One of my favourite authors is the late Clifford Simak. He remains best known for his unique approach to fiction writing, combining some of the precepts of hardcore science fiction with a humanely pastoral approach to the ways in which we respond to the outside world and the demands that it makes of us: it is these qualities and the prose that he created from them that has informed much of my thinking in recent times.
Simak imposes a human scale upon the suprahuman. He insists that, however vast the universe may be, to us it can only be described and responded to in human terms. (In fairness to Simak, this philosophy has also included – in his novel “City” – dogs. We may regard this as being unjustifiably anthropomorphic but, even so, he insists upon a human scale of response to the greater world, even if this response comes from a collaborative species.)
One of the things that first struck me about Simak’s writing was its modesty: its protagonists are not necessarily heroes. Sometimes they are tired, war-worn old men, sometimes they fail to be the exemplars that conventional fiction expects – they are defected with the flaws of age and wounding experience. They no longer bestride the galaxy, blaster in hand: instead they refuse to leave home or even to engage in dialogue or they admit humbly to their needs – perhaps the needs of age, so like those of childhood – or perhaps the sense of worldly tragedy exemplified in “Way Station”.
In his short story “The Sitters”, Simak strikes a Shakespearean parallel as an ageing teacher finally understands and accepts that his needs for nurture and support have come full circle and can now only be met by adult (albeit alien) “babysitters”. As the protagonist reaches this acceptance he also turns away from the world as a whole. Similarly, in “Huddling Place” the main character refuses even the most profound of entreaties and will not leave his home to help his oldest friend.
Simak does not confront this response (as we might perhaps expect) as an abdication of responsibility but simply observes the essential humanity of an old man who can no longer leave home and sympathises with the agonizing dilemma that this demand imposes upon him. Simplistically, this work describes a species-wide epidemic of agoraphobia but to accept this is to miss Simak’s comprehension of and sympathy for the closing in of boundaries that is a frequent accompaniment to the aging process. Sometimes, he seems to say, as we get older, we have to accept that the world can be too much for us to cope with and that, in the interests of personal survival, it is necessary to pull the door to a little, perhaps even to close it altogether.