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City by Clifford D. Simak

City (original 1952; edition 2011)

by Clifford D. Simak

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1,470375,076 (3.99)70
Authors:Clifford D. Simak
Info:Gollancz (2011), Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:S.F. Masterworks, genre: science fiction, @amazon.co.uk, acquired in 2011, read in 2012

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City by Clifford D. Simak (1952)



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Showing 1-5 of 32 (next | show all)
A very interesting way of looking at the end of humans on Earth. Dogs and ants and robots taking over. The short story form written with scholar notes and formed into a full novel was both new, different, and interesting. ( )
  BenKline | Jul 1, 2015 |
I fell in love with this before I completed the first story. How can one not thoroughly enjoy the perspective of dogs regarding humans. Better yet...they doubt that we were ever real. Just a myth. Love it. And and lets not forget the robots. Each story stands on its own, yet they are all linked together. I am not a short story reader, but I could not stop reading these. I will search out of of Mr.Simak' works to read. ( )
  jaddington | Feb 16, 2015 |
Clifford Simak attempted to create a cohesive universe in his City stories, collected in this volume with a frame narrative to boot. He tells the tale of humanity’s decline, and the rise of those species that will replace us- most notably the dog and the robot. Simak’s ambition is commendable, but in practice this universe doesn’t feel cohesive. It’s highly compartmentalized, with different races and technologies appearing for a single story and then disappearing entirely, or for long stretches. Additionally, the framing narrative adds absolutely nothing to the book. At the end of the day, therefore, City doesn’t really work as a series or single segmented piece, but instead serves as a short story collection with a shared cast of characters. Simak as much as acknowledges this in the frame narrative, the notes stating that “the Webster family once again may be no more than a mark of good storytelling, a device used to establish a link of continuity in a series of tales which otherwise are not too closely linked.” As a collection of independent stories the result is a mixed bag: most of them are fine, one or two are bad, but I didn’t find any to be a standout. Simak had ambitions with his City stories, and the stories themselves are okay on average, but there are authors who did what Semak was trying to do more successfully, and it’s those stories that I would recommend reading. Below is my analysis of the stories as a series, skip to my final paragraph to avoid them.

The collection starts out with City, the story that gave the collection its title, and in my opinion the worst story of the entire collection. City presents a world where the introduction of private aircraft, cheap home construction, and a couple other factors have resulted in people leaving the cities and living out in the country in solitude, the few population centers left struggling to survive. While the depopulation of the cities is a fine premise to start with, the way in which Simak has that happen is unimpressive. By Simak’s logic, the introduction of the personal automobile should have led to the end of cities as well- obviously it didn’t. Simak’s story never addresses the fact that cities don’t just exist for protection, but as social hubs. How do people date in this future of super diffuse population? Simak hasn’t put any thought into questions like that. Also, the idea that each family will have a 40 acre parcel and that will somehow lead to the end of community and social interaction is patently absurd given how farmers have lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. Are cities no longer economic hubs for some reason? Simak mentions but never adequately addresses the economic aspect of cities. Moving beyond the execution of the premise, which is bad, the story itself isn’t impressive either. Cliché characters are introduced, like the old people who think that the new ways are bad, and the old ways are better. There’s a corrupt politician that espouses rugged individualism. Ugh. Everything in the story is also simplified to the point of stupidity: laws, property values, even how artillery works is presented in a way that had me rolling my eyes. The middle of the story devolves into ham-fisted social commentary that doesn’t reflect well on Simak. None of the characters are sympathetic, and by the end it’s hard to care whether these tiny cities survive or whether people will keep moving out into the new suburbs. This is a subpar pulp sci-fi story, and an unimpressive start to the collection. It’s made worse by the fact that the rest of the stories render this one all but superfluous- its lone contribution is the title.

The second story is Huddling Place, and in my mind it represents the actual start of the universe that Simak was trying to build. It introduces robots, which are essentially just metal people that think in an almost identical fashion to human beings, who have their own emotions and judgments. The idea of people submitting to the judgment of robots instead of making judgments of their own because they find it easier is an interesting concept (I believe explored in the Culture series of Iain M. Banks), but it’s merely touched upon at the end of this story and never explored: Simak’s robots are portrayed as entirely benevolent. Huddling Place again gives us a world where mankind is in decline, this time because of its tendency to isolate itself on its country estates. Again, no dating for the Webster family I suppose. As for the arts, the story explains that with new technology you can experience things like an orchestra performance from the comfort of your own home, so why would you ever leave? Again, unconvincing reasoning: had Simak never heard of a turntable? Whatever. The story presents us with the Webster family being highly agoraphobic, and states that such agoraphobia is spreading throughout mankind. In the climax this agoraphobia causes the main character to be unable to perform surgery on his friend, a Martian, leading to the Martian’s death and thus the loss of the philosophical breakthrough that he was going to make. You see Martian philosophy is USEFUL and LOGICAL, as opposed to foolish human philosophy. How so? Simak never tells us, as he obviously has no idea. When the philosophy is finally revealed it's entirely underwhelming. This story highlights Simak’s tendency to introduce a concept in what is intended to be a cohesive universe, only to forget it entirely: in this story we meet the Martian Juwain. He is the only Martian we ever meet. In fact Martians are never mentioned again, except in the context of Juwain’s philosophy. Later stories forget Martians entirely when characters list intelligent species, and we never learn about the fate of the Martians. This story is better than the first, but it made me realize that a book is perhaps one of the least interesting mediums for depicting agoraphobia.

The third story is Census, a story that largely ignores the spread of agoraphobia that Huddling Place introduced. A census taker in a world where people feared strangers would be an interesting concept, instead here we get a census taker whose job is only difficult because people live so spread out. Census introduces two important new factions to the universe, the talking dog and the super intelligent mutant. A character in this story laments that humanity never had a second intelligent species to bounce ideas off of, and hopes that talking dogs can fulfill that role- apparently forgetting the Martians exist. The fact that dogs gain the ability to talk through Lamarckian evolution is something I’ll ignore, though Semak really should have known better. Dogs make fine protagonists to several stories going forward, but they’re rarely given much depth. Dogs are dogs. The mutants are potentially a far more interesting faction, geniuses with incredibly long lifespans that live in the backwoods and don’t care for social benefits like people do, but just like the Martians we are only ever introduced to a single mutant: Joe. He plays a trickster role, sort of, and while the rest of the mutants are at times portrayed as a threat, the narrative never introduces them and therefore most of the tension about them that it tries to develop falls flat. At the end of this story Joe is painted as the antagonist because he won’t help the census taker decipher Juwain’s philosophy. Joe takes the position of “why should I,” and the census taker’s offers of money and fame don’t work. Neither does the appeal to the benefit of the species. When Joe pooh-poohs the idea of species loyalty the census taker identifies him as evil, and Simak’s narrative takes that stance as well- but I found the argument unconvincing. There are plenty of people in the world who wouldn’t do something for the nebulous reason of “benefiting the species,” so the fact that Joe won’t do it either hardly categorizes him as evil. Instead it’s his lack of need for other people that seems to really differentiate him, and despite the narrative’s attempt it’s hard to think of him as a villain because of that. Thus, when the census taker asks the first talking dog to watch over mankind and protect against the mutants, it doesn’t have the weight that Simak obviously intended it to. At this point in the collection it became clear to me that Simak expects us to just go along with the ideas he throws out, not actually analyze them.

The fourth and fifth stories, Desertion and Paradise, are really one longer story cut up for what I can only assume are financial reasons. Here Simak introduces technology that allows people to transfer their consciousness into another body, nearly any type of body. Of course you’d expect that the people of this future would be immortal now, transferring their consciousness into younger bodies that were always being improved upon. Except not, because Simak wasn’t interested in thinking through the implications of this technology, he just needed it to tell this story- a story with a huge number of similarities to the likewise narratively unimpressive movie Avatar. The body transfer device is being used to allow people to explore the surface of Jupiter, despite the technician operating the machine apparently being both strongly against it and essential to the process. Whatever. Anyway, the twist is that the reason why previous attempts have failed isn’t because people in these new bodies have died, or been driven crazy, but because the new bodies are so great that no one wanted to become human again. The main character manages to force himself back into his human body, and wants to bring the good news of this new Eden to the rest of humanity. The “Paradise” half of this story reveals that it is occurring sometime a few generations later than Census, (initially the timeline is far from clear), and thus a descendent of Webster is trying to stop the news of Jovian paradise from getting out. He fails because the mutant Joe shows up again, and reveals the solution to Juwain’s philosophy: this solution allows a person to consider another person’s point of view. I’m genuinely intensely curious about whether Simak thought that people lacked such an ability. Was Simak highly autistic and undiagnosed? Because considering someone else’s point of view, even doing it very well, isn’t exactly a rare skill. It’s a necessity for being a good teacher, psychotherapist, lawyer, consultant, etc. Apparently these are not occupations in this universe, and unbeknownst to the reader Semak has populated all of the previous stories with characters completely unable to consider any position but their own. A mind-boggling twist that adds nothing, or a completely unsatisfying development that reveals a personal characteristic of the author: whichever one it is, it adds nothing to the story, and in fact retroactively makes all the fuss about the Juwain philosophy more pointless.

Imagine a city populated only by people who had the fortitude to resist an offer of an earthly paradise, who turned down a chance to live thousands of years in bliss, and instead remain in their human bodies, for whatever reason. Furthermore they are left behind as most of humanity accepts the offer and leaves forever. What type of people would those be, and what would their descendants be like? People with an unwavering faith in human ingenuity? Or those with grand artistic ambitions? Or religious zealots? Or nihilists? At the very least, they’d be interesting, I expect. Semak disagrees, as in the sixth story, Hobbies, Semak portrays a city of people who don’t go in for the pleasures of Jupiter and instead opt a life on Earth, and whose defining characteristic is apparently being bored all the time. Despite putting humanity in a variety of vastly different situations, Semak writes them all in the exact same way, and never shows himself capable (at least in this collection) of capturing a different personality on paper. Hobbies focuses on dog characters as much as human ones, and this story introduces the idea that dogs can sense things in parallel dimensions and also cure warts. Whatever. The story reintroduces an idea introduced in Census that dogs are in many ways superior to man, as they lack man’s skepticism, among other things. Personally I don’t identify skepticism as that detrimental of a characteristic, especially in moderation, but Semak identifies its lack as a boon to canines. One of the last humans left decides that to give dogs a chance he’s going to bottle up what’s left of humanity, since man is just wandering around not doing anything anymore, and if they figure out how to escape they’ll have earned the right to reconquer the world (ignoring the fact that no people seem to hold that desire, and forgetting entirely that these are people that didn’t go to Jupiter and instead remain on Earth- which would surely earn them the right to a life on Earth if anything could). What especially annoyed me about this story is that it negates the importance of the first three stories almost entirely: the dispersion of the human race, the rise of agoraphobia and the isolation of people are all ignored here. Instead the ending of the story only works because people have congregated into a city once more. Semak’s downfall of man could have been the offer of Jovian paradise followed by the bottling of survivors, but instead Semak had to include the early stories that are almost entirely superfluous and not particularly impressive.

The seventh story is Aesop, perhaps the most nonsensical story when it comes to how the story is ended. The few people that are left live around the old Webster estate, and are taken care of by the dogs and the robot butler Jenkins, who has appeared in almost all the stories but who has only been important before this in Huddling Place and Hobbies. He here becomes the main character, and remains so throughout the rest of the stories. Through their exploration of other dimensions the dogs have let a ghoul (cobbly) into our universe, and since they’re all pacifists they are presumably powerless to stop it. Elsewhere the humans, who have had their memory wiped by Jenkins, are rediscovering weapons and violence. Jenkins goes to the mutant castles (why they have castles isn’t much clear, unless they’re purely for interplanetary gateways) to find out how to stop men from being violent, and finds that all the mutants have left. While returning from the castle Jenkins finds a man driving off the ghoul with his violence and hatred, thus saving all of the helpless animals that the ghoul would have killed in the future. The clear message that this course of events implies is that sometimes man’s violent nature and his feeling of hatred is necessary to avert worse outcomes, but the narrative ends with Jenkins exiling humanity forever from their home dimension. Thus leaving dogs helpless if another ghoul comes, but Jenkins is apparently doing all this to give dog society a chance. At this point I decided that Semak largely didn’t know what he was doing.

The last story of the original series is The Simple Way, where it is revealed that the industrialized ants introduced way back in Census have evolved to the point where they can control robots and build structures hundreds of miles in size. As I previously said, the stories of City don’t so much feel like a coherent universe as they do a place where Semak pulls something out for the sake of a story and then shoves it away in a drawer somewhere until remembering it again years later. This conflict with the ants doesn’t feel at all organic. Here, at least, the moral of the story is clear instead of muddled like it was in Aesop. The lesson presented is that Man’s method of violence might be the only way to succeed, sometimes, but success at that price is too high. Why does Jenkins think that man’s ancient solution of poison syrup would work against these super advanced ants, with buildings miles and miles long? Stop trying to analyze a Semak story.

The Simple Way is the last story in the collection to use the frame narrative, as the final story was written much later. Put simply, the frame narrative adds absolutely nothing. The main through line of the frame narrative is whether man was real or merely a myth, and because as a reader we know man existed, that question does nothing for us. The frame narrative also sets up these tales as legends, myths told around campfires, but there’s no effort in the stories proper to occupy the role. They’re written just like every other piece of sci-fi pulp, and we’re asked to believe that dogs just repeat words that they don’t understand and don’t ascribe meaning to. The Book of the New Sun gives us descriptions of things that we understand and the narrator doesn’t, allowing us to catch things that he misses and thereby adding to both the world and the narrator as a character. Semak’s writing offers no such pleasure or accomplishment. By the end of the stories proper the frame narrative has done nothing but occasionally preach to us about man’s pointless search for progress and power- as if most people seek those in the abstract without clear concrete goals. It’s poorly done.

The final story is Epilog, where we learn that the ants were no more successful than any of the other species. While man is criticized in the frame narrative for lacking stability, here is depicted a perfectly stable society that has somehow failed. It’s an alright ending story, it gives some closure and lets Jenkins escape the house that he’s become so attached to. In this there’s perhaps a callback to the agoraphobia of the Websters, something Jenkins overcomes that his masters couldn’t, but given the quality of Semak’s writing before this I doubt such a reference was intentional. Overall there was no theme that recurred throughout all the stories, no message that was clear and consistent, so this story could only be so successful as an ending to the City collection. To the extent it could be successful, however, it was.

Welp, that was a much longer review than I thought it would be.

So as a series, City isn’t very successful. Some parts render others unnecessary, concepts and species are dropped and picked back up at Semak’s convenience, and there is not a consistent theme or message here to draw everything together. As individual stories, however, I think they fare better. The first story is the only one I’d call bad, while the rest are all serviceable, especially Epilog, however I expect the final story would lose something if you weren’t aware of the universe’s progress up to that point. Actually, I’m not at all sure how the stories would hold up in isolation, but regardless I didn’t find them that bad as I was reading them- the flaws only snapped into focus when I stopped to think about what Semak had written. For a better attempt to write a cohesive universe I’d point you to Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man. It has its own flaws, but between the two he’s clearly superior to Semak.
( )
1 vote BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
Deep, cohesive and ambitious themes, reminiscent of much later writing - incredible to think this was written in 1952. ( )
  rlangston | Apr 3, 2014 |
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Jones, GwynethIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Gramp Stevens sat in a lawn chair, watching the mower at work, feeling the warm, soft sunshine seep into his bones.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 188296828X, Hardcover)

The cities of the world are deserted and automation has invaded every aspect of human life. The robots make spaceships, the ants create huge buildings on the remains of old towns and the dogs take over the earth. The award-winning author's many other novels include "Catface" and "Off Planet".

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:46 -0400)

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"On a far future Earth, mankind's achievements are immense: artificially intelligent robots, genetically uplifted animals, interplanetary travel, genetic modification of the human form itself. But nothing comes without a cost. Humanity is tired, its vigour all but gone. Society is breaking down into smaller communities, dispersing into the countryside and abandoning the great cities of the world. As the human race dwindles and declines, which of its great creations will inherit the Earth? And which will claim the stars ...?"--Back cover.… (more)

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