City – Clifford D Simak (1952)
‘It started in 1990…
Cheap atomic power was a reality.
Hydroponic farming ensured enough to eat.
So everywhere men left the cities, abandoning the ancient huddling places of the human race.
At last, man was free.
And left behind – in the dead and empty cities – man’s memories remained as symbols of the childhood of the race. The Golden Age had come at last after generations of war and toil.
And yet…IT WAS ALSO THE PRELUDE TO THE DAY WHEN MAN WOULD BE SUCCEEDED BY ANOTHER RACE’
Blurb from the 1965 Four Square edition
City is a fix-up novel culled from the pages of Astounding and comprising of eight related stories and additional linking text.
The first story, ‘City’, is a tale of men, a tale which is being analysed in the linking text by a group of sentient dogs who believe the tales told by Dogs of the race of Men to be merely fables and Man himself to be a myth.
Simak’s naïve and somewhat surreal view of the future is based very much on his love for small-town America and its communities and values, and is often tinged with nostalgia for a way of life which has passed. Simak often depicts an Earth which has been abandoned by man, where Nature has been allowed to grow back over the scars which Man created.
The City of the title story is represented by one of its residential areas, a place of suburban houses and lawns which, like the rest of the City, is almost abandoned. Centralised automated farming technology has made vast tracts of land free for habitation and this, combined with the bizarre concept of an atomic plane for every home has lured people away to private estates in the country.
The worthy officials of the City Council however, refuse to accept that their City is dead and are in the process of evicting the last remaining residents (who have been labelled criminals and vagrants) who are squatting in the empty houses, unwilling to abandon the community where they spent their lives.
It’s a strange and unreal tale reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, and is full of poetry and atmosphere.
‘Huddling Place’ take us further into the future, to where descendant of one of the City’s characters has become an agoraphobic recluse in his country house, where he lives with his robot butler Jenkins. Having abandoned the cities, humanity is now abandoning the Earth, either for Mars or the interiors of the their homes from where they can travel ‘virtually’ via a holographic projection network. His agoraphobia prevents him from flying to Mars to save Juwain, the ancient Martian philosopher who was on the verge of producing a practical philosophy for humanity which would occasion the transformation of the race.
‘Census’ takes us forward in time again to the same house where the Webster grandson has surgically (rather than genetically) altering dogs enabling them to speak. Mankind is now heading for the stars while isolated groups of mutated humans live quietly in the wilderness.
Simak is again enjoining a return to a mere pastoral existence in which technology is only employed as a means to that end.
Technological developments here have allowed those with pioneering spirit to leave, those who were restricted (physically and spiritually) by existence within the city have been freed, allowing others the space to breathe within and alongside Nature.
In this section, Richard Grant, seeking the final clue to complete Juwain’s philosophy for humanity, meets the mutant Joe, a man of extended longevity, high intelligence and yet exhibiting no empathy with his fellow sapients, but rather a shocking amorality.
And so it goes on… Humanity, partly as a result of Joe unleashing the Juwain philosophy across the earth, is transformed, and is converted into a near-immortal form of life of high intelligence which can live on or in the planet Jupiter, abandoning the Earth to a handful of humans, the Dogs, the mutants and the robots.
Simak was never a writer for technical details. Jupiter is described as having a surface, and the Jovian ‘conversion process’ is hastily drawn with little explanation as to the nature of the process, something which no doubt would be explained as ‘genetic engineering’ today.
James Blish used a similar premise in his collection of related tales ‘The Seedling Stars’ while Frederik Pohl’s ‘Man Plus’ employs a combination of surgical and mechanical techniques to convert a man into a creature capable of living unaided on the surface of Mars.
‘City’ is a novel which is ultimately flawed by internal confusion of identity. The linking text implies that the stories are fables from ancient Dog History, and their content supports this, but the style seems at odds with the somewhat fairytale nature of the later stories in which talking bears, wolves, racoons and squirrels bring a rather schmaltzy Disney-esque sentimentality to the narrative.
Having said that, Simak attempts to explore the issue of what it means to be human. The humans, en-masse, chose the path of enlightenment offered by the conversion to Jovian forms, a path rejected by the Webster family (whose genealogy links all these stories) and a handful of others.
The legacy of humanity lies with the robots who are dedicated to developing the race of Dogs, unpolluted by human values and failings. Man is seen to be a creature willing to kill for what he wants, as when one of the Websters considers killing the Jovian ‘prototype’ Fowler in order to prevent the human race’s mass exodus to Jupiter, or John Webster’s solution to the problem of Joe the mutant’s experimental ants (who eventually threaten the entire planet) which is to poison them.
This may be reading far too much into what is at the end of the day a rather patchwork construction which, though poetic and inventive, fails to provide a satisfactory denouement. Flawed though it may be however, it is still a strange masterpiece that holds its own against the mainstream SF novels of the time.