I recently discovered Clifford D. Simak and it has been nothing short of a revelation.
To say that Isaac Asimov is my favorite author would be inaccurate. I have a short list of top authors but I don’t put Asimov on that list because he is on a much more selective list and I generally don’t believe in redundancy. Or duplication. No, Asimov is not on my list of favorite authors because he’s on my list of favorite humans. I have somehow, slowly over the last twenty years, fallen in love with Isaac Asimov. I have read more of his works than most, devouring not only his science fiction but his nonfiction essays and books, which are written with as much clarity and charm as his fiction. I don’t deny that a good deal of my nonfiction style comes from his, and Asimov himself said that he was puzzled by the trend of most authors to not acknowledge their influences. It was in that very spirit that Asimov cited Clifford Simak as his greatest literary inspiration alongside P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Of course I’d heard of the latter two, but who was Clifford Simak? I had never heard that name in all my dealings with science fiction. At first I thought he was a 1950s author that had since fallen into obscurity. Even now I’m not entirely sure I’m incorrect.
Clifford D. Simak, who lived from 1904 to 1988, was an active science fiction writer for most of his life while making a living as a newspaper reporter and editor. He won three Hugo awards, one Nebula, and was the third recipient of the Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master award. (Isaac Asimov was the eighth recipient, in case you were wondering.) What really caught my eye about Simak was that although he had many accomplishments as a science fiction writer he also was one of the three winners of the inaugural Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement for his influence on the horror genre along with Fritz Leiber and Frank Belknap Long. It intrigued me that a science fiction writer who Asimov absolutely adored would be associated with horror since Asimov never wrote with even a whiff of horror. Still, I did nothing with that information beyond filing it away in the dusty storeroom that is my brain before heading to my favorite book store to see what they had of Simak.
I found Special Deliverance, which apart from having an enviously great title had a front and back cover that got me excited for some wacky old school science fiction adventure.
“It all started when Professor Edward Lansing wanted to know who really wrote that great term paper on Shakespeare and learned that his student had bought it from a slot machine. Going to investigate, the good professor found the machine, which gave him two keys and sent him in search of other slot machines. The third machine he tried took his money and transported him to a strange new world.”
When I reached this point of the back cover blurb I was already sold. Normally I wouldn’t have read any further, but I just couldn’t stop. It only got more zany.
“Here Lansing meets up with an odd assortment of fellow travelers – including a take-charge Brigadier, a pompous Parson, a female engineer, a lady poet, and Jurgens, a caretaker robot – all of whom are as mystified as he. Plucked from their own timelines, they were players in a game without rules and, seemingly, without a goal.
“Thus begins an extraordinary quest by these unwilling adventurers, one that leads them to an immense, featureless blue cube and into an ancient and mysterious city, tempts them with even stranger worlds, and, finally, provides them with a life-or-death challenge…”
How could I not immediately start reading that?
So I got home and started reading… and I was reading Isaac Asimov. When he mentioned the influence Simak had on him, Asimov said that he tried to copy Simak’s clear descriptive style. He succeeded. I not only immediately enjoyed reading Special Deliverance, I was ecstatic because I’d found an author who read like Asimov but would have his own take on the world and on the science fiction genre. I saw that in action half way through the book, when, without warning, this science fiction/fantasy tale of a band of unlikely adventurers began to incorporate some very chilling Lovecraftian horror elements. I don’t want to give anything away, so I will just say that this book – and Simak in general – are forgotten gems of both science fiction and horror.
If you like your science fiction with a bit of horror, or your horror with a lot of science fiction, then do yourself a favor and get a copy of Special Deliverance. Personally, I have a lot more Simak to track down.
My two favorite Star Trek movies (one from the original cast and one from the reboot) are thematically linked. It’s sort of a subtle link if you’re not well acquainted with the soul of science fiction, but they are undoubtedly connected.
At its height science fiction presents a reflection of some aspect of our world through the fantastical looking glass of a future existence. Simply put, we’re talking about metaphor. Once I became old enough to appreciate the historical context of a science fiction film I fell in love with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. At the start of the film an environmental catastrophe all but cripples the Klingon economy. Left unaided, Klingon society will undergo a complete collapse within decades. With no other option the Klingon government asks the United Federation of Planets for peace negotiations. They can no longer afford a state of constant war. When Star Trek first aired during the Cold War, the Klingon and Romulan species both represented different aspects of the Soviet Union. Star Trek VI premiered in 1991 and at the time the Soviet Union had been in a state of decline for a few years. Ironically, its complete collapse would occur within weeks of the film’s theatrical release!
Star Trek VI is all about change amid great political upheaval. When the Starfleet admiralty is discussing options going forward one member asks if they’re “talking about mothballing the Starfleet,” to which an admiral responds that Starfleet’s exploration mission will remain. This line always struck me because the Original Series made it clear that the primary purpose of Starfleet was exploration (an idea that we’ll come back to when we discuss the other Star Trek movie). This short exchange is pure metaphor. Without the Soviet Union what is the need for the military industrial complex? Well, there are still peacekeeping needs.
The Enterprise is ordered to personally escort the Chancellor of the Klingon government to the peace accords, when the Chancellor is assassinated aboard his own ship with Kirk and McCoy framed for the crime. Though not guilty, Kirk is not entirely innocent in all this. Kirk privately tells Spock that the smart move is to “let them die” because he carries racial hate against the Klingons for killing his son (Star Trek III). He’s not the only one. We learn that a lot of the crew hate the Klingons, in particular Scotty who is apparently a racist bastard. In the end, the Enterprise crew save the day and peace is made with the Klingon Empire, Kirk having been inspired by the words of the Klingon Chancellor who desired peace even with his dying breath.
The Chancellor quoted Shakespeare when referring to “the undiscovered country,” which in the film is little more than a code word for “the future.” What does the future hold after centuries of fighting the Klingons (or decades of hostilities with the Soviet Union)? What does such a world even look like? There are those that are entirely unprepared and unwilling to face it. Kirk has every reason to hate the Klingons, and through the events of the film comes to realize that he can no longer carry the hate he has inside him. He comes to this conclusion after seeing the hate of those like him reflected in a massive conspiracy that he was a partial victim of. The idea is that if Kirk can accept this change then most should be able to, though it won’t be easy.
Thematically this is similar to Star Trek Beyond, the third installment of the rebooted franchise staring Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. Rejoining the crew of the Enterprise three years into their iconic five year mission we find a listless Kirk struggling to find meaning in the “episodic” exploration of space. One day bleeds into another as stability gives the impression of a lack of adventure. Kirk has applied for command of a massive star base, looking to leave behind the life of a starship captain. Fundamentally, he struggles to see his place in the Universe.
Unexpectedly the Enterprise comes into conflict with a powerful army led by a man named Krall who seeks to destroy the Federation in order to return the galaxy to a period of chaos, ideologically believing that only chaos breads strength. Through fortuitous circumstances the crew discovers that Krall is actually a hundred plus year old human Starfleet captain mutated by the ancient alien technology that has kept him alive. Krall (formerly Captain Edison) was made a captain and given one of the first ships after the Federation was formed. Before that he was a highly decorated MACO, a member of a tactical response unit in Earth’s military (first introduced in Star Trek Enterprise). He fought in both the Xindi and Romulan wars and felt he was discarded by the Federation and asked to “break bread with the enemy.”
Star Trek VI was a film of its time, reflecting a fear of the future that was very real to those living through it. Star Trek Beyond is the same, working through a fear of globalization.
Globalization has brought about an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in our world, but at the same time that stability has resulted in a loss of identity for some. For those of us that have grown up in this period of stability it is easy to forget the old warhorses that helped make it possible. Institutions like NATO and the EU have brought about the longest periods of sustained peace in human history, and as a direct consequence we now question what use they are because for us they seem to do nothing but rob each nation of its sovereignty. While globalization ensures peace by bringing all peoples closer to one another it simultaneously blurs cultural lines. Societies mix and blend into new flavors. Depending on ones perspective this blending can appear to be contamination, infiltration, or corruption.
When Krall launches his terrorist attack on the star base Yorktown we see Federations citizens running in fear. We see many races but a single people. The United Federation of Planets is the utopian vision of liberalism, its society a homogeneous blend of all cultures of the member worlds; an interstellar melting pot. Krall sees humans and aliens working side-by-side and can’t stand what that does to his vision of humanity, but more importantly he can’t reconcile what that means for his understanding of himself.
Krall is a veteran, having fought to protect the human race. He feels he was discarded and disrespected by the Federation. Out of “respect” they made him a Starfleet captain, dressing up a soldier as an explorer. Kirk tries to explain that the wars were won and the prize is peace, but Krall will hear none of it. He can’t let go of his hate for the alien.
Just like Star Trek VI, Beyond is about change in our world. Both films are about those that can’t move beyond the ways of the past. They would rather prevent forward motion and drag society backwards to what they consider “the good old days.” The only good thing about those days is that they felt they understood the world order. Where we are now, and where we are going, is confusing to them. When a personal value system is based on superiority and opposition, understanding and acceptance are hostile concepts.
Great science fiction is steeped in metaphor, and these two films explore important aspects of our culture in entertaining ways. Plus that Beastie Boys number is solid.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.