Clifford D. Simak is best known for his science fiction, but he has written several fantasy and science fantasy novels, and in the past year or so I’ve read four of them. Going chronologically they are: The goblin reservation (1968), The enchanted pilgrimage (1975), The fellowship of the talisman (1978), and Where the evil dwells (1982).
The goblin reservation is a bit of an outlier as it is more of a science fiction story than a fantasy, and transcends genre by combining elements. It is a murder mystery, a love story, and time travel tale, and involves both extraterrestrials and fairy folk like goblins and leprechauns, as well as a ghost, and comes closest to being a comedy. There are echoes of this book though in his later fantasies, particularly in: the depiction of goblins as mischievous but basically benevolent; the use of a ghost as a character; the mixing of science fiction and fantasy; the inversion of established tropes in genre literature; and a preoccupation –either explicit or implicit– with morality.
The other three all read more like traditional “high fantasy” novels, with a party of adventurers of assorted races undertaking an epic quest into unknown and menacing lands. Some readers have dismissed them as being retreads of each other and a million similar LOTR ripoffs, but each has some interesting ideas and all can be read as meditations on morality and theology. Tightly connected to this is the theme of otherness as expressed in the different demihuman races and their perception by, and relationship to, the human characters. There’s probably a great term paper in that, if any students are reading this. I’m just writing a quick review though!
The enchanted pilgrimage is the shortest and the least interested in questions of morality (which become much more central to the last two novels). What was most interesting to me when I read this was the role of demihumans and humanoids. For example the gnomes in this world are smiths and live underground, but they are also illiterate and have practically no sense of history. Flipping the trope, mankind is the ‘elder’ race as far as the demihumans are concerned, for they keep books and record history, while the demihumans live in the present. The enchanted pilgrimage has been criticized for lacking coherence and having an anti-climatic ending, which (spoiler alert) veers way off the fantasy track into science fiction with time travelers, UFOs, and aliens. However it is an interesting setting (at least in the first half of the book) and a clear precursor to the two others, which remain solidly fantasy-based. The quest begins with a scribe who stumbles upon something of great importance and he sets out, slowly acquiring a motley band companions, for the menacing and forbidden Wasteland, home of chaos and magic. What he finds there is not what he, or the reader, expected, but also fails to live up to the promise of the first half of the book.
The fellowship of the talisman is probably the most traditional of the novels. The story is again centered on a quest, again revolving around a manuscript, and again we have a slowly growing party, although this time the world is much like our own, only a recurring invasion by the “Harriers” — amorphous and demonic, and barely described in any detail — has prevented mankind from developing past medieval technology and culture. The crusades, the discovery of the new world, the renaissance, the reformation, and the enlightenment: all are stopped or interrupted irrevocably by the Harriers. But in a backwater manor in England, someone discovers a manuscript, written by a contemporary of Jesus, which may hold the key to saving mankind. The characters are not particularly believable and there are several heavy-handed and tedious conversations where they seem very aware that mankind’s progress has been aborted. How they could possibly recognize this, given their benighted state, strains credulity, but as exposition it is bearable. Apart from mankind and the Harriers, there is again a wide array of demihumans and supernatural creatures that are allied with neither man nor the Harriers, but which are mostly willing to aid the party, since they oppose the Harriers. Despite the frequent aid and succor they get from them, though, the two principal characters spend the first half of the book insulting and distrusting the demihumans and other creatures. I found the heroes very unsympathetic until it became more clear that they were slowly losing some of their prejudices. The journey itself has some interesting encounters and environments but for so long a book (over 300 pages) not a lot actually happens. The party here is the most diverse, with humans, a goblin, an assortment of animals, a ghost, a banshee, and a demon all working together in an unlikely fellowship. There is some suggestion of a sci-fi element in the origin of the Harriers, but at the same time other elements go further into the folkloric and mythic than any of Simak’s other fantasy novels. For example there is (minor spoiler) an “Isle of wailing for the world” where three Norn-like women literally wail for all the world’s sorrows. I am totally going to throw that into my campaign world somewhere. There are also some great minor characters, like a senile, dying wizard in a hidden, timeless castle, and a minor lord of a manor in the middle of the Forlorn Lands (the region decimated by Harrier attacks) whose band is hopelessly holding out against the Harriers.
Where the evil dwells, the last of the four fantasies, was actually the one I read first, many years ago when it first came out in paperback in the 1980s. As a boy I read it as straightforward adventure yarn, and it certainly works as one. I reread it recently and was surprised to find a good deal more depth than I remembered. It is set, like The fellowship, in our world, but on a different timeline, where the Roman Empire holds out a good deal longer than in ours, but the enemies that threaten it are not barbarians, they are “the Evil.” The Evil are basically all the nonhumans and demihumans of myth and legend. A few of the “Little People” are perhaps merely mischievous rather than Evil. However the occasional acts of Gygaxian brutality we see in The fellowship (where fallen enemies are never spared and can at best hope for a merciful skull-smashing) are amplified and almost glorified here. The protagonists see the bodies of crucified ogres, for example, and only one so much as feels a slight discomfort at the sight; when an outcast troll joins the party and proves himself loyal and reliable, they continue to abuse, threaten, and distrust him. Again, a trope of fantasy –here, the white knight do-gooder party– is subverted. Overall it is a much darker adventure than the usual fare. There is also a section that very strongly evokes H. P. Lovecraft (or at least the “mythos” developed by his admirers) and, uniquely, no real science fiction connection.
D&D fans should find plenty to enjoy here, and while none of Simak’s works made it into the DMG’s “Appendix N” (the last two were published after the DMG anyway), they certainly provide some inspiration.