Monday, 19 December 2016

So Bright the Vision

Clifford D. Simak So Bright the Vision (1968)
Just four long-ish short stories here, none of which I've read before, and all dating from between 1956 to 1960. Simak is of course best known for what has been termed pastoral science-fiction - The Waltons with the occasional alien visitor if you want the shorthand, although there's a lot more to it than that - so this is an interesting collection in so much as that all four stories feature an urban if not actually metropolitan setting. Nevertheless, Simak's concerns remain firmly with the little guy, the blue collar worker just trying to get by as best he can at the periphery of a huge, confusing universe; so Simak's traditional themes are all here should anyone doubt that there's more going on than just folksy imagery. Indeed, as I expect I've said before, whilst it is quite easy to characterise Simak as formulaic, the evidence always seems to give a different testimony.

The Golden Bugs, for example, might be read as generic magazine fiction of its era - fifties nuclear family encounters tiny insectoid aliens as they emerge from a boulder-sized agate spaceship which has inconveniently crushed their dahlias, but it works due to the contrast of urbanity with the intrusively weird details. The next story is Leg. Forst. in which a stamp collector collects postage stamps from all across the galaxy - because the intergalactic postal system still entails folks queuing up at the post office for stamps. Our man encounters a stamp made from a rare alien fungus which organises things. Grow it in a waste basket, leave the waste basket in an untidy room, and within days everything will have been sorted, even neatly filed in alphabetical sequence where appropriate; and this is just the set-up for the rest of what happens.

The summation of Simak as pastoral neglects much of what makes him great, namely just how damn weird some of his fiction is, and how unpredictable. For all that we may well be dealing with the written equivalent of country and western, once Simak has established where we are and who we're looking at, it's anyone's guess where we're headed next thanks to an intuitive creative process as described in the February 1980 edition of Amazing Stories:

I don't consciously plot too much of the second half of the story because I know very well by the time I'm at the midpoint, the characters and the situations will have taken over, and I'll be writing an entirely different story than I started out to write.

Nothing in this collection does what you might expect it to, which is significant for me given that it relates directly to why I read science-fiction, and is why Simak will probably forever remain in my top three. The plain-talking and the homespun are no gimmick. The story is that way for the sake of contrast, because Simak fills his tales with persons very much like ourselves specifically that we may fully appreciate - by virtue of the aforementioned contrast - the magic and wonder of that which is so far outside our experience as to border on the incomprehensible. He shows us that the unfamiliar isn't so scary when we look close, rather than adopting the more common science-fiction approach of dazzling us with weirdness for the sake of it. He broadens our horizons, which is what all the best literature should do.

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