Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review of "Auk House" by Clifford Simak

Of the directions science fiction can travel, perhaps the following two are the most disparate: stories with the most imaginative concepts vs. relevant fiction.  Most writers in the field aiming for a mix, problems occur only when the eyes go in one direction and the feet the other.  Clifford Simak’s 1977 novella “Auk House” is one such example. 

At the outset of “Auk House”, David Latimer is seeking a house to rent for the summer.  Trolling the shores of Cape Cod, he comes to a large colonial with a “For Rent or Sale” sign and inquires at the local realtor’s office.  Given the key to have a look, he finds the house a touch too big for his personal needs but entirely suitable for the series of paintings he has in mind.  When walking back to his car to talk with the realtor, however, things take a turn for the strange: his car is missing.  Returning to the house to gather his wits, things turn even stranger: a butler is on hand, and a spread of food awaits in the dining room, complete with guests.  Dazed, Latimer settles in for a bowl of soup and starts asking questions.

Such strangeness only the beginning, “Auk House” goes on to twist the science fantasy dial until the real world is left far, far behind.  A handful of major genre tropes jammed into the sixty-five page novella, the storyline requires an escalating suspension of disbelief to engage with as Latimer is taken further from reality one massive step at a time, culminating on a note for which reality (and relativity) is but a dot on the horizon.

The main strength of realist fiction is the ability to directly portray the human condition.  Empathy and understanding are inherently much closer to being implicit than with speculative fiction.  It is thus that Simak’s aims are muddled.  Desiring a narrative which strongly condemns corporate interests, genre plot devices instead take center stage.  The reader spends more time deliberating upon how Latimer could come to find himself in the situations he does, rather than nodding/shaking their head in agreement/disagreement with the political agenda.  Never able to feel Latimer as an artist, the real world disappears after a couple of pages as the reasons corporations are ‘bad’ are glossed over and never integrated into story.  “But!”, the readers interjects, “the twists and turns of Latimer’s bizarre existence at the Auk House and beyond are predicated on corporate interests!”  This is true only to a point.  The last few pages completely deconstruct the predication, leaving the reader at the heights of imaginative genre yet estranged from any parallels to the exigencies of greedy commercialism in the real world. 

In the end, “Auk House” is a story for which the genre devices take firm precedence over theme.  There are respectable ideas and hints at political commentary in place, but good intentions only get a person so far; all else in the novella lacks contextual depth; Simak’s eyes looked earthward, but his feet moved skyward.  You get the image.  This is not to say that any refutation of corporate rationale by literary fiction has more impact, only that Simak has deployed his speculative devices in a fashion that distance his commentary rather than drawing it closer to the point.   Good intentions hijacked by cheesy utilization of genre...

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