Classic review: City by Clifford Simak

Even after seventy years, City is a divisive work.  Some readers may love it, while others won’t care about it too much.  I not only fall into the first category, but I unashamedly admit that I look down at people who don’t like City, or more accurately, don’t comprehend it enough to like it.  The book may be difficult to understand.  The modern version contains nine largely disconnected stories, spanning some twelve thousand years, is heavy on exposition and focuses on human and animal evolution.  It is, in essence, a more digestible younger brother of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men.  It is also very gentle, introspective and a pleasure to read.  Its ideas and concepts not only aged well, but they still serve as inspiration for modern science fiction.  This book is genuinely a classic.

The narrators of the first eight stories are dogs.  They tell them as legends of the past, when humans still roamed Earth.  In the book version, each story is prefaced by a short literary analysis by leading dog thinkers, speculating about the origin and meaning of the stories.  Even though they are spread over millennia, the stories form a single narrative.

The devolution of human society began when energy became ubiquitous and resource scarcity was resolved.  Thanks to cheap energy, people started moving out of cities, onto cheap land, from where they first commuted and later telecommuted to work.  Cities became a thing of the past: rotting ruins, inhabited by a handful of squatters who were displaced from their farms, and even fewer city bureaucrats who lived in denial that they were still in charge of something.  One member of a city council recognized the reality, described it in a council session, quit his position and left for his new estate.  He was the first significant member of the family of Websters, whom the stories then follow.

One of his descendants acquired a robot butler, Jenkins, who became the only continuous protagonist over all the thousands of years.  As time progressed, another Webster identified a problem with the social collapse: agoraphobia.  People were increasingly less likely to travel outside their estates.  As time progressed, another Webster genetically engineered dogs to give them speech and improve their eyesight.  Meanwhile, a few real social outcasts performed other experiments.  They were known as the mutants, but they were simply highly gifted individuals who were finally free of social constraints to pursue their passion.  One of them, for example, uplifted ants to form a civilization, until he got bored with them and trampled their nest.

By the time a Webster became the chairman of the world council, researchers on Jupiter tried to engineer a being capable to survive on the surface of the planet.  They converted human volunteers into such beings and let them loose in the hostile environment.  Unfortunately, it appeared that all the subjects shortly died, until the director of the project undertook the experiment on himself and found out that his new body gave him physical and mental superpowers.  Unlike the others, he retained enough self-control that he convinced himself to return into his human form, to inform the word about the wondrous results.

Thus became the next phase of human devolution.  The vast majority of people opted to undergo the transformation and live in what they perceived a paradise on Jupiter.  The few who remained congregated in the last city on Earth, Geneva.  Here, some decided to be put into stasis for a few hundred years at a time, to avoid boredom.  Another Webster decided to pay one last visit to his estate and meet with Jenkins who was still there, taking care of the dogs.  He realized that the dogs have become intelligent and started building their own civilization.  In order to prevent human meddling with the dogs, he sealed Geneva and everybody inside, and got into indefinite stasis.

Still, a few people remained outside.  They interacted with the dogs, who not only formed a civilization, but with the help of robots that served as their hands, started uplifting other animals.  The dogs managed to establish a utopian society where killing was unthinkable, and everyone switched to a vegetarian diet.  Humans slowly faded away, and the other intelligent species, robots without their masters, started constructing spaceships to move elsewhere.  However, the dog society became threatened.  Ants from the mutant’s experiment survived and evolved.  They started converting the entire planet into a single giant anthill, using modern construction methods and kidnapping robots via nanobots with a virus payload.  Dogs, being crowded out, started abandoning Earth for parallel universes they discovered.  Eventually, the only intelligent being remaining on Earth, was Jenkins, who maintained a defensive perimeter around the Webster old home.

The ninth story was written decades after the book was first published.  Simak stated that he was asked to wrap up any lose ends, and he did so with Jenkins exploring the ants’ megastructure.  He finds it abandoned, full of anthills, each of which features a statue of a human foot kicking over an anthill, in memory of the mutant Joe doing just that and kickstarting the ants’ evolution.  As the structure crumbles, Jenkins manages to escape just in time and witnesses a spaceship arriving.  A couple of robots emerge, invite him to join them, and Jenkins also leaves Earth.

In a sense, this is a very bleak book.  Simak’s vision of a post-scarcity society is that it would fall apart.  People would turn antisocial and eventually decadent, with nothing driving them to advance.  As a result, they uplift the dogs, but these also strive for peace and the end of scarcity, so the cycle will repeat over and over again.  However, I don’t think Simak wanted to sound pessimistic.  Instead, he was simply brooding over human nature.  The book is exceedingly introspective, and there are long passages where the plot does not move at all.  In fact, the short stories are static vignettes, full of exposition, which somewhat describes the changes that had happened during the time between stories.  I found this narrative structure very refreshing.  Sure, there are other books that consist of separate short stories, but here the stories seamlessly create a fairly linear narrative, without actually showing any action.

This introspection is most evident in the chapter “Desertion”, where humans don alien bodies to live on Jupiter.  Simak explores what people who have all material comfort would still want, and when he comes up with the solution, thinks of how such a discovery would affect the rest of humanity.  But even though Simak explores social changes better than nearly anyone else, the books brooding style just colors the feelings I’ve had when reading it.  In my opinion, the true genius lies in its predictions and legacy.  Let me list a few examples.

The most obvious one is when ants enslave free robots to build their megastructure.  They do so by deploying flea-like robots, which find a way inside the target robot’s body, where it deploys a viral payload that rewires the robot’s brain.  While in real world the allied forces still tried to hide the existence of a radar from the Germans, Simak already predicted and fairly accurately described nanobots and viral attacks against computers.  Please excuse my simplistic language, but this just blew my mind.  Other technologies Simak predicted included genetic engineering, body modification and stasis akin to hypersleep.

That’s not all, though.  Simak explored the theory of simultaneity, which was eventually formulated decades later.  According to this theory, we live in a universe with all events occur at the same time.  Progression of time is an illusion, and each moment branches off to a new universe.  This leads to parallel world theories, and the author made that leap as well.  This is how the dogs found empty universes into which they were able to expand.

The story “Desertion”, which I already mentioned, served as a direct or indirect inspiration to many works, from the classic Call me Joe by Poul Anderson (which served as an inspiration for James Cameron’s movie Avatar), to the 2018 movie Titan.  Genetically modifying dogs to human level inspired many stories of uplift.  While the idea of endowing animals with human intelligence goes all the way back to H. G. Wells, Simak’s City was the first to uplift an entire species, letting them create their own civilization.  The entire theory that the lack of resource scarcity would lead to slow dispersal of mankind across the globe and its slow disappearance is later reflected in Asimov’s The Naked Sun and later in Foundation, where he actually uses resource scarcity as a driving force for the Foundation’s growth.

Unfortunately, this book also has a few flaws.  The chapter structure allows for some glaring omissions, with people or concepts disappearing without a trace.  Perhaps the worst example of this is the Martian civilization.  In “Huddling Place”, one of the Websters is tasked to save the life of a Martian.  The Martian civilization is fairly well described, Webster has spent years on Mars, and now his son was heading there as well.  However, even though a few of the subsequent stories still mention the Martian from this chapter, the Martian civilization is completely ignored.  Simak doesn’t spare a thought on how it would be affected when humans disappear, or why more humans wouldn’t live on Mars, rather than isolate in Geneva.  Nobody from Mars ever visits the dogs, either.

I found this to be a major problem with the book, primarily because it contrasts so much with the author’s otherwise careful and thoughtful worldbuilding and prose.  On the other hand, it highlights the qualities of the book.  City is truly superb.  The prose is wonderful, the mood was never copied by another author, and the worldbuilding, futuristic predictions and cultural impact the book are among the best in science fiction.  I highly recommend this classic to all reader, especially those who are already fans of the genres and want to explore its foundations.

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