Clifford Donald Simak (August 3, 1904 – April 25, 1988) was an American science fiction writer. He was honored by fans with three Hugo Awards and by colleagues with one Nebula Award. The Science Fiction Writers of America made him its third SFWA Grand Master and the Horror Writers Association made him one of three inaugural winners of the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Simak's stories often repeat a few basic ideas and themes. First and foremost is a setting in rural Wisconsin. A crusty individualistic backwoodsman character literally comes with the territory, the best example being Hiram Taine, the protagonist of The Big Front Yard. Hiram's dog "Towser" (sometimes "Bowser") is another Simak trademark being common to many of Simak's works. But the rural setting is not always as idyllic as here; and in Ring Around the Sun it is largely dominated by intolerance and isolationism.
An idea often found in the stories is the idea that there is no past time for a time traveler to go to. Instead, our world moves along in a stream of time, and to move to a different place in time is to move to another world altogether. Thus in City our Earth is overrun by ants, but the intelligent dogs and the remaining humans escape to other worlds in the time stream. In Ring Around the Sun the persecuted paranormals escape to other Earths which, if they could all be seen at once, would be at different stages of their orbit around the sun, hence the title. In Time is the Simplest Thing a paranormal escapes a mob by moving back in time, only to find that the past is a place where there are no living things and inanimate objects are barely substantial.
Time travel also plays an important role in the ingeniously constructed Time and Again, then ventures into metaphysics. A long-lost space traveler returns with a message which is SF-slanted yet religious in tone. He crashed on a planet and was nurtured by ethereal duplicates—spirits? souls?—that seem to accompany every sentient being throughout life. His fuddled observations were seized upon by religious factions, and a schism is threatening to erupt into war on Earth.
Intelligence, loyalty and friendship, the existence of God and souls, the unexpected benefits and harm of invention, tools as extensions of humanity, and more questions are often explored by Simak's robots, whom he uses as "surrogate humans". His robots begin as likable mechanical persons, but morph in surprising ways. Having achieved intelligence, robots move onto common themes such as, "Why are we here?" and "Do robots have souls"? Examples are the faithful butler Jenkins in City, the religious robot Hezekiel in A Choice of Gods, the frontier robots in Special Deliverance and A Heritage of Stars, and the monk-like robots in Project Pope who seek Heaven.
Simak's robot-awareness theme goes farthest in All the Traps of Earth. A 600-year-old robot, a family retainer who earned the name Richard Daniel, is considered chattel to be reprogrammed and lose all its memories. The robot runs away, hitches onto a spaceship, and passes through hyperspace unprotected. Daniel gains the ability to see and fix problems in anything—a ship, a robot, a human—telekinetically. Yet he's still drifting and hunted as chattel. Finally he stumbles on a frontier planet and finds a purpose, helping the pioneers as a doctor, a servant, a colonist, and a friend. And here Daniel achieves an epiphany: human beings are more clever than they know. Human-created robots set loose can become agents with para-human abilities that directly or indirectly benefit humanity. Thus do robots, and Mankind, escape "all the traps of earth".
The religious theme is often present in Simak's work, but the protagonists who have searched for God in a traditional sense, tend to find something more abstract and inhuman. Hezekiel in A Choice of Gods cannot accept this. Quote: "God must be, forever, a kindly old (human) gentleman with a long, white, flowing beard."
Simak's short stories and longer novellas range from the contemplative and thoughtfully idyllic to pure terror, although the punch line is often characteristically understated, as in Good Night Mr. James and Skirmish. There is also a group of humorous stories, of which "The Big Front Yard" is the most successful. And Way Station is in the midst of all of the science fiction paraphernalia a moving psychological study of a very lonely man who has to make peace with his past and finally manages to do so, but not without personal loss. The contemplative nature of the Simak character is a recurring trait both of theme and of the author's style.
Many of his aliens have a dry, otherworldly sense of humor, and others are unintentionally amusing, either in their speech or their appearance. So too are his robots full of personality, and even his dogs. By contrast, his "heroes" are ciphers. His protagonists are often boring men, never described and never reappearing. They solve crises by muddling through, and if they fall in love with "the girl" (also never described), it's incidental. One of Simak's editors objected to his stories because his heroes were "losers". Simak replied, "I like losers."
One finds other traditional SF themes in Simak's work. The importance of knowledge and compassion in Immigrant and Kindergarten. Identity play, as in Good Night. Mr James (filmed as The Outer Limits: The Duplicate Man in 1964). Fictions come to life in Shadow Show and elsewhere, such as the novel Out of Our Minds. And there is the revolt of the machines in Skirmish. And the rather horrifying meeting with an alien world in Beachhead, AKA You'll Never Go Home Again. (Many of these are in Strangers in the Universe).
Finally, Simak throws in many science-fictional fillips that remain unexplained. "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine," is a phrase misattributed to Arthur Stanley Eddington. Simak's characters encounter alien creatures and concepts they simply cannot understand, and never will. For example, in Special Deliverance, the humans are stalked by The Wailer, which turns out to be a huge wolf-like creature that bellows an infinitely-sad howl. They never learn what the creature is, why it seems sad, or how it got there. Simak leaves mysteries hanging in his writing.
Simak himself sums up his life's work in the Foreword to Skirmish. After explaining what themes he avoids—no large-scale alien invasions, no space wars, no empire sagas—he states, "Overall, I have written in a quiet manner; there is little violence in my work. My focus has been on people, not on events. More often than not I have struck a hopeful note... I have, on occasions, tried to speak out for decency and compassion, for understanding, not only in the human, but in the cosmic sense. I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space. I have been concerned where we, as a race, may be going, and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme—if we have a purpose. In general, I believe we do, and perhaps an important one."
Simak is not my most favorite author but many of his stories and views have found their ways into my writing.