Friday, 15 October 2010

Review: City

City (1952) by Clifford D. Simak is a typical example of a science fiction book of the early 1950s. After the war, publishers discovered to their surprise that there was actually a profitable market for science fiction.  Unfortunately, while anthologies like The Omnibus of Science Fiction sold steadily and sold well, there was a lack of book-length works.   This isn't surprising.  The natural home of American science fiction had been the short story since it developed in the pulp magazines of the 1920s. Short stories and novellas there were aplenty, but novels were few and far between.  As a dodge around this problem, postwar authors and publishers hit upon a simple solution:  Take a series of related short stories, add some sort of framing device to connect them, and call them "novels".

The result of this was classics such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.  It was also the genesis of City.

Beginning life as eight short stories published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine between 1944 and 1951,  City is presented as a collection of tales recited by a race of intelligent talking dogs in the far future for whom man and all his works have passed into legend and folklore.

The title of the book comes from  that of the first story, "City", which is also the most conventional and is only tangentially connected with the rest of the book; dealing with how the development of atomic power, hydroponics and the helicopter lead to the end of cities as people move to settle on now worthless country land.  The idea of cities vanishing as the urban population disperses may seem novel to modern readers, but by the end of the second world war it was quite a common theme as science fiction writers caught on to proposals to spread out the cities to limit damage from aerial bombardment and, later, fission bombs. 

The rest of the stories centre around the Webster family, their robot butler Jenkins in particular and their part in the destiny of Earth.  I say "Earth" instead of "man" because by the midpoint in the book the human race has migrated to Jupiter where they find fulfillment as a genetically engineered race of lizards.

You had to be there.

The rest of the novel follows the fortunes of Jenkins and the race of talking dogs created by one of the Websters.  Ostensibly, the story is supposed to be about how the dogs find their own destiny and build their own civilisation as they contend with the "wild" robots left behind by departed humanity, mutants, a handful of apathetic humans holed up behind a force field in Geneva, and ants.  However, nothing really happens aside a lot of melancholy reflecting, musing, and reminiscing.  Supposedly the dogs are creating a new and better culture and Jenkins, who becomes their mentor, even takes steps to protect them from any lingering human influence, but the dogs never achieve much beyond pseudo-Tibetan mysticism and persuading every other creature on the planet to stop eating one another for no adequately explored reason.

Not surprisingly,  the play out of City involves man, mutant, robot, dog abandoning the Earth in their turn in favour of greener pastures in space or parallel dimensions until the ants reign supreme. 

Written over a period of eight years, City is an uneven work with the writing style ranging from the matter of fact to the lyrical.  As the story progresses, the tone becomes increasingly gentle and pastoral, which is what eventually defeats Simak.  He may have been going for an air of resignation in the face of the inevitable, but he sets such a quiet and peaceful atmosphere on everything from early on that he seems reluctant to disturb the calm.  It quickly becomes readily apparent after the first tale that it isn't a matter of Simak's protagonists not being able to do anything about their fate, but rather of their refusing to do so.  All of his main characters are so terrified of doing anything in defending themselves that might kick over the traces that the reader's patience is gradually tested and by the last chapter is lost entirely.  It's almost as if Simak wrote an unintentional satire on pacifism.

The single most interesting subplot in the book is that of Jenkins, who spends some 20,000 years in the service of the Webster family and their canine heirs.  Jenkins's story is often quite moving and it's rather a shame that it is trapped in a flawed science fiction narrative.  Had Simak sat down to write a conventional tale of an old house more loved by the aged butler than the heirs who've moved on to more modern and less worthy distractions, Simak would have a had a much stronger and more memorable novel but I suspect that was a bit beyond his abilities.

1 comment:

  1. I love CITY. I wouldn't say it was "typical". Your typical book from the '50's didn't get a Hugo.