Saturday, April 7, 2012

Review - City by Clifford D. Simak

Short review: The city outlives its usefulness, and so does mankind.

After the cities
Man fades and dogs learn to talk
The ants rise to rule

Full review: Winner of the 1953 International Fantasy Award, City is a collection of interconnected short stories describing the decline of the human city, and the subsequent decline of the human race and the rise of dogs and then ants as our replacement as masters of the Earth. In City, Simak's story deals with the intimate relationship between human civilization and cities, and the intimate relationship between human civilization and humanity itself. Using a set of framing pieces between each vignette that style the various installments of the story as fragmentary pieces of "doggish" history, the book skips through several millennia of the decline of man, starting with tales familiar to the reader but wholly alien to the dog historians "commenting" on the stories and moving to accounts progressively weirder to the human reader but more familiar to the fictional dog historians.

One of the most interesting points of the book is that the titular human settlement - the City - starts the book on its deathbed and effectively abolished by the end of the first story. And once the city is eliminated, human civilization begins to collapse - after all, the root of the word "civilization" is the same word that gave us the word "city". Simak posits that improved transportation technology would allow people to leave the cities behind and retreat to large family estates in the country, essentially adopting the lifestyle of the denizens of Edwardian manor houses with robots replacing house servants. In the excitement of the first story with police sweeps to drive out squatters and organized militias rolling cannons out of mothballs to oppose them, the loss of the unifying force in humanity's existence is overlooked. In the next few stories it becomes apparent that isolated in their private estates and waited upon hand and foot by robot servants, humanity has begun to fall apart.

The collapse of human civilization is subtle at first. With the story being told through the eyes of successive generations of the Webster family and their faithful robot butler Jenkins, we see mankind become isolated and fearful, some hiding in their familiar surroundings and eschewing travel even to save the life of their best friends. In an interesting contrast with Asimov's musings in his Robot Mysteries like The Caves of Steel in which Isaac had speculated that humanity might become extremely agoraphobic as a result of living in massive and crowded underground cities, Simak identifies the cause of agoraphobia among his characters as stemming from their reclusive isolation from one another.

With humanity split into tiny settlements inhabited by extreme homebodies, the world splits into factions composed of "normal" humans, super-intelligent mutants, and engineered talking dogs. The science that allows the talking dogs is fairly dated: a member of the Webster family starts performing surgery on the vocal cords of dogs to allow them to talk, and apparently this surgical change breeds true in successive generations of canines. The idea that the only alteration dogs need to be able to talk is a change to their vocal chords is implausible to begin with, but the suggestion that the results of this surgery would then be passed down as an inherited characteristic is just silly. But neither of these are any more plausible than the suggestion that all ants need to develop an industrialized society is to be protected from the elements for a year or two. But the plausibility of these plot developments is beside the point: the story is about declining humanity and the nonhuman civilizations that rise up to follow us when we go.

And by choosing dogs and ants, Simak has picked a pair of successor civilizations that each makes a different point. As mankind either leaves the planet to pursue hedonistic pleasures as transformed inhabitants of the Jovian surface or hides locked away and sleeping within the last city, the dogs pursue their doggish lives aided by the robots men left behind. But even though their rising civilization is built upon doggish preferences and not human ones, they are still mostly familiar to the human mind, and familiar enough that at least for a time the remaining humans, now renamed "Websters" are able to live in this distinctly doggish new world. But even though the new world is doggish in ways that are asserted could not be accomplished by humans, it is still heavily influenced by humanity, despite all of the efforts made to allow them to make their own way, by means of the robots they inherit from humans at the least. Otherwise it seems implausible that predatory and territorial pack animals would create a new order including all the animals of the Earth so pacifistic that they retreat rather than combat the alien threat of the ants.

And it is the contrast between the ants and the dogs that seems to be the critical distinction that forms the denouement of the book. Whereas the dogs are our familiar and well-loved inheritors, the ants are a wholly alien force, given their leg up to forming a civilization and then completely abandoned to their own devices by a member of a branch of humanity that had itself become alien to human concerns. With a nonhuman intelligence on one side, and a wholly alien intelligence on the other side, a conflict is set-up that results in a non-human oriented solution. In the end, the guardians of the dogs seek to consult the last remaining humans, but realize that a human solution to the ant problem would be antithetical to the fundamental nature of dogs, and decide to leave humans to their endless dreaming. Having given up their cities, mankind gave up their civilization, and then their bodies, and finally, their planet.

City is a difficult book to define. One might think that a book in which humankind is freed from the confines of cities to live the life of manorial lords would be optimistic. It isn't. One would think that a book in which human civilization collapses would be depressing. It isn't. One would think that a book in which humanity dwindles to irrelevance would be sad. It isn't. Despite being named for mankind's signature element of civilization, City is mostly about humankind without cities, and then the world without humankind. Told with humor and insight, Simak's tale reveals a intriguing picture of human nature by progressively eliminating humanity from the story. Even though this story is almost sixty years old now and has more than a few science related missteps as a result, it is still an excellent piece of science fiction that should have a place on every genre fan's bookshelf.

Review of 1952 International Fantasy Winner: Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier
Review of 1954 International Fantasy Winner: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

What are the International Fantasy Awards?

International Fantasy Best Fiction Book Winners

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  1. Wow, are you reading through all the old award-winners? That's an impressive feat, if so. And this one sounds great :)

  2. @Rachel Cotterill: Yes, I am. I am starting with the oldest ones, in this case the early Hugo winners and the International Fantasy Award winners, and reading them in order.

    At the point I am at now, the Nebula, World Fantasy, Prometheus, Campbell, Clarke, and Locus awards had not yet been created, but as I move forward, I will add them to the mix as well.

  3. great review! i have a battered copy of this, but haven't had a chance to pick it up yet.

  4. @redhead: It is very much worth reading. There are some quirks resulting from it being written in the 1950s, but nothing that diminishes the story in any substantial way.