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February 16, 2012

The Planet’s Gone to the Dogs

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Pat Coleman @ 1:05 pm

Our list of the best 150 Minnesota books dipped into genre fiction a while back with the anointing of a couple of mystery novels. It is now time to take another courageous step and delve into the weird and wonderful world of speculative fiction, better known as science fiction and fantasy.

Bosworth, Francis, et al. Broken Mirrors. Minneapolis: Avon Press, 1928.

Clifford D. Simak. The City. New York: Gnome Press, 1952.

Clifford D. Simak was born in Millville, Wisconsin in 1904 and grew up reading H. G. Wells. He is perhaps best known to Minnesotans as a journalist. In 1939 he began a 37 year career writing for the Minneapolis newspapers. He was promoted to news editor of the Star in 1949 and coordinator of the Tribune’s Science Reading Series in 1961. Simak’s legacy, however, is entirely as one of the greatest American science fiction writers. “To read Simak is to read science fiction. To know Simak is to know the best in science fiction,” wrote Muriel Becker in the introduction to his bibliography. He won three Hugo Awards and a Nebula Award. His highest honor was becoming only the third writer named a “Grand Master” by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Among his other numerous awards was the Minnesota Academy of Science Award for his nonfiction but my personal favorite might be his 1988 Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award. Simak had a profound influence generally in the genre but more specifically on local writers by, for example, organizing the first meeting of the Minneapolis Fantasy Society in his home in 1940.

In 1953 Simak won the International Fantasy Award for his best know work, The City. His bibliographer points out that this book is “a work with which every devotee of science fiction is familiar.” The book is a series of related short stories depicting an Earth where mankind does not exist and highly evolved intelligent dogs and robots are left to debate whether humans ever existed or if stories about them were merely mythological. The sensitive new age dogs reflect on humanity and decry man’s worst instinct, war!

The MHS has several editions of City, because it is such a ground breaking work, including the very rare first edition in a dust jacket illustrated by famous Sci-Fi artist Frank Kelly Frease [ if you are collecting our list of 150 best Minnesota books you need this edition] and the 1981 edition with an added “Epilog.”

There is so much of – and too much in – Simak’s work to do justice to him here but let me mention just one thing that I found compelling: his sympathetic writings about robots in the 50’s and 60’s were seen as metaphors for the civil rights movement.

As for the book Broken Mirrors, I hardly know where to begin. This is a scarce book (limited to 82 copies) written by five students at the University of Minnesota who were interested in creative writing. They started what they called the Avon Society using that name as their imprint. The five were: Francis Bosworth, Karl Litzenberg, Gordon Louis Roth, Harrison Salisbury (about whom this list will have more to say later), and the reason we are rolling this book out here and now, Donald Wandrei. Wandrei was born in St. Paul in 1908 and was raised and died there in 1987. Before the U of M he attended St. Paul’s Central High School. The striking woodcut illustrations in Broken Mirrors are by Leo Henkora. The Avon Society’s belief was in “no particular school and no definite limitations… or pedantic theory.” Other than work done as editor of the Minnesota Daily, this book contains Wandrei’s first published writing. Along with eight of his poems, the book contains two short stories by Wandrei, “The Victor Loses” and “The Terrible Suicide.”

After school Wandrei hitchhiked to Maine to visit H. P. Lovecraft. He became both a friend and protégé of HPL. Wandrei partnered with August Derleth in starting the imprint Arkham House, the Sauk City, Wisconsin publisher of “weird fiction” mainly to keep the work of Lovecraft in print. In the 1930’s Wandrei was actively writing for “Astounding Stories” and “Weird Tales” magazines. In 1944 Arkham House published one of Wandrei’s better known works, The Eye and the Finger, imagery that Clem Haupers used in the portrait he painted of his friend, Wandrei. He received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1984.

Do you know who came here to sit at the feet of Donald Wandrei and learn from the master? A young Stephen King! The tourist that gawk from buses that stop at all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Summit Avenue haunts should jog one block north to 1152 Portland Avenue to pay homage to one of our most creative writers.

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2 Responses to “The Planet’s Gone to the Dogs”

  1. Deirdre Says:

    For a favorite artist of mine (King) to be a fan of Wandrei and to share an alma mater and state with him will inspire me to read his work. Thanks for the great suggestions as always.

  2. Patrick Coleman Says:

    Thanks Deirdre. Somewhere in the papers the MHS picked up from the Wandrei brothers is a photo of a very young [teenage?] and very geeky looking Stephen King literally sitting, in rapt attention, at Wandrei’s feet.

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