City by Simak, Clifford, 1942

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Clifford Simak's masterpiece novel City is an episodic future history of mankind, told in the form of scholarly analysis of myth by our successor race to the planet Earth, intelligent dogs. Although it is in substantial part magical tale, it's mostly science fiction told from the perspective of a far-future intelligent canine who is analyzing fable-like stories of a predecessor race called "men," most of which seem to be of dubious origin, though the narrator thinks that there is some truth to them. Collectively they tell the story of the attempts and failures of the pivotal Webster family which over the years saw the way to human enlightenment, but failed in their quests to achieve it, leaving the human race to instead seek solace through happiness. I have a lot to say about this one; I have literally been thinking about it for decades, so I think I will start with some focused comments on the work in general, then follow with a breakdown of the individual stories, and wrap up with some general comments.

Clifford Simak has always struck me as a strange hybrid of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. The similarity to Bradbury should be obvious to anyone who has ever read both authors; they both show a great deal of care in describing the importance of man's relationship with nature and with each other, and both authors tint their language with strong Midwestern U.S. values and mores. As for Asimov, I see a lot of Simak's influence in his writing. I noted in my review of Asimov's Foundation stories that the author turned neat tricks with the conflict in his stories by setting up triangular or square shaped conundrums with more than two parties, and did a pretty good job resolving the conflict in favor of one party, usually with an alliance and sometimes physical conflict. I think that Asimov adopted this style after Simak perfected it; this book shows that trick in masterful form. Consider the way that Asimov depicted and resolved conflict, for example between Arkady Darell of the First Foundation, the First Speaker of the Second Foundation, and the Mule in the concluding work of the original Foundation stories with the way that Simak depicted and resolved the conflict between Fowler, Joe and Tyler Webster in Paradise. In fact, Simak used this motif several times in the telling of the tales of City by setting out the circumstances of a conflict in the opening pages of a story, then by inserting some other conflict that bore on the conclusion sometime afterward. The effect often was a little jarring and confusing at first, but eventually things evened out which made for some compelling storytelling.

Broken down this story is about a self-sustaining system of repetitive transformation, but its also a metaphor for the cycle of human life stretched out and duplicated over the course of the "lifetime" of humanity, and about what comes after we have faded from existence. When viewed in the context in which Simak presented his stories, the simple, unadorned country tale tinged with a stereotypical post-middle aged American Midwest acceptance of fate, it makes sense that the overarching metaphor has to do with the depiction of the life of the race as an extension of the life of the individual. Either way it presents a positive, holistic message about the reality of our existence, for the former is itself a metaphor for rebirth and life after death, while the latter is a repetition of the existence we are all accustomed to and cherish: The cycle of life, if you will. There is no one kernel to this story, as it is a fix-up told in eight parts (nine if you count the uncollected story from 1973 called Epilog, which I will review shortly). The gist of the collective tale is about the failures of the Webster family to help mankind move along to the next stage of its existence, and also the ways in which humanity moved on despite those failures.

CITY, 1944: The first story.

The city is an anachronism. It has outlived its usefulness. Hydroponics and the helicopter spelled its downfall. In the first instance the city was a tribal place, an area where the tribe banded together for mutual protection. In later years a wall was thrown around it for additional protection. Then the wall finally disappeared but the city lived on because of the conveniences which it offered trade and commerce. It continued into modern times because people were compelled to live close to their jobs and their jobs were in the city.

The first story in the tale is set during the human era, post WWII. Mankind had made significant advances in power generation, transportation, food cultivation and robotics, and had begun to realize that cities were no longer needed to survive. In fact, since WWII people had come to realize that cities were a liability that decreased our odds of survival. Most city folk had migrated to the country and the municipalities had taken possession of the vast, abandoned tracts of land through tax lien foreclosure and seizures. Most of the residents of the subject unnamed city in the Midwest U.S. were squatters, and the city government wanted to evict them. John J. Webster was a city elder, and along with the squatters seemed to be the only one who questioned the wisdom of the current government's plan to burn down as many abandoned structures as it could. While the tension between the city government and the squatters intensified, Webster accepted a job with the state-run Bureau of Human Adjustment, whose charter was not employment related, but instead psychologically prepared resisters for life outside of the city. The story ended with an unanticipated twist when Webster bought the tax liens up with money that he had suddenly inherited from a rich uncle who had made it big in atomic power, nad stopped the city from burning the abandoned houses down.

As an introduction to what is to come, City does not measure up at all. It is not exactly rough story-telling, but the punch of the rest of the stories is not here. Simak's voice however was well developed at this point in his career, and in that sense it's easy to tell that City belongs as part of the integrated whole that is City

HUDDLING PLACE, 1944: Set a few hundred years after City, Huddling Place told the story of a later Webster. Humanity had abandoned the cities for country life. Some, like the Websters, lived in palatial, endless mansions on land capable of supporting large extended families. Many people however had started to develop agoraphobia, and were reluctant to ever leave their homes. This condition was an indirect result of the re-conditioning that John Webster (from the previous story) mastered and spread to as many people as he could find.

In a world where cities were no more, a rich man in a manor house contemplated existence after he buried his father in a family crypt. After the funeral his son announced that he has been awarded an important contract on Mars. Shortly before the son left a Martian named Juwain stopped by the manor house and informed the man that he was on the cusp of discovering something big. The man suffered from agoraphobia and was called out of the house when Juwain was later struck sick. His condition prevented him from attending to Juwain, who died. The house robots, and one in particular called Jenkins, did not want to interfere with the wishes of Webster, even though his condition warranted it, and Juwain's work was of vital importance to mankind. The story ended without resolution, but itís still quite good.

The hook in this story is that Webster was unable to leave his home and save Juwain. With Juwain's death the possibility of him ever finishing his work on the "Juwainian philosophy" also died, and that loss figures pretty heavily into the successive stories. It is the first major failure of the Webster family, and one which successive generations would lament and try to fix pretty much until the era of the end of the race. This story is very subtle and on its own it is difficult to understand. I have forever been confused as to why any anthologist would reprint it out of context, yet it is one of the ten or twenty most reprinted short stories in the history of the genre, and was one of the SFWA's pre-Nebula Award masterpiece stories. On its own it is so subtle and so confusing because the agoraphobia makes no sense unless you understand what caused it, and Simak stayed away from any mention of the history at all. But in context this story depicts the first of the serial upheavals that will rock humanity and push it into its destiny, and in that regard it is a smashing success.

On another level Simak's purpose in writing the story can be a bit confusing this early in the sequence. Taken in microcosm it is not a stretch to say that the price of the technological path that mankind has chosen is that humans became incapable of meeting all of the challenges of their environment, mainly because of their socio-economic outlook and proclivities towards self-sufficiency. But like everything else the reader encounters in this book it is fruitless to look at these phenomena in a vacuum. There are as many good things that can be said about where humans are now as there are bad. Consider this: Is the end of the risk of nuclear war worth a social outlook that includes agoraphobia? From City:

For if this city had not outlived its usefulness, as did every other city - if the cities of the world had not been deserted, they would have been destroyed. There would have been a war, gentlemen, an atomic war. Have you forgotten the 1950's and the 60's? Have you forgotten waking up at night and listening for the bomb to come, knowing that you would not hear it when it came, knowing that you would never hear again if it did come? But the cities were deserted and industry was dispersed and there were no targets and there was no war.

It is best to view this all as a process, and not to focus on the goal at all. That is what Simak was doing, so it will be an exercise in futility if you do anything else.

CENSUS, 1944: This is the first story in which dogs appear. Richard Grant, a census taker, was out in the woods one day on a very specific mission from the world government when he met a talking dog named Nathaniel. Nathaniel was the product of a Webster; an intelligent canine made to be an equal and companion to mankind. Fortunately Nathaniel was able to pass his gifts, undiluted, down to successive generations, and intelligent dogs played a big role in what was to come. Nathaniel took Grant back to the Webster abode where Grant was introduced to Bruce Webster, a master geneticist, and Bruce's father who invented an interstellar drive which at that moment was powering a ship out of the solar system with Bruce's brother and a number of other colonists.

The Webster clan lives in shame over the failure of their patriarch to help Juwain. The world knows that Juwain was working on a philosophy that would allow men to understand each other on a psychic level, which as it turns out is akin somewhat to the way that Nathaniel experiences his world; the dogs, it seems, are psychic. Grant's purpose is to see if the rumors of mutated men out in the wilds are true, and find out if they were as hyper intelligent as was suspected.

"Queer bits of culture have been turning up," said Grant. "Stuff that has no precedent. Literary forms which bear the unmistakable imprint of fresh personalities. Music that has broken away from traditional expression. Art that is like nothing ever seen before. And most of it is anonymous or at least hidden under pseudonyms."

Grant has come to seek the mentally advanced mutants, and to ask them to work out the remainder of Juwain's philosophy. Unfortunately Grant ran into Joe, one of the mutants he was seeking, who was extremely antisocial and practically phobic of humans. Joe was a rugged outdoorsman who had come a long way psychically from the ordinary human stock of his ancestors. Joe was running experiments in the woods on ants. He had figured out how to keep them from hibernating in the winter and had increased their intelligence so that they could use tools. He was a weird backwoods genius demi-god whom Grant entrusted with Juwain's notes. Joe took the notes and told Grant that he would use them as he wanted, whenever he best saw fit.

Social pressure was the thing that had held the human race together through all the millennia - held the human race together as a unit just as hunger pressure had held the ants enslaved to a social pattern.

The need of one human being for the approval of his fellow humans, the need for a certain cult of fellowship - a psychological, almost physiological need for approval of one's thoughts and action. A force that kept men from going off at unsocial tangents, a force hat made for social security and human solidarity, for the working together of the human family.

Men died for that approval, sacrificed for that approval, lived lives that they loathed for that approval. For without it man was on his own, an outcast, an animal that had been driven from the pack.

It had led to terrible things, of course - to mob psychology, to racial persecution, to mass atrocities in the name of patriotism or religion. But likewise it had been the sizing that held the race together, the thing that from the very start had made human society possible.

And Joe didn't have any of it. Joe didn't give a damn. He didn't care what anyone thought of him. He didn't care whether anyone approved or not.

So Grant was left holding no cards: Left in the middle of the woods by a psychic, immortal, conniving universe-of-one, the only consolation Grant could think of was that even without the plans, mankind was on the same path as Joe. One day ordinary humans would be like Joe in every respect, and then, if not before, humans would learn the secrets that Juwain died trying to give to us. A small consolation considering what was about to happen.

DESERTION, 1944: Set in a small pressure-resistant dome on the small, hard center of Jupiter, Fowler and his dog Towser ran an odd program. Their job was to find out what the native Jupiterian life thought of the human presence on Jupiter, and to explore the extremely deadly Jupiterian landscape. Fowler had become despondent over his job because he had sent out several young men who never returned. The project had a device which could (magically, it seemed) change a human being into a creature called a "Loper," which was one of the Jupiterian forms of life that man thought was intelligent. How humans ever managed to transform themselves into a life form that they did not fully understand was never explained at all. This is the kind of break you must ignore in order to appreciate the novel. When it came time for Fowler to pick the next victim to be transformed and sent out, he caved to pressure from others on his team who had grown tired of following orders to send young men out to their deaths. Rather than send out the next willing soldier, Fowler volunteered himself and his dog to be the next two "volunteers" to be converted into Lopers.

After the conversion Towser became an intelligent creature, equal in smarts to Fowler. The two realized that they could communicate with each other mentally, and saw the Jupiterian landscape with new eyes. They were startled by the beauty of the world around them, and come very quickly to love their new existence; man and dog, faithful companions, had become equals intellectually, and because of their psychic powers they could know each other much more intimately than ever before. It became obvious that the reason that nobody had ever returned from being sent out as Lopers was because human existence paled in comparison.

Fowler took a step or two, back toward the dome, then stopped.

Back to the dome. Back to that aching, poison-laden body he had left. It hadn't seemed aching before, but now he knew that it was.

Back to the fuzzy brain. Back to the muddled thinking. Back to the flapping mouths that formed signals others understood. Back to eyes that now would be worse than no sight at all. Back to squalor, back to crawling, back to ignorance.

"Perhaps some day," he said, muttering to himself.

"We got a lot to do and a lot to see," said Towser. "We got a lot to learn. We'll find things - "

Yes, they could find things. Civilizations, perhaps. Civilizations that would make the civilization of Man seem puny by comparison. Beauty and, more important, an understanding of that beauty. And a comradeship no one had ever known before - that no man, no dog had ever known before.

This story summed up well what the entire sequence of tales was about; the fallibility of mankind, the hopelessness of our existence, the sublime beauty that awaits us after transformation, and the true potential of a relationship between mankind and a fully sentient companion race. That is exactly why this book is so big and so important; because it deals with these ultimate dreams of our species. But it really does not miss a beat in depicting the problems with realization of those goals either.

PARADISE, 1944: This story was a direct follow up to the last story. Fowler convinced himself (but not Towser) that he should be transformed back to a man so that he could spread the word about Loper existence. He allowed the transformation to occur, then travelled to Earth where he was confronted by Tyler Webster. Webster tried to stop Fowler from evangelizing because he feared that everyone would migrate to Jupiter and that humanity would die. Webster got Fowler to give him a few days before he started trying to convince everyone so that he could plot his next move, but before he thought of something to do, Joe the mutant called. The mutants had worked out the secrets of the Juwain philosophy long ago and were going to give them to humans. Juwain's philosophy would allow men to know each other's hearts and minds; not a form of telepathy, but rather a form of empathy so that people communicating would fully understand one another. A real gift, to be sure, but given the timing the plan obviously was for humanity to truly understand what it was Fowler was trying to say about Loper life. This was mutant way of clearing the Earth of troublesome humans once and for all, and really, humanity did not stand a chance.

HOBBIES, 1946: Most of mankind had emigrated to Jupiter and the Earth was almost empty. The intelligent dogs had started to spread from the Webster household and could be found all over the world. There were thousands of mutants too, but most of them lived solitary lives in towers in the wilderness. The few humans left on Earth, five thousand or so, had gone back to city life and lived in Geneva. There were robots too; Jenkins now served as the master of the Webster household and was trying to teach the dogs to become wise. There were also "wild robots" that had escaped from society and lived on their own in the wilderness. Jon Webster lived in Geneva and had become depressed over the state of human existence. For the humans there really was nothing left to do. All of their desires were taken care of by the Geneva robots. Most people had hobbies rather than vocations, and looked for busy-work to keep from becoming bored. Many humans had elected to go into suspended animation, hoping that when they woke up there would be some goal to work for. Jon has tried to teach his son Tom a trade, but the boy seemed interested only in camping in the woods and becoming a master archer.

Itís just another thing we've lost, another thing that the human race let loose. Come to think it over, we lost a lot of things. Family ties and business, work and purpose.

One day while going through his drawers Jon found some memorabilia that reminded him of the Webster homestead in the U.S. Nobody had been there for thousands of years, but he decided to go to see what state the property was in. After he arrived he was greeted by Jenkins who urged him to return and help him teach the dogs to become self sufficient. Realizing that mankind had nothing at all to offer the inheritors of the Earth, and in fact presented a risk to the ascension and survivability of the dogs, Jon returned to Geneva and triggered the atomic bomb blast doors, sealing in every last human being and assuring that mankind would never interfere (read: screw up) the dogs lives again. Unfortunately he closed the doors too early as Tom and a group of his friends were outside camping in the forest.

AESOP, 1947: Set approximately seventeen thousand years in the future, the dogs had succeeded in uplifting most of the other mammalian and avian species Earth. They maintained a Brotherhood of the Beasts, wherein all animals lived in peace, and none killed for any reason: They had overcome their animal natures. The descendents of Jon's son's hunting party had partially repopulated the planet and lived in peace with all the other animals. Animals called these creatures "websters," with a lower-case "w," instead of men. Jenkins survived and along with a type of helper robot which acted as hands and arms for the dogs, was helping the dogs to acquire wisdom. Because of the prohibition of killing for food the Earth had become very crowded, and resources were becoming strained again. The animal races were peaceful and non-violent, though some have recently started to slip back to animalistic outlooks, and in fact one wolf in particular had started hunting again. One of the websters, a lineal descendent of Jon, had conceived and manufactured a new toy: A bow and arrow. While playing with it one day he killed a bird accidentally.

Alarmed by the reinvention of a weapon, Jenkins contemplated his next course of action. At a loss to figure out what to do, Jenkins went to visit Joe the mutant in his tower in the swamp. Joe was not there, but his home still was. In the center of the tower was a room with many doors. Each door opened onto a different world or a different dimension. The mutants had figured out how to jump from one world to another without a space ship. Brimming over with possibility, Jenkins returned home. While walking the path back home to the Webster homestead Jenkins came across a "cubbly," or a ghost-like creature that had been accosting animals lately. Jenkins tried to communicate with the cubbly and learned that it was an extra-dimensional creature that had figured out how to visit our reality. Jenkins learned its secret of transportation, then killed it to stop its predations. Now certain of what to do, Jenkins gathered up the remaining humans and moved them to a different world where they would not interfere with the animals.

because it's not a laughing matter. 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 disease-laden dust that wipes out whole cities, so is the screaming rocket that arcs away and falls ten thousand miles away and kills a million people.

In this story Jenkins has assumed the role of the Websters, most of whom had finally died out. The best solution that occurred to him about the problem of mankind's negative influence upon the animals was to remove mankind for good, which is what he did. Aesop is a utopia tale, staged at the possible beginning of a dystopia: The question is whether mankind's influence will push the animal society over the edge and into chaos. The animals have finally shucked off the outlook of the humans, and were successfully maintaining a peaceful society, but with the population and resource pressures that were arising again, anything could have happened. Jenkins wanted to prevent the animals from relearning mankind's killing ways, and did it by preventing contact between them. There is no clearer evidence in any of these stories that there is something special about mankind that makes them create havoc and destruction by their mere existence. Thinks Jenkins:

But now I know I'm right. The bow and arrow is the proof of that. Once I thought that Man might have got started on the wrong road, that somewhere in the dim, dark savagery that was his cradle and his toddling place, he might have got off on the wrong foot, might have taken the wrong turning. But I see that I was wrong. Thereís one road and one road alone that Man may travel - the bow and arrow road.

I tried hard enough, Lord knows I really tried.

When we rounded up the stragglers and brought them home to Webster House, I took away their weapons, not only from their hands but from their minds. I re-edited the literature that could be re-edited and I burned the rest. I taught them to read again and sing again and think again. And the books had no trace of war or weapons, no trace of hate or history, for history is hate - no battles or heroics, no trumpets.

But it was wasted time, Jenkins said to himself. I know now that it was wasted time. For a man will invent a bow and arrow, no matter what you do.

THE SIMPLE WAY, 1951: In the final story of the original book the animals have noticed that the ants have built a city-sized structure around the Webster Homestead. Jenkins returned from the alternate Earth after the few humans he took there died out, and was surprised to learn that the ants had been uplifted, but then he remembered that Joe had done so thousands of years ago. What Jenkins did not know was that Joe kicked over the anthill at the end of his conversation with Grant (see Census above) not out of spite, but to give the uplifted ants the proper stimuli to push them to make changes in they way that they lived; to adopt a defensive outlook towards the world. Joe knew exactly what he was doing when he kicked it over, and foresaw this moment. As Jenkins was psychic he listened to the ant's hive mind, and was frightened by what he heard. Having no experience with ants, and knowing that the humans did, Jenkins went to Geneva and woke Jon to ask him for help. Jon told Jenkins that the best strategy was to use slow poison so that a few ants would poison the entire ant hill. Shocked at the human way of solving the problem, Jenkins put Jon back into cold sleep, but refused to tell Homer, the animal's newest king, what the humans would have done.

The Simple Way was the final story in the original book City, though one story called Epilog was released posthumously. It deals with Jenkins interaction with the remnants of the race of ants, after they and the dogs both have moved on in the same way that the men did. I will review that story shortly.

There is a lot more to say about City. Not so much about death as moving on, Simak was incredibly even handed in his depiction of the failures of mankind and the Webster family in general. Most of the things that the Websters tried to do could have been handled better. Never though does Simak adopt a blaming tone, and all of the reactions of the characters were supportive. I suppose that is another typical Midwestern value, so chalk it up to that if you wish, but as a general observation I note that it made this book a joy to read.

I suppose that if you are a pessimistic person you may argue that the accumulated Webster failures drove mankind to choose the lives of Lopers, or the Big Sleep of hibernation. I think that is wrong though. True, the Websters failed to save Juwain from death and thus humanity was denied the Juwanian philosophy. And they failed to stop the migrations to Jupiter, they failed to make peace with the mutants and they failed to make dogs the true companion that they could have become. But they did give us the dogs in the first place; our race's children, and everything else that they tried, even if the specific goal went unrealized, opened up other doors along the way. Through their efforts we matured, spanned offspring life, worked for some changes to make the world a better place, then went willingly into the "darkness" before the next phase of life.

This is one of the best books in all of SF. It is undeniably charming, full of sympathetic characters with a plethora of different viewpoints, all of whom are treated compassionately by the other characters and the author. The dilemmas are heart-felt, the prose is undated, the world is interesting, and the story has a lightly mythological feel that is truly epic in scope. Although it is occasionally choppy in prose and sometimes meandering or idiosyncratic, few words are wasted and Simak manages to remain on point and pretty tightly focused the entire way through. Although it is really not a "forgotten classic of SF," I personally find the lack of attention it gets these days to be practically criminal. As you read it, and you should, you will likely find yourself asking "is this good, or is this bad," about virtually everything that happens. The book is focused enough that in the end you will not be left with any more questions then you started with, though it certainly will leave you thinking for days or weeks.

Saying what the best part of the book is quite difficult. The race of the uplifted dogs was very interesting. Given the gifts of speech and reason, but not thumbs or the ability to walk upright, they worshiped men as Gods, yet still doubted everything in the myths about us. As a race of quadrupeds they lacked even the inclination to look up and see Jupiter and thus doubted that such a world, where the majority of humans continued to live, even existed. The chapter epigraphs came from the philosophical works of eminent dog scholars with names such as "Bounce" and "Rover." It is obvious that what they lacked in scientific and logical methods they more than made up for in heart, and that they were on a path to maturity that humans were probably incapable of even finding, much less taking. It is about everything that I imagine a dog can become.

So, what was the big difference? Why were men not able to achieve the state of peace and hopefulness that the animals were able to achieve? It had to do with psi-powers. Mankind ultimately did learn the Juwainian system, after the mutants forced it on us as a tool to leverage humans off of the Earth for good. But thereafter with no suitably sized human population it ceased to matter at all, and was forgotten. Basically it gave us the gifts that the dogs had naturally: A second-sight kind of power.

And there were the psychological factors. The psychological factor of tradition which bore like a weight upon the minds of the men who had been left behind. The psychological factor of Juwainism which forced men to be honest with themselves and others, which forced men to perceive at last the hopelessness of the things they sought to do. Juwainism left no room for false courage. And false, foolhardy courage that didn't know what it was going up against was the one thing the five thousand (humans in Geneva) needed most.

Juwainism was an attempt to get human beings to confront the hopelessness of the things that mankind desired, which was why mankind's efforts ended when the mutants sprung the answers onto us so suddenly. In this sense going to Jupiter was a reasonable consequence of our growth as a species, even if it was a knee-jerk reaction to the sudden realization that everything we as individuals wanted was just a pipe dream.

I also appreciated Simak's treatment of the city as an entity. In other stories it has been a crypt or a charnel house, and it has been a bastion of culture and civilization and learning, and it has been an edifice to our difficult natures and our hubris. Here the city, one of the most important advances in our civilization, possibly second in importance only to agricuture, becomes obscelescent and a liablity. It is truly a unique treatment of one of the most important aspects of humanity.

Finally, I have wondered in the past what Simak's true motivation for writing this work was. Many commentators have offered that Simak's point of inspiration, or perhaps desperation, were the atrocities committed during WWII. Just a light reading of the first tale will provide support for that notion. That story's treatment of the issues that Simak would wind up developing across the entire series was rudimentary at best though, and the story does get much, much better. What I have often wondered is whether this book was an effort on Simak's part to replace something beautiful that was lost in that war with something that is beautiful and new. Or, possibly Simak was wagging his finger at his fellow man: They certainly deserved it after that war was done. Still though, I find this work to be so moving that maybe the former idea is not so much bunk as it seems.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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