Yard" by Freas

Follow Me by Emesh

The Stress of Her Regard by James Gurney

The Fantastic Art of Clark Ashton Smith The Mirage Press