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.
“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.