“Grotto of the Dancing Deer”, by Clifford D Simak

Second paragraph of third section:

John Roberts was waiting for him on the park bench. They nodded at one another, without speaking, and Boyd sat down beside his friend

When I first wrote this up in 2006, I said:

Simak is of course most famous for his characteristic rural and pastoral take on sf: David Pringle and John Clute, in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, describe "Wisconsin in about 1925" as being his true spiritual home, and his style as "constrained, nostalgic, intensely emotional beneath a calmly competent generic surface". At first sight, "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" might seem a new departure, set as it is in the foothills of the Pyrenees and Wahington DC. But in fact it is a quintessentially Simakian take on one of the oldest of sf tropes: if there were immortals living among us, what would they be like?

Most stories featuring immortals either treat immortality as a curse (the first of these probably being Gulliver's Travels) or as a blessing, probably one of several supertalents possessed by the story's protagonist or protagonists (see Zelazny or Heinlein). Simak's immortal is an ordinary rural bloke, with (unlike the hero of his Way Station) no particular explanation for, or purpose to, his immortality; he just gets along with life as best he can, and breaks his 20,000-year silence simply because he is lonely.

That's about all there is to it. The viewpoint character, Boyd, offers the immortal Luis the temptation of writing a book, becoming a millionaire; Luis rejects it. He in turn offers Boyd the location of Charlemagne's treasure, lost since Roncesvalles twelve centuries before; Boyd accepts the information but says he won't use it. Luis' immortality is not a blessing; he feels it has made him into a coward, a skulker, a participant rather than an observer. Actually, we know this is not entirely true; he has been a conscientious and responsible worker on Boyd's digs, who has studied in Paris and Oxford, and who is also a brilliant artist as Boyd has discovered. But it is clear that the worst thing about his immortality is the loneliness of a secret that cannot be told.

I love the way Simak economically sets the scene. "Luis was playing his pipe when Boyd climbed the steep path that led up to the cave." The first sentence introduces the two main characters, the main setting, and indeed the clue to the mystery (Luis' pipe). He does it again introducing the short section back in the States: "The last leaves of October were blowing in the autumn wind and a weak sun, not entirely obscured by the floating clouds, shone down on Washington." There's something very autumnal about Simak's style in general and perhaps about this story in particular. (Indeed, the choice of the word "autumn" rather than the usual American "fall" is both surprising and appropriate.) I wish I could write like that.

There must have also been an autumnal factor in the choice of the Nebula and Hugo voters. Simak, born in 1904, was by some way the oldest ever recipient of either award at the time, born six years before the previous record-holder, Fritz Leiber, who had won both awards with "Catch That Zeppelin" five years earlier. (Simak's record stood for two decades until the recent [in 2006] surge of affection for Jack Williamson.) "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" was his second last published short story. He had already been made a Grand Master (the third, after Heinlein and Williamson). It also can't have done any harm that he was the Guest of Honour at the Worldcon where the Hugo was awarded.

But basically this is a good story – probably my favourite of the joint winners in the Short Story category after Connie Willis' "Even the Queen" – which doesn't seem to have had a lot of competition (I haven't read any of the other nominated stories, but none has had much reprint history, which is often a good indicator, and the Hugo voting was pretty one-sided), and which happened fortunately also to be by a popular author in his last years as a writer. Not perhaps a classic, but certainly a gem.

(Small note on the story's title: As originally published in Analog it appears to have been "Grotto of the Dancing Deer", and that title seems to have then been used by all the early collections. But The Best of the Nebulas firmly uses "The Grotto of the Dancing Deer", which appears also to be the case for the two Simak collections, The Marathon Photograph and Over the River and Through the Woods, and for the Jack Dann/Gardner Dozois anthology Immortals. However in its latest publication, The SFWA Grand Masters, Volume 1 ed. Frederik Pohl (1999), the definite article is once more absent. I assume that Simak himself preferred to have it in, but since it seems to have won Hugo and Nebula without, I'll continue referring to the story as "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" here.

There's not much to add to that, fifteen years on. Maybe just worth noting that there are only three characters in the story (the protagonis, the immortal, and the friend in Washington), and they are all white men.

"Grotto of the Dancing Deer" won both Hugo and Nebula for Short Story in 1981. No other story was on both final ballots. It was a year when there was unusually little crossover between the two sets of awards. Best Novel went to The Snow Queen (Hugo) and Timescape (Nebula), each of which I would have thoguht more likely to win the other award rather than the one they did win. Best Novella went to “Lost Dorsai”, by Gordon R. Dickson (Hugo) and “Unicorn Tapestry”, by Suzy McKee Charnas (Nebula). Best Novelette went to “The Cloak and the Staff”, also by Gordon R. Dickson (Hugo) and “The Ugly Chickens”, by Howard Waldrop (Nebula), this last also being about unexpected historical survivors alive in the present day. The Hugo for best Dramatic Presentation went to The Empire Strikes Back.

Next in this sequence is another shorter piece that was the only joint winner in its year, “The Saturn Game”, by Poul Anderson. My memory is that I did not like it as much.

This is a much reprinted story, most recently in the fourth volume of Simak's collected fiction, appropriately titled Grotto of the Dancing Deer and Other Stories. I also have it in a couple of other places, notably Bova's Best of the Nebulas collection.

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