City, Clifford D. Simak (Introduction by David W. Wixon). New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1952).
Summary: A collection of eight connected stories stitched together by “notes” from dog commentators on how human beings died out as a species on earth.
Clifford Simak was one of the science fiction writers from what many call the “Golden Era” of science fiction from the 1940’s to the 1960’s–the age of Bradbury, Heinlein, and Asimov, among others. This was the science fiction of my youth, but I never encountered Simak’s work. In this new e-book edition published by Open Road Media, David Wixon, Simak’s literary executor introduces the book to a new generation (and an old one that may have missed it!). The book, published in 1952 consists of eight related short stories linked by introductory notes by “doggish” commentators. An “Epilog” was added later.
Dogs are one of three connecting threads through the whole book. The others are the Webster family, civic leaders, inventors (including the invention of a space drive), and scientists (including one who modified dogs so they could speak and read, creating an evolutionary jump for the dogs which is also traced through the book). The other linking thread is Jenkins, the robotic butler of the Websters, who becomes the caretaker of their house, and the evolving race of dogs who forge a peace with all the other animals ending the killing of one beast of another.
The story is of a human race whose existence is dramatically changed by its technology. Hydroponics and personal air travel result in the forsaking of cities for self sufficient rural enclaves supplying all one’s needs. One Webster invents an innovation in space travel making interplanetary travel easy, and humans begin to leave for other worlds. Humans try to settle on Jupiter, and modify their physical makeup to adapt to the harsh gravity and atmosphere. None who are sent out to test the alterations return. Finally the director and his old dog Towser do, and understand why–in their altered state Jupiter is incredibly beautiful and their minds are capable of things their human brains could never do. The director comes back long enough to tell the truth, leading to wholesale abandonment by most people for this better existence.
A few remain. Among them are Joe, who lives near the Webster homestead, and others like him, human mutants pursuing their own mysterious existence. Before Joe vanishes he experiments with creating a climate where ants do not need to hibernate but live year round and develop, then he smashes their enclosure, setting off another evolutionary trajectory.
Meanwhile, the dogs, under Jenkins watchful tutelage, more or less replace humanity, enclosed and living in suspended animation in Geneva until their existence is threatened by the ants who they refuse to kill. Jenkins helps the dogs relocate to other worlds (and the remaining humans to an earth in an altered reality until they die out) and the ants take over only for their rule in turn to collapse.
Only Jenkins is left with some field mice, when a space ship of robots stops by, and Jenkins, his work done, bids Earth good-bye.
Simak’s work explores some classic themes of science fiction. One is the impact of our technology. What happens to human beings when our technology makes life so easy that there is no apparent reason to fight for our existence. A technologically altered existence or suspended animation become the desired be-all and end-all of life. The second is the curious imaginary of a dog-ruled world, and what that would be like. A third question is the unintended consequences of altering natural courses, typified in Joe’s experiments with the ants. And the final piece is the development of the butler-robot Jenkins, in some ways shaped by his programming, and yet going “off program” in becoming a kind of god to the dogs and guiding their development.
Simak in many ways anticipates many of the more recent technological dystopias recent science fiction and young adult literature has envisioned. Do these authors render an important service in helping us grapple with the dark side of our technological innovations? Writing at a time when nuclear holocaust was the great fear, he suggests that it might actually be apparently “good” things that could kill us off over time, robbing us of qualities essential to our humanness–the sociality of the city, the challenge of eking out our existence, or finding larger purposes to life than our own ease and satiation. These are matters just as important today as they were sixty-five years ago when this work was first published.
City received the International Fantasy Award in 1953. “Epilog,” written in 1973, was included in a 1980 edition of the book.