The Big Front Yard
CRITIQUE | THE TEXT
1958 in American edition of magazine Astounding Science Fiction
First book publication
1960 in The Worlds of Clifford Simak collection
Approx. 25,000 words
Lookin' out our front door
The Big Front Yard is a story Mark Twain might have produced if he were writing in the science fiction era.
It's a far-fetched tale in a smalltown setting, featuring a fast-talking entrepreneur who faces the bizarre situation he's been thrown into with slyly cynical humour. In Clifford D. Simak's short novella, Hiram Taine finds his property being turned into an interplanetary gateway and uses his Yankee trading smarts—shades of Tom Sawyer, Connecticut Yankee and several other Twain characters—to dicker with aliens on behalf of Earth, while fending off government, military and fellow townsfolk who try to get in on the action.
Before he gets to that point though, Hiram Taine's biggest concern is recovering his dog Towser that wandered off in another world. (The beloved Towser, by the way, appears in other Simak stories under the same or similar names.)
He is also concerned for his seemingly weak-minded friend Beasly who is the joke of the town but ends up playing a surprising role in communicating with the aliens.
The story kicks off unassumingly like a certain kind of scifi, fantasy or horror story. An ordinary day in an ordinary life. Until odd things start occurring. At first something small. A broken appliance left at Hiram's fix-it shop is inexplicably repaired and upgraded. Parts of Hiram's house are remodelled with impregnable materials. A strange object is found buried nearby. The whole first part of the story slowly builds as more wonders are revealed. Then about halfway through, our everyman hero begins to uncover the explanation of the mysteries.
The concept that other worlds exist on our doorstep, literally or metaphorically, is not completely original in speculative fiction either.
But The Big Front Yard may offer the most homely and down-to-earth presentation of this idea.
Of course, it's implausible how quickly Hiram, Beasly and the rest all come to accept the earth-shaking events that unfold. In real life, people would find their most precious beliefs undercut. They'd be left stunned and terrified.
But that's part of the charm of the story. It's not supposed to be psychologically profound. The Big Front Yard is an ordinary person (a commonsensical, salt-of-the earth person) calling upon inner strength and homespun wisdom to prevail in an extraordinary situation.
It's a very American story. We could critique it for portraying the galaxy's most advanced beings as just business people looking for trades. But the material is too slight to bear the weight of an all-out political analysis.
The plot is handled lightly. There are no big dramatic do-or-die moments. The narrative just gradually develops. We never expect a massive tragedy to take place and it doesn't.
Not surprisingly, The Big Front Yard is often classed as a short story. I can see that, despite the actual word count putting it into novella territory. The Hugo Award committee classed it as a "novelette", a bastard literary category if there ever was one.
It probably could have been cut down to short story size and if it were created today it would likely be more quickly paced. But it's a pleasure to take an hour and a half to meander through such a charmingly constructed tale.
— Eric McMillan
CRITIQUE | THE TEXT