Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, August 11, 2013

1957: Strangers in the Universe (Simak, Clifford D.)

Humans are a danger to themselves (3/5)

In 1956, Simak’s original publication (with Simon & Schuster) of Strangers in the Universe contained eleven stories, including “Contraption” (1953), “Kindergarten” (1953), “Skirmish” (1950), and “Immigrant” (1954). However, Berkeley Books narrowed this collection by the same name to only seven stories, as found below; therefore, this partial collection is dated as 1957 rather 1956.

The running theme of the collection is “humans are a danger to themselves”. Perhaps this reflects the title of the collection where humans are the ignorant strangers amid the lush multitude of offerings the universe has; the humans stumble about susceptible to their own nature, their own genetic patterning.


Target Generation (novelette, 1953) – 4/5 – The oral myth of the Mutter came true when the Ship’s walls became its floor and the latter becoming the former. Tradition has told of the beginning of the End and things are astir on the Ship. Only Jon Hoff has the key to the vault and knowledge of that vault, passed down to him through untold generations, of the true nature of the Ship—“The Ship has a destination. The Ship was going somewhere” (8). ------ A fine generation ship story marred by predictability. The mythic proportions of multi-centurial life on the Ship imbues the humans with a sense of religious righteousness, a veil of ignorance which they accept. Only one man, naturally, can assume the heroic role of revealing the Truth and true to form, the self-righteous revolt at the blasphemy. They can be saved by the empirical truth rather than the by the unsubstantiated Truth, yet ignore it.

Mirage (shortstory, 1950) – 4/5 – Merely dotted with life, the surface of Mars is a difficult place to survive for the colonial humans and the various regressive forms of its aboriginals. The seven-sex Martians have dwindled in number due to the human fancy for the luxurious pelt of one such sex—the “seventh”. Richard Webb strikes a deal with one clan of the aliens: if he finds a “seventh”, they’ll show him their mythical city. His solo trek is long and unfruitful, yet still meets one clan of seven. ------ Humans take advantage of a less sophisticated race. One man needs dire help from the heathen race but also wants something in return. Who’s at fault for providing mutual folly? Though not personally implicated for the aliens’ hardships, the punishment is fitting. Greed follows some of us unto death.

Beachhead (shortstory, 1951) – 3/5 – The Legion from Earth descends upon a virgin planet. They sample the atmosphere yet torch the landscape; they catalogue the fauna yet irradiate the soil into a boil. Prepared for every foreseeable danger, the team of Legionnaires and robots secure a camp yet also spy a group of humanoid figures near the riverside. Reading their minds, Tom Decker ignores the alien reassurance of the destruction of the humans… until their watches stop working. ------ Pride, plain and simple, is the fault of those with the most practical experience with success yet without the safety net of having experienced failure. An unknown threat remain unknown because of ignorance, but even with a hunch pride is stolid towards remaining on the subjective side of “right”.

The Answers (shortstory, 1953) – 5/5 – Scores of millennia have passed over a derelict human village on the outskirts of the galaxy when a scout team descends: a human, named David, along with his trio of benefactors—the Dog, the Spider, and the Globe. Yearning the experience of existing amid the ruins, David stays behind while the others depart to report their finding. Eventually, David discovers an enclave of humans who harbor the Truth—two simple answers to two simple questions. ------ This time, peril does not follow human discover; rather, enlightenment and understanding follow the line of Truth. Though this Truth may have been handed down, the villages treat the Truth as sacred rather than ritualistic, something to recite once every century and not every day… even when the Truth is humbling.

Retrograde Evolution (novelette, 1953) – 2/5 – The planet of Zan was once home to a Type 10 culture, a peacefulness which borders on barbarianism and pastoral boredom. However, the Google culture on Zan has broken into 37 distinct clans, all with a Type 14 culture. The de-evolution is a concern for the trading crew who are more concerned about trading for the miraculous babu root. Change among the chief village concernedly occurs at the slightest whisper from the crew. ------ Sometimes, humans meddle whether it’s their intention or not. Their mere presence changes a situation much as observation collapses a wave function. In this case, the unintended consequences of meddling doesn’t collapse the cultural wave front, but bolsters its advancement. Oops, the humans scurry away.

The Fence (shortstory, 1952) – 3/5 – Mr. Craig’s passion is spanning across time to understand the complete history of one acre of land, season by painstaking season. However, his Personal Satisfaction rating has dropped from 120 to 75 in just one year. Going for a walk to clear his head, Mr. Craig encounters a man who fishes on his own and gardens on his own—this is this snub to the seeming “play world” in which they live, where everything is always provided… the big question is, “By whom?”. ------ Complacent attitude in today’s modern Westernization is prevalent because everything is ready to be used, consumed and thrown away. In the world of “The Fence”, even our jobs are fostered in a parental way to the nth degree. The societal disillusioned may not be so crazy after all.

Shadow Show (novelette, 1953) – 2/5 – Humanity has the knowledge and power to alter the human form so that it can adapt itself to any atmosphere or planetary difficulty, yet it cannot create new life. Scientists are scattered among asteroids in order to follow leads which may create that spark of life. Nine members of one such asteroid assume title roles to perform in a Play which projects their imagination onto a screen, yet one fellow had died and they fathom the absence and/or participation of his character. ------ Prone to the Prudence Trap of decision-making, the constant tinkering of adjusting expectation against reality causes the decision makers to lose focus of their ultimate intention, possibly because of an additional Framing Trap—they don’t know exactly what truth they are after.

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