Out Of Their Minds – Clifford D. Simak

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Horton Smith is a foreign correspondent who, upon returning to his hometown of Pilot Knob to write a book, finds himself in a mess beyond his wildest imaginings. An old professor has been assassinated by a mysterious archer, and from him Horton inherits a tattered manuscript boldly claiming that mankind will be replaced by the fictional characters it invented. This is apparently a form of evolution. Over the course of the book Horton will drink moonshine with Snuffy Smith, be attacked by Don Quixote and deal with the Devil.

Despite the literary cameos suggested by this premise, Horton only spends a small amount of time dealing with imaginary characters. Most of the time he is courting a local school teacher, fishing, and reminiscing about his childhood in a backwater town. While all this does a good job of setting up Horton’s character, I wanted more time with the imagination characters. Perhaps this book should’ve been more than 191 pages long – at least 300 could contain this amount of background development and all the public domain wackiness I expected.

And the some of the references were very dated, betraying the fact that this book was published in 1970. Everyone about the Devil and anyone who reads for a hobby can probably tell you something about Don Quixote, but do you know who Snuffy Smith is? I had to Google him; turned out he was comic strip character from the early twentieth century, a moonshiner. I guess some of these characters being forgotten by later generations was inevitable, so you can’t really hold it against Simak.

I like what he did with the Devil. Simak’s Devil certainly isn’t a nice guy, but he’s reasonable and he tends to have a point. There’s been funny depictions of the Devil going way back to medieval times, but Simak’s version seemed like something out of a contemporary animated sitcom. I’m thinking Krampus from American Dad.

The main conflict behind the book didn’t make much sense. The imaginary characters are apparently sick of being insipid – Charlie Brown is cited on this point – and they want Horton to make people think of them doing something more interesting. But how would insipid characters know they’re banal? Wouldn’t it just be normal for them? I don’t get it at all.

Chapter ten was torn out of my copy of the book. I only paid twenty cents for it so I don’t have much to complain about, and it didn’t seriously impact on my understanding of the story. I think.

I found Out Of Their Minds an unsatisfactory read that did not fully exploit its intriguing premise. If you want to a read something that involves protagonists interacting with characters from classic fiction, I recommend Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.

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