TT: Simak, Spirituality, and Sound

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back one and get a glimpse at the full cover of Artemis Awakening and get some news about the forthcoming audiobook edition. Then join me and Alan as we continue our discussion of what makes the works of Clifford Simak so special.

JANE: You know, Alan, one of the things I love about Simak is that he doesn’t ignore the fact that humans – and non-humans – have a deeply spiritual side. This takes many forms, up to and including acknowledgment that there is a place for conventional religion – even in outer space.

Spirits in Space

Spirits from Otherwhere

Last week, when we talked a bit about Simak’s novel, Shakespeare’s Planet, I mentioned that one of the characters is a ship that has human brains installed in it. The three brains might be said to represent the three general ways in which humanity has tried to answer the great questions. There is the Grande Dame, who comes from a materialist point of view, the Scientist who is, well, scientific, and the Monk, who represents conventional religion.

A lesser author would have made the Monk a straw man for putting down religion as mere superstition – especially since the Monk admits he’d signed on for the mission because of his fear of death. However, Simak allows the Monk to be a voice for the part of humanity that never stops questing for something larger than wealth or knowledge.

ALAN: You’re right! This debate about, and deep appreciation of, spirituality is present to a greater or lesser extent in pretty much everything Simak wrote. I hadn’t realised that before. Thank you for the insight.

JANE: But I have run on. Last week you mentioned Project Pope. I would love to hear your thoughts about it. Did you like it?

ALAN: It’s a wonderful tale, often very funny and populated with Simak’s usual collection of raving eccentrics, some of them human, some of them not. But it has a lot more going for it than just that.

The story tells of a colony of advanced robots on a remote planet. They have set up a project called Vatican-17 which is an attempt to build an infallible, computerized pope. When the pope accumulates sufficient wisdom, it will be able to create a truly universal religion.

But first the pope needs data, lots of it. It has a team of Listeners, psychic humans, whose minds are sent out to explore the far reaches of time and space. Mary, one of the Listeners, makes an important discovery. She, quite literally, finds heaven. The robot cardinals fiercely debate the implications of Mary’s discovery.

JANE: And that’s only a small portion of the story… Psychology enters in. There are aliens. A mysterious Whisperer… And in the end, unlike many authors who would fudge when dealing with such a profound topic, a – for me at least – satisfactory conclusion.

ALAN: And for me as well.

JANE: Simak was not at all afraid of complex concepts, up to and including the nature of reality. Have you ever read Out of Their Minds?

ALAN: I know I’ve read it, but I retain no memory of it. Hang about – I’ll go and get it from my shelves…

…OK, I’m back. Here it is, published in England in 1973 by New English Library. The cover shows a picture of what looks like a brain on top of a spinal cord. It’s running down a road and is being hotly pursued by a knight in shining armour and a man on a donkey. I’m guessing that’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but why would they be chasing a disembodied brain? Oh well, this is Simak so why not?

JANE: Why not indeed? What do you think about taking a break so you can read it, then get back to me? I’m already re-reading it. I think it would be cool if both of us were reading the same book on opposite sides of the planet.

ALAN: That’s a good idea. What a shame we can’t synchronise the page turns…
… Right. I’ve read it. It’s quite a short book – only 175 pages of quite large print. Most novels from that era are short, mere novellas by today’s standards. It’s definitely Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on the cover, but there’s no disembodied brain. That’s a shame. I was looking forward to that bit.

JANE: Oh, I don’t know… I think the brain disembodied is rather the theme of the book since what comes “out of our minds” is what the story is about, that and a great speculation on reality.

ALAN: Duh! What an idiot I am. Why didn’t I spot the visual pun? I certainly spotted it in the words of the title. Sometimes the most obvious things slip by unnoticed…

As you said before, it’s definitely a speculation about the nature of reality. The premise is that human beings, have created a fantasy world in their minds through their love of storytelling and somehow that fantasy world now has an objective existence. The hero, Horton Smith, has discovered this and now the beings from the fantasy world are trying to kill him to protect their secret.

JANE: Just as an aside, Simak must have liked the name “Horton,” since it’s the surname of the protagonist of Shakespeare’s Planet. Maybe these two Hortons are related. So, what did you think of the story?

ALAN: There are a lot of quite ingenious set pieces as Horton is placed in danger and has to get himself out of trouble. Unfortunately, never once does Horton hear a Who. I think Simak missed an opportunity there.

JANE: Indeed! Heaven knows, Dr. Suess would fit right in.

I wondered how some elements of the novel worked for you, since some of the references are very American – and not only that, pop culture American that was beginning to be dated even for an American like me by the time I read it.

ALAN: I didn’t really notice anything like that. There were quite a lot of old American comic book characters in the story, characters I’d never heard of. But the context made it very clear what was going on, so that didn’t worry me at all. Is that what you meant?

JANE: Well, yes. For example, Horton gets clued into the identity of the hillbilly couple who take him in when one of them mentions “Barney.” It’s only a mild spoiler to note that originally Snuffy Smith and Barney Google were linked in one comic strip. By the time I started reading it, Barney had been pretty much phased out, so I didn’t catch the clue until Horton spells it out.

ALAN: I’d never heard of any of them. But Horton does explain who they are and, while I’m sure I missed something because of my unfamiliarity with the characters, it didn’t really hold the story up at all for me.

By the way, I also took the opportunity to re-read The Goblin Reservation after you mentioned it the other day, and I think I’m starting to see a pattern.

The thing that really appeals to me about Simak is his sense of surrealism. He constantly juxtaposes commonplace things that simply don’t go together, and yet somehow the joins don’t show. It’s exactly the same effect you get from Magritte’s train roaring out of a fireplace or Dali’s soft watches hanging off a tree. They work brilliantly even though they make no rational sense. In many respects, Magritte in particular is a thoroughly naturalistic painter. It’s just that he puts things in odd relationships to each other. After all, why shouldn’t a landscape be part of the glass of a shattered window? Who’s to say it isn’t true? You’re looking at it through glass. Who says the landscape still has to be there when the glass breaks?

Simak does with words what Magritte does with pictures and it gets to me every time. Brilliant, spine-tingling stuff!

JANE: Absolutely! You mentioned the cover of your copy of Out of Their Minds. On one of my copies the artist went for a sort of psychedelic montage. It doesn’t work for the book (in my opinion) precisely because it tries too hard to be weird. Simak’s hallmark is that the weirdest combinations make perfect sense.

ALAN: And that really does sum Simak up in a nutshell.

JANE: Tune in next time when we will discuss…. Well, just wait and see!

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3 Responses to “TT: Simak, Spirituality, and Sound”

  1. janelindskold Says:

    As a postscript to this discussion… I’ve been cheered by how many people have mentioned to me in person or via e-mail that now they’re going to find a Simak novel. In a few cases, sadly, the only ones that libraries seem to have are the less strong ones — probably because the better ones wore out!

    I hope you’ll consider some of the titles Alan and I have mentioned, even if they are harder to find.

  2. Paul Says:

    I’m glad you two have revived an appreciation for Simak. Too many writers of his time and caliber have been neglected with all the new stuff coming out.

  3. Other Jane Says:

    You made me want to read more Simak. The City is one of Scott’s favorites… We’d both reread that a few years back. It was only after reading the last few TTs that I remembered one of my favorites :The Big Front Yard.

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