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.


About drmar120

D. R. Martin is a writer and photographer based in Minnesota.
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