Academic journal article Extrapolation

The Pastoral Complexities of Clifford Simak: The Land Ethic and Pulp Lyricism in Time and Again

Academic journal article Extrapolation

The Pastoral Complexities of Clifford Simak: The Land Ethic and Pulp Lyricism in Time and Again

Article excerpt

In the Barnyard

What are we to make of Clifford Simak, some thirty-five years after his death? Has he become a kind of footnote to the main action of the Golden Age-and later? Most would agree that he rates behind the looming figures of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, at least in terms of historical importance. So, to phrase my question more precisely: Is Simak someone we are not encountering afresh because we have all the stock responses at the ready? Simak the pastoralist, the rustic, the gentle soul, the simple yarn spinner from Millville, Wisconsin, sitting on his porch with a corncob pipe as he muses about nice aliens and thoughtful robots. One can almost imagine fiddle music drowning out the sounds of spaceships landing in recently hoed bean fields.

I want to use Simak's 1951 novel Time and Again to complicate our responses, to suggest that his environmental ethos and prose style are more nuanced than usually supposed and that Simak's work represents a strain of eco-humanistic SF that develops more fully with such writers as Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kim Stanley Robinson. I am not making a simple argument of conceptual or stylistic influence. Rather, I want to suggest that in Simak we have a writer whose concerns foreshadow more sophisticated and environmentally engaged science fiction. Simak has been moved from the center to the margin of the SF mega-text, which is unfortunate given our failure to embrace his core philosophical concerns as a kind of "green" SF and how his use of style is sometimes integral to those concerns. We need a new approach to Simak in order to reassess and resurrect his work. I hope that this essay's close reading of one novel begins that process.

Specifically, I will demonstrate how Simak's work embodies one of the most important statements of conservation philosophy ever articulatedAldo Leopold's Land Ethic-and show how previously neglected elements of his style advance Simak's version of this attitude. In doing so, I shall agree with Susan Sontag that "to speak of style is one way of speaking about the totality of a work of art" {17). One could argue that, given the press of today's environmental crises, Simak is becoming more, not less, relevant, and that it is useful to encounter someone in the Golden Age and 1950s {Simak's heyday) writing an environmentally engaged SF before such explicitly didactic works as, for example, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up {1972). Simak's work can also be seen as a bridge between science fiction and the other genre most focused on questions of change: nature writing.

Yet Simak does not merit inclusion in the recently published The Science Fiction Handbook and only one mention in Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction as an author Hugo Gernsback first published {84). The 2009 anthology Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts does not include Simak. The 2010 Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction includes "Desertion," but inclusion there does not equate to inclusion in a syllabus. In The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Damien Broderick calls Simak's Way Station "sentimental [and] pedestrian," especially as against Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, which lost to Simak's novel for the 1963 Hugo {57). In the same volume, Gary Wolfe calls Simak (and Theodore Sturgeon) "humanist and even sentimental" (99). An index reference to Simak in Farah Mendlesohn's essay, "Religion and Science Fiction" in the Cambridge Companion leads to a page where Simak appears to have been erased in the editing process {267).

Some earlier encounters are not quite so sparse. Thomas Clareson discusses Time and Again in his book Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Formative Period, 1926-1970. There, Clareson writes that the novel-which first appeared under the title "Time Quarry" as a serial in Galaxy-ultimately "declares that all sentient beings, however diverse their forms, are united into a single community which gives purpose and meaning to the universe" (49). …

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