Clifford Simak: Grand Master of Science Fiction


For many years I read science fiction (SF) almost exclusively and even put in a fourteen-year stint as the SF/fantasy book reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Back in my journalism years I had the chance to interview some big names in SF, including Clifford D. Simak, who ranked high in the genre’s firmament. Though today his work isn’t as well known as it deserves to be, he was at the time declared a Grand Master—an equal of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. I included two Simak interviews in my book Four Science Fiction Masters.

Simak was a gracious gentleman who twice hosted me at his suburban Minneapolis home. He worked fulltime as a newspaper reporter, and wrote novels and short stories on the side. His tales were almost always thoughtful and reflective, populated by everymen and everywomen who unaccountably found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Many of the stories were rural-set, reflecting his upbringing in the woods of southwestern Wisconsin. My particular favorite is A Choice of Gods, in which robots inherit the earth and preserve human culture, after humanity itself has fled to the stars. It is a type of breathtaking pastoral SF that is rarely seen anymore.

My interviews with Cliff Simak are from c. 1980. Here are some excerpts.

On the respectability of SF:

I think [attitudes] began to change in the ’50s, [when] we were sort of bottom of the barrel, [when] other writers and editors and publishers looked upon us with some disdain. We were not accorded any legitimacy whatsoever. And if it bothered any of us, I am not aware of it. We were doing what we wanted to do. I don’t know if you could say we had faith in SF to the extent that we were entirely oblivious to this disdain that was held for us. We have now, I think, become generally recognized, so that that attitude’s behind us… At one time I formed a fairly good friendship with a writer whose name you’d know if I said it, and I’m not going to. And he knew that I was writing SF and asked to read some of it. And he said you write so well it’s a shame you’re writing SF. Why don’t you get into an area where some good writing can be done? And that shook me up considerably, because this was from an expert, this was from a man who was one of the outstanding men in the field. But I successfully resisted it… I’ve stuck with SF and not done too badly with it through the years.

On Star Wars:

I thought that the first half was excellent. I was extremely struck by the desert scenes. I got an awful kick out of the hairy monster that was driving the spaceship… I enjoyed the bar scene. I wish they’d carried that out for a few more feet. That was sheer delight. The rest of it was pure hokum, pure crap. But I suppose we have to have our big battles. I wish they hadn’t descended into violence. I wish they’d not descended into spectacle. I think they could’ve carried it on without the last half of the picture. It would’ve been much better…. Instead of trying to put on honest-to-God SF, they’re looking to the comic books for their inspirations. They’re feeding us comic book material now… I thought, as a matter of fact, that 2001 was a helluva lot better piece of work than Star Wars.

On greeting an alien visitor to earth:

If one landed in my back yard, got out of his machine or conveyance, I think that I’d walk up to meet him, without any particular fear and with no hostile intent, being very careful that I made no move toward him that might seem hostile. I’d give him a chance of not taking the initiative, walking out to be close to him and meet him and presumably to greet him… Probably he’s not a creature to be afraid of. That probably he is as anxious not to harm you as you are not to harm him. And while you’re being careful not to make a hostile move, he’s being just as careful. I would hope that we might make some noises at one another. I don’t think that we would gain too much understanding of one another in a brief encounter… I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to go out and meet this creature, no matter how horrible he may look.

On humanity visiting the stars:

I would hate to see us, in the next several hundred years, be able to go to another planet where intelligent life might live, because I don’t think at this moment we’re civilized enough to do it. I think that we might be, we the human race, if we could go to another planet inhabited by intelligent beings, we might turn out to be the vicious life form that so many aliens have been in SF stories.

On being remembered:

I would hope that in SF circles a hundred years from now, once a year or so, somebody will say there was a man the name of Clifford Simak. I can’t be sure that that will happen. I’m not too upset that it may not. But I think that myself and Heinlein, Silverberg, Asimov, and Dickson and quite a few others that I could name, that we have been the pacesetters who will determine for a time the direction SF will take. Our influence will not be overwhelming, but we are the men who blazed the trail. And that gives me an awfully good feeling to think that.


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Johnny Number 3 Under Way

Boy news photographer Johnny Graphic chasing down the story

After a hiatus of three years, I’ve started writing the third and final Johnny adventure—tentatively titled Johnny Graphic and the Last Ghost. I’d been thinking about the story for a long time, but one can brainstorm and outline only so much.

This story takes Johnny and his friends to Okkatek Island to search for the ancient wizard Morbrec—from whom Percy Rathbone has taken dangerous knowledge. But Johnny, it turns out, has other ideas. Ideas that lead him into great danger.

To refresh your memory (and mine) about how ghosts work in Johnny’s world, here are the Eight Laws of Etheristics:

Ghosts—also known as specters, wraiths, sprites, spirits, phantoms, phantasms, and spooks—are the sentient remains of deceased humans and animals.

Ghosts exist non-corporeally in the forms and with the perquisites in which and with which they died, in a non-material universe parallel but contingent to our own, called “The Ether.”

Ghosts are creatures of free will.

Ghosts may exercise their free will by serving living humans and—and thus endowed by living “effectuators”—assume a degree of corporeality required to perform the tasks requested of them in our material universe.

Ghosts’ corporeality—including use of implements they may have utilized when alive—finds expression as it is needed and vanishes when it is not, often in the blink of an eye. The duration and efficacy of this phenomenon can vary, however, for reasons not yet understood.

Ghosts who are engaged corporeally in any activity that may harm living humans or animals are subject to the same injuries as the living—though they cannot be killed a second time.

Ghosts are free at any time to withdraw from their arrangements in service to practicing etherists, and others with the capacity to see and hear them, but thereby lose the benefits of corporeality.

Practicing etherists and others with the capacity to see and hear etherians are free to end arrangements with them, thereby terminating the ghosts’ benefits of corporeality.

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That Salty Pacific Water


A while ago I was rooting through a dresser drawer and found my dad’s old Silvana watch. The story was that he wore it when he was out in the Pacific as an Army corpsman in WWII. He stormed ashore one time and the “Waterproof” watch proved not to be. The rust on the hands is from that salty Pacific water. Amazingly, when I wound the watch, it still worked.

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Great Website for Camera Nerds

Graf+Graph+23_jpgJohnny Graphic, the 12-year-old hero in my two middle-grade adventures, is a real camera nerd. He loves them and makes good use of them in his job as a news photographer. Johnny begins with a big Zoom press camera. In the second book he shoots with a Ritterflex twin-lens reflex. In the final book, he’ll be using a 35mm camera not unlike a 1930s-era Leica.


Recently I ran across a terrific website devoted to historical cameras—Virginia’s Camera Heritage Museum. Their gallery of cameras includes just about every important film camera type and brand you can think of, with great images of the old cameras. Each camera depicted also has it own history briefly described. Just click here to go the gallery.


The cameras shown here are from the museum’s collection and most closely reflect the cameras that Johnny uses as he tries to save the world from ghostly catastrophe, one picture at a time. In fact, in the first book he discovers that his big Zoom camera makes a swell weapon, much to the dismay of one very nasty wraith.

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A Great List for Science Fiction Newbies


After I got through with animal stories and tramp steamer adventures as a kid, I moved into sci fi and fantasy, and stayed there for something like thirty years. It’s an incredibly rich, thought-provoking vein of reading pleasure. And if you haven’t dipped into it, there’s no time like the present.

Wired just published a great list of sci fi and fantasy classics that will get any new fan started—books and movies both. There are classic novels like Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Foundation Trilogy, and newer faves such as Neal Stephenson, Hugh Howey, and J.K. Rowling. Movies/TV shows include Blade Runner, Alien, Total Recall, Dark City, and Firefly. There are some authors new to me, too, that I’ll have to check out, including Lev Grossman, Ernest Cline, and Ann Leckie.

Just click here to go to the Wired list.

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A Seaplane for the Average Guy or Gal



One of the things I loved doing when I was writing the first two Johnny Graphic novels was my research about the age of the flying boat. That was in the 1920s and ’30s, when the big international airline routes were being flown by aircraft that landed and took off in water—planes like the great Pan Am Clipper, the Boeing 314. Johnny and his chums spent a lot of time flying around the globe in the Como Eagle (my version of the 314) and the tri-motor Gianelli float plane (that was a copy of an Italian aircraft).

So when I run across any news relating to flying boats or other aquatic aircraft, I like to share it here. And today in The Verge, I ran across this item about a new amphibious seaplane called the Icon A5.

The basic A5 will sell for $200,000, which for a new airplane is not that expensive. As the article suggests, maybe folks will buy one of these instead of that new Ferrari. It’s a simple aircraft meant to be flown during the day, at lower altitude, in clear weather, outside of any heavy traffic. You can learn to fly it in only 20 hours. It’ll break down to travel on a trailer and the engine even runs on ordinary gasoline.

I guess I’ll just have to wait to get that Ferrari. I’ll take the Icon  A5 instead.

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A Bouquet of Pheasants

Many years ago, at Christmastime, my mother and I went to an old bookstore called the Bookpost, not too far from the house where I did most of my growing up. It operated in a former post office and it was a delightful place to browse through the shelves. I vividly remember that day, because it was one of the last times I saw my mother looking healthy—before a serious illness claimed her final year and a half. She had given me my marching orders: Find four or five books you’d really like. It was her Christmas present to me in her second-to-last holiday season.

I picked several books that I’ve totally forgotten about. But one was something special, something my mother had heard about, called An Exaltation of Larks, by James Lipton. It was a slender volume devoted almost entirely to the collective nouns that describe groups of people and animals—gaggle, flock, herd, school, host, things like that. Here are some examples.

A murder of crows…A gang of elk…A melody of harpists…A clowder of cats…A scurry of squirrels…A bouquet of pheasants…A bevy of beauties…A skulk of foxes…An odium of politicians…A failing of students…A parliament of owls…A murmuration of starlings

The book is full of hundreds of these delightful collective names. I thought of it recently, when I saw a piece by Jim Gilbert in the Star Tribune newspaper, talking about collective names of birds. He pointed out that the same bird can have several collective names. For example, geese are different depending on where they are. On dry land, they are a flock. On the water they are a gaggle. Up in the air they are a skein.

Inspired, I’ve tried to come up with a few new collective names of my own devising. A scribble of writers. A daub of painters. A shower of meteorologists. A chirp of crickets. A hatchet of butchers. A squint of readers. A trumpet of elephants. A rumble of tympanists. A docket of judges.

An Exaltation of Larks is still in print after nearly fifty years. If you love names and language, you owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy.

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