I’m not sure how many young science fiction readers know about Clifford Simak. When I was growing up, he wasn’t a top tier SF writer, but a legendary author of City and Way Station. He was loved well enough for the Science Fiction Writers of America to select Simak as their third SFWA Grand Master. If you look at his list of novels, there’s not many famous ones besides City and Way Station. He won a Hugo for Way Station, and Hugos for the novelette “The Big Front Yard” and his short story, “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” which also won a Nebula. I remember seeing Simak at a science fiction convention when he was pretty old, and was surprised by how little attention he got from the younger fans. I thought he was great.
Clifford Simak wrote a different kind of science fiction. A kinder, gentler science fiction. His characters were adults, ordinary people from the mid-west, and his stories often had the feel of small any town America. City, a fix-up novels of eight short stories written from 1944-1951, was a hauntingly beautiful series of tales told by intelligent dogs and robots about the legends of long gone humans. You just don’t get more sense of wonder than that.
I read several of his “other” novels from the SFBC in the 1960s, but I’ve forgotten those. Then in recent years I’ve read The Visitors (1980) and Cosmic Engineers (1939) for the Classic Science Fiction online book club. I really liked The Visitors for its unique take on an alien invasion. So for this month, we’re reading All Flesh is Grass from 1965. It’s one of Simak’s many novels that don’t even have an entry in Wikipedia.
That’s too bad, because All Flesh is Grass is pretty good, and it has an interesting distinction – it’s about a small town that wakes up to find itself enclosed in a dome—yeah, like the Stephen King novel and TV series, Under The Dome, from 2009. King had started his novel in 1972 and tried again in 1982. I have no idea if King knew about the Simak book, but they have similar themes too—being cut off from the world makes people act different, and of course, there’s the mystery of who put the dome over the town and why?
I’ve always been fascinated by authors who think up similar ideas separately and then to see how they execute them. Often the idea itself dictates much of the story. If you were going to write a story about a group of humans enclosed in a dome, wouldn’t you pick a small town? Wouldn’t you use ordinary people, but involve the local politician, police and doctor? Wouldn’t everyone be wondering why, and be upset because of the disruption in their lives? Wouldn’t there be scenes of outsiders and insiders talking to each other at the wall? I did search the internet to find an essay on dome stories, but didn’t find one. I did find several forums where people mentioned other dome stories. It’s a growing micro-sub-genre.
All Flesh Is Grass is a difficult book to describe. Note the covers. The top one is from the first edition hardback. The second is the 1978 paperback edition I read. But look at the cover from this British edition. They obviously want to promote the book as science fiction, but it’s not your typical SyFy adventure story, so the publishers tacked on a cover that visually translate science fiction to the contemporary mind.
There are no space ships in All Flesh is Grass. It’s about a failed real estate agent, Brad Carter, who lives in a small town, Millville, that gets caught up in a mystery one day when he’s driving out of town and his car hits an invisible barrier. Like The Visitors, All Flesh Is Grass is about a different kind of alien invasion, and if you look at the first two covers you will get hints as to what the invaders are like. But they don’t invade Earth in spaceships. Simak’s story feels more like one Ray Bradbury would have written in the 1950s, with a touch of Philip K. Dick. It’s a kind of science fiction that has disappeared—as far as I know.
When I was growing up and reading science fiction in the 1960s as a teen, certain books had a quaintness to them. Authors like E. E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and Ray Cummings wrote stories that seemed very old. They wrote pulp stories from the 1930s. Their style of writing, common phrases, wording, slang, etc. was just old enough to feel out-of-date old fashioned. 1965 Simak reads that way now. Not like 1930s, because the story has a definite 1950s feel. And the ending is painfully hokey. Yet, All Flesh Is Grass was a pleasure to read, at least for me. I’m just curious if anyone born after 1980 would find it fun.
Science fiction seems to change every decade like society. Pop culture is always evolving and mutating. Reading Simak’s science fiction feels so quaint, like looking at an Amish town, or characters out of a 1940s black and white movie. But All Flesh is Grass is still about the awe of making first contact, still about encountering something that’s very alien. Still imagining unimagined possibilities. Simak’s mind goes way beyond little green men in flying saucers.
Ultimately, All Flesh is Grass is slight. A 254 page paperback that was quickly written and quickly read. That’s the problem with most science fiction, even today—it’s churned out. King’s Under the Dome is 1088 pages. Modern science fiction readers want long stories, either big books, or at least trilogies. Today we remember authors by the series they write. The novels I’ve been writing about as Forgotten Science Fiction were stand alone stories, that were short, quickly written for a few bucks. They were consumed and forgotten.
Yet, I remember these old SF books from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and so do a few others, like my blogging friend Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations. They are a unique art form. The ones I like, and I think my friends at the book club like too, are the ones that use science fiction as a way to think about certain kinds of ideas. The stories are more like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits than Star Wars or modern science fiction. I have to admit they aren’t great literature, and maybe their appeal is only nostalgic, yet, they wonder about reality in the same way I did growing up.
JWH – 5/14/14
5 thoughts on “Forgotten Science Fiction: All Flesh Is Grass by Clifford D. Simak”
I’ve long had a fondness for Clifford Simak, although it does seem like a lot of his books amount to people happening to be together and being too generally nice to have a conflict. (I think it was James Nicoll who mentioned that if Simak had written Alien it would have ended with Ripley and one of the Aliens sitting on a porch swing sipping lemonade and commenting on how much fun their kids had playing together.)
That said I honestly can’t remember if I’ve read All Flesh Is Grass; I keep thinking I have but don’t remember anything from it. That’s a bit of a problem resulting from his habit of having casts of generally likable small-town people who face supernatural/superscientific problems as, well, those things are just going to happen, aren’t they?
When you read the descriptions of many of his books at Wikipedia, they all sound similar, so it’s hard to know which ones I’ve read. But that’s funny about Alien.
I am always glad to see Simak getting some coverage. I’ve even toyed with the idea of starting a site centering on Simak and some other unjustly forgotten authors.
I’d suggest They Walked Like Men as your next Simak. Like The Visitors, it touches on some economic issues.
Thanks for this thoughtful piece about one of my all-time favorite sf novels — it and They Walked Like Men are my two favorite Simaks, ahead even of Way Station and City. I’ve always found Simak’s fiction, even his second-rankers (and later in his career there were plenty of those), to be immensely readable: ideal for an armchair and a warm fire. It’s a pity if, as you say, he’s become so widely forgotten.