Over the River and Through the Woods
By Clifford D. Simak
Published by Tachyon Publications
Read by J. P. Linton
I do not usually read or listen to anthologies, mostly because I prefer the novel form with it’s space to develop characters and stories and to once in a while go off on a slight tangent and still not loose track of the plot. In shorter stories, a write pretty much has to pare down what he or she is going to say and just say it, although it is still necessary to define your characters and tell a complete story. I’ll admit I have written a handful of shorter stories, most of which were, technically, either novelettes or novellas and only once or twice have I written a true short story. It’s a challenge and I’d like, (or my ego would like) to think I met that challenge, but I, personally, am more comfortable in a longer format. I also prefer to read and listen to novels over short stories because if I like the story and characters, I want to be with them for more than half an hour or so. That’s just me, however, and I know plenty of people whose preferences are exactly the opposite. Hey, if we all agreed of everything, no one would feel the need to bet on the Kentucky Derby (well unless you were betting against the odds, just in case… well, I think you know what I meant).
One of the hallmarks of Simak’s science fiction is that it frequently does not involve scientists. Instead he liked to feature just plain folks as his characters and then throw them into situations in which they encounter beings from other worlds, time travelers, or just accidentally stumble across some strange artifact. Being just plain folks, they tend to take these situations more or less in stride. Sure, they are mysterious. Sure, they are outside of the characters’ previous experiences, but rather than going to pieces or crying, “Wolf!” all around their town. They take a closer look at what they have encountered and try to make the best of their new situation. I don’t say that all folks would do that, btu that’s what makes these stories so interesting.
For example, in “The Big Front Yard,” a fixit man and antique dealer (and extremely sharp trader) named Hiram Taine is just doing his usual job of repairing antiques and other items (such as a broken television that a customer wants repaired because the fancy case it is in matcher the rest of her furniture and a replacement would not (hey, back then, that really was a consideration for many) when he notices that his basement suddenly has a real ceiling. The problem is the ceiling is made of something that is totally indestructible, He later finds a large object buried in the wood of a similar material, all the while his house is being gradually “improved” with this indestructible material. Also various items in his shop are being repaired without his having worked on them, such as that TV which is suddenly not only working but displaying high resolution color where it was a black & white set beforehand. This goes on, and a few people learn of it, one of whom is a local business man who tries to turn a profit from all this and, thinking Hiram is a mechanical genius (or maybe an idiot savant) who can make anything work even if he doesn’t know how, delivers a large computer to Hiram’s shop with a “Just work on it when you have a chance” sort of instruction.
Very soon after that, Hiram, who has concluded he has a host of tiny aliens living inside his walls (he assumes they are fixing things, partially as a way of paying rent although later it turns out their motive is slightly different) finds that all his walls are now lined with the indestructible material and that while he can see the back of his house, the front of it is no longer there. However, when he walks through the house, he can step out the front door into an entirely different world where he can see the front of his house, but not the back and he comes to the obvious conclusion that his house has been turned into a portal into an alien world. After that we have the businessman working with the government to try to convince Hiram to allow them to wove tanks of gasoline through his house (it is now indestructible, so they are constrained by the width of his doorways) and to also take vehicle p[arts through and reassemble them in the other world (which the government assumes belongs to them). Hiram puts his foot down when they start discussing the idea of bringing an airplane through that way and he finds himself at odds with the government men who threaten to use Eminent Domain to seize his property. And in all this some aliens arrive to dicker with Hiram. What do they want, and what do they offer for it? For that and how all that resolves, you need to read the story. My point, however, if that this is all told in a such a matter-of-fact manner, that you just sort of go along with it because it does not seem so extraordinary as it truly is.
The other stories are like that as well, and while, these are stories form the 1960’s (maybe some from earlier?) aside from the lack of smartphones and iPads and whatnot, it does not feel as dated as it probably ought to. By giving most of these stories a rural setting, you just don’t expect someone to say, “Oh, hang on, I’ll Google it.”
All told this was a fun set of stories to listen to.
J. P. Linton reads these stories very well for the most part. I think his vocal characterizations in some cases could be a little more subtle, especially in cases when the character is not portrayed as particularly intelligent, but I know I could not do better and like with a lot of readers I was able to get used to his style very quickly and after a short time really enjoyed it as much as I did the stories.
So, a good collection of tales and well-read too. If you are looking for some of the most famous short stories by a master of Science Fiction, this book should be on your reading list.
Next: We take flight on A Spaceship Named McGuire by Randall Garrett