City – Clifford Simak

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Gnome Press - 1952 - Frank Kelly Freas.

Gnome Press – 1952 – Frank Kelly Freas.

Clifford Simak’s fame has waned in the years after his death, and he never was one of the more well-known or popular SF authors to begin with. He broke onto the SF scene in 1944 with a series of semi-linked short stories and novellas, a future-history that took humanity out of its near-future cites, into star-studded galaxies, even beyond mere homo sapiens. He continued writing them through 1947, then published one final tale in 1951, at which point they were joined together and sold as the fixup novel City. (One more was added in 1971 in a volume honoring editor John W. Campbell, who had published all but one of the others in Astounding Science Fiction.) It remains something of a minor classic to this day, having made quite an impact in introducing Simak’s pastoral and mournful themes to science fiction.

City‘s frame story comes in the form of academic notes left by humanity’s successor, intelligent dogs uplifted by a man named Webster. Each of City‘s stories are part of the dogs’ oral history, myths passed down from generation to generation of a race called humans—whose existence is hotly contested. And each of the stories follows some humans of the Webster family, telling of the Websters’ roles across human history, both successes and failures. Readers who see SF as an attempt at prediction/prophecy will be disappointed with the direction Simak takes his future history; those of us more interested in the story’s insights or context have a wealth of material at hand.

Bruna (Dutch) - 1965 - cover by Dick Bruna.

Bruna (Dutch) – 1965 – cover by Dick Bruna.

“City” starts off strong with its pastoral, mournful atmosphere; in a predicted post-War future, where cheap atomic-powered aircraft sees decentralized population centers end the Cold War—why live in a city when you can live in the beautiful country and commute in a ten-minute plane ride? “City” imagines the decline of the city, with the Webster family one of the last inhabitants of a dying town; it’s followed up by “Huddling Place,” one of the most effective stories in the collection. “Huddling Place” deals with the fallout of this shift—the Webster of the next generation is a brilliant surgeon with an acute case of agoraphobia; despite the pastoral beginnings, Simak seems to be implying that the fiction flight to rural life had unintended consequences. (A few other humans become mutants with strange abilities, possibly also due to the societal shift.) The issue is compacted by a summons to save the live of one of his friends, a Martian philosopher, and the story is a decent psychological tale as Webster struggles to overcome his fears.

The science and logic behind Simak’s tales often require a leap of faith; I’m not sure I agree that technology would lead to shrinking urban centers, though it’s a nice utopian idea and makes for a fascinating story. More often than not I find them a success of pathos over logos—also, both a contrast to other SF of the era, and direct commentary on its point in time. “Desertion,” the other stand-out story in the book, sees a Jupiter survey mission open a gateway to transcendence, where humans remake themselves anew and flee into their posthuman future. It happens to be the first of these stories that Simak wrote (in 1943, though it was published fourth), a direct reaction to early reports from Europe about the Holocaust—actually per Simak, the entire book “was written in a revulsion against mass killing and as a protest against war.” There’s something poignant about “Desertion,” where an author so disillusioned with humanity’s propensity for violence reshapes this nature by way of fiction. For me, knowing the historical context amplifies the utopian fantasy themes.

Sphere - 1971 - Eddie Jones.

Sphere – 1971 – Eddie Jones.

The stories continue to develop and escalate along those lines; robotics and artificial intelligence are developed, and uplifted man’s best friend to sentience. By the time of the sixth story “Hobbies,” there is only one city left, Geneva, in which the few listless humans who won’t leave for Jovian transcendence struggle to find a purpose—facing an apocalypse of pastoral isolation. Humankind drifts off into the ether, taking the “long sleep” of cryogenics or becoming more-than-human on Jupiter, leaving Earth behind for its servitors—its creations, the uplifted dogs and the robots, left to guard and guide the world in humanity’s absence. And despite some wraithlike alien presence only the dogs can detect, the dogs develop their own utopia free of violence and want. Yet they too are fallible, with exactly the opposite flaws compared to the humans. Each of the stories is outlined by notes from doggish scholars, and the dogs’ role in the tales increases as humanity’s fades.

If commentary by way of sentient dogs sounds a bit ridiculous or cheesy, note that there is (or at least was) a firm debate on whether they added or subtracted from the novel. On the one hand, the stories stand on their own fairly well, while the doggish commentary often includes twee jokes, and ham-handedly ram home points that the stories were quite capable of making. On the other hand, the dogs’ analysis of each story brings out more of Simak’s points and themes; he uses them to isolate and outline the philosophical issues his stories raise—in between a few bad jokes (the one where dog scholars believe “woman” and “wife” to be interchangeable with “female” felt painfully antiquated). The idea of a sentient, uplifted dog doesn’t concern me, though to be honest I think the stories are more poignant without the introductions.

Ace #D-283 - 1958 - Ed Valigursky.

Ace #D-283 – 1958 – Ed Valigursky.

Because, you see, the stories aren’t about the dogs—despite what the cover may indicate. Even when all who remain are dogs, the dogs are used to display the absence of humans. City is about humanity, how it changes over time and reacts to the fictional situations Simak places it in. The book raises some fascinating questions about progress and intelligence and human nature. Simak was ahead of the curve in penning stories that were often more philosophical and cerebral, especially compared to neighboring stories in Astounding—Asimov’s robot mysteries, Kuttner’s robot puzzles, and an onslaught of Hard SF: can-do engineers overcoming obstacles and adventures in rigorous physics speculation.

51lPIHRTPwLCity demands that its readers accept its conceits—with the dogs, with the gaps in logic and science, and with some of its more inventive and wild themes (malevolent mutant psychics, for one). If you can accept that imaginative vision knowing it is not real but a dream, you’ll find some of the best SF stories from the 1940s. Its pages are full of potent and insightful ideas, the novel being a subtle-but-deep examination of multiple themes told using Simak’s soft touch and pastoral ambiance. It’s also deceptively good, and remains a more than worthy read—it remains a classic of science fiction, underrated and forgotten though it is.

I recieved an eARC from NetGalley and Open Road Media in exchange for this open and honest review. If you want a fascinating article in agreement, here’s Robert Silverberg’s reflection on Simak; if you’d like a more critical view, Jesse at Speculiction hammered most of the salient points.

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