Who Goes There?
Clifford D. Simak is one of the most respected writers to come out of the so-called Golden Age of science fiction—this despite the fact that he was actually a pre-Golden Age practitioner of SF, having made his debut in 1931 with “The World of the Red Sun.” Simak became one of John W. Campbell’s regular authors in the ’40s, and then, without skipping a beat, he started submitting frequently to Galaxy Science Fiction in the ’50s onward. Unlike a lot of noted Golden Age writers, Simak was thoroughly a pastoralist, and also a humanist; his fiction often involves fundamentally decent rural types in plots which are rarely life-or-death scenarios. His obvious contempt for urbanity is counterbalanced by a gentleness uncharacteristic of most SF authors of his era, and at his best he can be deeply emotionally effective.
When Simak wrote “The Big Front Yard” in 1958, he had already been in the game for 27 years, and he would remain quietly yet consistently active for 27 more. According to David W. Wixon’s introduction to the story in the collection The Big Front Yard and Other Stories, Simak had originally submitted this piece to H. L. Gold over at Galaxy, but Gold rejected it; he then took it to Campbell, and Campbell bought it without hesitation. “The Big Front Yard” would go on to win the 1959 Hugo for Best Novelette (the Best Novella category had not yet been invented), and it would go down as one of Simak’s most famous stories.
“The Big Front Yard” has been reprinted a fair number of times, so you’ll have no problem finding it. Assuming you don’t mind reading online or with a PDF, the October 1958 issue of Astounding in which it originally appeared is on the Archive. As far as book reprints go we have some easy-to-find options, including the aforementioned The Big Front Yard and Other Stories in ebook and paperback—though I must warn you that Open Road Media is, at best, a second-rate publisher, and I seriously lament the fact that so many books by authors I love have fallen into their hands. Typos and weird formatting decisions abound, such as the fact that FOR NO REASON the scene breaks were removed in their series of Simak’s collected short fiction. Chapter breaks are still intact, but scene breaks, which are arguably more important? Gone. How shitty.
If you want (in my opinion) more reputable reprints, I would recommend the anthology The Hugo Winners, Volumes One and Two; it’s super-duper out of print, but since this tome seemed to get around a lot back in the ’70s, used copies are pretty easy to find without breaking the bank. You also get the rest of the short fiction Hugo winners between 1955 and 1970, so that’s a big plus. Another great option is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume Two B, the second half of (you guessed it) The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume Two. Unlike the former anthology, this one is very much in print, and seems to have remained so since its initial publication.
This is a first contact story, and maybe one of the most upbeat of its kind, though Simak misdirects us at first into thinking it won’t be.
We follow Hiram Taine, a handyman and trader of “antiques” (in reality just old junky furniture he cleans up and sells at a hefty price), just your average rural Wisconsin dude. He has a dog named Towser and he likes to chat with another local man named Beasly, who’s apparently not very bright but who likes to hang out with Taine and help him with his work. Random, but I couldn’t help but notice the dog has the same name as the protagonist’s dog in Simak’s earlier story, “Desertion.” Is this supposed to mean anything? How many Simak stories have dogs named Towser?
Anyway, Taine is hired to fix a TV set owned by the Hortons, Henry and Abbie, with Henry being boss man at a local plant (a computer plant, apparently). The TV is old and, according to Taine anyway, replacing it would probably be cheaper than repairing it, but it comes with a radio and a record player, and Abbie won’t replace it. Taine and Beasly move the bulky TV into the basement when this happens:
“Well, Hiram,” she said, excited, “you put a ceiling in the basement. It looks a whole lot better.”
“Huh?” asked Taine.
“The ceiling. I said you put in a ceiling.”
Taine jerked his head up and what she said was true. There was a ceiling there, but he’d never put it in.
Taine has one of those unfinished basements—only now it’s a little less unfinished. Not only does his basement have a ceiling that he didn’t have installed, but it seems to be of a metallic substance, except it’s not any kind of metal Taine recognizes. Later that day, he tests the ceiling and finds that a drill won’t penetrate it, or even leave so much as a scratch. Well that’s weird. At this early point in the story, Taine notices some things are different about his house, and normally this would be played for suspense, which is kind of is—but, as I said, this is misdirection.
Indeed the first stretch of “The Big Front Yard” feels almost like a subversion of what would, even in 1958, sound like the set-up for a spooky alien invasion story. You know how superstitious people will sometimes say dogs can see ghosts or some goofy shit like that? Towser spends much of the story trying to find a woodchuck that doesn’t exist, but we’ll get back to that in the spoilers section. Clearly something has started living in or around the property, and it doesn’t stop with Taine’s basement getting refurbished. Several of the junky odds and ends have been mysteriously repaired, even improved in some cases; the big TV set Taine got for repairs is now not only fixed without his help, but it now also plays in color (remember, 1958). You and I know, even going into this, that aliens are involved, yet the surprising part is that rather than hint ominously at a future attack on humanity, these aliens seem, if anything, to be pretty benign, if not outright friendly.
What I like about a lot of Simak’s work, and what he does to an almost perfect degree here, is he refuses to bend to the Golden Age cliché of aliens being depicted as evil outsiders, along with the xenophobic implications; aliens rarely play the villains in Simak’s fiction, but then Simak’s fiction tends to be light on conventional villains. Taine is also not your typical Golden Age protagonist: he’s not a scientist or a politician, he’s not what you’d call a genius, and he’s by no means the physical encapsulation of what Campbell would’ve considered the “ideal” man. Like a lot of Simak protagonists, Taine is a hard-working (if not entirely honest) Midwesterner who’s just looking to make a buck. Honestly I scratch my head as to why Gold rejected “The Big Front Yard” and Campbell bought it; it feels like the roles should’ve been reversed.
Before long, Towser, in his efforts to find the woodchuck, finds something else right by the house, and digs furiously for it. Already aware that something definitely strange has been going on, Taine and Beasly dig up whatever Towser sniffed out, and what they find is indeed strange: a large oval-shaped contraption buried in the ground, made of a glassy metal that Taine knows he’s never seen before. Fear runs through his veins, but he also experiences what we might call a conceptual breakthrough—a discovery of something beyond known human limits that counteracts the fear with a sense of wonder. “A sense of wonder” is a really old and cliched phrase in SF, especially Golden Age SF, but I think there are a few moments in “The Big Front Yard” alone which do it justice.
And the conviction grew: Whatever it was that had come to live with him undoubtedly had arrived in this same contraptions. From space or time, he thought, and was astonished that he thought it, for he’d never thought such a thing before.
Life on other planets? You bet. What else could it be? Like any first contact story there is at least some uncertainty involved, but as is typical of Simak, there’s also a gentle whimsy and that aforementioned sense of wonder which gives us the impression that Taine, Beasly, and the others aren’t in any real danger, despite the mysteriousness of the situation. If our boys thought the repaired junk and the large glassy contraption were weird, though, they’re about to have the sight of their lives, after they’ve finished with the digging and come back around to the front of the house.
He and Beasly went up the gravel driveway in the dark to put the tools away in the garage and there was something funny going on, for there was no garage.
There was no garage and there was no front on the house and the driveway was cut off abruptly and there was nothing but the curving wall of what apparently had been the end of the garage.
The front of the house is folded in on itself. The back is still good, though! But yeah, uhh, how did this happen? Why? Taine’s scared, but now he’s also utterly baffled. Our boys enter through the back door, and… the front of the house is still there. From the inside. Except whereas it had been nighttime outside the house, now there’s daylight breaking through the front windows which are no longer there from the outside.
“The Big Front Yard” can be more or less split into two halves, those being before and after the front of the house gets miraculously folded. If the first half of the novella has almost a magic realism feel about it, it becomes something more akin to a planetary romance in the latter half. I won’t say too much in the spoiler section, since the plot becomes more straightforward at this point, but it also becomes even more charming and readable. The whole thing can be described as “cute,” which is not a word I would use with the vast majority of Golden Age SF (FYI, I do consider the “Golden Age” to be the ’50s, not the ’40s), but “The Big Front Yard” is just a happy-go-lucky tale which refuses to take itself overly seriously.
There Be Spoilers Here
The front of the house, from the inside, opens to a different planet—a vast desert landscape with a sun different from ours. The front of Taine’s house, including his car and driveway, has been transported to this new world, in a way, and conversely the back of the house is now folded on itself. This is where we meet the aliens who have apparently taken up residence on Taine’s property: little ratlike creatures with humanoid-ish faces. These aliens pay Taine no mind and simply keep walking in a single file line through the desert. There’s also… du-dum… another house which serves the same function as Taine’s, except this one appears deserted, serving as a gateway between the desert world and a third world, this one being more jungle-like. Taine’s house seems to have become part of a network of houses which serve as portals for other worlds.
This was another world—there could be no doubt of that—another planet circling another star, and where it was in actual space no one on Earth could have the least idea. And yet, through some machination of those sixteen things walking straight in line, it also was lying just outside the front door of his house.
Soon we run into a different alien race, one which is decidedly more humanoid in appearance; these guys ride on what appear to be horseless saddles, though our boys gather that the humanoid aliens use some kind of anti-gravity device. Far more unfortunately, we also have to deal with the US government putting their filthy hands in things. It was a cliché, even at the time, for the government to get involved with ayy lmao affairs, though Simak’s irreverence for the soldiers and bureaucrats here is somewhat refreshing; they’re the closest thing the story has to villains, and while they are somewhat of the mustache-twirling variety, they’re not too harmful. Really the most tense thing to happen in the whole story is when Taine loses Towser in the desert world for a bit, but it’s okay, he finds him. Towser is such a good boy; there should be a Hugo for Best Dog.
What do these aliens want, though? And what will it take for the government to not take possession of Taine’s house? The solution ends up being a mighty convenient one: Beasly, while not being the sharpest tool in the shed, is able to communicate with the aliens, and as it turns out, the aliens are looking to start a trading relationship with mankind, as part of a network of interplanetary traders. Rather than wanting to trade top-secret info on weapons, the aliens want more practical things, like the very concept of paint, which is somehow foreign to them. The big twist of “The Big Front Yard” is that Beasly is telepathic; that’s right, he can communicate with others using his mind—even Towser, who’s a dog, and even the aliens, who are… aliens.
Suddenly I can see why Campbell would’ve liked this.
I do find this twist to be the least convincing part of the story. You could say it’s far-fetched that Taine is able to walk and breathe fine on an alien planet without any technological assistance, but I would also say you’re a killjoy who probably had a really boring childhood. I guess my problem is that the telepathy thing, even if it’s used to hand-wave communications between humans and the saddle-riding aliens (which it is), doesn’t cover for the fact that our languages would be completely different. That and while I feel like Towser sensing the aliens, including a giant woodchuck-looking alien, was foreshadowed well enough, I find Beasly’s secret power to be less convincing. People were just really into ESP at this time, huh?
Even so, all is well. The aliens want to become trading partners with mankind, with Taine as mankind’s ambassador and Beasly as his interpreter. The government will keep off their backs, at least for the time being, and anyhow, in the meantime they can learn some pretty valuable things from the aliens. It all looks like the beginning of a beautiful business relationship.
A Step Farther Out
Clifford D. Simak would win two more Hugos, and was the third person to be given the Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (after Robert Heinlein and Jack Williamson). Despite this immense honor, Simak now stands as a somewhat obscure figure (not unlike Williamson, actually), and I see that as a big shame, because his work has certainly aged better than a lot of Heinlein’s. Heinlein is one of my all-time favorite authors, maybe top five material, but he can be pretty embarrassing when he doesn’t have his eye on the prize. Simak, meanwhile, continued to produce respectable work well into the ’70s, after many of his contemporaries had either died, retired, or pulled a Heinlein.
Simak would win his third Hugo in 1981, and he would remain active until just a couple years before his death in 1988. The world of SF, and even genre fiction at large, would surely be worse off without him.
“The Big Front Yard” may not be Simak’s best story, but it might be the best example of what made Simak different from so many other SF authors in the ’40s and ’50s. While there is a bit of light misogyny with Abbie Horton’s characterization (she’s described as “bossy” at one point), it’s otherwise remarkably devoid of racism and jingoism. I also get the impression, just from reading this, that Simak was probably horrified and disgusted by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; indeed his fix-up “novel” City partly feels like a cry against atrocities (be they Allied or Axis) committed during World War II. It would’ve been easy to initiate the partnership between mankind and the saddle-riding aliens for the purposes of exchanging weapons of mass destruction, but Simak did not seem keen on putting such an option on the table.
There’s a tenderness running through much of Simak’s fiction; you could say it’s an aversion to violence, and if Simak has any big weakness it’s that maybe he can be too much of a softy—a criticism one could aim at few, if any other Golden Age authors, I can assure you. “The Big Front Yard” has been held as a classic for decades, and while some classics of the field keep that title more for historical importance than enjoyability, this is a classic whose value very much persists. It’s a damn fine story, regardless of age.
See you next time.