We Are All Genetic Brothers: The Life and Fiction of Clifford D. Simak
Time and Again (Ace, 1976), Way Station (Manor Books, 1975), and A Choice of Gods (Berkley Medallion, 1977).
Covers by Michael Whelan, unknown, and the great Paul Lehr
116 years ago this week, one of the finest science fiction authors or the 20th century was born. He died 32 years ago, in 1988. And currently he is almost forgotten, which is a great shame and also a great pity, since his humanism, his respect for all living creatures and his tolerance for the alien, the divergent, the different viewpoints, backgrounds and expectations are qualities no less needed now than when he was alive.
I’m talking about Clifford D. Simak, author of seminal works of sf like Time and Again (1951), City (1952), Time Is the Simplest Thing (1961), Way Station (1963), All Flesh Is Grass (1965), A Choice of Gods (1972), as well as of dozens of unforgettable short stories. The author who said, in an interview,
When I talk of the purpose of life, I am thinking not only of human life, but of all life on Earth and of the life which must exist upon other planets throughout the universe. It is only of life on Earth, however, that one can speak with any certainty. It seems to me that all life on Earth, the sum total of life upon the Earth, has purpose. If the means were available, we could trace our ancestry – yours and mine – back to the first blob of life-like material that came into being on the planet. The same thing could be done for the spider that spun his web in the grass, and of the grass in which the web was spun, the bird sitting in the tree and the tree in which he sits, the toad waiting for the fly beneath the bush, and for the fly and bush. We are all genetic brothers. The chain of life, tracing back to that primordial day of life’s beginning, is unbroken…
Clifford Simak was a newspaper man and an author. He wrote of love for all living things, of respect for life and of acceptance both of the supreme importance of life and of the inevitable differences between living things. Reading him as a child, I learned from him the importance of tolerance and inclusiveness. His was one of the important voices in science fiction. He still should be.
My monthly sf/f reading group enjoyed Way Station back in 2016. Though we might have pocked a few holes in its sf rationales and its plotting as being a mite “convenient” instead of convincing, we liked the sense of tolerance that Mr. Simak brought to his universe. If only that broad-minded acceptance of the “other” were a bit more prevalent in either our current fiction or our current world!
That is such a beautiful Simak quote.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of Simak’s work. I do suspect that a factor discouraging people from trying him is the drabness of many of his stories’ titles, such as: Carbon Copy, Census, City, Condition of Employment, Construction Shack, Contraption, Courtesy, The Fence, Full Cycle, Goodnight Mr. James, Green Thumb, Hobbies, Installment Plan, Jackpot, Kindergarten, Lobby…. The Simple Way, The Sitters….. Tools…Worrywart… and so on.
They are almost aggressively bland and noncommittal. If you’re a young reader looking into sf, they are not very inviting.
I understand that editors wanted to avoid the embarrassing gosh-wow “Poison Plant-Women of Venus” type of title. But one can go too far the other way. Asimov did that too.
> My monthly sf/f reading group enjoyed Way Station back in 2016.
Thanks for sharing that. It’s a fine reading, with an on-point critique, I think:
“If the novel disappoints, it does so in ways that may relate to its brevity. The villain, like the “shadow friends”, is introduced with almost no preparation, along with the Talisman, a mystical device that allows a revelatory communication with the universal “spirit” force. Several of us found it a mite too convenient for the novel to climax around the improbable appearance of the Galaxy’s Most Wanted, toting the Macguffin.”
I wish I could be part of your Simak reading group!
> If only that broad-minded acceptance of the “other” were a bit
> more prevalent in either our current fiction or our current world!
Amen, brother. Amen.
> That is such a beautiful Simak quote.
Agreed. I’d never seen it before, and I was so delighted I asked John-Henri if we could reprint this piece (which he published on Facebook on Simak’s birthday last Monday) if we could reprint it here.
> I do suspect that a factor discouraging people from trying him is the drabness of many of his stories’ titles
You know, I never considered that. But I think you may have something there. I think his novels fared better with titles.
Maybe some of the titles are on the bland side, but when it comes to what’s between the covers Simak could let it rip with the best of them. Ring Around the Sun (to name just one book out of many) is filled to bursting with wild, gosh-wow SF ideas. But it truly is his deep humanity (deepest of all the golden age generation, I think) that makes him one of the greats.
> Ring Around the Sun (to name just one book out of many) is filled to bursting with wild, gosh-wow SF ideas.
I was always kinda cranky with Stephen King for ripping on this book in HEARTS IN ATLANTIS. The narrator Bobby is reading RING AROUND THE SUN when his adult friend Ted Brautigan gently urges him to start reading “more adult” books.
> But it truly is his deep humanity (deepest of all the golden age generation, I think) that makes him one of the greats.
Agree absolutely. If you ever want to do a Simak retrospective, you’re the guy I’d love to have write it.