City by Clifford D. Simak
Re-published by Gollancz, June 2011. Review copy received.
Originally published 1952, after a fix up from stories 1944-1951.
New introduction by Gwyneth Jones.
Review by Mark Yon
Clifford/Cliff Simak is an author I first came to when I was a teenager in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. At first I wasn’t sure – it wasn’t spaceships and action, but instead a much more subtle and gentle SF. (Mark Charan Newton has since referred to it as ‘rural SF’, which sorta works.) Instead of Star Wars bang-whizz action, we have pastoral introspection, Waltons-style homily and self-depreciating humour.
And in City in particular we have robots, ants and dogs.
To my younger self, City was a bit of a puzzle on first reading. So I read it again. And have a few times since. These days, thirty-odd years on, City is one of my Simak favourites: more than that, it is one of my all-time favourites. And yet I still really don’t know why, but maybe this review will shed some light on that.
‘These are the stories that the Dogs tell when the fires burn high and the wind is from the north. Then each family circle gathers at the hearthstone and the pups sit silently and listen and when the story’s done they ask many questions:
“What is Man?” they’ll ask.
Or perhaps: “What is a city?”
Or: “What is a war?” ‘ (Page 1.)
Simply, it is a set of eight interconnected stories (or in some cases, nine, with an extra tale, Epilog, written in 1973 and added in the 1980’s. Here it is not included, sadly).
The First Tale sets up the other stories by telling of Gramp Stevens, one of the few people left behind in the decaying cities of America. Gramp decides to stay but watches as his neighbours, faced with relatively unlimited space and easy to gain foodstuffs, leave the cities and move to live in small rural enclaves, self-sufficiently producing what they need for their communities.
The Second Tale, also called The Huddling Place, tells of the psychological effects of this change, where people, personified by the Webster Family, and comfortable in their own surroundings, become increasingly isolated and agoraphobic. Jerome A. Webster is the only human able to operate on Martian philosopher Juwain, his close acquaintance. The only problem is that to save his friend has to leave his house and travel to Mars.
The third tale, Census, tells of what happens to the Websters in the next generation, with the arrival to their home of Richard Grant, an enumerator. We are introduced to dogs that can talk and also to Joe, a mutant, one of many, whose lifespan lasts for hundreds of years and seems to be watching and supporting human evolution.
From the Third Tale onwards we have the arrival and increasing importance of the dogs and follow the lives of the human descendants of the Webster family, watched over by near-immortal mutants, and their ever-faithful robots (especially Jenkins, the robot butler) and dogs. Descended from the Webster family’s pet hound, the tales of City are told by dogs as the stories are passed down from generation to generation, holding the torch long after their original purpose has gone. For their future generations they tell folktales of what happened to the humans, and why the dogs and robots still continue to do what they do.
The Fourth and Fifth Tales change the focus from Earth by looking at the humans who have left the Earth. The Fourth tale begins on Jupiter, where in order to survive the planet’s extreme conditions, humans have to be reengineered to survive. There is a problem in that those adapted (known as ‘Lopers’) who do so, have not returned to the base. Kent Fowler and his faithful dog Towser are the next to investigate, whose actions lead to repercussions for the human race. We return to Earth for the conclusion of this in the Fifth Tale.
By the Sixth Tale Jon Webster tells of how the Earth has become mechanised, with robots producing all that is required by humans, with no need to work, shop, or farm, no government and no religion. It is clear that things are not good in this idyll however, and many of the few residents who remain take ‘The Sleep’, suspended animation until times are better. Jon Webster spends twenty years writing a book about the city of Geneva, the last city on Earth, but by doing so tells of Earth’s decline of civilisation until he makes a life-changing decision.
Tale Seven, Aesop, tells of robot Jenkins, now seven thousand years old and his mentoring of the dogs and humans to ensure their survival in the future. We also have the rediscovery of a wonderful invention which explains some things and creates future opportunities.
By Tale Eight the dogs and robots are ultimately left as guardians by the humans on Earth, though long-since forgotten, with the planet seemingly being taken over by the ants.
This is a grand scale of a tale, but not without its weaknesses. Frankly, from the perspective of 2011, it is slowly paced and quite dated in its style. We have servant butlers, loyal to a system of servitude. It is also quite noticeable that this is clearly a man’s world, with women significantly absent from the majority of the tales.
Stylistically too there are issues. There’s a bit of repetition as the reader is reminded of what happened in the previous tales: useful when the stories are told months apart, less necessary when it is a matter of a few pages. The dialogue at times is quite stilted for the 21st century.
However, it is also sad, melancholy, wistful and one of those series of collective tales that just keeps resurfacing in the reader’s memory. If you can live with the dated aspects, there’s a lot to enjoy here.
For the record, I like dogs. It would be easy to say that my love of the book is simply because of that, that it shows Man(kind) living in harmony with his faithful companion. Yet it is more than that. City shows Simak’s deceptively difficult authorial trick of telling fireside tales in a low-key, comfortable way, that stay with you long after you’ve read them. And are worth rereading: again. There are other Simak tales that are as good, if not better, yet this one still remains in my memory. He is an underrated writer who is worthy of reassessment. And to my mind, City still resonates as a worthy read.
Mark Yon, June 2011.