My rating: 3 of 5 stars
‘City’ is a novel which is actually made up of nine stories, originally published separately, but later strung together with a series of ‘notes’ explaining that these stories are part of the mythological heritage of the civilisation of Dogs, who believe that the existence of Man is most probably only a legend.
· City · May 1944
Occasionally, you read an old science fiction story and are just blown away by the remarkable prescience of the author and his or her ability to predict future events.
Well, in this case… Simak sure got it wrong!
According to the United Nations, “Today, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050. Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050.” [http://www.un.org/en/development/desa…]
However, in Simak’s 1980’s, the opposite has happened. With the energy crisis utterly solved by atomics, personal planes becoming ubiquitous, and hydroponic advances eliminating the need for farmland, the concept of the city has died. Most people have gotten the hell out of Dodge, and commute to their jobs from distant, expansive estates. Without cities to serve as targets for bombs, world peace has finally arrived.
However, as with any radical social shift, there are a few kinks to be worked out, and some dissatisfaction to be dealt with… perhaps in an uncomfortably totalitarian way.
· Huddling Place · Jul 1944
Two hundred years after the events of the previous story, the descendants of the characters in ‘City’ are still living on their country estate – similarly to most of humanity. Martian civilization has been discovered, and friendly relations are in effect.
However, an unfortunate side effect of humanity’s new lifestyle is just emerging: served by robots and with access to what seems just like the Internet, people don’t need to physically ‘go’ anywhere – and have developed extreme agoraphobic tendencies.
· Census · Sep 1944
This third segment definitely works better in the context of the whole than as a standalone. A census-taker comes out to the old estate. Another couple of generations have passed. The government is interested in any anomalous events – and the census taker indeed finds them here. A scientific tinkerer has created talking dogs; and a mysterious mountain man who doesn’t seem to age is reputed to show up, fix things, and disappear ‘without waiting for thanks.’
· Desertion · Nov 1944
I believe I read this one before, years ago. It’s by far my favorite Simak short that I’ve read so far.
On Jupiter, an experimental program is in place to transpose men into the bodies of Jovian native fauna in order to allow people to go out into the hostile environment. The procedure seems to work perfectly – but something is going wrong. So far, the first four test subjects have gone out into the wilds of Jupiter – and have not returned.
The head of the program may have no moral option but to change tack.
· Paradise · Jun 1946
We’re now a thousand years from the time of the first story.
This one ties in elements of the previous stories: mutants without a social instinct, the promise of an unfinished Martian philosophy (which may actually have been completed by said mutants), robots and intelligent dogs. But the main focus is on the possibility of a Paradise on Jupiter – the attainment of which might involve giving up something intrinsic to the human identity.
· Hobbies · Nov 1946
The dogs have begun to rise, forming their own society. The vast majority of human have opted for what, today we’d call the singularity – joining the transcended on Jupiter. Only a few thousand humans remain on Earth, and of those, many have opted for a virtual reality of dreams, not planning to come out of their hibernations for hundreds of years. The few left awake while away their time pursuing non-essential hobbies.
I thought this segment was a bit over-long – it dragged in parts. But many of the ideas it contains feel very ahead of their time.
· Aesop · Dec 1947
Again, this piece works in the context of the novel, but wouldn’t be that strong on its own. The dogs, now ascendant on Earth, have established a society of peace and non-violence, ‘raising up’ all the other animals to intelligence is a world where the lion does indeed lie down with the lamb. However, there are cracks in this perfect facade, and undercurrents of the animal nature of these creatures.
Meanwhile, with the elimination of the predator/prey relationships, overpopulation is becoming a serious issue. The answer may lie in the recent discovery of parallel worlds.
· The Simple Way [The Trouble with Ants] · Jan 1951
The subtitle says it all. Harking back to a by-the-by bit mentioned in one of the early stories, the dogs, still the dominant species on Earth, have noticed a disturbing phenomenon: the ant civilization, long ago ‘uplifted’ (to steal David Brin’s term) casually by a tinkering mutant, is now expanding rapidly. Are the ants, whose thought processes are opaque, planning on taking over the planet?
The fate of the Earth may come down to a moral choice.
[Interesting, that choice is, once again, in the hands of a robot. It’s a recurring but unexamined trope in this cycle that a lot of the ‘hinge-points’ rest on robots – one robot, to be precise.]
· Epilog · 1973
Written over 20 years later, this story was not originally included in ‘City.’ It also lack the entertaining fictional ‘notes’ that precede the other stories, instead having a serious ‘note.’
Here, yet another civilization has fallen, and it’s time for Jenkins, the robot, who’s been the constant throughout all these stories, to decide whether it’s time to close up shop.
It’s very similar in fee to Simak’s ‘All the Traps of Earth,’ I thought.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Media for the opportunity to read this book. As always, my opinions are solely my own.
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