Clifford D. Simak All the Traps of Earth (1962)
What with the Open Road reprints, it feels as though I've read quite a few of Simak's short stories of late, although of late is a relative term here given that I read I Am Crying All Inside back in March, 2016, and that was where I first came across Installment Plan and All the Traps of Earth, two of the six short stories gathered here - although apparently there were more in the hardback. Strangely, much as I appear to have enjoyed both of those first time around, my recollection of having read them is vague and based only on the familiarity of the titles. Either I'm getting old and my memory is beginning to go, or the tales in question simply had a greater impact this time around, for some reason.
It could be that I was simply in a frame of mind more conducive to reading Simak, or that - as seems more likely - there's just something about a collection such as this which leaves a bigger impression. It's a one shot rather than part of a daunting series comprising many, many volumes, just six great stories which someone or other picked as either the best or the best which worked together at time of publication; and there's the powerfully evocative cover; even the unfortunate fact of yellowed pages crumbling at the corners as I read them.
Whatever the reason, as a single volume this one serves as a powerful argument for Simak as one of the greatest in his field, and certainly top three. These six tales play very much to Simak's strengths, with my only possible gripe being that Installment Plan takes a little longer to get going than seems necessary - although once we hit the second chapter, all is well. The tone is pastoral, as one might reasonably expect, and yet there's very little repetition. Good Night, Mr. James suggests the influence of van Vogt with its central protagonist in constant motion through a mysterious urban landscape, in pursuit of something terrible whilst simultaneously struggling to recall the particulars of his own identity - which additionally suggests Philip K. Dick may have been taking notes at this point, both from this story and the peculiar Drop Dead with its surreal, dreamlike composite livestock. Simak populates his universe with regular people just trying to get by, and not a science hero nor even a big city swell in sight. The robots are also regular people just trying to get by, as are the aliens in most cases, and travel beyond the limits of Earth very much resembles the settlers of old striking out across the American west, although this time with a better developed sense of responsibility. Simak achieves a warm familiarity without ever quite getting too cosy, and the power of his tales is to be found in how this contrasts with where he sends his people, or his robots, or his aliens.
I'd argue that this might even be one of the best, most convincing, and satisfying collections of short science-fiction you're ever likely to read of any author. It might also be that I've simply over-appreciated something of quality after ploughing through Neil Gaiman's posture as storytelling, but whichever way you look at it, this really is a wonderful book.