Monday, September 4, 2017
City by Clifford D. Simak
An epic saga of men, dogs, and robots
City is likely the best-known and most highly regarded work by science fiction author Clifford D. Simak (though his novel Way Station may also be a contender). Published in 1952, City is composed of eight short stories previously published in sci-fi magazines from 1944 to 1951. For the novel, Simak added additional material to tie the tales together, including brief introductions to each story written by an editor in some far-distant future. In 1973, Simak also added an epilog. Though the commentary-from-the-future device has been used in previous science fiction novels, here Simak adds his own unique twist to the idea: in City, the editor is a dog.
The philosophical question underlying City is what would happen if mankind had the benefit of communicating with another intelligent species? How would this help or hinder our development? Man first attempts to form a beneficial partnership with Martians, but for reasons better left unsaid here, that proves unsuccessful. Then, a scientist named Bruce Webster decides to enhance the communication abilities of dogs so they can more intelligently interact with humans. This move has unseen ramifications that play out for tens of thousands of years into the future. City chronicles this future history of life on Earth, with recurring appearances by members of the Webster family, their robot Jenkins, and the descendants of those first experimental dogs.
At first it seems the talking, literate canines merely serve the purpose of comic relief, but as you become more involved with the stories, the dogs become more integral to the narrative, and it becomes clear that they serve a higher function. The dogs are presented in contrast to mankind, to highlight the qualities inherent or lacking in human nature. This creates a disturbing disjunction between the cute humor that arises from talking animals and the serious points Simak makes about the future of the human race. Jenkins, the robot, presents a similar quandary, as he at times is depicted as possessing perhaps more humanity than the humans he serves.
I had previously encountered two of these stories, “City” and “Census,” in The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. I thought these stories were great on their own, but here in City they become part of something grander and much more remarkable—an epic, sweeping speculative vision of the ultimate fate of mankind and the planet we live on. Though the parts may originally have been published separately, Simak clearly conceived them as one cohesive whole. Each piece is intricately linked to those that precede and follow it. The one aspect of the book that I didn’t care for all that much is the dog editor’s brief introductions to each chapter. They don’t do much to enhance the narrative, and they get annoyingly repetitive as the fictional commentator repeatedly wonders whether men ever existed, or if they are merely a myth. The eight stories and epilogue alone would have worked just fine without these interludes. I would argue that the canine editing hurts the narrative more than it helps.
This may be the book that made Simak famous, but if you’ve never read his writing before, City is a challenging work to start with. Be prepared for weirdness, and open your mind to Simak’s grand plan. This epic saga of the intertwining destinies of men, dogs, mutants, robots, extraterrestrials, and others may come across as exceedingly bizarre at first, yet Simak never betrays the unique logic of his fictional universe. What’s more, as is often the case with his work, Simak endows this sci-fi novel with an underlying humanity that elevates it into the realm of great literature.
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