Short Story Reviews: Clifford D. Simak’s “Masquerade” (1941) and “Tools” (1942)


Today I’ve selected two early Clifford D. Simak “apprentice” stories–“Masquerade” (1941) and “Tools” (1942)–deeply critical of the American business ethic.1 Collectively they posit a future in which colonization goes hand-in-hand with the exploitation of resources, workers, and threatens the alien intelligences they encounter.2

Welcome to a future of capitalistic vastation!

3/5 (Average)

“Masquerade” first appeared in Astounding, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (March 1941). You can read it online here.

In the surprisingly bleak “Masquerade” (1941), metamorphic aliens on Mercury’s radiation-blasted surface parrot human actions. Beneath their clownish behavior is a plot, a plot to takedown an Earth corporation. The story begins with a disquieting sequence in the bleak expanse outside a sunlight harvesting power station on the surface of Mercury: “the Roman candles, snatching their shapes from Creepy’s mind, had assumed the form of Terrestrial hillbillies and were cavorting the measures of a square dance” (57). The Candles, “kicking up the dust, shuffling and hopping and flapping their arms” (58), are the mysterious natives of Mercury. In classic Simak fashion, there’s a method to their apparent comic madness.3

Captain Craig, responsible for guiding the sun’s power from the surface in a “spaceward beam” (61), holds an enlightened view of the alien Other. He defends the strange distant behavior of the Candles, and their connection to the plane: “they were here when men came, and they’ll probably be here long after men depart” (59). Perhaps they refuse to communicate with humans (and explain their rituals) “because they regard Man as an inferior race–a race upon which it isn’t even worth their while to waste their time” (60). Page, on the other hand, believes the absence of cities, machines, and “civilizations” demonstrates a lack of intelligence (60). He seeks to abduct some of the Candles for a money-making circus venture on Earth. The glimpses of Earth the story provides hint at a Earth society characterized by bribes, boot-licking, and industrial and urban expansion (i.e. “bulldozing”) (61). Page represents that world. Craig, amongst the aliens, comes to a different set of conclusions. But what happens if there’s a crisis that threatens the status quo?

Despite Craig’s accepting view of the Candles, a series of events in which the aliens infiltrate the power station appears to affirm the inability to live in harmony. Humanity’s desire for cheap energy trumps all else, even if their presence radically alters an alien culture. Craig sends a report back to earth defending the use of violence in self-defense if the Candles interrupt the export of power: “anything that would swiftly deprive them of energy would serve” (74). It is stated that humans waged genocide against other species on other planets. A position that Craig, at least, does not support (74). Craig concludes that humans must develop a new source of “universal power” in case the Candles successfully strike (74). Humanity’s greed marches on. Even the enlightened turn towards thoughts of violence.

“Masquerade” is clearly an early, and unpolished, story. Despite a few moments of beauty (the opening line describing the unusual alien behaviors on the bleak surface of Mercury), Simak resorts to jarring dialogue tags. If you show me a pattern (good or bad), my mind will obsessively catalogue and document. Characters rarely “said” anything to each other. Instead, they yelled, agreed, roared, suggested, yelped, moaned, growled, countered, and snapped. Use in moderation! Pulpy prose hiccups aside, “Masquerade” contains an incubatory version of Simak’s critique of modern “business ethic” and unusual aliens that serve to illustrate humanity’s foibles and destructive tendencies.

Recommended only for fans of Simak or those interested in critical takes on the sinister ramifications of future capitalism.

3.5/5 (Good)

“Tools” first appeared in Astounding, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (July 1942). You can read it online here.

In “Tools” (1942), the unchecked capitalist vastation shifts from Mercury to Venus and a new form of power. Instead of harvesting the sun’s rays as in “Masquerade,” the monopoly Radium, Inc.—which “owns the Solar System, body and soul” (122)–exports shiploads of radium from the Venusian mines harvested by specialized robots “operating with ‘radon brains’” (120).

The story initially follows Harvey Boone, the official observe for the Solar Institute, who sends back reports to Earth on Archie, an unusual Venusian entity that lives within radon gas. Discovered and studied by Masterson, Archie communicates via the “radon” that (somehow) recognizes impulses “as intelligent symbols” and can manipulate the jar’s controls to produce a voice (120). Various characters interact with Archie, trapped in his prison. The company doctor, and Simak mouthpiece, is Archie’s favorite conversation partner. Archie refuses to share more information than he has to. And Boone’s fraying nerves, “any alien planet is hard to live on and stay sane” (119), presents an opportunity for Archie to escape. Free from the jar, Archie’s accumulated knowledge spreads across the planet, infecting the ‘radon brains’ of the robotic miners. Rebellion is literally in the air.

In comparison to the earlier “Masquerade,” “Tools” more explicitly delves into the impact of Radium, Inc.’s political, economic, and social domination. A brutal dystopia emerges. The manic company director, R. C. Webster, takes on the role of a sinister villain at the center of a vast network of secret police and spires (122). Countries jump when Webster snaps his fingers (122). School children learn “enthusiasm” about big business in school (125). The business elite are the new nobility, power passes from father to son. Life under the thrall of Webster and his cronies is the price “the people of Earth had to pay for solar expansion, for a solar empire” (122). And what a brutal price… It’s treason to suggest a different future free from Radium, Inc.’s embrace (125). Streeter, Webster’s mercenary strong man, shows no qualms replacing the robots with slave labor if Radium exports fall below acceptable levels (126). His police erect sentry towers to oversee the operation, guns ready in case of a worker revolt (126).

“Tools” reads as stridently anti-capitalist. Simak argues that the actual experience of worker oppression leads all to the same conclusion: Radium, Inc. must be overthrown. One cannot miss the Marxist notion of class consciousness that permeates the pages. Garrison, the leader of the mine, provides the best example: “Call it treason […] Call it anything you like. It’s the language that’s being talked up and down the System. Wherever men work out their hearts and strange their conscience in hope of scraps from Radium, Inc.’s table, they’re saying the same thing we are saying” (125). When Webster proposes sending men to replace the machines, he protests: “They’ll revolt” (126). Archie’s actions, however brutal, offer a glimmer of possibility.

Recommended for fans of Simak.

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