Simak’s City (1952): The Best Science Fiction Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

For years I’ve vaguely heard of this novel, considered a lost classic of SF literature, often invoked in the same exalted company as Asimov, Clarke, Stapleton, Bradbury and company.  Yet the book itself is out of print, hard to find, and there are no adaptations to stumble on.  And the name, “City,” doesn’t leap out at you like 2001, I, Robot, or The First and Last Men.  Luckily, my university library teems with old science fiction and fantasy classics (thank you to whatever professor bequeathed them to the library!), including a stray copy from 1976.  The book captured me from the start not only from its beautifully clear (yet at times poetic) writing, but from the sheer scope of its themes.  City communicates on the same level and shares the same themes as works such as 2001 and Planet of the Apes, yet at times seems to go far beyond them, if only in its playful humor which never quite takes itself too seriously.  Written on the heels of WWII, the book deals with some of the great themes left in its wake: the importance of tradition, the persistence of civilization, and the question of racial identity.  Do we have a duty to our “race”—and should we win this race?  Are we doomed to destroy one another?  Can humans truly make a better, more peaceful world?  And if destruction is our fate, who will inherit the Earth?  Do we have time to appoint our successors? 

The structure of the book is also ingenious and almost entirely novel (and perhaps somewhat inspired the “message in a bottle” opening of Planet of the Apes, published a decade later): the book consists of the Eight Great Tales, collectively called “City” (after the first tale), which the dog society of future Earth puzzles over as the relic of a long-lost civilization.  The stories tell of the man’s evolution from city-dwelling folk to space travelers to inhabitants of Jupiter (at which point they have abandoned their human forms).  Before leaving Earth, mankind created a race of robots to watch over the earth, as well as a race of thinking, reading, and talking dogs, who can work side-by-side with the robots (indeed, the dogs call the robots their “hands”).  Also tucked away on abandoned Earth are the mutants, a group of humans with advanced psychic powers who live apart from one another and were integral in shaping man’s destiny among the stars.  As the story opens, the dog narrator introduces each tale, commenting on what the scholars think about some of the fantastic characters and language therein: strange concepts such as “man” baffle them, as well as “cities,” “war” and “space.”  The stories also suggests some uncomfortable truths which the dogs are unwilling to digest; namely, that man taught the dogs to speak, and that dog society merely apes the great achievements of man, which he abandoned some fifteen thousand years ago.  While the dogs are content in seeing most of the stories are metaphors of fables which place their dog utopia in the best possible light, the modern reader can see the truth: the gradual evolution (or de-evolution) of human society into its component parts, as cities are communities are abandoned for selfish pursuits.  Society is a beautiful dream, but it requires dreamers who are willing to share with one another and not see a world of enemies, foreigners, or heretics. 

In the first story, “City,” we learn that ‘modern’ technology that has made farming, traditional jobs, and much of the economy obsolete.  Man can now move away from sprawling metropolises and create a solitary utopia in the relatively isolated farmland.  The cities are quickly being abandoned, though the poor and disenfranchised are left to become squatters in abandoned homes.  The mayor of one such city wants to burn all the homes to the ground to rid themselves of the “riff-raff.”  Only John Webster, a member of the City Council, opposes this, and works with the squatters to defeat the Mayor’s plans.  Webster is a crucial name in the book, since this family assumes center stage in human life in every story, and eventually shapes its destiny.  However, the key note in this story is a resigned acceptance to the ever-quickening pace of technology.  The old pleasures are gone, families are breaking up, and civilization itself is fraying at the edges.  Humanity simply has no further use for itself.  Humorously, the dog narrator finds this story the most bewildering, since there are no dogs at all, only the mythical “men” which are a creature out of legend.  He also notes, “The language of the tale is particularly baffling.  Phrases such as the classic “dadburn the kid” have puzzled semanticists for many centuries and there is today no closer approach to what many of the words and phrases mean than there was when students first came to pay some serious attention to the legend.”  This strikes a key note in the later stories: the dog society cannot advance because they merely play with the left-over toys of humanity, which they do not fully understand. 

The second story, “Huddling Place,” throws us further into the future, with a new Webster, the famous doctor of Martian Physiology.  However, like many humans, he has become more and more divorced from the community, and ensconces himself in his palatial home, merely experiencing the world from a distance (a very keen prediction of how we experience the world through the internet).  However, a crisis occurs when his old friend, the Martian Jumain, is in need of urgent medical attention by the greatest doctor in the system.  To make matters worse, Jumain is on the verge of completing a work of philosophy which will literally change the way humans think, advancing the entire race thousands of years in a few generations.  Jerome, however, is paralyzed by fear of leaving his bubble, where he has “huddled” for so long: despite numerous entreaties, he refuses to go to Mars, Jumain dies, and humanity loses the philosophy that might have saved them.  This story also introduces the robot butler, Jenkins, who becomes the only link between all the subsequent stories, which occupy a time span of tens of thousands of years. 

The third story, “Census,” is the first story the dogs can wholeheartedly endorse, as it features the first dog, Nathaniel, who has been taught to talk and to reason like a human by the latest Webster.  The story concerns Richard Grant’s attempts to take the first census in hundreds of years, since humanity has become very thin and scattered.  His true purpose, however, is to document the growing mutant population, and particularly, a mysterious figure named Joe who appears from the forest to help people solve their problems.  Most recently, he helped the current Webster’s father solve an equation that unlocked the possibility of distant space travel.  Grant ends up staying at the Webster’s, where he learns about the experiment to raise dogs to the level of humans.  The reason for this is simple, at least as Webster sees it: “Think of it, Grant.  A different mind than the human mind, but one that will work with the human mind.  That will see and understand things the human might cannot, that will develop, if you will, philosophies the human mind could not.”  This becomes one of City’s central ideas: can one species truly advance alone, without the crucial perspective of another?  Grant attempts to enlist the help of Joe to aid the human race, but Joe is completely indifferent to his tenuous links to humanity.  Indeed, he scoffs, “Race preservation is a myth...a myth that you all have lived by—a sordid thing that has arisen out of your social structure.  The race ends every day.  When a man dies the race ends for him—so far as he’s concerned there is no longer any race.”  Joe, in essence, negates the idea of tradition and the past: why work toward a grand destiny when every death is that person’s end, and no amount of past or future accomplishments can matter to him/her?  Ironically, Joe has been creating a self-contained ant world, where ants no longer have to hibernate for the winter and are given abundant food.  In this world, the ants created a past­ as scaffolding to build a rudimentary society.  Joe remains mum about his reasons for this, but ends up stealing the half-completed work of Jumain (which Grant initially offers him), deciding to solve it on his own and not share anything with the human race. 

The fourth tale is one of the greatest and most imaginative, and for this very reason, causes the dogs the most “despair.”  Called “Desertion,” it concerns a group of men and women on a floating base in Jupiter who are attempting to colonize that planet.  Using advanced technology, they are able to transform human consciousness into whatever life form dominates a given planet, but on Jupiter, this has proved problematic: for humans changed into the strange, floating “Lopers,” never return to base.  After “killing” several men, the chief of the operation, Fowler, decides to go himself with his trusty companion, his dog Towser.  Both are transformed into Lopers and realize the incredible limitations of the human mind/body.  The pair become equals and share an intimate consciousness, realizing that the hellish landscape of Jupiter is actually full of colors and sensations invisible to the human senses.  In essence, this is paradise.  As Fowler remarks, men were blind since they “walked alone, in terrible loneliness, talking with their tongue like Boy Scouts wigwagging out their messages, unable to reach out and touch Towser’s mind.  Shut off forever from that personal, intimate contact with other living things.”  Ironically, only by becoming an alien can Fowler learn to reconnect with his fellow men (and dogs).  Towser rejoices having escaped his ailing body and vows never to return.  Fowler initially agrees, but realizes that every human deserves the chance for this liberation of mind and body.  Reluctantly, he returns to base to accept the limitations of human existence. 

The fifth story, “Paradise,” Fowler returns to Earth with the promise of Jupiter.  However, the current Webster begs Fowler not to disseminate the message.  It would destroy mankind, ruin the legacy of so many generations all for the promise of freedom.  As he argues, “I’m ready to concede that it may be better to be a Loper than a human.  What I can’t concede is that we would be justified in wiping out the human race—that we should trade what the human race has done and will do for what the Lopers might do.  The human race is going places...We have a racial heritage and a racial destiny that we can’t throw away.”  So here is the age-old argument: should humans see themselves as a race—and a race, in another definition, is a contest to be won.  Does man have to win, or can mankind evolve past the idea of winning or losing?  To answer the question, Joe reappears with the completed version of Jumain’s philosophy, which he and other mutants have secretly encoded in advertisements.  This philosophy allows an individual to truly understand another’s thoughts and feelings, and in essence, to truly step inside his or her shoes.  Having done this, the secret of Jupiter is quickly out, and humans flock by the millions to emigrate to Jupiter and become Lopers. 

The sixth story, “Hobbies,” shows the end of the human race and the Websters.  The dogs have become their own race, working side-by-side with the robots, including that ubiquitous caretaker of the Websters, Jenkins.  The dogs are determined to spread knowledge throughout the other animal races, and have begun seeing marked intelligence in wolves.  Meanwhile, Jon Webster is reflecting on the end of mankind as his wife, Sara, decides to retreat into a machine that gives her a virtual reality life—the final extension of his ancestor’s “huddling place.”  All the old vestiges of civilization are vanishing one by one: “Religion, which had been losing ground for centuries, entirely disappeared.  The family unit, held together by tradition and by the economic necessity of a provider and protector, fell apart.  Men and women lived together as they wished.  For there was no economic reason, no social reason why they shouldn’t.”  Mankind now spends its energy in “hobbies,” which are pleasurable merely to the individual but have no worth to the species as a whole (for example, Jon is writing a comprehensive history of Geneva which no one will read).  Before following Sara in the dream machines, Jon urges Jenkins to erase all memory of mankind from the dogs’ life: they need a chance to create their own world without the stain of humanity. 

The seventh story, “Aesop,” has important associations with modern-day reader
which are lost on the dogs.  In this tale, Jenkins is given a new body to replace his seven thousand year-old frame.  This body is built by the robots who have abandoned the dogs to live, like mutants, alone in the forest.  The dogs have largely forgotten about humans, as Jon Webster insisted, and now refer to this mythical race as “websters.”  Jenkins encourages this, but also realizes that dogs are at a fatal junction in their development.  Unlike man, they were able to imagine a world without killing—which they have completely abolished—and without war.  Yet the lack of death has created overpopulation, as well as a refusal to understand the past.  As the dogs argue, “One world’s tomorrow, another world’s today.  And yesterday is tomorrow and tomorrow is the past.  Except there wasn’t any past.  No past, that was, except the figment of remembrance that flitted like a night-winged thing in the shadow of one’s mind.  No past that one could reach.  No pictures painted on the wall of time.  No film that one could run backward and see what once-had-been.”  Instead, the dogs are aware of other dimensions which they call the “cobbly worlds,” where other beings exist.  Everything is now, even these worlds, and there is no idea of going back or even thinking of what came before.  Can a culture without a past ever have a future ? Jenkins travels to the mutants to learn their secrets, to have them help the dogs, only to discover that they, too, have moved on to other worlds—the very “cobbly worlds” the dogs have intuitively sniffed out.  At the same time, a few scattered humans living in caves have begun inventing weapons, and accidentally killed a squirrel with a make-shift bow and arrow.  To save the earth, Jenkins realizes, all mankind must depart to one of these worlds, thus protecting the “presentness” of the dogs.

The final tale, “The Simple Way,” is believed by the dogs to be a spurious addition, as it threatens to unmask the truth of their civilization.  While the dogs go on and on, some of the animals are growing discontent, and begin dreaming of fresh kills and the simple animal pleasures.  Even more worrying are the ants: the ants that Joe taught to civilize have begun building an enormous hive which is called the “Building.”  It grows exponentially every century and now threatens to overtake the earth itself.  Clearly, time has come full circle, and the cities that were once abandoned are now being reborn, albeit from a different species.  Jenkins, who has exiled himself to protect the dogs, now returns and explains who the “websters” were, and decides to seek out the final Webster, Jon, who is still in the pleasure machine, to learn the secret of defeating the ants.  When he learns that the only way to control ants is to kill them, Jenkins is left with the ultimate moral dilemma: if he teaches the dogs to kill, will they simply become men?  Or should he let them slowly lose ground to the ants, while remaining dogs to the end?  His decision, which I won’t reveal here, concludes this glorious, mythical cycle of tales of one possible future for man—and the Earth. 

In 1981, Simak added an Epilogue to the tales which discloses the fate of dogs and ants—but again, I will remain mum on this development.  Hopefully, the brief synopsis above will whet the appetite of any lover of science fiction—or of fable and metaphor—to attempt a reading of this classic work.  It’s quite short, and the stories are written in a poetic, yet spare manner which lends itself to re-reading.  I have yet to read more of Simak’s work—and he wrote quite a bit—but I know this work will rank among the very best the form has produced, changing the way we think about ourselves, our future, and more importantly, our past.  For all science fiction, for all its prophecy and technological gadgets, is a study of our common heritage as human beings.  As Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote, “the future, in fiction, is a metaphor.”  Since we will never arrive there, it remains a mirror of our dreams and fears, capturing the “past” for all to read and understand (even the dogs!).