Clifford Simak (1904-1988) was a journalist and science fiction writer whose stories steadily appeared from the 1940s through the 1970s. His life, and most of his fiction, took place in the towns, cities and (especially) countryside of the upper Midwestern United States. His stories tended to be on a smaller scale (no mass alien invasions, for example) and optimistic, but he avoided depicting his rural settings with nostalgia. His characters often seem to never fully understand their fantastic or other-worldly experiences, and because of this I always thought there was a kind of honesty to his work.
Out of Their Minds (1970) is a short fantasy novel, published around the time SF critics started to regard Simak as past his prime. It imagines a universe filled with the mythical beings imagined by endless generations of humans, which collides for some reason with our own existence. It has been reprinted several times and translated into a least five other languages, indicators of a healthy audience for the old grandmaster.
The accomplished writer Horton Smith has decided to spend the summer in his very small hometown, Pilot Knob, Wisconsin, in order to finish a new book. Pilot Knob is actually as ghost town in Adams County (close to the center of the state, bordering the Wisconsin River), but it’s unclear whether it was an inhabited community in Simak’s time. The obscurity of the place also imparts a sense of mystery:
Would I really find Pilot Knob unchanged? I wondered. It seemed unlikely, on the face of it, that the little village would have changed. It had had no chance to change. It had lain for all these years so far outside the stream of current affairs, so untouched and so ignored, that there would have been no reason to change. But the question, I admitted to myself, was not so much whether Pilot Knob had changed, but how much I might have changed.
I can imagine Ray Bradbury writing the thoughts of a similar character, doing a similar thing in a similar place and time, but in his own style, of course. Bradbury seems like a natural comparison for Simak, who might have been more astute in constructing a novel out of smaller pieces,* but was not Bradbury’s match as a stylist. Both had intriguing SF ideas that usually took a backseat to characters and setting. More useful to say that if you enjoy one, you will likely enjoy the other.
On his way there, the road starts to get worse and worse for driving, and Horton ultimately has to stop because he sees an approaching triceratops. The dinosaur has coming stomping its way out of the hills, through the neighboring farmlands. Unfortunately, the car gets stuck in a ditch and Horton has to flee on foot.
I didn’t wait. I slapped the door open and tumbled out and went tearing up the hillside, banging into boulders and bouncing off the brush. Behind me, at any second I thought I’d hear a crash, but there wasn’t any crash.
In fact, the triceratops has disappeared as abruptly as in appeared, leaving Horton to find his way to a farmhouse for help. Inside he finds a very rustic couple, who he eventually identifies as the comic strip characters Snuffy Smith and wife Loweezy. He spends the night there, getting drunk on Snuffy’s moonshine, but wakes up in a cave and underneath a rattlesnake. After escaping this situation (I appreciate how Simak’s hero gets out of deadly encounters with little more than common sense), he returns to his car and finds it no longer stuck.
He makes his way into town but fails to find any explanation for the supernatural things he experienced, and for a time is half-convinced that he had been hallucinating. In the general store, where the owner has kept his mail, Horton first witnesses Kathy Adams, the local schoolteacher.
Behind me the conversation apparently had reached its end and I turned around. The woman who had been talking with Duncan was walking toward the door. She was younger than I’d thought when I had seen her talking at the counter. She wore a gray jacket and skirt and her black hair was pulled back tight against her head and knotted in the back. She wore glasses rimmed by some pale plastic and her face had upon it a look of worry and of anger, mixed. She walked with a smart, almost military, gait, and she had the look of a private secretary to a big executive — businesslike and curt and not about to brook any foolishness on the part of anyone.
This initial description communicated two vital things: Kathy is no figment of Horton’s imagination, and she will be his love interest in the novel. This becomes critical later, as Kathy is his link to the “real world,” or at least Horton’s original world, as he encounters all sorts of fantastic problems, including a bargaining session with the Devil himself.
The central premise of Out of Their Minds as that imaginary creatures maintain an existence in another universe, and have for some reason begun to cross into the sensory field of Horton Smith. An old friend of his has also experienced these phantasms, and attempted to couch these encounters into a modern theory of evolution. Namely, these manifestations of the imagination are a previously unseen next stage of evolution, preparing to imminently take our place. This explanation is mailed to Horton in Pilot Knob as a bundle of papers in a manila envelope. Kathy happens to read these papers, and is drawn into experiencing these deadly creatures as well.
Does this hang together very well, and build a case for questioning the roles of our beliefs and legends? Not particularly. My central issue with Out of Their Minds is that I’ve already read Eden and Solaris, two Stanislaw Lem classics. When Lem shows us the futility of attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible, he engages us intellectually as well as emotionally. The alien is truly alien, but the humans involved try really hard to understand them – or at least their own place in the newly expanded universe. Simak’s novel, with its Don Quixote, Snuffy Smith, etc., falls short of Lem’s standard. It eventually becomes a sort of romantic adventure, with a few chase scenes at the end; the intellectual journey peters out. The ending in Washington DC, where the Devil and Horton confront the vapidity of popular culture with cabinet members, goes in an unusual direction but will not please every reader.
Still, this modestly ambitious novel is fun and raises some interesting questions. Why is the triceratops considered a fantastic creature, and why is the Devil? Is an “ordinary” couple like Horton and Kathy better equipped to engage a supernatural challenge than someone from a university, or the military? Are some irrational beliefs and legends better than others? The characters are left without answers, and in fact it is up to us to decide on the most important questions. This is Simak’s style of speculative fiction: he sets the table and lets us choose what to eat. 5/10.
* An example would be Simak’s book City, which is a “fix-up” of linked stories, and considered a classic of the form. Bradbury also did this with his Martian Chronicles, which has been a favorite of mine but is more of a collection of stories than any sort of novel. The worst fix-up jobs I’ve come across must be A. E. van Vogt’s Weapon Makers stories, and The Beast: these parts just didn’t appear to fit.