Cleaning up another one of my experiments in speculative fiction—trying to get a grasp on Clifford Simak—has led me to this "novel", considered by many to be his best work. My problem was this: here is Clifford Simak, a five-time Hugo nominee and one-time winner (but City was released before either major award had been established and so could not even be nominated), but I barely know his work and am troubled by his popularity since I find what work of his that I have read to be somewhat pedestrian. And yet that work has to be pretty good: when his Way Station won the Hugo, it beat out a veritable who's who of speculative fiction greats—Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Frank Herbert, and Kurt Vonnegut. So my plan is that if I read the very best, perhaps I'll understand the reputation.
You'll note above that I used quotes around "novel" to describe City because it is actually a collection of short pieces with some interstitial material that is intended to try to force it all into a single narrative. The book pretends to be a collection of legends of old Earth describing the eventual disappearance of man from the planet, and the narrative between the stories is a scholarly analysis of the story to follow. It becomes apparent quickly that the scholar is a dog relying on the scholarship of other dogs as he tries to determine the provenance of the stories I the collection. Are they relics of early dog civilization, myth-like stories that describe the clearly impossible creature called Man? Or are they perhaps actual fragments of a history so lost in the past that they appear to be only legends or fables? The unnamed canine scholar never comes down on one side of the question or another, but he is also interested in the lessons that the stories teach as well as their potential insight into the time before dogs were literate.
Given the recent genre interest in apocalypses (again), Simak's City offers a different twist on the end of the world scenario, mostly because the world has not ended. Instead, parallel to Clarke's Childhood's End, mankind has evolved past caring about terrestrial issues and moved out into space. The world he has left behind is populated by the results of his scientific experimentation: animals given the power of speech and reason, led by the dogs. The dogs even have a sort of mythology about how they achieved this status without having the ability to use tools, since they each have a robot companion that can act as their hands and tools: the robots reproduce themselves in sufficient numbers for future generations of animals who need them, so clearly at some point, one dog was able to create the first robot and teach it to make more of itself. It's hard not to look at our own history and wonder if we have deluded ourselves about its finer points, but of course this is part of Simak's point.
But despite mankind's evolution to a better state, there is a whimsy to the stories that describe man's departure: City mourns the loss of what makes man essentially human as it recognizes that those same traits drive mankind to war against itself. By the end of the collection, the stories are suffused with a sort of unspoken melancholy regarding the path mankind could have taken rather than this radical branch in artificial evolution. Simak doesn't attempt to rectify these contrasting emotions; instead the stories lay out the circumstances and stir up the emotions in the reader.
By far the strongest story of the bunch is "Desertion", a story I've spoken of earlier (http://perrynomasia.blogspot.com/2009/08/skirmish.html). Put into the context of a future history and then followed up with a sequel, "Paradise," "Desertion" loses some of its power. The relationship between the protagonist and his dog receives commentary from the scholarly critic, who briefly describes how such a relationship while perhaps impossible still has resonances with the dogs in their literate state. But together, the two stories from the turning point of City, where mankind realizes that it will destroy itself if it stays in its current state. The process of becoming a new life form described in "Desertion" and the kind of life that it promises in both stories provides the escape man needs. Again, the melancholy of such a decision is not deep beneath the surface—man will fail unless he becomes something completely different, so different that it requires machinery to reach that state. It's hard to say whether the premise is an argument for the potential for humanism or a chilling renunciation of its limits.
Also weighing heavily on man's failure is "The Huddling Place," a short story selected for the Science Fiction Writers Hall of Fame. "The Huddling Place" was difficult because I cannot imagine the situation that the protagonist finds himself in, and I'm not sure if that is a failure on my part or Simak's. John Webster, an acclaimed physician and specialist in the treatment of the recently discovered Martians, is summoned to Mars to save the life of a dear Martian friend who also happens to have used advanced Martian ethics to determine a way for Man to escape the downward spiral of animosity that Simak describes. It doesn't take much cynicism for a citizen of the mid-20th century to recognize the ongoing historical pattern—war follows war and only some force applied from the outside would appear to be sufficient to break the cycle—and Simak continues the pattern into his future history. But one Martian has found a way to break the pattern, and all Webster has to do to save mankind from self-destruction is heal him. And it's unclear what happens next, except that Webster doesn't do it. Is it because Webster suffers from agoraphobia so badly that he cannot leave the house? Or is it because his robot servant misunderstood Webster's orders? It's not completely clear, and it doesn't really matter—with the survival of humanity at stake, one would think nothing should stop Webster from doing his work. And he just fails—to err is human after all. And it's in that space, at once showing the potential of mankind but balancing it with our propensity to mess up, that the book situates itself.
City is thoughtful and somewhat stately in its description of the disappearance of man. I suspect the book would be far stronger without the scholarly interludes. It's pretty clear the stories succeed each other, especially since characters are repeated and a family name is used throughout. But it's not like a lot of science fiction in that it doesn't come down on the humanist view of man as being able to accomplish anything he sets his mind to. While it is an easy read—if you can get through the stories without pondering the larger questions they ask, you'll finish it quickly. But it is those questions, the ones lying just beneath the surface, that given City its heft.