Hugosauriad 2.7: The Thing in the Stone by Clifford D Simak

Clifford D Simak was the Guest of Honour at Noreascon I in 1971 and simultaneously a finalist in the Hugo Award for Best Novella. He was one of a quintet of famous names in the category, including Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison but also Dean Koontz. The award was snatched by Friz Leiber’s “Ill Met in Lankhmar” a prequel/origin story to his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales. There was a span of over forty years between the oldest finalist (Simak) and the youngest (Koontz, at that point only 26).

Simak had already won two Hugo Award (1959 Novelette for The Big Front Yard and 1964 Novel for Way Station) and ten years later would win a third for his short story Grotto of the Dancing Deer. His guest of honour speech is available:

(Simak starts from about 28;00 mins). It’s a good speech in which a veteran of the genre celebrates how science fiction has changed and evolved and how he wants to see that continue.

The Thing in the Stone is very much a Simak story: set in rural Wisconsin with a central character who aside from one remarkable thing is otherwise just an ordinary person.

Wallace Daniels lives in an isolated farm house in Wisconsin. Doing only basic farming to feed himself, Daniels spends much of his time walking in the local hills. Some years before the setting of the story, Daniels had been in a car accident. His wife and daughter were killed and Daniels was badly injured including sustaining some minor brain damage. Seeking isolation he had bought the near derelict farm only to discover he had a new found ability:

But the cows were still quite a distance away and he still had time. He sat easy in his chair and stared across the hills. And they began to shift and change as he stared. When he had first seen it, the phenomenon had scared him silly. But now he was used to it. As he watched, the hills changed into different ones. Different vegetation and strange life stirred on them. He saw dinosaurs this time. A herd of them, not very big ones. Middle Triassic, more than likely. And this time it was only a distant view—he, himself, was not to become involved. He would only see, from a distance, what ancient time was like and would not be thrust into the middle of it as most often was the case. He was glad. There were chores to do. Watching, he wondered once again what more he could do. It was not the dinosaurs that concerned him, nor the earlier amphibians, or all the other creatures that moved in time about the hills. What disturbed him was that other being that lay buried deep beneath the Platteville limestone.

Simak, Clifford D.. The Thing in the Stone: And Other Stories (The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak Book 12) . Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

Daniels not only can see into the past but to some degree interact with it but not in a way that allows him to show any tangible proof. Also, I should not in the interest of full disclosure that’s about all the dinosaurs we are getting in this story — they are background decoration to indicate that Daniels can wander back in time a long way.

There are multitudes of science fictional and fantastic elements in the story: the time travel, an alien something trapped for millions of years in rock, a psychic connection and a kind of entity that’s basically a faithful dog standing watch. Simak drops them into the story like seasoning even though the primary narrative conflict is Daniel’s unpleasant neighbour and a mean (and potentially dangerous) prank played by the neighbour. By the end a lot has happened and not very much at all but I finished the story feeling satisfied.

There’s no suggestion in the story that Daniels is having a psychotic break and at least one plot point about how he escapes from a cave that very much depends on the time travel being real and physical but aside from that, Daniels’s abilities could be no more than a benign delusion. Simak taps into that spiritual aspect of being alone with your thoughts rambling in the countryside.

In Simak’s career he repeatedly presented examples of time travel and other forms of accessing other worlds that are nevertheless grounded with a strong sense of place. Often that place was specifically Wisconsin, to the extent of reusing facts about it’s geology (for example in Project Mastodon). Simak attempts a very interesting balancing act with the science and consistency of his time travel. The logic and mechanism of Daniels moving through time is essential fantastical — it is indistinguishable from a magical ability. However, Simak also grounds that with an attempt at accuracy geologically and also with what it would be like to move through time.

Interestingly he also presents a kind of inversion of De Camp’s observation of how popular science depiction of prehistoric creatures shapes how we imagine them. In both The Thing in the Stone and Project Matsodon he flips this idea with the proposition that time travellers would include in their depictions of extinct animals features which are not shown in reconstructions because they can’t be deduced from the fossil record:

“I wish you gentlemen could see my view of it, how it all fits together. First there were the films and we have the word of a dozen competent paleontologists that it’s impossible to fake anything as perfect as those films. But even granting that they could be, there are certain differences that no one would ever think of faking, because no one ever knew. Who, as an example, would put lynx tassels on the ears of a saber-tooth? Who would know that young mastodon were black?

Simak, Clifford D.. Project Mastodon and Other Journeys To and From Prehistory . Paleozoic Press. Kindle Edition.

And…

“You mean you recognize them from the illustrations in those books you have been reading.” “No, not that. Not entirely that. Of course the pictures helped. But actually it’s the other way around. Not the likenesses, but the differences. You see, none of the creatures are exactly like the pictures in the books. Some of them not at all like them. Not like the reconstruction the paleontologists put together. If they had been I might still have thought they were hallucinations, that what I was seeing was influenced by what I’d seen or read. I could have been feeding my imagination on prior knowledge. But since that was not the case, it seemed logical to assume that what I see is real. How could I imagine that Tyrannosaurus had dewlaps all the colors of the rainbow? How could I imagine that some of the sabretooths had tassels on their ears? How could anyone possibly imagine that the big thunder beasts of the Eocene had hides as colorful as giraffes?”

Simak, Clifford D.. The Thing in the Stone: And Other Stories (The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak Book 12) . Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

I’m not sure The Thing in the Stone is the best example of Simak’s writing. I enjoyed it but the story may feel unresolved to many. Having said that, consider Paul Weimer’s introduction to his review of Simak’s novel They City:

“What to make, in this day and age, of Clifford Simak, an SF writer born in a mold uncommon in this era, and uncommon even in his own? A midwesterner born and raised, living his life in rural Wisconsin and the modest metropolis of Minneapolis, Minnesota. That sort of environment gave him a midwestern, pastoral sensibility that infused all of his SF work, from Way Station to “The Big Front Yard,” both of which were Hugo winners and both merged the worlds of rural America with the alien and the strange.”

Of Dogs and Men: Clifford Simak’s City, Paul Weimer https://www.tor.com/2016/06/21/of-dogs-and-men-clifford-simaks-city/

That’s a great summary of Simak and I’d contend that The Thing in the Stone delivers all of those elements. I can’t say I’ve ever had much of an urge to visit Wisconsin, a place about which I know almost nothing on a continent far away from me, but Simak makes me want to wander its hills and imagine dinosaurs.

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10 thoughts on “Hugosauriad 2.7: The Thing in the Stone by Clifford D Simak

  1. I’ve never read this story (and haven’t read much Simak in general, though I liked what I did read), but “Ill Met in Lankhmar” was a highly deserving winner, which manages to be both utterly hilarious (“Let’s split sixty sixty”) and devastating at the same time. I’m not sure if it’s the best Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, but it’s definitely in my personal top five.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s an excellent story, though I think I’d put “Lean Times in Lankhmar” higher. But they’re both excellent.
      That does indeed sound like a very Simak story. His ordinary midwestern protagonists have me frequently thinking of his work as “folksy,” even though that doesn’t at all fit City or Time and Again.

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      1. Yes, “Lean Times in Lankhmar” is probably the best Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, though it’s not a good introduction, because you need to have encountered everybody’s favourite duo of rogues in normal mode first to see that they are behaving out of character. Meanwhile, “Ill Met” is very much the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser origin story. Okay, so there are the two solo prequels, but you don’t particularly need to read those, though “The Unholy Grail” is very good. Not much a fan of “The Snow Women”.

        And in general, the period from “Lean Times” in 1959 to “Ill Met” in 1970 is the high point of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. The early “Unknown” stories from the 1940s are very good as well, but a bit rougher and somewhat atypical. Post “Ill Met”, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories turned very gloomy and depressing for a while, probably because Fritz Leiber was struggling with the death of his wife and alcohol issues. I do like the late period Rime Isle stories, at least partly because Rime Isle is a place I recognise (I live near what I strongly suspect was one of Leiber’s inspirations), but again they’re atypical.

        As for dinosaurs, i don’t recall that Fafhrd and Gray Mouser ever met a dinosaur per se, though they have tangled with a variety of dragons and sea monsters and in one story, there are invisible flying creatures which might be pterodactyls, though no one can say for sure, because they’re invisible.

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      2. I agree starting with “Lean Times” would be a mistake. I actually started with “Ill Met” because it was (IIRC) in one of the Nebula collections my library had.
        I remember Leiber writing that he didn’t notice until after he’d emerged from the mourning period how many stories he’d written that involved death.

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      3. I have no problem imagining that Leiber didn’t notice how many stories involving Death he had written during his mourning period, because you don’t always notice a pattern, when you’re in the middle of it. But when you read the Fafhrd and Mouser collections, it becomes quite noticeable, because there is a whole stretch of Death stories at the beginning of the third White Wolf collection/The Second Book of Lankhmar/Swords and Ice Magic. There also are a few Death stories sprinkled into the earlier collections, usually written during this period to fill up narrative gaps, e.g. “The Price of Pain Ease”.

        The interesting thing about the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories (in addition to the fact that they’re great) is that because they were written over such a long period of time, you can see how the world, the genre and Leiber himself changed and also how his editors influenced him. Besides, Fritz Leiber is the only one of the great sword and sorcery writers (he even coined the term) whose career spanned the 1930s/40s origins of the genre and the S&S revival in the 1960s/70s and beyond. Everybody else was either dead (Robert E. Howard) or no longer writing (C.L. Moore, Clark Ashton Smith).

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      4. Oh, agreed on how obvious it is.
        Since he went to the trouble of giving Fafhrd and the Mouser kids, i often wonder if he’d have launched them in their own adventures had he gone longer. It is indeed interesting that he allows them to age, and unusual in the genre (Conan’s older by the time of Hour of the Dragon and proves more mature, but he doesn’t seem to have aged physically much).

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      5. Yes, sword and sorcery heroes rarely feel their age, even if they do grow old. Plus, Ffahrd has to deal with the loss of his hand and the fact he no longer is the best archer in Nehwon, too. I also love the fact that Leiber gave Fafhrd and Gray Mouser children and that they are completely oblivious to the fact, even though everybody else around them has already figured it out.

        It is my head canon that Pshwari (whom I’m almost certainly misspelling) and Fingers eventually ended up together and had many wonderful adventures, even if Leiber never got around to writing about them. Though I would have loved to see Fafhrd and Gray Mouser take revenge on the Lord of Quarmall. True, they’re not killers, unless it can’t be avoided, which is one of the reasons I like them so much. But you don’t let the guy who turned your teenage daughter into a child sex slave and then hypnotised her into trying to kill you live.

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      6. It’s an unpleasant detail that I had forgotten as well, until I reread the whole series last year. And – unusual for Leiber, who’s normally more subdued – we get a detailed description just what the sailors of Ilthmar do with their child sex slaves.

        And yes, pretty much everybody is more mellow than Elric. Even Solomon Kane and Jirel of Joiry are more mellow than Elric.

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