by Clifford D. Simak
I was telling my fiancé about this book, and then I realised I sounded crazy, which seemed like a good indicator that I should summerise and review it. The book City is a fix-up novel connecting a series of stories about the decline of the human race and the rise of dogs and robots. It is one of the weirdest future histories I’ve read, and I need to talk about it. Spoilers ahead.
First things first, most of these stories were written in the 1940s. So, they have the problems typical to stories of the time with female and non-white representation, and our understanding of what the solar system is like has changed greatly.
The framing story for this book is a dog historian providing commentary on the individual stories, which have become the ancient myths of doggish society. The stories are so long in the past, that there is debate about whether or not humans actually existed. These stories were mostly written in the 40s, so they contain an old school solar system with aliens on Mars or Jupiter. Also, the dogs have psychic powers.
I’m making it all sound silly and funny, but there is something rather deep to this book. Simak conveys the passage of time and the loneliness caused by humanity’s passing really well. I found it somewhat eerie reading some of the later stories, where humanity was gone and forgotten. Simak also does a good job explaining how the other intelligences in this world do not think like humans.
The dogs are the ones we follow the most, and whilst they feel maybe too human at times, the world they set out to make is something humans could never dream of. Later on, ants emerge as an intelligence and there is just no way to gain any insight into their motivations or to attempt to communicate. They remain completely unknowable. When we first see the ants being elevated, they seem cute. They have little carts and a couple of chimneys sticking out of the ant hill. Then a few thousand years later they are building a thing. A building. No-one knows what it is, just that at the rate the ants are going, they’ll cover the entire planet. Which they do. It’s such a simple depiction of intelligent ants, but it works really well at making them this massive, growing threat. Not because they’re evil, just because they’re alien.
And I’m rambling. I should provide a basic timeline for this story, otherwise I’ll make no sense at all. These next few paragraphs are super full of spoilers, so this is your last warning. I’m going to use this book for one of my book bingo challenges and will write a smaller non-spoiler review for that.
In the opening novella City, modern technology (family planes, 1940s-future Skype, hydroponics ect.) makes cities obsolete. This is also where we are introduced to the Webster family, who we’ll be following for a few centuries. Huddling Place and Census follow members of the Webster family as they lose a history changing Martian philosophy for humanity, design a starship, uplift dogs and meet a mutant named Joe who could do a lot to help humanity, but is too much of a dick to do so. Throughout all of this, the Websters are served by their robot butler Jenkins, who grows fond of his family and proud of his work.
The short stories Desertion and Paradise deal with Kent Fowler, a scientist on Jupiter. Fowler and his dog turn into Jovian aliens called ‘Lopers’, travel to the surface, then realise that being a Loper is awesome. So awesome that the thought of going back to what they were is unbearable. It takes Fowler five years to work up the courage to return to human form and tell everyone how amazing it is on Jupiter, and how they should totally all become Lopers. Thanks to a little help from Joe and that Martian philosophy, people actually listen to him.
In Hobbies, only a small group of humans remain in Geneva. They have inherited all the resources left behind by the mass exodus to Jupiter, but they’re pretty bored with their lives. Jon Webster learns that his ancestors had a house in North America and did some weird experiments with dogs. He decides to check it out and meets Jenkins, who shows him the new dog and robot society. Jon sees that the dogs are interested in uplifting all the other animals of the world and using their psychic powers to travel to alternate dimensions. Jon decides that it’s time for humanity to fade away so the dogs can inherit the Earth and shape it as they see fit. He manages to seal away the last human city, but in Aesop, we discover that a few humans were outside the city when Jon sealed it. They fit in easy enough with the ‘Brotherhood of Beasts’ that the dogs create. There is peace on Earth. Until this human called Peter figures out how to make a bow and arrow. And a monster from an alternate dimension comes along and starts killing animals. Jenkins turns to Joe for help, but Joe noped out of Earth ages ago.
Jenkins struggles with all the thousands of years of history he has lived through and helped shape. Jenkins is one of the best robot characters I have ever come across. He lives through over 12,000 years of history and plays a vital role in shaping the world. Even unintentionally back in Huddling Place. He is conflicted between his desire to serve humanity and his obligation to the dogs and their world. He just flat out misses his Websters after a few thousand years. Jenkins ties nearly all the stories together, and once the humans are gone, he becomes our connection to this increasingly alien world. Reading about Jenkins in the epilogue was a real kick in the feels.
Which is lucky, because the other characters were all pretty forgettable. This is very much a concept driven story, rather than a character one. It is well written, though I wasn’t driven to finish it too quickly. I wouldn’t say the pacing was bad. I enjoyed reading this book and absorbing the concepts it presented. It was not a quick exciting read though.
Speaking of concepts, I want to know more about the Brotherhood of Beasts and the non violent world the dogs and robots make. It seems like such a naive and silly concept, but that’s another reason why the uplifted dogs feel so alien. They didn’t find the idea of a world without predation dumb, they just made it. Even before the dogs took over the world though, Humanity managed to go at least 250 years without a single murder. This made the ending of Paradise so powerful to me. The World President knew that if Fowler had the chance to tell people about what life was like on Jupiter, than it would be the end of the human race as we know it. He had the option of killing Fowler in order to prevent the human race turning into Lopers. He didn’t. From his point of view, letting human civilisation end was better than bringing murder back. Jenkins ends up making a similar call in The Simple Way, and it is just really powerful seeing that thinking in fiction. Usually if a protagonist refuses to kill the big bad, there is still a way to win for them. In real life, I don’t think that’s always the case. It’s rarer to see a character look at the consequences of defeat, and decide defeat is preferable to a violent victory, both in fiction and real life. Pacifism is hard.
I’ve read a lot of books lately where the view on humanity and human civilisation is rather negative. Simak however was a Humanist who believed strongly in the value of humanity, and despite us failing often in City, I still felt humanity was portrayed in a positive light here. I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself which outlook is more accurate, but I’d recommend City to anyone that just wants to read a nice story that won’t leave you bummed out about the world. We aren’t perfect in this book; there is that whole bow and arrow incident, but you won’t feel like humans are total shit after reading City. Which is an impressive feat since this book is about human extinction. This is a book about the collapse of civilisation, but it is never a dystopia. If I could pick a way for humankind to be destroyed, this would be the way I’d want us to go.