Friday, June 6, 2008

Clifford D Simak's "The Big Front Yard" (novelette, science fiction): When aliens introduced humans into the cosmic community of rational beings

Quote from short story titled The Big Front Yard by Clifford D SimakFirst half of this story is a better version of Henry Kuttner's "Housing Problem" - and among the most interesting sense-of-wonder stories by anyone. Transition between the two
halves is via a plot variant of Heinlein's "- And He Built a Crooked House" - an unusual home where passing through a door leads you somewhere unexpected. Last half explains the wonders, & didn't quite click as well with me.

I sometimes wonder why so few authors have emulated so obvious & effective technique of the masters of sense-of-wonder stories - the Kuttner/Moore gestalt: don't bother explaining the wonder; just find an appropriate place to terminate the story when still in wonder mode. Explaining the wonder so often leads to disappointment in reader.

Story summary.

Story is set in a village called "Willow Bend" & has 3 main characters:
  1. Hiram Taine - a handy man, particularly at fixing home electronics; & a small time dealer in antique furniture. He lives in his ancestral home with his dog Towser.
  2. H Henry Horton - the richest man in village, & a greedy businessman always on the lookout for opportunity. He owns "a small computer plant".
  3. Beasly - a half-wit, & an abused servant in the household of Hortons. Hiram is the only one in the village who's kind to him. Part way through the story, he will quit his employment with Hortons, & come live with Hiram doing odd jobs.
First half is about the amazing things happening at Hiram household. His dog is restless, sensing something it cannot locate. Ceiling of his workshop in basement transforms into something amazingly smooth & hard. An old black-and-white TV of Horton household left for repair in workshop will not only get fixed by itself but converted into the world's most fantastic color TV! Erratic stove in his kitchen gets fixed; an old dead radio gets transformed into a fancy working one!

Dog, Beasly, & Hiram will later locate an alien spaceship buried near Hiram's home: "Twelve feet wide by twenty long & oval shaped. About the size ... of a good-size living room... & ten feet deep." He will later see the aliens: "They were four inches high or so & they went on all four feet, although it was plain to see that their front feet were really hands, not feet. They had ratlike faces that were vaguely human, with noses long & pointed. They looked as if they might have scales instead of hide, for their bodies glistened with a rippling motion as they walked. And all of them had tails that looked very much like the coiled-wire tails one finds on certain toys & the tails stuck straight up above them, quivering as they walked... sixteen of them".

These aliens seem to have taken up residence in Hiram household - "living in the space between the basement joists", & appear to be helping him in odd ways to may be pay the rent - as the "little folks" did in Kuttner's "Housing Problem".

Enter Mr Horton - sensing business opportunity after seeing the TV's transformation. He is convinced Hiram is an amazing inventor. No problem Hiram cannot explain what happened to TV; Horton has a lot of engineers at his company to do the reverse engineering. Profits from any resulting business will be split.

Horton also almost forcibly hands Hiram a big computer lying unused at his company. No obligations, but if anything interesting results, they will split profits.

While Hiram is out digging the alien ship, computer is delivered to his basement by Horton's men. By the time Hiram returns home, front door of his home no longer exists! In fact, the front architecture has changed in subtle ways - strange curves, no opening anywhere! Panicky, he'll run around & find the back door intact.

Enters home from back door, & goes to where front door should be. It's very much there! Only after getting out from there, he finds himself obviously on a different world! Front door of his home has been transformed into an inter-stellar transfer gate! To travel to that world, you just walk through the door! Some windows of his home open to night of earth, others to day light of this alien world! In part of house on this alien world "there was no back to the house." Story gets its title from this - a whole world's worth of front yard.

That's about the first half - it's happened over a period of 3-4 days. Hiram will later find Horton's computer vanished; & part of his workshop walled off in an impenetrable way. Computer apparently played a role in creation of transfer gate.

During the early exploration of this world, Hiram will find another transfer gate to yet another world - with possibility of a big network of them. He will also see his little alien guests going out - their job done. A spaceship hanger near his home with 8 ready starships will get another ship used up as the little aliens go to yet another world to build another transfer gate.

Discovery of transfer gate had made Beasly panic. While Hiram was out exploring the new world, there was a lot of excitement in the village. Horton with Sheriff Hanson will find Hiram out in the country side of new world. Horton is convinced Hiram has again used his resourcefulness with the help of his computer - he's very interested in exploiting this world.

Some hours later, as a tired Hiram is coming out of his sleep, he learns indignant that government has tried appropriating his property, & tried razing some of his walls to make equipment pass. But aliens had apparently foreseen the possibility; they'd reinforced the walls with their impenetrable material.

More excitement. Other countries involved, UN involved. Eventually, Hiram will have 3 alien visitors (of a race different from ones that were his guests - these are "humanoid, to a degree at least") at his front yard - unwilling to enter earth, but willing to trade in "ideas". This is also where Beasly will find his ultimate vocation. We learn he's a telepath. There is an alien side telepath too - "a sort of man-size woodchuck". So to talk to aliens, you go via these two telepaths - each speaking the normal language of his end.

They will exchange ideas about an alien transport vehicle, in return for "paints" from human side. More negotiations are on...

See also.

  1. Ralph Williams' "Cat and Mouse": Another story where aliens build a door on earth that you walk across to reach another world!

Collected in.

  1. Ben Bova (Ed)'s "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B".

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science Fiction, October 1958.
Rating: A
Winner of Hugo Award 1959 in novelette category.
Related: Stories of Clifford D Simak.


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