Monday, January 6, 2014

Simak's "Answers"

When I picked up Clifford D. Simak's short story collection Strangers in the Universe to continue reading where I had left off, turned the page, and discovered that the next story was called "The Answers", a shiver ran through me. (I'm not being dramatic, it really did.) It is difficult to imagine anything more exciting lying unread ahead of one than a story called "The Answers" written by Simak—author of such beautiful enigmas as A Choice of Gods and The Visitors and the agonized, hilarious masterwork City. A title like this from him, you can tell, would come in quotation marks even if that weren't the convention for short story titles. "The Answers", he calls it. With many writers we would expect something tiresomely triumphant to follow such a title. With Simak, though triumph of some sort is not entirely out of the question, we feel certain that it will be much more complicated than that, that the very notion of "answers" will be thrown into, if you will, "question."

Even in the first sentences we are already shifting disconcertingly between certainty and uncertainty, groundedness and the lack of it. (In a typically playful Simakian move, this last is both figurative and quite literal.) Unlikely as it may sound, the opening sentences put me in mind of no one so much as Heidegger, both in what they're saying and how they say it:

They knew it when they stepped out of the ship and saw it. There was, of course, no way that they could have known it, or have been sure they knew it, for there was no way to know what one might be looking for. Yet they did know what it was, and three of them stood and looked at it and the fourth one floated and looked at it.
The location of this knowledge is uncertain: "each of them, in his brain or heart or intuition, whatever you may name it, knew...". The subject of their knowledge—the home, which they have just stumbled upon, of a quasi-legendary "fragment" of humanity that millennia ago separated themselves off "to make their way into the darkness of the outer galaxy"—is itself uncertain, for whether this separation actually occurred (and if so why it did) has been, we learn, a matter for contestation for a thousand centuries (for this story works with that delightfully absurd time scale that was once common in science fiction). And even the mode of this contestation, in Simak's witty description, seems uncertain, self-contradictory, even if only for humorous effect—for, we are told, "the matter had become an academic question that had split into several cults of erudite belief and still was fiercely debated in a very learned manner."

That's the first paragraph. It continues; in the second paragraph we read, of the sight that the four stand (or float) and look at: "It was a place. One hesitated to call it a city, though it was probably a city." Just a moment later, "one knew that he had been wrong in thinking this a city" (hesitant though the thought was!) "—that this was no city, but an extensive village, with all the connotations that were in the word." "There was a greatness about the place," but not in any of the terms in which we are accustomed to thinking of greatness; indeed, we are told that it is "the greatness of humility," which to the story's first readers, if not necessarily to us (who after all pride ourselves on our sophistication, and at any rate have benefited from the intervention of Le Guin's taoism, among other things), must have sounded very much like another self-negating phrase.

I could keep going—the story certainly does—but perhaps that is enough. The point is that in these passages, Simak begins to blend many of his characteristic concerns: uncertainty and inconclusiveness; the simultaneously beautiful and melancholy decentering of the human perspective, without losing sight of the human; the valorization of the pastoral (for the humility and essential "villageness" of the non-city arise from its oneness with the landscape, its "blend[ing] with the trees and grass of the hills on which [it] stood"; significantly, in addition to humility it gives a sense of "the greatness, too, of a well-ordered life"). He does this in such a way as to lead us to see the essential unity of these concerns: his keeping us alive to mutually contradictory possibilities, we sense, is one with his emphasis on the inadequacies of positivist humanism, and both are one with his insistence on the value of living "a well-ordered life" close to—for lack of a better word—nature. And if all this uncertainty seems incompatible with an ordered life, and if all this pastoralism seems inconsistent with space travel and "high technology," well, he told us we were on shifting ground from the very beginning, didn't he? For nothing in Simak is absolute (even his pastoralism is often terribly ambivalent); and there is a question in every statement, a defeat in every victory, a sadness in every moment of happiness.

All of this worries academic critics, who stay away from Simak in droves. I've seen one critical "discussion" of his work: M. Keith Booker, in his thoroughly wretched book Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964, brings up Simak's name briefly only immediately to dismiss him as "muddled." For though Booker (mostly correctly) suspects Simak of being anticapitalist, he can detect in him no doctrinaire Marxism; Simak is therefore ipso facto muddled, QED, see you later. (One wonders what these critics would think of Marx, were they ever accidentally to read him.)

But this post is to be an appreciation, not an argument or even really an analysis, so let us leave the execrable Booker behind with these last words: no doubt Simak wrote more than, in some senses, he should have (always the curse of sf writers, particularly those of his era), which has caused the waters to be muddied with a number of works below his highest level of achievement. But he is anything but "muddled," anything but dismissible or ignorable.

For me Simak is one of the greats (perhaps in the same sense that this story's village is "great"?), one of the world's most important writers. Does anyone but me still think of him this way? Once, I know, he was greatly beloved of sf readers (a fact which, admittedly, is every bit as perplexing as his being ignored by critics is telling), but it seems to me that today he has been largely forgotten (which, if true, is again telling). Am I wrong? I would love to be wrong; if I am, please tell me so.

This post arose out of an overwhelming excitement that began vibrating through me as soon as—indeed, even before—I started reading "The Answers", an overwhelming urge to tell someone, anyone, everyone how wonderful, how wondrous, this work is. Read this, I want to shout. Everyone, read this. I want to press the book, falling apart though my copy is, into everyone's hands. I want to point out the poetry, the awe, the wonder, the humor, the terrible sadness, to make sure that no one misses a bit of it.

I want to point out this early passage, which in its onrushing sentences, in its layered reported speech, in its setting up of opposing views neither of which we can find it in ourselves to endorse, in its bitter comedy, reminds me powerfully of Thomas Bernhard. Though of course it is still no one but Simak:

There were those, too, who had said that it mattered little whether you found the missing fragment or not, since little that was of any value would come from a race so insignificant as the human race. What were the humans? they would ask you and would answer before you had a chance to speak. Gadgeteers, they said, gadgeteers who were singularly unstable. Great on gadgets, they would say, but with very little real intelligence. It was, they would point out, only by the slightest margin of intelligence that they were ever accepted into the galactic brotherhood. And, these detractors would remind you, they had not improved much since. Still marvelous gadgeteers, of course, but strictly third-rate citizens who now quite rightly had been relegated to the backwash of the empire.
There is no analyzing the humor of a passage such as this, only pointing at it. "Gadgeteers," funnier with each repetition! And "Great on gadgets, they would say"! "Strictly third-rate"! I can only hope that you laugh as much as I do, and then ponder as much as well.

I want to point out too the peculiar tone Simak is able to create in the best of his works, particularly in the dialogue; a tone somehow reminiscent simultaneously of fable and of epic (in the classical sense), but full always of a melancholy foreign to both of those forms. If you will forgive me further blockquoting:

       "I am staying," the Human said. "I am just a Human and you can get along without me."
       "I thought you would be staying," said the Dog. "Do you want me to go back and get your stuff?"
       "If you would be so kind," the Human said. "I'd not like to go back myself."
       "The Globe will be angry," said the Dog.
       "I know it."
       "You will be demoted," said the Dog. "It will be a long time before you're allowed to go on a first class run again."
       "I know all that."
       "The Spider will say that all humans are crazy. He will say it in a very nasty way."
       "I don't care," the Human said. "Somehow, I don't care."
       "All right, then," said the Dog. "I will go and get your stuff. There are some books and your clothes and that little trunk of yours."
       "And some food," the Human said.
       "Yes," declared the Dog. "I would not have forgotten food."
       After the ship was gone the Human picked up the bundles the Dog had brought, and, in addition to all the Human's food, the Human saw that the Dog had left him some of his own as well.
No doubt some of the air of fable comes superficially just from "the Human" and (especially) "the Dog", but that is certainly not the extent of it, and as I said before fable is not the only referent here. Look at the rhythms of this passage, the two-sentence utterances at the beginning of it, for instance, and the way they give way to shorter ones for a moment before returning in altered form. The way it is always "the Human said" but "said the Dog" (except for the one carefully deployed, identically structured "declared the Dog," somehow so very revealing of the Dog's ancestral affection towards the Human), which is not a programmatic distinction used throughout the whole story; elsewhere we see both "said the Human" and "the Dog said." Look at how very non-naturalistic this dialogue is, even more so than in sf in general; it is more like a call-and-response, more like a ritual perhaps, than it is like a conversation—even though the events in question are new as can be. The comparison with John Jones's comments on Aeschylean and Sophoclean dialogue that I have made in the past (and hope to make in more detail in the future) is very relevant here. And perhaps it is tragedy more than, or at least as much as, fable or epic that is at work here, particularly in the sense we get that the actions of the Human arise not out of some internal "character" so much as out of his Humanness,* and the actions of the Dog too out of his Dogness, and those of the Spider and the Globe out of their Simak-defined, alien Spiderness and Globeness, much as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, say, do what they do not because of who they are, in our modern sense, but because of what they are.** And yet still there is that pervasive melancholy, impossible to define, every bit as foreign to tragedy as it is to fable and epic.

*Later on, more than halfway through the story, it comes as something of a shock when the Human gives his name.
**Note how very different this is from making the characters "symbolize." Agamemnon does not symbolize kingness, he
is a king, and acts as one; the Human does not symbolize Humanness, he is a Human, and acts as one.

And indeed for all this "The Answers" is not tragedy or epic or fable; it is science fiction. And being science fiction, it is able to concretize ambiguity without, necessarily, immediately, losing ambiguity. And so it introduces "the Truth." Our Human (who now has a name, being as he is among other humans for the first time in the story), is asked why he stayed behind when the Dog, the Spider, and the Globe left the planet to return to an outer space occupied by a great, inhuman empire. The suggestion is made:

       "You thought there would be things to find. Great secrets to be learned."
       "I stayed," said David, "because I had to stay."
       "But the secrets? The glory and the power?"
       David shook his head. "I don't think I thought of that. Not of power and glory. But there must be something else. You sense it walking in the village and looking at the homes. You sense a certain truth."
       "Truth," the old lady said. "Yes, we found the Truth."
       And the way she said Truth it was capitalized.
       He looked quickly at her and she sensed the unspoken, unguarded question that flicked across his mind.
       "No," she told him, "not religion. Just Truth. The plain and simple Truth."
       He almost believed her, for there was a quiet conviction in the way she said it, a deep and solid surety.
       "The truth of what?" he asked.
       "Why, Truth," the old lady said. "Just Truth."
Of course, there is no authority outside or even inside the story that can tell us if the word has really earned its capital letter.* We are back in the realm of uncertain knowledge we entered in the story's opening sentences. But just as their knowledge was good enough for the Human, the Dog, the Spider, and the Globe then, theirs is good enough now for the people on this planet, and ("spoilers", as they say) David's ends up being good enough, in its way, for him. And the tone of fable, of epic, of tragedy that I discussed above combines with sf's literalism to give that capital a great deal of weight, perhaps as much as is possible in modern writing. Leaving the question of whether we can believe in Truth aside, the rest of the story, by behaving as though we can, becomes an examination of what it would mean to be able to believe in such a thing, what it would mean for such a thing to exist.

*As an aside, note the pun in the word's first appearance, before it gains its capital: "You sense a certain truth," David says, before he realizes that these people have, or consider themselves to have, a certain Truth.

The entrance of Truth on the eleventh page of fifteen in a story so uncertain as this, even though we have been somewhat prepared by the title, is more jarring even than the sudden naming of the Human had been, and for much the same reason: Truth, like the individuality that seems to inhere in a name (even one as nondescript as David Grahame), is a concept that had seemed absolutely alien to the world of this story. But it is by, or through, or in these shocks, these contradictions, this constant shifting of the groundless ground on which the story rests, that the story lives.

Nothing, of course, is perfect; the end of "The Answers" resolves the story's ambiguities into a mere proposition, something that at last asks the reader simply to agree or disagree—complex, hesitant, and ambivalent as such agreement or disagreement may in any case be (as it is in mine). But if the story falters here at the end, succumbs at last to the tempting patness it had heretofore resisted, this in no way invalidates what came before—rather it means that the inevitable failure of the crucial but ultimately impossible endeavor Simak has set for himself is in this specific case a bit more spectacular than we might wish. Such things happen in any enterprise worth undertaking, and the failures are every bit as important as their supposed opposite.

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This appreciation has left much in the story untouched, as anything written about a story that is not a straight reproduction of the story must. I have not mentioned the books that "went to dust as soon as they were touched," leaving one only to "wonder at the magic words they had held," or the other signs of the lost and literally untouchable promise of wisdom the past seems to hold out. I have not mentioned the lovely descriptions of the old woman, with the "restful beauty of the very old," and the old man, whose face shows a calmness that is "incomplete because it was not so deep and settled" as compared with the old woman's, and so "could not as yet know the full comfort of old age." I have not mentioned the impact of Simak's careful, economical worldbuilding in the beginning of the story—the Dogs, the Globes, the Spiders, the empire, the thousands of centuries—nor have I mentioned the even more amazing impact that the story's quickly leaving all this behind has. And though I have mentioned the problems with the story's ending, I have not mentioned the marvelous, vital things it does that it would not be able to do were it not for those problems. But let us leave it at that; we have to stop somewhere.

Reading this story was a marvelous antidote to the disillusionment I've been feeling with sf. It is possible. What I love about sf does not exist solely in my mind. There are works of sf to stand with the greatest works of other literatures. To me, the question facing the contemporary sf writer should be: using "like" as broadly as possible, am I to write like Simak? Is such a thing still possible? If not, why not? And how, then, am I to write in the awareness of this impossibility?

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