The house stood on the hilltop, a huddled structure that had taken root and crouched close against the earth. So old that it was the color of the things around it, of grass and flowers and trees, of sky and wind and weather. A house built by men who loved it and the surrounding acres even as the dogs now loved them. Built and lived in and died in by a legendary family that had left a meteoric trail across centuries of time. Men who lent their shadows to the stories that were told around the blazing fireplace of stormy nights when the wind sucked along the eaves.
- Title: City
- Author: Clifford D. Simak
- Genre: Science Fiction
- Year: 1952 (1980)
City has the well-deserved reputation of a classic, Clifford D. Simak’s beautifully-written future history rivals anything produced in science fiction’s Golden Age in sheer scope and originality of vision. You won’t see a book like this today, a third of the size of a modern fat fantasy yet somehow managing to create a sense of vastness as the story unfolds over tens of thousands of years — proof that there is more than one way to craft an epic. City is an episodic novel built from a series of linked stories originally published separately in the forties (though the final story, ‘Epilog,’ was not written until the seventies and the book did not achieve its present shape until 1980), and each story begins with a connecting explanatory note examining the history and obscure terminology in the tale, written by a learned Dog.
That’s right, a Dog. Through hints and context clues the reader soon realizes these nine tales of a rapidly changing human society survive only as puzzling folk myths amongst a civilization that has cause to wonder if mankind ever really existed at all, or if that species is as fictional as as the other strange and un-Doggish concepts present in the stories, such as spaceflight, warfare, and cities. In fact the first story in City, from which the whole cycle takes its name, is the most problematical for the Dogs, so full of strange concepts to be almost meaningless.
To us, of course, it is just the opposite — the further into the future the stories in City stretch, the genuinely stranger they become, until they begin to resemble myths of the distant past, in fact. The first story takes place in the shell of a city in the wake of a mass migration of humanity to the countryside — a perfect storm of cheap atomic energy, private air transport, and a hydroponics revolution have dramatically altered the social fabric of mankind. Cities have become an anachronism, anyone of average means can now own a virtual mansion in the middle of a large acreage and trust to perfect communication and the family helicopter to bridge the distance to work and recreation. Written in 1946, the short story City anticipates the world of 1990 as a sort of post-singularity future — an atomic singularity as envisioned by the World War II generation.
Though this is the last time a city has any importance to the plot of the book (with a very minor exception), the first story establishes the themes of the cycle. Firstly, we are introduced to the Webster family, members of which are central to many of the stories in the book (and are arguably the most important humans ever to live — as it was a Webster that first altered Dogs and taught them speech and culture), secondly the theme of decay and decline takes center stage and never really lets go. Change is palpable in City, and always there’s a feeling like a great winding-down of days, a slow approaching doom, and the flight of man from the cities and the death of his communal instincts is essentially the first step on a long road to annihilation. But always it is social change that is the motive force; from the first story onward technology is an important tool but never the decisive force, indeed the most important of all technologies in the book is itself a kind of philosophy, a thing that alters the way humanity understands itself. This is a future history that puts the long sweep of societal change in the driver’s seat.
With each generation of Websters we are introduced to more and greater changes — and to an unexpected apocalypse of ingenious devising. Eventually, Man is reduced in importance, his successors the Dogs, the Robots, and the Mutants each pursue their own ideas of civilization. Only one figure really recalls the enormous scope of history that runs through these stories, and that is Jenkins, a robot servant of the Websters who becomes a mentor to the Dogs and teaches and instructs them. Once free completely of the influence of man, the Dogs develop their own perceptions and philosophies and create a pacifistic animal paradise, in which the animals of the earth live in harmony. When Man is reintroduced into this idyll, so too comes murder. When Jenkins is confronted with the reinvention of the bow and arrow, he muses on the nature of mankind:
It’s just a bow and arrow, but it’s not a laughing matter. It might have been at one time, but history takes the laugh out of many things. If the arrow is a joke, so is the atom bomb, so is the sweep of disease-laden dust that wipes out whole cities, so is the screaming rocket that arcs and falls ten thousand miles away and kills a million people.
Jenkins arrives at a solution, and in the end the tiny remnant of mankind have come full circle, and it is they that are the children in need of a father, rather than the Dogs. The later stories in City most contrast the world of Man and the world of the Dogs, but Simak does not necessarily take the easy road of condemnation. Mankind is violent, inherently dangerous, but it is shown that there are things he can do to survive that neither Dog nor Robot can accomplish, even in his most primitive state. What Jenkins ponders, and Simak poses, is whether or not such powers are worth the price they inevitably demand in payment. Jenkins’ answer is a firm ‘no.’
City is a haunting book, a far vision of a strange future that packs more sense of wonder than any space opera. It’s also a thoughtful book, and perhaps a pessimistic one, but one that looks at the future sweep of society in such a compellingly original way that it’s impossible to forget. Like Asimov’s Foundation, Simak plays with the building blocks of history to create a chain of interlocking narratives, each building logically from the last. But Simak’s sensibilities are perhaps closer to Le Guin’s, and his prose more akin to Bradbury’s, than to any of his contemporaries writing on the hard SF end of the spectrum. Regardless of just how you slice it, City is an indispensable classic of the genre that, though written at a time when many loudly prophesied apocalypse in a rain of atom bombs, chose to eschew the bang and embrace the whimper.